Boys my boys,
I’ve been hesitant to write this letter. This is such an important topic and I fear I won’t do it the justice it deserves. Hopefully I can convey half of what is in my head.
Unfortunately there is a lot of garbage out there about men and emotions. While I can’t prevent you from being exposed to this nonsense, I can attempt to set the record straight.
First, let’s start with the obvious: everybody has feelings. From little girls to burley, flannel-wearing men. Feelings are part of what it means to be human. Your emotions are not the enemy (although there will be times where it feels like they are). You cannot avoid your feelings (although there will be times that you try).
Your Feelings Aren’t a Choice
The sooner you accept your emotions as part of you human experience the better your life will be. Your feelings are part of your humanity. Like all other human qualities they have the potential to be beneficial or harmful.
Now, I don’t mean beneficial in that it feels good to be happy and I don’t mean harmful in that it feels bad to be sad. Finding the benefits from your emotions is learning to integrate them into your life. The harm that can develop from your emotions is from the distortion they can create.
Since feelings don’t always feel good and because they bring with them an element of harm, you’ll be tempted to find ways to avoid them. However, if you attempt to shut off the “bad” feelings, you’ll quickly learn that doing so comes at a price. You’ll discover that the flow of emotions is an all or nothing proposition. If you “turn off” the “bad”, you’ll also be turning off all the “good” as well.
As you numb the “bad” feelings, you’ll discover that you won’t find the happiness you once found in activities that used to be meaningful to you. Since these things are no longer bringing you joy, you’ll lose motivation for them; potentially cut yourself off from other people and generally lose touch with your emotions. This will leave you with an emptiness you don’t know how to fill. Shutting off your emotions will lead to depression.
The other danger when it comes to avoiding emotions if seeking out pacifiers. Believing that pacifiers will help you cope with the “negative” side of the emotional spectrum. These pacifiers are effective, but only in the short term. Drugs and alcohol can help you forget about a bad day at work, but it doesn’t actually solve anything. The problems at work still exist even after a night of drinking.
Oftentimes, pacifiers will compound whatever problems you may already have. At the very least, pacifiers prevent your feelings from doing their job (I’ll get back to this) and prevent you from learning the necessary tools to cope with your feelings.
Some other examples of pacifiers are: watching TV, playing video games, shopping (consumption), unhealthy relationships, etc. This is not to say all of these things are bad, its just important to determine if you using these things to pacify (cover up) your emotions.
So far this sounds like a pretty raw deal. Your stuck with these feelings, some of which will be “good” and others will be “bad”. You don’t get to choose them, they are just part of the package. And all attempts to mitigate the negative emotions you may feel comes with terrible consequences. Is there any good news?
Feelings Aren’t Right or Wrong
Good news might be an overstatement. However, there is an alternative perspective. You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been putting “good” and “bad” in quotes up until this point.
The reason for this is that feelings really aren’t good or bad. They are just reactions to what is happening around you. If I pinch you, it hurts. The pain you feel isn’t good and it isn’t bad. It is just what happens when you get pinched. You likely won’t enjoy the pain, but that doesn’t make it innately bad.
This is a tough sell. How can pain not be bad? To answer that question, let’s imagine you get appendicitis. You wake up in the middle of the night with a sharp pain in your abdomen. Convinced you are going to die, you rush to the hospital.
After explaining the symptoms to the doctor, she pokes around your belly causing excruciating waves of pain to course through your body. She informs you that you have appendicitis. What happens next?
She gives you a strong painkiller so that the pain subsides. Then writes you a prescription for more painkillers and sends you home. Problem solved. Right?
Of course not. If pain were the problem, then this would be the appropriate course of action. But pain isn’t the problem, appendicitis is the problem and she’d likely schedule an emergency appendectomy. Not only is pain not the problem, your ability to feel the pain is what saved your life.
Feelings Are Just Information
Okay, so if feelings aren’t good or bad, what exactly are they? They are simply information. When you feel something, either physically or emotionally, it is just trying to tell you something. It is up to you to listen to what it is saying.
When you see your emotions as information rather than good or bad, you open yourself up to learn from them. Shutting out, pacifying, or any other form of avoiding your feelings prevents you from listening to them and learning from them.
Your feelings can be sage advisors if you allow them to be. However, when we feel discomfort or pain, our instinct is to end it as quickly as possible. I’m advocating that you first figure out what lesson it is trying to teach you. I’m not advocating you wallow in your pain.
How You Respond to Your Feelings Is Your Choice
When you are faced with difficult feelings, you must first resist the urge to categorize them as bad or wrong. Then you must remind yourself that this feeling, while unpleasant is just trying to convey information. The next challenge is figuring out how to interpret that information and come up with an appropriate response.
I recently wrote about the lessons I learned from my father’s death. These lessons were taught to me by my grief. If I had chosen to avoid or pacify this grief, I wouldn’t have learned these lessons. Had I chosen to categorize my grief as “bad” I would have likely felt sorry for myself rather than listen to what the feelings had to teach me.
You don’t get to choose your feelings. You do get to choose how you respond when those feelings show up. And how you respond will make a dramatic difference in your life.
Mastering Your Emotions
Think of your feelings as an invisible pair of glasses you are always wearing. They are either helping you decipher the world around you with clarity or distorting it. When you are an adolescent, these glasses are perpetually out of focus. Leaving you with a distorted image of your world. Yet you are expected to navigate that same world with some degree of maturity.
When you take the time to listen and learn from your feelings you are not only becoming more mature, you are developing mastery over you emotions. Rather than being lead around by your emotional whims, you are the one doing the leading.
If you don’t listen to what your emotions are telling you, then you risk living with a distorted view of the world. Emotions are wise teachers, but they are also enigmatic. It won’t always be easy to decipher the lessons you can learn from them. However, it will get easier with practice.
I had hoped to convey about half of what was in my head and I think I may have just hit that mark. I feel like there is a lot more to say on this subject, but I’ll leave that for future letters. Hopefully this gets you started on your journey to maturity and self-awareness.