How to Be More Intentional about Expressing Your Feelings

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Joel Zaslofsky of Value of Simple.

“Life is less a quest than a quilt. We find meaning, love, and prosperity through the process of stitching together our bold attempts to help others find their own way in their lives. The relationships we weave become an exquisite and endless pattern.” – Keith Ferrazzi

Many people are convinced the best way to show love or appreciation is to buy someone a gift on specifically-marked days. In fact, I was one of them for three decades until a personal renaissance showed me a better way.

Where I used to buy the newest electronic gadget, I now show love with sincere words and handmade cards. Where I used to get a gift card with a surplus of credit and a deficit of thoughtfulness, I now intentionally display affection all year long to avoid focusing it on a day someone else defines as important.

Living an intentional life was something I learned the hard way and with too much resistance. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Recently, I’ve battled through the emotional struggle of how best to express my feelings for the people I care for and who care for me. This is a tribute to them.

Through it all, I’ve developed “How I’ll Express Feelings” and “How I Won’t Express Feelings” lists. They are a stripped down version of what a true gift looks like to me. I encourage you to create your own lists. I’ve even included resources at the end to help.

How I’ll Express Feelings

These are some of the beliefs, actions, and tokens of appreciation I’ll provide to those I value most:

  • I will affirm your importance and the value of our relationship with a call, text, or in-person visit on your birthday (which combination may be a surprise).
  • I will make you a handmade card that’s clever, thoughtful, and will be remembered far longer than anything I could purchase.
  • I will take you out to dinner on a random day instead of one our culture tries to convince me I should.
  • I will freely give out hugs and high fives.
  • I will always be emotionally and mentally available when you need to talk, make tough decisions, or are having a crisis.
  • I will never expect you to buy me gifts on days of significance… regardless of how important society claims they are.
  • I will keep my Personal User Guide current so you have a window into what makes me tick and how we can have fun together.

How I Won’t Express Feelings

  • I won’t simply put a check in a birthday/holiday card for you. How could I quantify how much a relationship is worth anyway?
  • I won’t take the easy road and get you a gift on a day you expect one. Wouldn’t you rather get to hear the word “Surprise!” and see a bright smile when you don’t expect it?
  • I won’t sit down with you over a few beers and complain about life. Maybe you’d rather take a walk, get some exercise, or enjoy the beauty of the world with me?

Free Classes in Expression of Love

Sometimes you need more inspiration, motivation, or action steps than one person can provide. To more fully understand how to express your feelings in other ways than a default gift, here are some wonderful – yet simple – resources:

The Commodification of Love by The Minimalists (a.k.a. my original inspiration for this article). It’s so true that there’s always another holiday around the corner and that social norms push us to buy the new, shiny thing. My favorite part was Joshua’s statement that, “gift-giving is a vapid, pernicious cultural imperative in our society, and we’ve bought it (literally) hook, line, and sinker. We’ve become consumers of love.”

35 Gifts Your Children Will Never Forget from the Becoming Minimalist archives. No recap necessary as this is short and powerful.

The Case Against Buying Christmas Presents by Leo Babauta. He might be saying “Bah! Humbug!” to most people, but to me, Leo’s saying, “Please consider a different path than an unfulfilling and wasteful gift-giving one.”

Voting for Poverty by Raam Dev. This essay was like a bucket of water splashed on my face. He’s learning on the fly how to live a drastically different lifestyle; one in which he casts no votes for poverty with his spending decisions. Unless you’re Bill Gates, money spent in one place (gifts) is money not spent in other, perhaps better, places.

Getting Rid of Gifts by The Minimalists. The motivation for these heartfelt words starts and ends with them. With their influence, I now give experiences and positive feelings to people instead of presents. Would you rather get a gadget and new clothing or a home-cooked meal and the gift of undivided attention?

So if you accept my “How I Won’t Express Feelings” list and incorporate some of the lessons above, I promise the “How I’ll Express Feelings” list will always be much longer and filled with more happiness… all year long. Deal?


Joel Zaslofsky writes at Value of Simple and is the architect of the free Personal User Guide allowing you to celebrate and share what makes you tick. You will also enjoy following him on Twitter.

Image: Spirit-Fire

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. says

    Great post, Joel. As someone just starting to think about spending and owning and the importance our culture places on such things, I’m finding myself feeling a bit uncomfortable as birthdays and other events arise. The last thing I want to do is add more unnecessary stuff to someone’s life as I let go of so much from my own.

    I’ve noticed others feeling unsure of how to treat me around the same times of year. I’m still working on how to handle that, what holidays going forward might look like.

    I do think it’s important to honor family traditions, at least with respect to others if not for yourself. My family certainly has such traditions, and though no one would be upset with me, per say, I think I’m willing to go along — though in my own way, whatever that turns out to be!

