An aspect of the Unified Living Project is helping men find a path to authentic and balanced masculinity. The balanced man is both a strong visionary leader and compassionate caring person. In this article below, my friend Dr. Richard Sears addresses some of the common issues men have with understanding and accepting their emotional nature as humans.
Men, Emotions, & Mindfulness
Alexithymia is the diminished capacity to experience emotions. Some have half-jokingly said that all men have alexithymia. Growing up, many boys are taught that only two emotional states are acceptable: feeling nothing (social pressure to “be a rock”), and feeling angry (social pressure to “give ‘em hell”). Of course, biologically, men and women are both very similar (despite arguments to the contrary). Hence, men are born with the full range of emotions, but learn many ways to mask them. While it seems that times are changing, I hope the reader will indulge in a few generalizations to illustrate some common issues.
Emotional management is not often taught in schools. If anything, boys often learn from other boys not to show emotion. They may learn to erect a wall to protect themselves. This strategy works in the short term, but a dear price is paid – a great deal of loneliness.
Men are also often taught to be “fixers” and “doers.” If an unpleasant emotion arises, the typical man wants to “do something about it.” Women are often frustrated when a man continuously offers advice about fixing something. Men feel they are being helpful, but the woman tends to feel unheard. Men can have difficulty tolerating emotions, and in some cases, this can lead to problems with substance use.
One approach to learning how to tolerate and wisely work with emotions is through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness involves learning be with our experiences moment to moment, fostering awareness of our physical, emotional, and mental states. While this is best developed through systematic practice, the basic concept is simple.
One strategy is simply to sit with the emotion and say to yourself, “Whatever it is, it’s already here, just let me feel it.” Feelings are not concrete things – they come and go in waves. Mindfulness involves learning to surf the sometimes stormy sea of emotions, instead of trying to stand firm and be battered by the waves.
Mindfulness brings awareness. I once worked with a man at a residential clinic in a hospital who had lived a difficult life. He had been in the military, had been in prison, and had been homeless for several years. In order to survive in the tough environments he lived in, he learned to have an angry expression on his face. This expression basically said, “Don’t mess with me.” However, this face now prevented him from forming friendships, and made it difficult for him to secure employment. I once brought this to his attention in a psychotherapy session. Having seen him for several weeks, I knew we had developed some rapport, and I could be direct with him. “You know, I’ve seen you interact multiple times with the other residents, and I know you are a kind person, but right in this moment, I feel like you want to kill me. Your face looks very angry.” He was quite surprised at this, saying that he did not ever notice that about himself, and he even questioned if it was true.
At the next session, he smiled at me and said, “Wow, I looked in the mirror, and you were right! I did not know I looked so angry all the time!” From that point forward, he looked much happier around the unit. He now had conscious choice of when it was necessary to look angry, and when it was necessary to look inviting or happy, which served him well in his next job interview.
Learning to practice mindfulness throughout the day, turning toward our emotions and experiences, can be challenging at first. However, tearing down the protective walls and sometimes feeling vulnerable is can also open us up to hitherto unknown levels of intimacy and joy.