The Philosophy of an ‘I Message’

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Who would have suspected that a bread-and-butter technique of couples and family therapy could hold deep philosophical meaning?

I Say, You Say

If I could use only one technique for reducing conflict in relationships, the ‘I message’ would be that technique. The best way to explain the ‘I message’ is with an example. Suppose your kids are jumping on the bed and you want them to stop — right now! All too frequently, a parent might say something like “You kids are driving me nuts! Get down from there!” That’s not an ‘I message’, but the polar opposite: a ‘you message’. ‘You messages,’ more often than not, tend to be ‘fighting words’: they provoke or accelerate conflict. People feel put on the spot when they are confronted with ‘you messages,’ and the urge to fight back and put the emphasis on someone or something else is strong.

An ‘I message’ is completely different. In response to the kids jumping on the bed, you might use the ‘I message’ along the lines of “I’m annoyed and frustrated when I see you jumping on the bed.” The ‘I message’ changes the focus away from the kids, to how their behavior is affecting you. Subjectively, I messages, even emotionally charged ones, tend to feel less offensive and less likely to provoke a sharp retort.

Epistemology of the ‘I Message’

Now that we’ve examined the definition and psychology of the ‘I message,’ where is the philosophy? It resides in a particular branch of philosophy known as epistemology. Wikipedia defines epistemology as “the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge.” I’d like to suggest a more down-to-earth definition: epistemology is “how we know what we know.”

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Epistemology is a gigantic field of scholarship and I have no hope of summarizing it here beyond the definitions offered above. So often in everyday life we argue about what is true and provide support or evidence for our viewpoints without much discussion on whether our supports are valid. In a heated argument, we rarely consider evidence or supports at all but trot out our beliefs, feelings and opinions with the assumed weight of objective truth and woe be to anyone who sees it differently!

An ‘I message’ contains within it an implicit epistemic stance. It says “I am saying what I’m saying”. I am owning that this statement seems true to me, but not necessarily for you, or anyone else. On the other hand, most ‘you statements’ don’t have any of these softeners on them. They assume absolute and objective truth. “You kids are driving me nuts,” as if it is an objective fact.

Paradoxically, the weaker philosophical claim in the ‘I message’ is often more strongly received because it doesn’t do violence to anyone else’s worldview. It leaves much more room for more empathic dialog, e.g., “I didn’t realize you felt that way.” or “I hadn’t considered that view before.” While young children may not use exactly these words, they can feel the difference between the two kinds of messages. While both expressions are effective in getting rowdy kids off of beds, the emotional response will be very different, and I believe children addressed with ‘I messages’ are more likely to consider your feelings before beginning another round of bed jumping.

Not only are ‘I messages’ more socially palatable and philosophically nuanced, but I would also argue that they are more psychologically healthy. Beliefs with implicit absolute objective truths are akin to black-and-white thinking as described by Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Black-and-white thinking is rigid and difficult to revise, even when the beliefs cause suffering or problematic behavior. On the other hand, beliefs, even deeply held convictions, with an epistemic pedigree, can be examined. Questions like “what evidence support this belief” and “when and how did you come to believe this” become possible.

What about Moral Relativism?

Opening up issues of epistemology can be like opening up a can of worms. If all beliefs are open for questioning, and if any of them can be wrong, then is anything really true? Are people free to define truth as whatever they want and thereby do anything they want, regardless of the consequences? This position is described as moral relativism, and it is presented as a risk of failing to have some absolute and unquestionable standard outside of oneself, whether that be a god, allegiance to some nation or philosophy or some universal, objective truth divined by some other method.

One answer to such an objection is that our actions have consequences that may not agree with our beliefs. I may turn the key on my car’s ignition with the belief it will start. Whether it starts or not has everything to do with the condition of the car and nothing about my expectation. Because reality exceeds our beliefs, we cannot simply do “whatever we want” because external reality makes certain actions impossible.

Another reason to think deeply about epistemology and delay commitment to absolute beliefs is the possibility of selecting a set of beliefs that cause us to miss out on unforeseen opportunities. Many sports historians think that runners may have broken the four-minute mile long before Roger Bannister did in 1954 had not the competitive running community persevered in their belief that such a feat was impossible and indeed would prove fatal if attempted.

Avoiding absolutist beliefs need not mean that non-absolute beliefs cannot be held with deep levels of conviction. Rather, the speaker ‘signs for’ the truth value of his own belief based on his or her own observation, reason or intuition and does not attempt to elevate it beyond his or her own authority. The United States’ Declaration of Independence contains one example of a philosophical ‘I message’ when it asserts that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Even though in the same sentence, the founders reference “their Creator”, they aren’t appealing to a deity to hold up their arguments. Instead they signed their own names below these words and risked their lives and fortunes to uphold these ideals.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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