Nothing defines us more than a full and unguarded expression of our emotions. They reveal private and personal information about us. As Dr Sandra Scott says, it’s no wonder that at times, we have have difficulty expressing them freely.
Ultimately our fear is of the consequences of showing our emotions – how will people react? Some men can feel under the additional burden of believing that displaying their emotions will make them appear less masculine. They can feel emotionally trapped by traditional ‘macho images’. These images seem to dictate that some emotions are ‘feminine’ such as fear, anxiety and sadness – and that these can only be shown in restricted measures.
If showing our emotions leaves us feeling exposed and vulnerable, then why do it? There are two main incentives to do so; the first is the effect on us and the second is the effect on our personal lives.
Releasing our emotions can act as a safety valve – relieving inner tensions, like steam out of a kettle. It relieves the pressure of holding them in or disguising them. Guarded emotions in a relationship can lead to misunderstandings about how you’re really feeling. Lack of visible emotions can be taken as a lack of feeling.
This situation can certainly hinder a successful relationship. What can be done? For people in real difficulty there are steps they can take to help themselves.
Step 1 – clarify the problem
Your difficulty showing your emotions may not affect you all the time. On close reflection, you may find it’s primarily triggered in certain situations or environments, or when you’re with certain people. If this is the case, then this is the area you should be focusing on. Clarifying this can also help with the next step.
Step 2 – understand how your problems started
You may not always have been this way, and your problem could have begun with a key incident in your past. Bad experiences can lead to the development of fearful beliefs about the future – fears the past will be repeated if we act the same way again.
It’s these fears that hold back our emotions. For example, a man who is ridiculed by a friend for crying may feel he couldn’t possibly cry in front of that friend again, for fear of receiving the same criticism again. This, in itself, is quite understandable and not an unreasonable response. The difficulty is that our defence mechanisms tend to go further than necessary and become generalised. So this same man might feel he couldn’t display any real emotions to any male friends – or possibly to anybody at all. If you can identify a key trigger in your past, then your actions can be rationalised and challenged more easily.
Step 3 – set goals
Your goals for change need to be realistic. People are all different and some are more naturally demonstrative than others. There’s no absolute right or wrong way. There’s no point trying to be a Mediterranean type when you’re more of a Scandinavian in nature. Aim for something that feels comfortable for you. Remember it’s not always appropriate to give full reign to your emotions so again aim for something you can live with.
Step 4 – get started
Don’t expect to change overnight. Changing ingrained ways of behaving can take time; go slowly and pace yourself. Make yourself feel as secure as possible when you begin. For example, don’t start off by trying to show emotion at work – choose an environment when you feel safe with people you trust. Gently allow yourself to test out your emotions.
Challenge your beliefs about the bad things that might happen if you show your emotions. Start by arguing with yourself about what you think might happen – ask yourself if it’s really true, whether it could really happen, and whether there are any other possible outcomes.
When you feel ready, test out changing your behaviour and see what really happens. Analyse this honestly and be guided by it. With time, move yourself on, test yourself more and more. This will lessen your fears and help you make progress.
Step 5 – accept your limitations
Be realistic and accept that in some cases you may never be as free with your emotions as you would like to be, but change at least brings you closer to your goals. Also remember that not showing emotions doesn’t mean you don’t have them. There are other ways to communicate how you feel to the people around you. For example, what you do, what you say and your body language, are all good ways to get feelings across without having to spell out your emotions. If you’re limited in one area, then rely more on others.