Pixar’s Inside Out has writer John Glass reflecting on his own approach to managing emotions.
***There are some spoilers in this piece, so be forewarned.***
Watching the movie Inside Out reminded me of the unfortunate concept that is part of masculine culture: a disconnect from emotions. Aside from anger, of course. Anger appears to be the one emotion that society expects men to display.
For a long time my understanding of emotions was like my understanding of a black hole. I know black holes exist, but I do not understand the reason behind them.
Growing up in a house where the go to response for emotion was anger, I learned to express my anger, usually in unhealthy ways. What I missed out on was learning to express the other range of emotions. There were joyous times growing up, but the regular experiences invoked anger.
When anger was turned on me, it created the natural response of fear. Fear and anger became my two main responses growing up. I had little experience with other emotions.
These experiences created a pattern of emotions. Over time anger became my go to emotional response. I would react with anger when I what I was really experiencing was sadness, disgust, anxiety, surprise, fear or just about any emotion. Generally, this was because I did not understand the other possible emotions I felt.
When I felt an emotion, yet did not understand that emotion, I would respond in anger. When I did that adults around me would tell me I was angry. This reinforced the connection my brain had made between what I was feeling and how to act.
After my abuse my feelings of anger grew more. Along with my feelings of shame and guilt. Which were all displayed as anger.
Which leads me to the point that I’ve found anger to be a lot of men’s initial emotional reaction. It actually appears to be society’s expectation for men to react in anger.
As I watched the movie Inside Out, there was one scene where we are able to peer into the dad’s group of emotions working in his head. Guess who was there leading the dad’s group of emotions? Anger. This scene shows how society expects that the emotion of anger is the driving force behind men.
As I got older I began to work to control my anger as much as I could.
In order to control my feelings, I would avoid my anger in efforts to not allow it to hurt me or anyone else. Unfortunately, that meant also avoiding all other emotions that I did not understand.
My avoidance added to my emotional pattern. A pattern I call “lacking.” I was lacking in awareness and understanding of my emotions. When I was experiencing an emotion, I would not allow myself to feel the feelings out of fear of being seen as weak, less of a man, or the worst scenario, out of control.
There is a scene in Inside Out, where the daughter has bottled up all her feelings and resentment has grown towards her parents. Mainly because she was only focused on joy and no other emotions. With that focus, she had not learn to express her disappointment or sadness.
Inside her emotional mind, the characters were puzzled because the control board to send signals of emotions out is beginning to turn black and is not functioning properly. It dawns on them that her emotional mind is shutting down.
She is beginning to develop a “lacking” pattern of emotions.
This was me.
My emotional side had been shut down. I thought the only way to handle them and be a man was to hide them and avoid them. Never to express them in appropriate ways. Even if I had acknowledged them I had no idea of an appropriate way to express them.
A lot of times there was a fear of being vulnerable to potential attacks. I attribute that feeling to the abuse. Everywhere I looked I scanned for threats. Every new encounter was a potential risk for abuse. Real or imagined it didn’t matter to my mind. I had a heightened awareness of my environment, but not of myself.
Fast forward up to about 3 years ago. Two things happened that started the change that I needed to break my pattern of lacking the connection and display of my emotions.
One, I began my own personal therapy journey. I had read a number of personal development books. At that time very few were written on bettering one’s emotional intelligence (a capacity to be aware of, manage, and express one’s emotions). Therapy was the intervention I needed to help me gain better emotional intelligence.
Two, I was getting more in depth with my studies of psychology. This helped me to see how important emotional intelligence is for us as human beings. It also helped me see how important it is for our relationships.
As I continue on this journey of gaining greater emotional intelligence I have learned a few ways that have assisted me.
These are really steps that I took to gain a better understanding of my personal emotions.
I had to learn that I, as a human, experience a variety of emotions. I needed to learn about these emotions. Learn more than the basic sadness, anger, joy, etc. I wanted to learn other words used to describe my different feelings.
I started with the basics and moved into different words used to express emotion. Gloria Wilcox created a great way to help with such a task it is called “The Feeling Wheel”
The next step was to allow myself to experience the emotion. This was for me the most difficult step. In order to experience the emotion I needed to break the pattern of hiding or avoiding them.
I started first by allowing myself to experience the emotions that were invoked by movies. If I was feeling the urge to smile and be happy then I would. If I was feeling the urge to be sad or disappointed I would. If I felt the urge to tear up then I would. Even allowed myself to go into a good cry during some parts. I found that this way I could get comfortable with experiencing the emotion. Later, I would be able to experience the emotions during life situations.
The third step for me was to begin identifying the emotion I was experiencing. By identifying the emotion or emotions I am able to put together the first two steps. Referring back to the example above, if I was alone I would say the emotion/s I was experiencing out loud. If with others, I would think them. As with the first step I started with the basic emotions. Later, moved to the other identifying words. My hope was that I would be able connect the words used for emotions and the appropriate experiences.
At this point in the process it is time to choose a response. I have found that this takes some time to find the best appropriate response to the emotion. After some practice the response becomes habitual. For me, I take into account the setting and people around before I pick my appropriate response. If, I am in public it is not my best response to get angry and start yelling inaudibly. To me that is more about reacting rather than responding. Difference being that reacting is impulsive and responding requires more thought.
At this step, verbalizing comes into play. Verbalizing has been the hardest concept for me to put into practice. Truthfully, it is something that I am still working on. It truly comes down to the idea of opening myself to potential attacks during vulnerability.
Let them pass. After going through these steps, I have found that the best thing to do to end is to let the emotions pass. I have personally held on to feelings for far too long. It has truly done more bad than good.
By working to control or hold onto the emotions I have built resentment towards others. I have not allowed the full processing of emotions. For me, the feeling I normally hold onto is anger. The longer I hold onto it the more it eats at me. I have to make an active choice to let the feeling pass.
I still catch myself reacting to a situation that invokes emotion in a similar way. The difference now is that I am more aware of myself. This awareness allows me to change my reaction to my response.
I have to admit writing this piece has been one of the more vulnerable pieces for me. It took me some time to be vulnerable enough to share my experience. I look at it as a great experience of being vulnerable about myself.
Does this sound familiar? I’d love to hear of your own experiences with emotions.
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Photo: Getty Images