One of the things that I really love about being a psychologist is seeing the difference that it makes to men and women’s lives (and ultimately, their happiness). While it is true that talking about things does not necessarily change the past, sharing your thoughts can change how we see things and help us come to terms with them. Perhaps more importantly, talking about your issues and challenges can teach us the skill of understanding HOW to tackle something.
My memory of growing up in Australia in the 1970’s and 1980’s was that emotions were not really something that people talked about at all. In fact, emotions were to be apologised for and squashed – made invisible. We weren’t actively taught the skill of how to communicate with other people or how to deal with many of the feelings that I now understand to be quite natural and normal.
What we did learn about feelings was from what psychologists call social modeling. This is where we learn by observing others and making our best guess as to what we are supposed to do when the same thing happens to us. So our role-models tended to be our best chance at learning about how to express our emotions. If the people around us used bottling, shaming, belittling or denying, for example, it would make sense that we would be likely to also use these same “coping strategies”.
While both men and women have experienced a similar cultural history, it is fair to say that there has been, and are still, significant gender differences in the way emotions are expressed and dealt with. Something I’ve learnt over the years is that generally speaking, men don’t talk about their feelings or the things that are troubling them on an emotional level with their peers. I’ve been told many times that even when directly asked how they are going by close friends, many men offer not much more than just “fine”.
It seems that there is somehow more shame in men sharing feelings of sadness, anger or fear than is the case for women. I believe this is fueled by the idea that men are supposed to be “tough and strong”.
However, the importance of men stepping forward to learn about how to work with feelings is evidenced in the facts that men are more likely to:
- self medicate (with alcohol or drugs)
- be physically reactive
- commit suicide
BUT are less likely to seek support or talk about things.
As a Clinical Psychologist working with men, I believe it is very important to provide reassurance that feelings are a natural and normal part of being a human and develop a map for finding their way to where they want to go. In many aspects, psychology can be seen as a way of mapping – or providing the HOW TO guide – of getting from where you are today to where you would like to go.
What can men to do with feelings?
Here is a practical step by step of one way men and those working with men can to work with feelings.
Healthy expression of feelings is important to “get real” with feelings, instead of denying, bottling or blocking what feelings are there. Often people find that when you talk about issues out loud you can even answer your own questions. It’s like part of your mind answers the questions that another part asks – but only when it hears the words out loud.
If you don’t feel ready to begin speaking, you can use other means of healthy expression of feelings:
- Physical – go hiking, running, chop some wood or play sport
- Artistic – listen to or play music, paint or draw something or dust off the camera
- Journalling – write down your thoughts or feelings
Although it is important to also have a reframing – a way of balancing out the so-called negative emotions with a helpful perspective about how things can be – to build resilience instead of “wallowing”.
Allowing yourself the knowledge that your emotions are understandable and valid. You don’t have to criticize yourself or make yourself feel bad for having them – they are part of the human experience.
Seeking ways of soothing your emotions. Examples may be kind words from another, a hug, seeking reassurance or words of wisdom, using deep breathing, having a soothing shower.
Having some strategies to redirect your thinking, build your confidence and/ or know that you can bounce back from the difficulty.
And lastly, know that to me, it takes more bravery and strength to face your feelings, to express and understand them, to make some sense of how to be the man you want to be as opposed to that stoic, silent, figure that we used to consider to be “manly”.
I look forward to meeting you as soon as you are ready – why not book an appointment with one of our wonderful therapists now!