Why it's hard for guys to talk about feelings
As a mental health counselor, clients often ask me – especially guys – if it’s really necessary to talk about their feelings. I get it. I don’t really like talking about my feelings either. Guys are not raised to do this, so it’s often way out of our comfort zone. It’s uncomfortable. We don’t always even know what we’re feeling because we never spend time paying attention to our feelings and we weren’t raised to put a lot of thought into them. I’m a male therapist, and I’ve been one for 25 years, and I’m still not great at this.
If it worked to not talk about our feelings, I’d encourage my clients to just keep avoiding, but it doesn’t work. And everyone has feelings – even guys. If we hold our feelings in all the time, they tend to come out eventually, but in some messed up, indirect way. If we hold our frustration or sadness or fear inside, eventually we explode, usually in anger and usually at someone or something that triggers us. When men come to see me to help with anger management, this is usually part of the problem. We can’t be in healthy relationships or be good spouses or be good parents if we can’t get better at knowing what we feel and saying how we feel … at least a little better.
We aren't raised to do this
Guys in our culture are usually raised and socialized to be strong and self-sufficient, to not ask for help, and to not show our feelings… unless that feeling is anger. It’s easy to see if you look at how boys are coached from early age. Anger is taught to be an acceptable emotion to feel and to bring onto the field. If you watch any sport at a high school, college, or professional level – anything from lacrosse to football to mixed martial arts – it’s clear that anger is a good feeling to have and to display, provided it doesn’t get in the way of bringing your A game. And if you look at the same athletic environments – from childhood through adulthood – it’s not okay to show other feelings like sadness or anxiety… unless maybe you just won the Super Bowl or are announcing your retirement from the sport. We’ve all seen many pro or college athletes end up in trouble due to a lack of anger management, a lack of healthy expression of feelings.
Fortunately, the conventional wisdom around this issue is starting to change. More and more writers and other thought leaders are recognizing and talking about the strength and benefits of men being vulnerable and expressing a wider range of feelings. But this socialization is still the norm, and many of us grew up long before people were starting to question the traditional way guys were raised. So lots of guys still struggle with expressing their feelings or with anger management.
Feelings underneath anger
Often underneath anger are deeper more uncomfortable feelings, like sadness, insecurity, and fear. I don’t encourage my clients to spend every minute of every day expressing every feeling they have, but we usually feel better and have healthier relationships when we can get a little better at doing this. This isn’t about turning into the stereotypical overly sensitive man who constantly talks about his feelings and wears a fanny pack; it’s just about strengthening the psychological muscle that let’s us express our feelings when it’s important to. Like anything we put effort into, this strength can be built. And it gets easier with practice.
As a male therapist, I can relate to how difficult it is to build this muscle. I’ve been talking more and more about this with my clients over the last few years, helping them see that being a little more vulnerable, expressing a little more of their feelings is actually healthy and takes strength. It actually takes a strong man to let down his guard.
For more information, visit my Men's Counseling page.