One of the struggles that has characterized my late twenties/early thirties has been learning to express my feelings. To be sure, I was (and maybe still am) more emotionally inept than most, but it does seem like this is something a lot of others (especially men) struggle with, so I’d like to take a minute to share what I’ve learned about it with you.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not a cognitive psychologist. I’m sure there’s a well-documented body of work that explains everything I’m sharing here, probably in a more helpful, useful way. If you’re aware of any such resources, I’d love to read them.. Otherwise, please enjoy my story for whatever it’s worth 🙂
Those who know me know that I was a computer geek and a gamer for most of my young life. I had some serious dress/style problems that lasted at least until I was married when my wife took away my velcro wallet. I had some strong (albeit uninformed) opinions — it still makes me cringe to read some of the stuff I used to write about. All I knew about “emotion” was that some people sure had a lot of them (not me, of course) and they seemed to get in the way a lot, causing perfectly normal/smart people to do and say illogical things.
Becoming aware of my emotions
I have to credit my wife with first introducing me to the ideas of emotional awareness and intelligence. The polar opposite of me on every personality test we’ve ever taken, she’s a pillar of purpose, love, meaning and humanity. She’s not much for facts & figures or to-do lists & calendars, but she’s an incredible human. Over time she began introducing me to emotion, but I still didn’t really believe that they were an important concept, so it was a long struggle. I think one of the first real “breakthroughs” she had with me was when she got me to read “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown. Long story short, the book teaches that when we are unwilling to feel/experience negative emotions, we also inadvertently deaden our ability to feel positive emotions, and that most people have developed a series of numbing “shields” that prevent them from feeling more deeply
As this idea started to solidify in my mind, I took another step and enrolled in an online “Leadership through Emotional Intelligence” course from Case Western University. I didn’t actually finish the course (oops!), but one concept really stuck with me — in order to teach emotional intelligence, the teacher didn’t just go through concepts but instead invited students to remember and write about specific types of experiences from the past. As I wrote, those emotions were recalled, and then the teacher would say “That was the emotion of fear.” I learned that to learn about emotions, I needed to feel them — not just read about them.
The biggest step of my emotional intelligence journey so far came from making the decision to participate in an encounter group or “T-Group” put on by instructors at Stanford University in October 2014. I’ll explain more about the impact of this experience below, but essentially it amounts to putting 10 strangers in a room to practice communicating with each other while simultaneously paying close attention to the feelings that the conversation generates. As we communicated, I learned a whole range of emotions I could feel, and I remember being surprised at (1) how nuanced they were and (2) how many I could feel simultaneously or in short succession.
Noticing the effects of my emotions
Emotions are a big part of life at home, but I think I first started becoming aware of them in the workplace. They just seemed more obvious at work — probably because they kept either helping or getting in the way of work to be done. I credit my business partner, John Gough, here, because for whatever reason he has always been extremely emotionally intelligent and has probably helped me hundreds of times in business meetings to consider how others are feeling, be aware of how I’m feeling, etc.
As I began to notice the effect of my emotions, one of the first things I realized is how much my emotions were related to my underlying beliefs about people/things. It was around this time that I read Ownership Spirit by Dennis Deaton, which turned out to be a fantastic read that I now highly recommend to just about anyone. In the book, Dr. Deaton teaches precisely this — that what we believe about a situation dramatically impacts how we feel about it, and that our beliefs are not always right. For example, someone cuts you off in traffic and you curse at them — how could they be so rude? But if you instead imagine to yourself that they’re speeding to the hospital with their mortally sick child in the back seat, you suddenly feel empathy, patience and helpfulness instead of anger. The same thing happens at work — are your co-workers lazy and out to get you? Or are they just busy trying to keep their own lives together and doing their best to work with what they have? Dr. Deaton encourages readers to examine the thoughts/beliefs that are giving us negative emotions, then practice seeing them in a new light that puts us back in control, which is what “taking ownership” means.
One other thing I’ll say that I’ve noticed about emotions is that, at least for me, they are heavily influenced by how tired I am. Over 90% of the fights Katie and I have had have occurred after 9pm, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When I’m tired, I can’t feel as well, and I notice that my negative emotions are amplified. I think for others it happens when they are hungry (“hangry”). Conversely, I’ve found that early in the morning is the best time for me to do my most important work, because I’m bubbling with energy, creativity, positivity and patience — before the work of the day has run me down 🙂
Learning to share the emotion
Once I had learned to name my emotions and became aware of the effect they were having on me, the next step was to learn to share them. Again, the T-group was instrumental here. I learned that an amazing thing happens when we share our emotions — others can feel the same too! In T-Group we were encouraged not to use the word LIKE, but instead to name the actual emotion. So for example instead of saying “I feel like you don’t care” (which not only implicates the other party, but also doesn’t really tell us how you feel about your observation), try saying “I feel hurt because the story in my head is that you don’t care.” When you express the second one, the typical response is remorse, empathy, care and concern whereas the response to the first is typically defensiveness, anger and retaliation. You tell me which one you’d rather have others feeling towards you 🙂
After being taught this concept, I began to notice others who were really good at sharing their emotions, and I started to join in on the fun. My bishop, Bishop Ken Bawden, is awesome at this. I’ve watched him in dozens, maybe hundreds of interactions with others where he has simply expressed his feelings — be they love, gratitude, care or concern — and the other party has responded in incredible ways. It has been powerful to me to see another man who is so comfortable expressing his feelings, and has gone a long way towards dispelling my own mistaken notions about how men should handle their emotions. There have been others too: John Gough, Ben Skinner and Russ Perry to name a few. I’ve also watched with sadness people who are unwilling to share their emotions — either because they can’t or don’t know that they should, and I’ve felt sorry for all the life they’re missing out on. I hope in time they’ll get to experience what I have experienced.
I don’t mean to get all soft on you here, but I do think there’s way too much societal pressure on men to keep up a stern facade and never let their emotions show. If they’re anything like me, they may not even realize they have emotions, although of course everyone does. And as long as they’re ignoring them, they’re not feeling them, which is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.