    • says

      Hi Erin,
      Your consciousness of other people’s feelings, traditions, and lifestyles is admirable. It’s especially important to be aware of the differences between our own mindsets and those of everyone else when we live a counter-cultural life.
      But with enough confidence and with enough conversations, you can opt out of family traditions and value sets if they don’t suit you. It’s hard and often awkward at first, but I’ve found my family respects the decisions I’ve made and even tries to bend over backwards to accommodate them at times. Of course, I could just have a super cool family. Actually, I know I do and I’m unbelievably thankful for that.

  2. says

    Another bulls eye for Josh Becker’s “Becoming Minimalist” blog. Don’t pass up the “Personal User Guide” link (the seventh bullet in ‘How I’ll Express Feelings). One way I’ll express feelings: passing this post on to as many people as I can. Thanks to Joel for writing this and thanks to Josh for sharing it. Bravo!

    • says

      Hi Gene,
      I’m glad I hit the mark. And thank you for sharing this with people you think it will resonate with.

      I felt it was important to include a link to my Personal User Guide here because of the inspiration for its existence. I created it so people could understand what otherwise might seem like incomprehensible decisions I’ve made over the past three years. Taken as a whole, and put into a specific framework, people “get me” much more after spending a few minutes reading it.

      It can be a great tool to communicate who you are (and why) if you lead a non-mainstream life. As much as the Becoming Minimalist community is growing and our way of thinking is starting to take hold in various parts of the world, we still have a long way to go to be understood properly. Hopefully we can spend much less time justifying our ideas and much more time communicating them in the near future.

  3. says

    Wow, this is awesome. I like Leo Babauta too, so I plan to head over to that linked article. Every year around Christmas, my family argues about whether we’re giving gifts and what spending limits are, etc etc. Its makes for holidays that are filled with tension and anger. It sucks. And it misses the point of the holiday. Thanks for this post, reminding me of what gifts are for and what celebrating our love for eachother is supposed to be about!

    • says

      I’m happy you liked this. But I’d be even happier if you took this big ol’ reminder and leveraged it to make this coming Christmas feel a bit different in your family. :)

      When you go see what Leo has to say, please see what Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus have to say as well. The resource links to The Minimalists are amazing as well and this article wouldn’t have existed without them.

  4. Amanda says

    I have a big problem remembering birthdays (I even forget my own when the time comes) thus often fail to give gifts and most of the time only wish people a happy birthday after someone else has reminded me. For years I have beaten myself up over what I had thought was my inattentiveness to other people’s lives.

    But the reality is, and your post has helped me come to terms with the fact that, birthdays are just dates on a calendar. So I forget my family and friends’ birthdays. But as long as I remember to treat them special for the rest of the year, isn’t that a lot better?

    • says

      Hi Amanda,

      I have issues with memory, period. So I can sympathize with your inability to remember birthdays or other special events.

      I wasn’t trying to say that holidays or special events of one type or another should be devalued. It’s perfectly fine to make a big deal out of an anniversary, birthday, holiday, or some other milestone. And it’s legitimate for friends and family to expect a person to at least acknowledge an event that’s important to them, even when it’s not important to us.

      What I was saying is that the way these events are celebrated should be changed. And more importantly, we shouldn’t wait for a day our culture expects us to express our feelings for someone to actually do it. I would much rather have someone surprise me with a token of appreciation on a random day I don’t expect (just because) than on a day I can see it coming. I hope other people feel the same way too.

    • says

      Hey Joshua,

      Virtual hugs and high fives and being sent your way right now. I’m like you in that I’m much more likely to have a hugfest than a handshake line. Whether it’s at New Media Expo, SXSW, or WDS, I hope to get a chance to express my gratitude for you in person soon.

  5. says

    Joel…you’ve given me a “Surprise!” gift here today. The inspiration, the MANY MANY aha moments, the “I never quite saw it that way before” moments. Thank you for your gifted words that have made me a ‘tiny bit better’ today and also as I continue on.

  6. says

    Wonderful post! I loved the ‘I will freely give out (…) high fives’ ;D
    I agree with the whole concept of what has been said, even though I usually don’t practice it. With my goddaughter, who is 11, I’ve been partially doing this – in the last years, around her birthday, we always go out together, and do something fun. But this post has definitely inspired me to be more conscious of the way express my feelings :)

  7. says

    Beautiful post and great resource for further reading. I too loved Leo’s post last Christmas and was only thinking about it earlier today when one of my children mentioned Christmas. If only we could convince the rest of the world!

  8. says

    Hi Joel,

    I think expressing is not about what we think it’s all about what we feel. We give our ideas our thoughts about how to communicate but we never say anything about how to express, the more u share the more your life will be meaningful & happy. I created my own blog on this, the name is share your comments too.

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