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How Men Can Look Inward To Break the Cycle of Pain, Anger, and Defensiveness

It feels challenging for men to open up to emotions that we sometimes don’t understand or have a name for, or that we’ve been told are “unmanly”. But, with practice, it gets easier.

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A man looking on the reflection of himself on a small round mirror

In August of 2019, I was a guest on Dan Griffin’s Man Rules podcast to talk about my book Loving Like You Mean It. Dan and I had a stimulating conversation about how, when men are growing up, we’re essentially taught and praised for behaviors that run counter to having a healthy, romantic relationship. We’re taught to be strong and not show our vulnerability, to hide any signs of weakness, to be quick to take action, and to not back down in a fight.

While these behaviors can be useful at times, they can be restricting and don’t give us a lot of options when it comes to dealing with a range of feelings, precisely what’s needed to have healthy connections with others. In essence, we aren’t given the tools to be successful in love.

Dan and I shared our own personal journeys of how, through a lot of struggles and pain, we both eventually figured out that we needed to turn inward and learn to manage our reflexive, emotional responses to our romantic partners so that we could begin to reveal more of ourselves and create the lasting, loving relationships we wanted.

As a therapist, I see so many men who come to me desperate to understand why they’re having such a hard time in love, why they may act in ways that cause damage in their relationships with their partners, kids, and at their jobs by getting defensive and reactive or pulling away and disconnecting.

Though of course everyone sometimes struggles with their feelings, what I see in my male clients goes deeper: men not only have a tendency to rely on defensive ways of responding to their feelings, but often anger is the only emotion many of us seem truly okay expressing.

I speak from experience. While my parents could be demonstrative and warm at times, they both had a fair amount of conflict and anxiety around emotion. My father, a former U.S. Marine captain, hadn’t quite left the service behind and took a sort of militaristic approach to child-rearing.

I remember one Saturday morning; I couldn’t have been more than 4 years old. My father and sister and I were sitting at the kitchen table: my father reading the paper, my sister compliantly eating her breakfast, and me staring in dismay at my French toast which my father had just drowned in a pool of maple syrup. I pushed the soggy pieces back and forth as my stomach turned. I didn’t want to eat it. Why didn’t he let me put on the syrup myself? I wondered. The more I fussed, the more irritated my father got. I sensed his anger mounting from across the table. When I saw the scowl on his face, it scared me and I started to cry. The more I cried, the angrier he got until he finally exploded and yelled:

“Don’t cry. Act like a man!”

Act like a man? I was only four!

Over time, my father’s inability to manage his emotions, and the fear I felt when he would explode or withdraw, left me feeling anxious about honestly expressing myself. It took me many years to overcome the fear I had about having, honoring, and expressing my true feelings and to build the deep human connections I had always desired.

As an adult, I came to understand that my fear of feeling and more openly expressing myself limited my ability to connect deeply with others. My relationships inevitably excitement, I’d start to feel insecure and defensively argue or shut faltered: once we got past the initial down in fear when conflict or tension arose.

Rewiring Your Emotional Circuitry
Because men are often taught unhealthy ways to cope with strong emotions, when we get triggered—when we feel deep-seated emotions that come on quickly and that seem intense—we may resort to defensive behaviors such as arguing, yelling, being critical, acting aggressively, or going silent, shutting down, and pulling away.

Rather than stopping and checking in to see what may be going on inside of us, our emotional brain gets the best of us and we react rather than respond. Our relationships suffer because of it.

Over the years of working with clients, I’ve developed a four-step processing to developing emotional mindfulness that we can use to better navigate the world of our feelings, especially when we’re triggered.

Step One – Recognize and Name: Practice observing yourself when you feel emotionally activated. See if you can identify and name when you become anxious or defensive. This step takes a lot of practice because the signs can be hard to notice, but it gets easier the more you do it.

Step Two – Stop, Drop and Stay: When we feel triggered, upset, and uncomfortable, we often want to escape. That’s our “flight” response that comes up when we feel threatened.

But in order to mindfully work with your emotions and get past that sense of threat, you’ll need to stay with them and ride them out. Rather than doing what you normally do when feeling triggered, stop. Focus inward on what you’re feeling in your body. Describe it. Ask it what it’s telling you.

Step Three – Pause and Reflect: When we’re triggered, we often feel like there’s no choice between the time we a strong emotion (such as anger, rage, hatred, or fear) and our response to it (yelling, becoming violent, shutting down, or running away). But in reality, we can stretch the space between getting triggered and our subsequent response and create some room in which we can choose the best course of action.

So, practice slowing down and being with your emotional experience and not responding right away. If you normally lash out with an angry statement when your partner says or does something you dislike, do this instead: take a moment to pause before you react. In the space that you create by pausing, reflect on what you’re feeling underneath the reactivity. If you’re feeling like lashing out, what’s underneath that? Are you feeling hurt, disappointed, ashamed, or afraid? Explore the emotion. Give yourself time to figure out what you’re really feeling, what you want, what you desire, and what you’d like to happen in that situation.

Step Four – Mindfully Relate your Feelings: Once you know what you’re really feeling and what you’d like to happen, try relating that in a calm and open way to your partner. Explain what’s going on for you, even if you feel vulnerable or afraid doing it. Vulnerability is where true connection happens.

My male clients sometimes feel intimidated by working with their emotional experience. They can feel frustrated that they’ll never learn how to navigate this emotional terrain, which can feel so new or strange. It feels challenging to open up to emotions that we sometimes don’t understand or have a name for, or that we’ve been told are “unmanly”. But, with practice, it gets easier.

Now-possibly more than ever–we need men and boys who can stop the cycle of defensiveness and aggression in relationships and create healthier ways of being. If you’ve ever wanted stronger, more connected, and more resilient relationships, learning emotional mindfulness–and practicing these four steps–can help you get there.

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