Translation Errors: When Someone Doesn’t Speak Your Emotional Language

By Lauren Presutti

I’m a therapist who works with many young adults. It’s common for me to see millennials who express, “my parents don’t validate me.” Working to deeply understand the dynamics between themselves and their baby-boomer parents has forced me to reflect on generational differences and the profound distinctions between intent vs. impact. I want to share some of these reflections so that you may deepen your own understanding of how emotional incompatibilities may play out in your own life. Although my reflections were drawn from examining the dynamics between millennials and their parents, the ideas about emotional incompatibility can be generalized to almost any other interpersonal dynamic where someone is left feeling misunderstood.

Most of the baby-boomer parents (or grandparents) have grown up being told, “Quit Whining!” “Suck it up, Buttercup” or “Stop crying, you can’t act like this in the real world.” In contrast, over the past few decades, with psychology research becoming more accessible, the rise of technology making the world smaller, and the outpour of people publicly writing or speaking about their authentic selves, the younger generations have started learning about validation, empathy, deeper connections, and the unintended negative consequences of giving “tough love.” Sometimes the younger generations are perceived as more curious, more apt to learn, and more willing to dive into psychoeducation. Sometimes the older generations perceive the younger generations as overly sensitive, a little too “liberal,” or even a little “dramatic.” Granted, there are huge exceptions to these generalizations and not everyone will agree. But if any of this sounds relatable to you and your experiences, let’s talk about it.

Contrary to popular opinion, I believe all sides are valid. Passionate about mental health, you could say that I’m more aligned with the younger generations because empathy and validation are important to me, but I also believe it is not always fair to invalidate the perceptions of the older generations. I understand the generational differences and it makes sense why both older and younger people might have some incompatibilities.

Let’s exclude the parents who are legitimately neglectful or abusive and talk about the cases where young adults feel dismissed by well-intended parents who are genuinely doing their best but don’t have the skills to compatibly meet the needs of their young-adult children. I have great empathy for the offspring who feel this way, but I also have empathy for the parents who truly do not intend to upset their children. Both parties are valid. Let’s talk about emotional translation errors. I don’t know if this is already an established term – but “emotional translation error,” is what I use to call the error in which one person means to convey something that gets completely misinterpreted by the receiving person due to emotional incompatibility, generational or personality differences, or some other difference that has very little to do with actual comprehension of the words and more to do with the mental and emotional experiences of each person. I’m not a wordsmith and I imagine that others could define that better. But, hopefully you get when I mean.

The Internet is filled with millennial-designed Instagram pictures like, “What NOT to say when someone is grieving,” or “NEVER say this to someone with anxiety,” for example. The problem is that some people (often, older generations) would actually like to hear the statements displayed on the picture, depending on their emotional experiences growing up, their personality, perceptions, emotional maturity, and perhaps just, their age. When we advise people (through Instagram pictures or articles on Buzzfeed or day-to-day conversations) on how to act, what to say, and how to be “emotionally sensitive” to another person, we have to be careful not to issue blanket advice that works for everyone. Because sometimes it doesn’t work for everyone. Translation errors occur so commonly, even when we are trying our best to support someone.

And this is why I have empathy for the well-intended parents of the millennials I work with. Because in their minds, those parents are doing their best to support their young-adult children. In their minds, those parents are often providing genuine support that is aligned with their emotional experiences. But it doesn’t translate to the minds of the millennials who are also valid for feeling like the statements offered to them are dismissive, or more broadly, just aren’t what they needed to hear. Many young adults today who feel like there is a disconnect between themselves and their parents have expressed, “Why is it so hard for my parents understand me? I just don’t understand why they can’t offer me empathy or compassion in the way that I need. I just don’t understand why they choose to hurt me.”

The thing is, the parents are not trying to hurt them. The parents just don’t have the skills, the tools, or the capacity to offer what the adult-children are expecting to receive. The adult-children may repeatedly go to the parents expecting to be nurtured in the ways they want to be nurtured, but often they experience the same thing over and over again: disappointment due to emotional incompatibility. This often makes the young-adult children feel sad, disconnected, or angry as they reflect on why the parents don’t “learn” to be better. This often makes the parents feel angry or hurt as they don’t understand why they “have to change” to accommodate this new, younger generation’s perspective on emotional sensitivity. The young-adult child is speaking one language and the parents are speaking a different language.

Again, both parties are valid. Both parties are allowed to feel and speak the way they do. The therapeutic resolution is usually to teach the young-adult children to set boundaries so they can find emotional support outside of the family and restore a positive relationship with their parents without expecting their parents to nurture them in the ways they desire. This is often very difficult for the young-adult children to accept and exercise, because they – by nature – instinctually expect their parents (their blood-related relatives) to understand them. It’s tough.

This dynamic in which translation errors occur is found in MANY contexts beyond the one I described between a baby-boomer parent and a millennial young-adult child. If you think about it, translation errors occur everywhere. Perhaps a conservative boss and a liberal employee have trouble understanding each other. Maybe a realistic teacher has trouble supporting an idealistic student. Or you might be a strong extrovert who struggles to emotionally support your highly introverted friend. Differences in personality, core beliefs, emotional maturity, values, energy levels, perspectives, etc. etc. – there are an unlimited number of factors that can cause translation errors.

Problematically, most people struggle to understand these translation errors. Most people don’t truly reflect on why or how their identities have caused emotional incompatibility with another person. Maybe they don’t have the time to reflect on this. Maybe they don’t have the emotional skills to reflect on this. Maybe nobody ever taught them how to think introspectively. Maybe they don’t enjoy thinking about emotions. Maybe they have a life history of suppressing emotions. Maybe they have trauma and cannot do this work. Maybe they have never had to think about this before. Maybe they have never gone to therapy. There are unlimited reasons why you may not be aware of how or why your emotional language differs from another person.

Where do we go from here? Here are some suggestions:

When trying to support someone, be mindful that your emotional language may differ from yours. Be aware of translation errors. You might think that you are genuinely supporting someone but you may actually be hurting their feelings. You may think that you’re providing empathy but you may not be. Try asking the other person what they need from you. Do they want your advice? They may not. It’s often helpful to ask, “Are you looking for advice or do you just need me to listen?” What does support look like to THEM?

If you are not able to provide what they actually need or want (if it doesn’t make sense to you, if you don’t get it, if it sounds foreign to you, if you don’t have the patience for it), be honest and tell the person that is not within your capabilities. It’s better to be honest about your discomfort with what they need than to continue trying to support them in incompatible ways. If you have a desire to learn their emotional language, you can certainly do that, but no matter what you decide, remember that you can always be kind. Kindness is possible in every language.

When trying to receive support from someone – again, be mindful that your emotional language may differ from theirs. Be aware of translation errors. Manage your expectations. Think deeper about what you need right now. If you need validation, ask yourself if that person is going to be able to provide it to you. Is it within their capabilities? If you need sincere empathy, truly think about if that person has the same emotional language as you. Continuing to go to the same people expecting results that are not within their capabilities will cause you repeated disappointment.

I know it’s tough. I know you want them to understand you. I know it might make you feel lonely. I know it may be hurting you. But try to evaluate their intentions. Are they hurting you on purpose? Or is it just that they don’t speak the same emotional language as you? Above all, remember that you are never the problem. You may just need to find people that speak your language. Expand your support network, foster compatible friendships, or find a great therapist who you click with. Above all, your feelings and experiences are always valid even if they don’t translate to someone else.

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We’re here for YOU. Please don’t hesitate to call or text us at (248) 717-1232 or email lauren@riveroakspsychology.com to schedule an online counseling appointment. Your mental health matters.