“Better out than in.”
This phrase cracks me up. It’s a folk saying that seems to go way back, but you might’ve heard it from “Shrek.”
I’m not totally sure what it means, but it’s good advice for us all in the realm of emotions.
Especially for men.
This runs in direct opposition to what most men have been taught.
In recent history, and probably always, we have rewarded and even exalted men for their ability to push their feelings down and perform in the heat of the moment.
Warriors, sports stars, firefighters, CEOs — the list goes on. These individuals often ignore personal fear, pain, and everything else in service to the goal at hand.
But what we’ve failed to understand is that this is a skill to be used in a particular time and place, not a blanket strategy for life.
The American male has long been rewarded for grit, toughness, and the ability to push through hardship.
There are a few examples that initially come to mind.
The one that gets shared most often is that of being on the battlefield. In active combat, when everything is on the line, it’s incredibly unhelpful to feel the full intensity of fear. It’ll get you killed.
Sports are several notches down on the intensity scale. If the game is tied and you’re shooting free throws for the win, it’s helpful and necessary to push away the emotion of the moment.
If I had expressed the fullness of my emotions when my wife was in labor with our children, I would have simply lost my sh*t. It was wild.
Instead, I was able to feel through my emotions, remain calm and present, and take action for my wife.
So repression has a useful function. Unfortunately, it’s been the go-to tactic for most men for as long as any of us can remember.
When emotional repression becomes a blanket strategy, it becomes absolutely toxic. Unexpressed emotions make us sick.
A recent study says that emotional expression is critical to our physical health, mental health, and overall well-being.
The negative impacts of repression are bigger than you might think.
Past research suggests that masking emotions may be linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Some older evidence even suggests that emotional health factors could be linked to longevity.
Free pass to eat ice cream and forget the gym! Just kidding.
If only it were that easy.
Healthy emotional expression is linked to an improved ability to handle stress and manage pain, as well as better immune function. This is just the tip of the iceberg for the individual benefits, but it goes much further than that.
Emotions are absolutely critical in building the relationships that we need in our lives. Our ability to feel and express ourselves is central to successful friendships, romantic relationships, parenting, and our impact and success at work.
At EVRYMAN, we help men get in touch with their bodies and their emotions through regular support groups. The results are big, fast, and lasting.
A little bit of vulnerability goes a long way. When we’re honest and expressive, it gives others permission to do the same.
At EVRYMAN, we call this “emotional leadership.”
1. Make a choice and a plan
When we aren’t used to experiencing our emotions, feeling them is uncomfortable and overwhelming. There are plenty of options to get started.
You can work with a therapist, ask a friend to support you, or join a group at EVRYMAN. You can also find some solo time and bring a journal.
Feel into this and decide what support you might want or need.
2. Slow down
When it’s time to feel feelings, it’s time to slow down.
Turn the screens off. Find a quiet place and remove distractions. Don’t do this in the car or on the train. Turn off the music and be still.
Our constant motion is one of the ways we habitually turn off our emotions, so find a way to stop and be still. Your feelings will be waiting for you.
3. Get in touch with your body
If you want to feel your emotions, start with your body.
Emotions are physiological events. They carry with them sensations that you can point to and describe. Start to pay attention to your body in more and more subtle ways.
Notice when you clench your jaw or when your shoulders are up. Notice if your chest is collapsed or if there’s a knot in your belly.
Start to be more aware and name these sensations as you feel them.
4. Learn the basic emotions
At EVRYMAN, we use the 5 basic emotions: anger, shame, fear, sadness, and joy.
There are countless feelings and emotions, and it can quickly get overwhelming to try to know and name what we’re feeling. So start with these basics.
Which of these 5 emotions are real for you right now? As you feel them, start to match them with the physical sensations in your body.
5. Speak it out loud
When you feel something, write it down or name it out loud.
Dr. Daniel Seigel coined the phrase “name it to tame it.” This is knowledge that should come standard with the human body and experience. It’s incredibly simple and incredibly powerful.
When something throws you off, instead of clenching down and pushing through, employ your new skills. Slow down, feel your body, and describe your experience simply, like “I feel overwhelmed, scared, and out of control.”
This little exercise can get you right back on track.
6. Accept it
Once you slow down, feel it, and name it, the next step is to accept it. Feelings aren’t good or bad. They’re just feelings.
When you accept what you’re feeling instead of pushing it away, you allow that emotion to pass through without becoming repressed.
Emotional repression is a helpful and necessary tool in specific circumstances, but it’s destructive for everyday life.
To be healthy and successful, we need to be able to repress at times. But we also need to be able to express ourselves in healthy and constructive ways.
We and our loved ones deserve to experience our whole selves — emotions and all. They make us richer, more connected human beings.