Once again, I’m inspired to write about a topic raised by a few of my coaching clients this week, the F word.
The word that makes some of us open up wanting more and makes some of us close down, running in the opposite direction. Feelings.
🎶 🎶 “Feelings, nothing more than feelings, trying to forget my feelings of love…” 🎶 🎶
If you know this song you’re probably over 50. I remember listening to this song on the radio as a teen. They played it endlessly until we were all parodying it to each other. Back then I thought it was pretty sappy, but Albert Morris was a man brave enough to sing about lost love, tears rolling down his face, and his feelings
This is a time of feelings. Feelings about COVID, being in isolation, watching others struggle with challenge and even death. We’ve all been driven deep into our feelings about the world at large, politics, uncertainty, domestic tension, but sharing our feelings with each other is not always easy depending on our upbringing.
I’m going to generalize about genders here and preface it by saying that I don’t like gender clichés, but I also hear many of my female clients over the years repeat the same frustration with their male partners, so let’s talk about it.
Men are not raised in our society to talk about their feelings. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have them. We’re all human beings and having feelings is part of being human. The difference in genders has a lot to do with how we’re raised, starting from the get go.
We all know what happens when a little girl falls down and scrapes her knee. She’s comforted, allowed to cry, she’s held and empathized with. She’s encouraged in this way to express her feelings in the safety of an accepting caregiver.
But when a little boy hurts himself, its all, “come on son, get up, shake it off, no need for tears. It’s hardly a scratch” from the adults around them. And their peers will support that with name calling like sissy and baby. What we’re saying to that little boy is in fact, their feelings are ‘wrong’. They’re overacting and being too dramatic. What they hear is that their feelings are best kept hidden for fear of being ridiculed and shamed.
This is where the shaming begins and it continues throughout every part of a boy’s life. We want our boys to be strong but we make the horrible mistake of associating the suppression of feelings with strength and the display of vulnerability with weakness.
We set up our boys to grow into men who are unable to access their feelings because they’ve had little or no experience in learning how to show them or talk about them with adults or their peers. Their emotional intelligence has been stunted because of our cultural discomfort with male vulnerability.
Women are trained to express their feelings. We huddle in the playground to talk about boys, we pour our feelings into our diaries, we watch our mothers chat with their friends for hours. We learn how to be vulnerable even when it’s uncomfortable for fear of being shunned in our sharing circles. We learn to hold space for sad friends. It’s safe for us to cry over a movie or a heartbreak.
Now bring these alternatively trained, emotionally suppressed men into relationship with a woman who has been trained differently and you have a massive disconnect that leads many relationships down the road to frustration, misunderstandings and breakups.
Women enter a relationship looking for the kind of emotional sharing they got from their female friends and men come in with a desire to be seen as a strong and reliable protector who won’t fall to pieces if he falls down and scraps his knee.
But not only does emotional suppression lead to relationship problems, it can often lead to depression, which is recognized now as unexpressed feelings of sadness.
Expressing our feelings and feeling safe to do so is necessary for our mental health, regardless of gender.
Is it any wonder that our world is filled with violence in and out of the home.
It’s not the fault of the boys or the men they grew up to be. But healing can happen in relationships when we learn how to bridge the feelings gap between men and women.
So what I’m going to suggest can be applied to any emotional disconnect regardless of gender.
If you’re going to invite your partner to open up and talk about their feelings, it’s up to you to create a safe place for them to do that.
By safety I mean, a conversational space where they can trust that they won’t be shut down, belittled, criticized, made light of or talked out of what they’re feeling.
You can lay the ground rules for sharing feelings which are:
Feelings are not accusations, finger pointing, or blaming
Your feelings are your responsibility
Your feelings are about you not anyone else
No one can ‘make’ you feel a certain way
Feelings are inherently vulnerable
Angry feelings are always an overlay for a feeling that’s harder to express and a need that not being met. Dig deeper.
In order for your partner to share their feelings, they need to trust that it’s safe to do so, and trust isn’t built in one conversation. It’s built over time with many little experiences in which their feelings are welcomed and met without reactions that drive them back into hiding.
Feelings are not a flat tire, or anything broken that needs to be fixed.
If you’re listening to your partner share their feelings and all the while you’re thinking about how you can fix it so they no longer have to experience those feelings, you’re missing the opportunity to build trust.
Feelings are real and true, no matter what they are. If you’re judging the feelings or assessing their validity, you’re not building trust.
If you’re jumping in with your own story about having those feelings and interrupting their vulnerable sharing, you’re not building trust.
If you’re secretly discounting the impact of those feelings on your partner, you’re not truly listening to them and they can feel it. You’re not building trust.
If you’re building an argument to defend yourself or counter your partner’s feelings with your own, you’re not building trust.
If after your partner shared their feelings, you then you use that confession against them in the future, you’re saying that it’s not safe to be honest, and you’re not building trust.
If your partner usually ends up feeling criticized about not sharing their feelings, you’re training them to avoid the topic, and you’re not building trust.
Building trust with your partner in a way that makes them feel like their feelings are safe with you is pretty simple actually. It’s listening until they’re done, making empathetic statements, like “that must be hard to feel that, I understand what you’re saying and why you’d feel that way”. That’s it.
Give them the time it takes them to express what they want to say.
If you’re not sure if more needs to be said, you can ask, “is there anything else you’d like to say about that?” And then wait.
Sometime a patient, sympathetic question can open another door for them to explore. If the conversation ends with “I don’t want to talk about that anymore.” Then you know it’s time to change the subject and honor the fact that they have met their capacity in that moment.
When your partner shows the courage to extend themselves vulnerably and share their feelings, let them hear your appreciation and acceptance.
“Thank you for sharing all that”. Which will be translated as, “I love you. I respect you. Our relationship is safe.”
By seeing the positive results of their efforts, they begin to associate the sharing of feelings with a reward of appreciation rather than ridicule and shaming.
Fixes, shared experiences, helpful suggestions can all come later. For now, you’ve met your partner’s feelings with respect and you’ve helped build more trust that their feelings are safe with you in the future.
This is how partner’s help to heal each other, by giving each other an experience of safety that they may have never gotten in the past.
At this time when there’s so much to feel, create a safe place for your partner’s soft vulnerable feelings of fear, sadness, grief, to flow out in words before they become hardened expressions of anger, depression and withdrawl.
🎶 🎶 “Feelings… wo wo wo feelings… wo wo wo feelings… again in my heart…” 🎶 🎶
Behind every man (and woman) who was raised to become ‘the strong silent type’ is a small boy (girl) who believes that being vulnerable is dangerous.
Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’
– Brené Brown
Stay well and love deeply,
Sometimes we all need a little help with love, sex, and desire…
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