I talked last time about starting to identify emotions. This is the first step in the process. The next step is learning to express those emotions. Men are good at keeping emotions bottled up inside, or expressing them through secondary emotions like anger. The problem is that this leads to problems with addictions, anger issues, and difficulty in connecting relationally. Following is a beginning guide to expressing emotions, once you’ve begun to recognize what it is you’re feeling.
There are a number of different ways to express emotions. I’m going to cover a several of them, including public and private.
First things first
First, I want to make it clear that feelings are neutral. There really aren’t right or wrong feelings. They simply are.
It is possible, however, to have inappropriate or misplaced emotions. That is to say, to feel sad is an acceptable emotions, but it might be based on a misperception of a situation. Emotions are driven by thoughts and thoughts can be skewed. By changing thoughts to more appropriate or realistic thoughts in a given situation, it is possible to change you emotional response as well.
As an exercise in changing thoughts and emotions, try this Push Button Technique. Close your eyes and think of something negative, a sad life event. Play the event over in your mind, remembering the sights, sounds, and smells surrounding the occurrence. How do you feel? Likely you are experiencing, to some degree, a “negative” emotion like sadness, anger, regret, or the like. Now I want you to keep your eyes closed, but this time think of something positive, a good memory. Again, pay attention to the details of the memory, the sights, sounds, and smells. Now how do you feel? Probably a “positive” emotion like happy, joyful, proud, or excited, right? If done properly, this exercise demonstrates the ability to change the way you are feeling by changing thoughts.
Whether or not we are experiencing an “appropriate” emotion, it is okay to express what we are feeling. Often it is in the expression of emotion that we discover if our thinking is realistic or not. So without further delay, I’ll discuss ways of doing that.
Talk it out
One way to express emotions with others is to talk about it. In this way you can get validation of your feelings from a trusted friend or family member, or they can help you see a misunderstanding that you may have that is driving your feelings. Having someone else listen to you and really hear how you are feeling can be incredibly comforting when struggling with difficult emotions. And it really does help in processing or “getting past” the emotion.
Make sure that you are sharing your feelings with safe people. Not everyone can handle others’ emotions well. It is important that you find people who are able to listen well and value your emotional state and help you process what you are feeling. If you don’t have anyone in your life to do this with, a therapist can be a great place to find that. They will listen and validate your emotional experience, and help you find people who will do this for you in your life.
It is important in doing this to be clear in the way you talk. Use “I” statements like, “I feel ____” and then a description of why you are feeling that way. Make sure you don’t give up your own power by attributing the source of your emotions somewhere else. This is done by saying things like “you make me feel …” or “He/She made me feel ….” Your emotions are your own and only you have the power to change them. Saying phrases like these makes you into a powerless victim.
Here are some examples:
“I am feeling discouraged because I think I’m going to fail on my current project at work.”
“I felt really scared last night when you didn’t call to tell me you were coming home late, because I thought something might have happened to you.”
Work it out
Exercise can be incredibly helpful when dealing with difficult emotions. Sometimes emotions come with energy that you need to expend somehow. Exercise is one of the best ways to expend this energy.
I want to be clear here, exercise by itself will not usually help in processing or working through the emotion. I am not saying that punching a bag when you are angry is going to remove the anger. No, but it will expend some of that angry energy that you might otherwise use negatively (like hitting a person or something else). Exercise can, however, give you a great opportunity to work through emotions internally. The increased blood flow and oxygenation of your blood is helpful for thinking, and will help you in thinking through why you are feeling the way you are feeling and what you can do about it. It is important, then, to choose an exercise where you are free to think while you work out.
You need to decide what form of exercise is best for you. Here are some examples of things that others have found helpful.
Tai Chi/other martial arts
Write it out
Another great way of processing emotions is through writing. Having a journal where you can write about the events of the day and how you are feeling can be incredibly beneficial. It takes some discipline and time management to initiate, but the payoff can be substantial. This can be especially helpful for those who are just learning to identify and express emotion; because it gives opportunity to sit and think about the events of the day and consider specifically how you were feeling about those and why.
One helpful exercise may be to keep a thought record. This entails thinking about your day and writing specific information about significant events (events that provoked difficult emotions). You would start out by describing the event – what happened, who was there, what time was it, smells, sounds, etc. Then you would write down how you were feeling at the time. Next you would write the thoughts that were driving the feelings. Now if you want to take this a little bit further you can start to weigh these thoughts. Are they accurate, realistic? What supports that thought? What doesn’t support that thought? If evidence does not support the thought, what is a more realistic though? Do you feel differently after this process? I use this exercise a lot with clients struggling with depression or anxiety to help them analyze the thoughts driving their feelings.
Writing does not just have to be done in prose in a journal. It can also be incredibly helpful to do artistic writing. Writing stories can be incredibly therapeutic, as it allows you to externalize your feelings and work with them in a character that you create. Writing music is another great way of processing emotions. So much emotion can be expressed through lyrics and the intricacies of music. Likewise, poetry is another great example of therapeutic writing.
Find the kind of written expression that helps you most. Do that, and do it frequently. This will greatly improve your ability to deal with difficult emotions.
Cry it out
Sometimes the best thing you can do is simply to cry. This can be done alone or with someone else. Tears can be happy, and they can be sad.
Research is mixed on the emotional value of crying. However recent research by Bylsma, et. al., gives some good insights. She suggests that crying with one other person to support you is often more beneficial than crying alone; but crying alone can also be beneficial. Crying that results in a resolution or changed understanding of the circumstances that caused a person to cry was also found to be helpful. Crying tends to be negative if the individual feels ashamed or embarrassed by crying, or if they are with people who are not supportive. Overall, it seems best to cry by one’s self or with one other supportive person.
This is a difficult thing to talk about for men. There is a lot more stigma around crying for guys. I’ve written before about the fact that men, culturally speaking, are supposed to look strong and stable. Crying is the opposite of this. Crying is vulnerable, weak. It can be difficult for men to get past this negative connotation. It is my belief, however, that it takes a much stronger man to be willing to cry in the face of difficult emotions, or to cry with or for a friend who is hurting.
Figure it out
Ultimately, each person is responsible for figuring out what works for them. What is most beneficial to you in processing emotions? I’ve learned, for me, that listening to and playing music is incredibly therapeutic. When I am having a difficult day, or feeling really down, sitting down and playing my guitar, or listening to some of my favorite music does a great deal in helping me express those emotions and lifts my mood. I’ve given a number of suggestions, now it’s up to you to figure out what works for you!