I get asked how to connect men with their feelings a lot when I’m giving presentations and interviews. Of course, there’s no one size fits all. There’s no formula.
The long game is to undo the “psychological patriarchy” that the psychotherapist Terrance Real talks about in his writings and work. It’s getting underneath how much all sexes are hurt by the patriarchal nature of society. That being said, the best way to connect a guy with his feelings is to not disconnect him from them when he’s a boy. It’s to provide as many spaces as possible to encourage the expression of vulnerable feelings from birth through adulthood.
But the people who ask me this question are usually talking about an adult male in their life. Here are a few suggestions.
Sometimes the hardest part in this journey is to introduce a guy to the idea that he has feelings. Many men I know claim to be “unemotional.” I’m not even sure what that actually means. Do they think they have no emotions? No, they express anger. They’re happy at times. They get excited. It’s curious that the only emotions that seem beyond their reach are the vulnerable ones. The sadness, the fear, the shame.
It’s important to start out with challenging this belief and remove the concern (if there is one) that they just don’t have these emotions. There are a few ways to go about this, but I find it important to not try to surprise anyone too much.
By that, I mean that I’m going to be honest in my disagreement that they are unemotional and that much of our work, though not all, is going to be connecting them to the feelings that they’ve worked very hard at avoiding.
It’s the best way to assist in getting to the heart of the relationship issues, the career issues, and all the other reasons for which someone has sought out counseling. We don’t stop and end with the feelings, but the energy put into being “unemotional” can be better used on moving toward what you do want.
So we start out by letting a guy know that he does indeed have emotions. He has all the emotions needed to be human. He may not believe me at first, but it slowly becomes apparent.Don’t like ads? Become a supporter and enjoy The Good Men Project ad free
I think it was Thich Nhat Hanh who gave advice to a child who was struggling with mindfulness meditation by saying to start by paying close attention to the whole body. This is perfect advice for men who look at me like I’m nuts when I say, “What emotions are you feeling right now?”
If a guy can answer with a feeling—bonus! We can expand on that.
But many people can’t. So we bypass that brain–emotion block and connect with sensations. Particularly when we’re starting out, we examine the discomfort in the body. Once someone starts describing a pain, a tightness, a pressure, anything really, it’s amazing how a story begins to be told. Emotional language maybe come to the fore in their story, and if it’s not, that’s where I can offer a suggestion of an emotion.
Sometimes these are batted away, and that’s fine. Maybe the guy isn’t ready to accept that he could be feeling that emotion. (Also, maybe I’m wrong!)
Whether we get to an emotion in that session or not, the body can bring us to a discussion about the here-and-now. People often like to spend their time in therapy talking about the other people in their lives who should be there instead of them. This body/here-and-now work grounds a person in the room, in their session, in their lives, in their body, and—eventually—in their emotions.
For those of you who want to try this at home with the “unemotional” man in your life, this next part is going to be the most difficult: Once a guy is able to connect with sadness-shame-fear-low self-worth-guilt-depression-anxiety (or whatever), resist the urge to take it away from them.
This is a role many women who are dating or friends with or parenting men fall into and it’s a lot of emotional labor. I’m not blaming you—the patriarchy has set you up for this: to support that masculine ego.
And I’m not just talking to women, here: guys if your male friend is talking about any of those above emotions, your job is not to make a joke, it’s not to explain to him why things are going to be okay, it’s not your job to solve the issue (even if you are extremely uncomfortable with the display of emotion—this is not about you in this moment.)
We need to sit with the other person and their pain.
When you want to say “I understand” know that you probably don’t, and say something you can stand by, like “I hear you.” “That sucks.” “I wish I could take that pain away, but I know I can’t and I’m just going to sit here.”
One big reason we men as a whole aren’t aware of these emotions is because early on we were given many, many, many, many messages from peers and adults telling us Be a Man, Hold it In, Don’t Cry, You’re Acting Like a Girl, You’re Gay.
So, being someone who can handle a guy’s vulnerabilities is the most healing, helpful thing you can do.
Not solve it. Not take it away. Just be present for it. That’s not easy to do.
We need to stop telling boys to hold in their feelings. We need to stop allowing other adults in our sons’ lives from doing that too. But for those of you who are trying to help the adult men in your lives, it’s important to know the limits of your relationships with them.Don’t like ads? Become a supporter and enjoy The Good Men Project ad free
It’s not your job to connect him to his feelings. He needs to want to do that. You can release yourselves from the emotional labor of trying to change someone else, by setting your expectations for the adult men in your life. If that leads to them wanting to explore more, there is a ton of information out there, but help them know that the only stuff that will be worth it needs to be talking about patriarchy, not simply about knowing oneself better. The world doesn’t need more emotionally connected patriarch sexist men (or women).
And your relationships with these men may change, or even end, but your role is not to save the relationship, but to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.
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Originally published The Good Man Project.