How to Access Your Emotions After a Lifetime of Being Told to Hide Them
Men are in a weird position in the world right now. You’re told to feel more, express more, and yet, as soon as you express yourself, a significant portion of mainstream media ridicules you for crying, talking about depression or anxiety, and overall doing the same thing that they’re asking for.
It can put you in a situation of damned if you don’t and damned if you do.
What I believe is the tipping point in this lose-lose scenario is the impact it has on you. When we suppress emotions or pretend they aren’t there, they don’t go away. They find alternative ways to express themselves.
This may be through anger, a socially approved emotion for men. Or, those ignored feelings may express themselves through physical symptoms: poor sleep, indigestion, heartburn, headaches.
So regardless of how society treats you for expressing your emotions, my stance is that you, as a human being, would be better off learning how to access and come in contact with your full range of emotions.
Where do I start?
How do you go about accessing your full range of emotions when you’ve spent so long denying how you feel? Where do you start when you’ve learned that it’s not okay to feel anything besides happy, horny, or angry?
We want to begin with increasing awareness. Often, physical sensations are a lot easier to notice than emotions. Emotions and thoughts are abstract experiences. Yet, we’ve all had a stomachache or felt that jittery rush from excitement or nerves or too much caffeine.
The first step is noticing what you are experiencing inside of your body in scenarios where you imagine you might feel unfamiliar emotions. Areas where people regularly experience physical sensations tied to emotion are the face, throat, chest, stomach, hands, and legs. To begin this practice, check-in on the following:
Your face: you may clench your jaw, have strain around the eyes, or tightness through your forehead. This can lead to headaches and eyestrain.
Your throat: you might feel a tightening or restricting sensation here. For example, if someone has ever said you are yelling when you haven’t raised your voice, this is often because there is a sharpening in your voice through a sensation of tightening in your throat. This tightening changes the tone of your voice, which others perceive as yelling. And also indicates powerful emotion.
Your chest: sometimes you may feel like there is a giant, fat cat putting its entire weight on you. You can still breathe, but it feels as if you are being weighed down. Likewise, you may feel tight in your chest or feel like your heart is beating so fast it will pop out of your chest.
Your stomach: you may experience symptoms of GI distress: cramps, achiness, or knots. That gnawing feeling when you haven’t eaten in a while may show up. You might notice other symptoms such as having irregular bowel movements. When we’re stressed and our body goes into that fight-or-flight mode, it can mess up our digestion.
If you look at your hands during an emotionally charged situation, you may see that your hand is pressed to your chest or throat, which is a common position people have when they are feeling uncomfortable or vulnerable. Likewise, you may notice that your hands have turned into fists or you’re gripping the edge of the chair.
And finally, your legs: they may bounce, shake or tighten to prevent movement.
These are signs we are feeling something strong and it’s showing up in our body in unique ways. Spend a week or two practicing this to really notice what scenarios those experiences show up in.
From Sensing to Feeling
Next, I want you to examine those situations. Your default emotion will probably be frustrated or angry because that is 1. The easiest emotion to notice and 2. A socially acceptable emotion to experience for men.
But, I want us to take that a step further. Pause and ask yourself why this situation is bothering you? Are you feeling not heard or misinterpreted? Have you been let down or disappointed again? Is someone calling into question your character? Or, has someone violated your trust?
Sometimes we don’t have the language to describe how we feel. That’s okay. You get that with practice. Starting off it may take you two or three sentences to describe how you’re feeling. But if you are looking to get a clearer picture and vocabulary for what you’re trying to express, you can go to Google and type in “feeling chart” or “emotion wheel.” There are many tools out there to help expand vocabulary around feeling words above and beyond sad, happy, mad.
I encourage you to take some time to study these. And practice using them. Practice noticing when might this feeling apply to a situation you’re in. Maybe it doesn’t apply to a current situation, but perhaps a situation in your past that has stuck with you.
Start with the strong words first. The ones that feel big and active. Those will be the easiest to identify. For example, if you have ever lost a loved one, it is safe to say you have experienced sadness or grief. But, some of the subtler emotions related to that may be harder to find examples for.
Practicing With Others
This is a process that happens within yourself and between other people. Your task is to identify one person in your life who would respond positively to you sharing your feelings. Depending on who this person is, you may go into a lot of detail or you may practice with some surface-level emotion.
Regardless, it is important when starting any new behavior or habit, and this certainly qualifies, to start off with wins. It helps to motivate you to continue on with a task that may seem daunting or impossible. It’s why setting enormous weight loss or exercise goals often lead to failure. It’s why the best way to create new habits is to make slight changes over time.
Have wins early, and build from there.
You likely will experience backlash, shaming, or dismissiveness of your feelings, especially the ones that make you feel vulnerable, as you begin to show up more authentically in the world.
It’s an awful feeling and I’m sorry. As you’re building up your confidence in expressing yourself more, my hope for you is to initially have positive experiences. That’s why we want to be intentional around who we open up to.
As you gain traction, you can then incorporate it into your everyday language. Knowing that you may get some push back. And, be prepared to defend your stance. Men are allowed to cry. Men are allowed to feel vulnerable. It is not weak. In fact, being able to access the full range of your emotions is a strength.
As you move forward on this journey, keep at the forefront of your mind that not expressing your emotions does not make them go away, it just means you have no control over how to respond to them.
And trust me, they always make themselves heard.
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