Are “I-statements” important in mental illness?

Have you ever been so mad you wanted to say “screw it,” take your pants off, and run around? What about angrily glowering and refusing to respond to those querying about your apparent state of upset? Yell? Throw something?

The examples listed above are real examples of behavior I have witnessed at Hanbleceya; the reasons these people are in treatment range from depression to schizophrenia to a failure to launch. This is not so much due to our clients’ diagnoses so much as it is due to an inability to communicate one’s feelings in an appropriate, socially acceptable manner.

While most of us can relate with these impulses, my guess is most of you have not in fact run around your backyard pant-less out of anger. Most people have the skills to simply speak up and say, “Hey, stop doing that, it’s bothering me,” or “I’m scared,” or “I’m sad.”

What if you were without these skills? Can you imagine how your life may look if you had to throw something or run out of the room screaming to get your message across any time you felt frustrated? You may face legal charges at worst and have extreme difficulty making friends at best. What if this is how you communicated in the workplace? How long would you be able to keep your job? Imagine feeling outraged and receiving confused looks any time you attempted to communicate these feelings. The rest of us don’t really speak “throw-off-your-pants-and-run,” do we? Or, at the very least, don’t receive it well.

Other examples include making plans with someone and then no-showing, perhaps because there was some unexpressed irritation or anger with the plans and this is the only way one knows how to express it. Perhaps this happens in your own family. Sometimes we simply evade responding to the communication given to us; you ask me if I want to go out to dinner tonight and I start talking about grocery shopping next week. Alternatively, I ask you how you’re feeling, and you say, “I feel like…” which indicates there’s a 99% chance you’re about to respond with something other than a feeling. And we all know people who gossip about others rather than speak directly to the person with whom they have an issue. There are plenty of other ways we could identify ineffective communication. Pay attention to your surroundings today and you will likely catch a few in action!

Frequently, part of the core of client’s treatment at Hanbleceya is teaching clients how to appropriately express themselves to others. This is true for the individual residing at the treatment center as well as for all family members involved in the family therapy unit of treatment.

An I-statement is a powerful, valuable tool. It mobilizes our emotional energy and connects us to other people in a way that gossiping, glowering, and throwing off our pants does not. There are plenty of articles all over the internet about the power of an “I-statement” vs. a “you-statement.”

Imagine someone who suffers from auditory hallucinations and delusions about their self-importance (one version of how schizophrenia can manifest) building this muscle and using this tool—to openly express who they are, define their emotional experience, and connect with others.

This is a simplified take on the power of an I-statement, however, my personal experience frequently at Hanbleceya has been that when a client begins doing this, their symptoms frequently decrease. One way of explaining this may be that they no longer need their symptoms to communicate for them. Additionally, when a family begins openly communicating thoughts and feelings directly, symptoms of dysfunction in the family begin decreasing, fewer games need to be played, and family members report feeling more connected, more relaxed, and noticing less symptoms in their loved one.