4 ways to practice understanding how you feel

(photo by photoexplorer via FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Men often get criticized for not being in touch with their emotions.  As we’ve written elsewhere, about how to start a gratitude practice, men get taught to “man up” and “suck it up” instead of dealing with the difficult emotions.  “Men live from the neck up,” the American poet Robert Bly said in Bill Moyer’s 1990 PBS series, “A Gathering of Men” (highly recommended).  Or perhaps:  men live from the neck up and the waist down.  For some reason all this reminds me of the bad guy, T-1000, in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991).  Near the end of the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character shoots T-1000 in the belly with a shotgun and leaves a gaping, metal-rimmed hole.  Being a man, it’s like that – life’s downers can rip gaping holes in our emotional cores, yet we hardly know the wounds exist.  Let alone how to heal them.

Men seem to have lost a vital part of community.  Gone are the days when men would gather in the afternoons around cars and share stories along with their mechanical expertise.  Now, it seems like most socializing takes place with alcohol and watching sports and commercials on television.  Nothing against having a drink or watching football, but let’s face it – when you’ve got a real problem in your life – shooting the sh*t about a quarterback only takes the edge off for twenty minutes or so.

Yet we don’t move forward with our problems – a major breakup; loss of a loved one; struggling with or failing in your job; suffering from anxiety or depression – no, we grab another beer and hope it will work itself out.  If we don’t practice talking about our feelings – of course I’m generalizing – and if we lacked good male examples of how to be strong but also emotionally mature, then is it surprising that men have little sense of their inner barometers?

If you want to do some emotional weightlifting, there are two pieces:  cultivating your awareness of feelings, and expanding your vocabulary.  First you need to know how you feel.  Then can you practice talking about it.

For cultivating emotional awareness, one approach is mindfulness meditation.  You can set aside some time each day in which you focus on querying yourself in the moment.  During the meditation, you might silently ask yourself, “How am I feeling?”  Or, “I’m feeling a pressure in my belly when I think about my boss’s email.  Where’s that coming from?”  For more on this approach, check out sections on emotional awareness in Gil Fronsdal’s The Issue At Hand, Fronsdal’s recent podcast on the topic here, or Thich Nhat Hanh’s Transformation and Healing.  These teachings are accessible, practical, and compatible with any belief system, whether you have one or not.

Another approach is to write every day in a journal.  The important part is to give yourself permission to write about anything.  Having a fixed amount of time (e.g., twenty minutes) or length (e.g., three pages) also helps by giving you enough of a hurdle to get into some emotional grist.  On these pages you can complain, rant, explore, celebrate, or share whatever else you feel energy towards in that moment.  Julia Cameron’s life-affirming book, The Artist’s Way, explains her version of this practice called Morning Pages.

A third approach is contemplative prayer.  If your primary frame of reference is religious, you can use the stillness during prayer to ask yourself questions about your feelings like, “How am I feeling right now?”, or, “Why did I just lose it when my kid starting crying?”  You can ask yourself or God for answers to these questions, and then explore any new directions that result.  A good starting point (from a Christian perspective, but generalizable) is Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer or David Steindl-Rast’s Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer.

Then there’s talking.  How do you talk about emotions?  You need a vocab.  When I started sorting out my emotions seven or eight years ago, I needed more colors than just the bold primaries of “good” and “sad,” and more specifics than the vague dodges like “okay” and “alright.”  It’s also helpful to have a framework for how to share what you feel, explore why you think you feel that way, ask others how they feel, and then skillfully ask someone to change their behavior, even in tense situations.

A great introduction to such a framework is Marshal Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: a Language of Life.  It’s very clearly written with many examples throughout, and Rosenberg’s credentials are rock-solid as a seasoned conflict resolution expert.  I’ve worked slowly with the ideas of his book over the last six years or so.  Over time it’s helped me be more specific about how I feel so that I can share that with my loved ones and close friends.

The book includes long lists of emotion categories and examples of each.  To help me remember the categories, I created some quirky acronyms:  GRAPE CHI JEEp for the emotions when my needs are being met (Grateful, Refreshed, Affectionate, Peaceful, …).  And, A FATS PADDY CAVE for when they’re not (Afraid, Fatigued, Angry, Tense, …).  For instance, when I don’t know how I’m feeling other than “bad”, I sit down with my acronym and rattle the categories off – am I feeling Afraid?  Fatigued?  Angry?  Etc.  I confess that sometimes it takes me days to pinpoint the emotion.

Readers, let me hear from you:  Have you tried these mindfulness or communication practices?  If yes, how did they work for you?  If you’ve known about them but haven’t tried them, why not?  Are there other resources that you would like to share?

How do you find the words to talk about your feelings with peers?  With your partner or spouse?  With older or younger folks?

6 thoughts on “4 ways to practice understanding how you feel

Add yours

  1. yes, thank you! To your comment — *intentionally quiet* is key! We need to encourage each other to protect more time to listen to those feelings of the heart!


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