“Helping boys and men learn how to be both tender and tough, strong and bighearted, is a new ideal that will take some time to digest. But, having worked with men day in and day out for decades, I know from experience that they can reclaim the language of emotion–once they see the sense of it. And what is the sense of it? Why should we men engage in the very hard work of learning to identify and share our emotional lives, or, for many, learning to have an emotional life to begin with?
Because our families need us to.”
If you were to come into therapy with me, one of the first things I would want you to identify is the pattern you have developed between your emotions (feelings), and what behaviors those emotions push you towards. In other words, when we look at your coping behaviors in life, what are the emotions underneath driving them.
This is not only hard for many people, but I have found it to be extremely difficult for many men. They are more readily able to identify their behavior…. “I’m angry.” “I get silent.” Or the most popular of all…. “I’m frustrated,” which really isn’t an emotion, as much as it is something we do when some feeling is triggered.
But as Terence Real points out, that if for no other reason, we need to become fluent in our emotional lives as men because there are people that need us to. There are spouses, children, friends, co-workers, parents, partners, and more. In order for us to establish a deep relational connection with others, we need to be able to connect at that core emotional level, rather than just at the level of our behavior.
Sometimes we aren’t sure what we are feeling, and often we don’t have the vocabulary for it. In my research for my newest book on men I came across study after study that suggested boys have a deficit in this area of life because of how many are brought up by their families and the culture they live in. So how does one know what they feel if they have never been given the opportunity to identify or express it?
What has helped me greatly in my own life, as well as many of the men that I work with, is looking at a list. Usually at some point early in our first session or two I will give them a piece of paper with a bunch of feeling/emotion words on it and ask they to identify: “What do you most often feel when you are in conflict with your spouse? What do you most often feel when it seems like life isn’t going very well.” What do you most often experience at work?” Etc, etc.
It’s amazing to watch men’s eyes light up as they begin to identify and put words to how they have often felt, but didn’t know how to express.
If you are reading this post and you aren’t sure what feelings you normally feel, then I challenge you to try something. Go to Google and just type in something like feelings inventory or emotions list and see what comes up. Maybe something like this. And then ask yourself some of the above questions that I ask men in session.
This is an important step in identifying and developing the emotional skills you need to have healthy relationships. You need to do this for yourself. And you need to do this for the other people in your life.