One of the biggest and hardest jobs I am going to have is teaching you to have a healthy relationship to your emotions. Most people go through life either letting their feelings control their actions, or they just swallow their emotions down until it makes them sick and bitter – or they just explode with all of the stress and bad feelings they have stored away.
Neither are healthy and neither are going to help you be successful as an adult. What will help is learning how to express, then marshal your feelings.
Expressing your feelings doesn’t mean breaking into tears, shouting, breaking something, sulking, or screaming. Those actions are to “expression” what a shotgun is to a slingshot. They are loud, bullying, and anti-social ways of using your feelings to make other people so uncomfortable they do what you want. And they also don’t make you feel any better. People who fly off the handle like that are feeding their emotions, and making them stronger. If they get what they want, they are also training their brain to expect that if it just overwhelms itself with emotion, the resulting bad behavior will get the person what he or she wants. We call those kinds of behaviour “histrionics” (often shortened to “hissy-fits”) instead of “expressions”. Genuine and healthy expression of your emotions is a very different thing, indeed.
Of course, for many men, histrionics are the opposite of their problem. Instead they learn – falsely – that they don’t have a right to their feelings. That even having feelings is a weakness that other people will use to hurt you. Men who learn this learn to swallow down their feelings and hide them in a dark secret place. This is something that young men learn young from their parents, schoolteachers, and bullies. The truth is, that human beings in general aren’t comfortable with Men’s feelings. We have always needed strong, brave, hard-working men around us to make us safe; a man who is too emotional is a weak link in the chain that keeps us safe. Many people think teaching a boy never to show his feelings is doing him a favour.
The point of expressing your feelings is to help the brain process them – it lets you flush out the chemicals in your brain that create and are created by emotion (“neurotransmitters”). This will let you get the feelings out of the way quickly so that you can take rational, well thought-out actions to solve the problem in the first place.
Swallowing your feelings is bad for you, though. Your body has to do something with all those neurotransmitters. So it stores them in fat cells, making you overweight. It tries to boil some away in stomach acid, leading to sour stomachs and ulcers. It tries to change your body acidity level to shut down the parts of you that make them, which can lead to insomnia, weak immune systems, and worse. Without expression to regulate your emotions, your heart pumps harder, raising your blood pressure causing headaches and heart disease; your liver works less efficiently, allowing poisons to build up in your body; and your digestion slows down, leading to malnutrition no matter what you eat.
Unlike histrionics, genuine expressions are usually simple:
- Telling people how you feel in an assertive manner using “I-statements”
- Creating a work of art that captures your feelings.
- Exercising until you sweat.
- Writing a letter.
- Writing out everything you wish you could have done in your journal.
- Letting out a scream in private where it cannot bully others.
- Playing music.
These let you process your feelings, getting the excess chemicals and the emotional thoughts out of your brain so that they don’t keep taking up mental energy.
Once you have the stress from your feelings out, you can marshal your feelings to help you take action. This means taking stock of why the feeling happened so that you can deal with the problem, and not have to deal with the feeling again later.
This can be as simple as asking for – or giving – an apology, as labour-intensive as creating better security for your possessions, as heart-wrenching as ending a friendship, or as complicated as changing the way you think. Remember that feelings come from within you, they are a response to the world around you, but they are also a challenge to change the world around you. If you don;t deal with the situation that inspired the feeling, it will just happen again. At which point you may as well have just swallowed it, because you have to deal with the stress and bad feelings all over again.
So many men live in a cage of bad feelings. They swallow them over and over again, because they think that real men don’t show feelings – it would make them weak. And they also refuse to fix bad situations, even though they feel bad about those situations over and over again. They are convinced that if they do something to fix their feelings, that is admitting they have them.
I should know, I was one of them. When I was young I was bullied, beaten, molested, and neglected – not by Opa and Oma, they were amazing parents, but by many other adults in my life. I tried to be brave and hide my feelings, especially because the bullies loved to see me cry. But the end result was that I grew fat, had digestion problems, and developed crippling migraines. All things I still struggle with as you are on your way. I hope that by the time you read this, I will have conquered them.
I do not want that struggle for you, son. I want you to learn to express yourself in a healthy, meaningful manner, and never put up with bad situations. That is why I will work so hard to coach you on being good with your feelings. Mastery of yourself is the most powerful gift I can give you as a father.