You're Not Upset

This essay is partly a companion piece to one of my previous posts titled “You’re Not Fine”.  Both caution against using words or concepts that seem to carry specific meanings but which actually lack the ability to foster productive communication.  And when it comes to emotionally charged discussions the words we use can make the difference between a productive or detrimental outcome.    From this perspective, using the word “upset” seldom helps any situation.

I tend to recommend staying away from the word “upset” for three reasons. 

  • First, it is often used as a justification for some sort of behavior, when:  “I’m upset…..(so either I have a right or you have a responsibility to act in a certain way)." 
  • The second argument against this word is that it can be used in the phrase “you upset me”.  This is a variation of the “you made me” fallacy I’ve previously written about, in that it tends to put the responsibility for an emotion on an outward source.  It’s used as an accusation rather than a confession.
  • The final argument against the use of the word “upset” is that it is too vague.  The most general definition of “upset” is that of a disturbed or unbalanced equilibrium.  Imagine say “I’m unbalanced” or “my equilibrium is disturbed” during a heated discussion.  The is not the context people mean when throwing the word at each other.

So “upset” is a ”setup” since it is often subconsciously used as a vague accusatory shifting of responsibility onto the other party.  A far more helpful practice is to label the exact emotional disturbance that you are feeling.  “I’m angry… feelings are hurt…..I’m confused” and similar descriptions give the listener a much more accurate understanding of your emotional state. 

Of course the tricky part is that the more your equilibrium is disturbed the harder it becomes to define and discuss your feelings in a mindful manner.   This is where ideas that I have presented such as “holding your shape”, "not believing everything you think" and "choosing the most benign interpretation" are helpful in preventing the “setup” that “upset” often represents.

Don't settle for descriptions like "fine" or "upset".  You and those you care about deserve better than that!


Atlanta therapist Bill Herring, CSAT is an expert on helping people heal from depressive disorders as well as sexual and emotional intimacy issues.