One of the issues that we hear frequently in couples therapy, and also came up in our couples lunch last week, is that men lack emotion. The story goes that men simply feel less than women do, and aren’t as likely to become emotional. While the claim that men are less emotional than women is dubious at best (seriously, super iffy), we do know that men are often socialized to believe that expressing emotion is inappropriate or weak. Men are frequently told from a young age to ‘act like a man,’ or that ‘only women cry.’ Obviously, there are men who receive alternative messages to this in childhood, and it does seem that there has been somewhat of a cultural shift towards acceptance of men expressing a full range of emotions. Overall, however, there is still significant pressure on many men to limit their emotional expression.
In addition to how these messages can impact a man as an individual, they can also clash with our modern expectations of marriage. More than in the past, married couples are expected to have a bedrock of genuine friendship, and to lean on each other for emotional support. In female friendships, sharing your emotional experiences is often a matter of course, and so wives and girlfriends can feel frustrated by (some) male partners’ reluctance to openly share their emotions.
We could make the argument that perhaps it is women who need to adjust. That instead of expecting men to be ‘more emotional,’ we should ask women to take it down a notch. Unsurprisingly, as a therapist, and as a woman, that’s an argument I’m not likely to make. But my career and gender aside, one thing that we see very clearly from the research is that everyone benefits from deeper awareness and expression of their emotional selves. Individuals who better understand and share their emotions are more successful in business, have more satisfying relationships, have a greater ability to manage their feelings, and have better health outcomes. In other words, when it comes to the question of whether we should feel and process our emotions versus suppressing and denying them, the data could not be clearer—it’s feelings or bust. So, where does this leave the men (and women) who, for various reasons, have difficulty acknowledging and sharing their feelings? If you don’t see yourself as touchy-feely, how might you gain a bit more emotional awareness, and why should you be bothered to do so?
Feelings Are Dumb…Except for all the Evidence That Says Otherwise
For folks who have difficulty recognizing and sharing emotional experiences, it’s true that we’re asking a lot from you in this post. But given the abundance of research demonstrating the power and positive outcomes in processing and sharing emotions, I feel (hehe) that I would not be doing my job if I didn’t make a claim for why it matters, regardless of your gender. Years prior to becoming a therapist, I would not describe myself as an emotional person, or as someone who felt at all comfortable with leaning on people emotionally–I frequently tell clients that anger is my go-to emotion, and the one that I am still the most comfortable expressing. But through a lot of work on myself, I realized that I was missing out by not allowing myself to be fully emotionally connected to others. And once I embraced that, I can honestly say that I have a greater sense of joy, and peace, and security than I experienced out there on my emotional tundra. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Stop, Drop, and Feel
The first step that men (and women) can take in order to better attune to their emotions is to identify how they physically appear. Often, in the very moment that men are telling me that they don’t experience emotion, their body betrays them—a jittery knee, squirming in their seat, speaking rapidly or having difficulty making eye contact. These are all cues that heightened emotion is taking place, but these individuals seem to have either decreased awareness or acceptance of what is happening for them.
To better understand what’s going on, give yourself the space to slow down and experience these feelings. I talked about this process in the last newsletter—but the key takeaway here is to stop and take inventory of how you experience emotions in your body. In moments where you’d likely be experiencing difficult emotions—like an argument with your spouse, or receiving disappointing news at work—notice if you experience tightness in your chest, or your skin feels flushed, or your hands clench or shake. Think about when your body has responded the same way on other occasions, to help you compare what you’re feeling now versus what you were feeling then. This will give you a better idea of what emotions you’re experiencing what the likely triggers are for them.
Hone Your Language
Once you have a better sense of how emotions feel in your body, it’s important to name them. Research demonstrates that naming your emotions has a direct beneficial effect, in that it helps decrease their intensity, and also gives you more of a sense of agency over them. For instance, instead of simply saying that you feel angry at your spouse for not helping out around the house, you could more specifically identify that you feel disappointed and overwhelmed, which is a much more meaningful conversation to have with your partner than solely expressing anger.
Further, adding specificity to how you feel helps you delineate between seemingly similar emotions. For instance, sometimes ‘tired’ and ‘bored,’ feel alike to us—with either, you might experience low energy, limited motivation, and so on. However, understanding which of these emotions is actually taking place is crucial to determining how to effectively respond. You don’t want to clear your schedule to try to get more sleep, only to realize that the real problem is that you’re not being challenged enough at work. Precisely labeling these emotions as you experience them makes you far less likely to make this error.
Talk to the One You’re With
We know from the evidence that sharing your feelings with someone you trust is a powerful tool in helping you regulate and manage emotions, and also in deepening your relationship with your partner. That said, we shouldn’t pretend that this is an easy task—I’ve yet to meet someone who was excited about the opportunity to be vulnerable. Even for folks who are completely aware of their emotions, it can be difficult to expose yourself in that way.
I would start by sharing smaller vulnerabilities with your partner—maybe concerns or difficult emotions you’ve experienced at work, or a frustration that you’ve had with a friend. Begin with things that don’t feel as scary or overwhelming as more deep-seated hurts or disappointments.
Also, I recommend letting your partner know up front that you’re trying something new, and to ask them to support you. This way, they aren’t caught off guard when you start sharing more deeply than you have in the past. Let your partner know that you need their patience and acceptance, and that they should not expect you to simply to plunge fully in the pool of vulnerability on the first (or even second) go-round.
For many of us, sharing our emotional experiences is tough. But there are clear benefits to our mental, physical, and relationship health. So, for those of you who, like me, have been afraid to enter the scary feelings pool, I’d like to say, come on in, the water’s just fine.