Stereotypically, men have only a few ways to deal with negative emotions:
- We get drunk.
- We punch each other.
- We “man up,” stuffing our feelings down until we die of heart disease.
I don’t think we socialize men to handle strong emotions well. We still haven’t quite emerged from the “boys don’t cry” era. I spoke to a friend recently who sent her daughter and then her son through the same preschool. My friend described how the way they treated her son when he cried was vastly different than the way that same school treated her daughter.
There’s still something shameful and “unmanly” about having strong emotions. Men aren’t allowed to be sad. This is a cultural effect. For example, we know that around 50% of adults who experience symptoms of depression will not seek help or talk to a doctor about it. However, 90% of African-American males who experience depression will never get mental health help. And while women are twice as likely to suffer from symptoms of depression, men (depending on age) are about three times as likely to commit suicide. The cultural stigma around mental and emotional health is killing males.
As a practical fellow, I want to give men some strategies for handling strong negative emotions that are more healthful.
1. Understand when you need help and seek it.
I would like nothing better than to see the stigma over seeking help for mental health destroyed. As we learn more about things like depression, we understand that the physical symptoms are flu-like. I’d like to see mental health treated with the same compassion as physical health. You wouldn’t tell your buddy with cancer to man-up, you’d encourage him to get treatment. And hey, therapy is great. How often do you get an hour when it’s someone’s job to just listen to you without judgment?
When might you need to seek some professional help? I’m not a doctor or a therapist, but I’d say any time any of the following symptoms were present:
- You feel overwhelmed and unable to cope
- You soothe yourself or shield yourself from your emotions with behaviors that are self-destructive, harmful, or addictive
- Your emotions are causing physical symptoms like a lack of sleep, sudden weight loss or gain, body pains
- Your emotions are hindering your work or getting in the way of healthy relationships
- You have any suicidal thoughts
If any of these things show up for you, get some help. Talk to your doctor, talk to a therapist. If it’s an emergency, call 911 or walk into your emergency room.
2. Develop benign attention.
Benign attention is a strategy that comes from mindfulness meditation. The research showing the positive benefits of mindfulness practice are astounding. Mindfulness is one of those things that anybody can do, and it benefits the mind, body, and spirit.
With benign attention, you sit with your emotions, whatever they are. You sit with a benign attitude. I use curiosity. You do not judge, or beat yourself up, or try to push the emotions away. You sit and observe with some curiosity or other benign feelings towards your feelings.
This practice both honors what you’re feeling and removes you from being consumed by it. It helps you take on a detached witness consciousness where you recognize that you have feelings, but you are not your emotions. Watching your feelings in this way allows them to rise and fall naturally and reduces suffering.
3. Practice self-compassion.
There’s a Buddhist idea that if you’re not one of the people to whom you extend compassion, your compassion is incomplete. The idea is that you are a sentient being like all other sentient beings and as deserving of compassion from yourself as anyone else.
For learning about self-compassion, I recommend the work of psychologist Kristen Neff. Neff has written extensively on self-compassion and offers a lot of free resources on her website. Self-compassion, according to Neff, breaks down into three steps:
- Recognize that you are suffering
- Understand that you are not alone and that suffering is part of the human condition
- Be nice to yourself
I was talking to a young woman the other day who was recently sober and going through treatment for addiction. She told me a story about getting upset at herself for getting angry at another driver while she was in her car. I asked, “well then, did you get mad at yourself for feeling angry that you got angry?” The absurdity of beating herself up for having normal human feelings sunk in and she was able to laugh about it.
4. Choose healthy ways to soothe.
It’s natural to want to comfort yourself when you are suffering. It’s important to do so in a manner that doesn’t wind up making things worse. Finding positive ways to soothe isn’t rocket science.
Alcohol, for example, can temporarily lessen physical symptoms of depression. But after the intoxication wears off, symptoms can be worse than when you started. This is where a lot of people escalate and wind up with substance abuse problems.
Any addictive behavior, sex, drugs, self-harm, media consumption, can release neurochemicals that give you a temporary lift. They can also serve as a mental distraction from the issues triggering your emotions. I believe that we all innately understand when these behaviors become problematic.
So, the thing to do here is to understand when a behavior is serving to either soothe or shield you from emotional pain. It’s totally okay to want to do that. Now, look at the behavior as either nurturing or harmful long-term, or something that you don’t want to do short-term.
If you’re stuck for a replacement activity, rely on one of your most powerful tools. Your unconscious mind is a superhuman creative tool when you listen to it. So, talk to it and ask, “what’s something else I can do that’s both healthy and provides the emotional relief.”
5. Build resiliency through self-care and stress relief.
Resiliency is the ability to “bounce back” from adversity. Physically, resiliency is the capacity to recover from hardship, disease, or adverse physical conditions. Psychologically, resiliency is about handling stress or trauma.
One of the ways to build resilience is to practice some of the coping skills I’ve already outlined. Developing healthy coping skills and emotional intelligence are keys to psychological health.
The other important factor is to manage stress effectively. Stress is a killer. Stress may seem like purely a mental thing (it’s all in your head), but your body treats stress in much the same way it does disease. If you don’t regulate and lessen your stress it can, over time, lead to severe disease and kill you.
The key here is to focus on self-care. You have to do something daily that is intended to release and lower stress. The operative words here are “do something” and “intended.” Vegging out on the couch in front of ESPN doesn’t count.
Find activities that nurture you. You know you need exercise, find an activity you like that gives you exercise. Hike, bike, rock climb, do a martial art. Do you like to paint, sing, dance? Plan daily activities around this.
Get social. Human beings are social creatures, and social contact releases the happy brain chemical oxytocin. You get more oxytocin when healthy physical touch is involved. This might be sex, but it could also be a pat on the back, a hug from your kids, or a massage. I’m a big advocate for regular therapeutic massage – it’s great for you.
Take care of yourself mind, body, and spirit. Do some yoga, some Qigong, some Tai Chi. Try out a floatation tank, or acupuncture, or any other form of healthy relaxation. Your adrenal glands need a break.
Learning to deal successfully with our emotions should be part of every adult’s growing-up process. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of shame and stigma around men and emotion – it’s OK to be angry or happy, and that’s it. But men are emotional creatures too; we have all the same parts for that that women do. Our social norms around men being emotional are far from healthy, and I’d love to see more men taking care of this critical part of themselves.
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