Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
You might remember the “strong, silent type” of guy from the movies in the 40s. He’s the self-reliant guy with the poker face that never lets anyone know how he was feeling. Instead, he was all about taking charge. Well, guess what? A lot of guys are still walking around holding in their emotions. And it’s not helping them or the people who care about them.
What about you? Or if you are a wife, what about the guy in your life?
It’s not easy opening up about your emotions when you’re a guy. I know I’m making a generalization here. Some guys have no problem talking about feelings, but it seems to me that most guys do. And I’m not just hearing that from the guys themselves. More often I’m hearing it from the women in their lives — wives , partners, children, and parents.
Here are a couple of examples. I recently spoke with the mother of a son who was diagnosed with a chronic condition that has changed his life forever. She wept as she described how her son had a lot going on emotionally, as does his father, but neither would talk about how they felt, except for occasionally getting angry. She knew they were both suffering, but she didn't know how to help them.
Another guy talked about how he doesn’t know how to talk to his wife about how she’s feeling during some difficult treatment she is receiving. He wants to “be strong for her,” and feared that, if he showed how sad he is, she “might start worrying about him.” So he avoids any talk about emotions, hers or his. I can only guess at how lonely she must feel.
This is just tragic to me. Human beings have emotions. Swallowing them or pretending they aren’t there doesn’t make them go away. And when men won’t talk about emotions, they miss out on the opportunity to connect with their loved ones, to be supportive, and to get support.
I also notice that the one emotion men are more likely to be comfortable expressing is anger. It is somehow more acceptable for men to get mad than it is for them to show how sad or how scared they are. Sure, living with a chronic condition can make you mad. But anger can also be a way to cover up — or deny — fear or sadness. And anger can put up a wall between you and everybody else.
Men often tell me they don’t talk about feelings because they don’t want to lose control of themselves, appear weak, or appear not strong for their loved ones. Here’s what I tell them:
Letting those feelings out doesn’t mean you will lose control. Actually, it’s the opposite, because feelings kept inside will build up over time. They have to go somewhere. They may cause internal stress, which can have a negative effect on your well-being, and even affect your health. Built-up emotions can lead to tension that never seems to go away, which can result in high blood pressure, heart problems, stomach issues, and other things. They can even lead to mental health conditions like depression or anxiety.
Feelings may also “leak out.” Like when you find yourself blowing up over something that normally wouldn’t bother you. Or, on the other hand, breaking down over something relatively small, and finally letting out all that sadness that may have built up.
So, if you are not so comfortable talking about feelings or are not sure how to even start, here are some ideas:
Practice using feeling words. I get the impression from some guys that they’re afraid that if they actually talked about how they’re feeling, the roof might come crashing down on them. I can pretty much guarantee that won’t happen. So give it a try. Start with something like how your day went: “I felt frustrated at work today when…” Or, “When I saw that traffic was backed up, I was worried that…” Wow, you just expressed a feeling. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
Don’t let yourself hide behind blowing up. Sometimes you’re mad because you’re mad. But other times, anger is not anger at all. Instead it’s sadness or fear that you don’t want to admit to, and so you cover those feelings up by blowing up. And if you’re feeling helpless in some way, like about the effects of your chronic condition, anger is often the go-to response. What to do about that? Ask yourself: Am I really mad about something? Or is it too hard for me to admit how I really feel? It might help to sit down and sort your feelings out with someone who can listen. And remember, anger puts a wedge between you and the people around you, at a time when you could use some support.
Don’t assume your loved ones can’t listen to how you feel. One of the biggest excuses I hear for holding in emotions is protecting other people. In the first place, they can see your feelings all over your face so, chances are, you’re not fooling anybody. And in the second place, your loved ones may not be as fragile as you think they are. Not sure if they can talk about feelings with you? How about asking? And while you’re at it, volunteer to listen to how they feel, too.
And remember: Expressing feelings is a sign of strength!