The question “how does that make you feel?” is perhaps one of the most cliche sayings associated with psychology and therapists. While this is a poor example of an effective therapist, it does convey a couple of truisms:

1) Expanding emotional vocabulary and having the ability to understand and communicate your thoughts, feelings, and emotions is a critical component of effective SEL.

2) Talking about feelings can often be uncomfortable or create defensiveness and blame in others, but with the right skills these reactions can be bypassed.

So why are feelings so important? And how can I talk about my feelings effectively? Today’s blog examines one of the foundational components of our new curriculum: the I-Statement.

First, we’ll introduce the basic components of the I-Statement. Then we will offer some background information on the psychological theories behind the I-Statement and why it is an effective tool. For a thorough breakdown of how to teach the I-Statement to students, take a look at our introductory course or our full curriculum.

Many of you may recognize the I-Statement. It is certainly not exclusive to our curriculum perhaps you’ve seen it in a psychology course or associate it with a self-help book. As scripted as it may seem, it is an effective tool to help anyone identify specific emotions, understand their beliefs about these emotions and to understand how these emotions and beliefs influence their behavior. Here’s the basic format:

The I-Statement consists of 3 parts:

  1. I Feel _____ (emotion) _____
  2. when _____ (event) _____
  3. because _____ (thought about event) _____.

The I-Statement is the first lesson we teach in Empowering Minds: A Mindfulness-Based SEL Curriculum. It would be easy to underestimate the value of a simple 3-sentence phrase, however, many students, and adults, struggle with the simple (?) task of identifying an emotion and understanding how our thoughts and behaviors influence this emotion. Just like reading and writing, emotional literacy is a skill that must be taught.

There are two popular psychotherapeutic theories that offer some insight into the I-Statement: cognitive behavioral theory (CBT) and rational-emotive behavioral therapy (REBT). These theories gained popularity in the 1960?s through the work of psychologists Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis. Aaron Beck popularized CBT and took a less confrontational approach to helping clients identify irrational thoughts. Ellis, on the other hand, developed REBT as a more confrontational approach to challenging irrational beliefs. The basic principle of CBT is that our thoughts, behaviors and emotions all interact with and influence one another. Thus, if you change your thoughts your emotions and behaviors are likely to change and vice-versa. This helps us to understand why the I-Statement separates our thoughts and our emotions in order to change our emotional state we can start by changing our thoughts.

While the I-Statement is grounded in CBT, it more closely resembles the ABC model of REBT (enough acronyms for you yet?). The main thesis of REBT is that the cause of psychological problems lies in a person’s beliefs regarding adverse events and the emotional consequences of these events. In the ABC model of emotions the activating event or adversity (A) causes a person to experience certain beliefs (B) which leads to an emotional consequence (C). Negative feelings and reactions to adversity are considered normal, even healthy, however, when these negative thoughts become irrational this leads to psychological disturbance.

Another way of viewing psychological disturbance is that people often believe that A directly causes C without considering the impact of their own beliefs (B). REBT and the I-Statement challenge people to evaluate how their beliefs impact their emotions and how they can change their emotional experience by changing their irrational beliefs. This is known as a dispute (D) and will likely result in a new emotional consequence (E).

In other words, people often experience psychological difficulty because they fail to recognize the connection between their thoughts (beliefs) and their emotional experience. Without an understanding of how one?s thoughts mediate emotions it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that external events ?cause? particular emotions. The I-Statement aims to empower students with some choice over their emotions ? by changing either thoughts or behaviors students will gain access to new emotional experiences. The first step in this process, however, is simply identifying their current emotion.

It is important to remember that SEL is not therapy. We’re not exploring students’ psychological history in depth or spending individual time working through difficult emotions. We are spending time teaching broad psycho-educational strategies, like the I-Statement, that can be helpful to students who practice them. So take some time this week to ask your students about their feelings. Maybe even try working through an I-Statement together – you might be surprised at the results!

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