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Staying In Control Getting Harder? Here’s My Solution


“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

― Aldous Huxley


“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”

― Walter Cronkite


“One thing you can't hide - is when you're crippled inside.”

― John Lennon


“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

― Aldous Huxley


A client’s work recently stuck with me, and I found myself reflecting on it the following morning.


I often think of clients outside of session, but this time I felt an urgency. Or maybe it was a heightened sense of importance.


Beck* kept repeating, “why does it have to be so hard? Why does EVERYTHING have to be so damn hard??”


He was referring to his job frustrations. He was referring to his marriage. He was really referring to the difficult work of therapy.


I pointed out that he was actually having difficulty with feeling emotion.


That got his attention.


I said, “You do sometimes feel emotion. The problem is that your emotional repertoire is limited to anger. I don’t think you know that there’s anything else to be felt, much less how you would feel it.”


Why So Many Men Don’t Feel

“Emotions do not cease to exist because they are stuffed away.” ― Kevin Bergen

Why was Beck so stunted in his capacity to feel?


His dad was a military officer whose success was driven by his adherence to rules and meeting expectations. “Just the facts, ma’am.”


The more I coach men looking for a better sense of control, I’m convinced that what we teach boys about being male is stunting how they develop into mature men.


Many boys were taught, simply put, that men shouldn’t feel.


Don’t cry (don’t feel sadness). Don’t be weak (don’t feel shame). Don’t flinch (don’t feel fear).


Do be in control. Do be guarded. Do be strong.


Do. Take action.


But don’t feel.


When you can’t be in control, or you sense a threat to what you do control, then it’s okay (and sometimes expected) that you express one emotion (because it’s the only manly emotion). That emotion is anger.


When You Get Hit But Don’t Know How to Feel

“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” ― Walter Cronkite

Beck stared back at me when I had shared my theory about his relationship to emotion. He wanted to say something. He wanted to argue the point. But he knew he couldn’t argue because he was fast realizing that what I had said really did apply.


He looked almost stunned with his eyes narrowed and his mouth poised to object.


Then his eyes drifted downward as he seemed to wrestle with the validity of what he’d just heard and with his need to be in control—control over himself, control over how he appears to others, and control over his emotions.


As I reflected back on Beck’s session, my thoughts moved to “now what?” How could I coach him toward feeling? Toward growth and improvement? Toward a sense of fulfillment in his life?


It seemed for Beck that improvement would largely hinge on the quality of his relationships with people. His superiors, his coworkers, his friends, his parents, his siblings, his children, and especially his wife.


How better to focus on relationship skills than to start with his ability to relate with a wider range of emotion?


If he could access what he feels, he could express it and actually then show up with people. Only then can he give others a chance to know him. Only then can he begin to feel understood. That is the beginning of true intimacy.


So a two-step process began to formulate in my head. This is how I would help Beck develop his emotional intelligence.


Emotional Vocabulary

“One thing you can't hide - is when you're crippled inside.” ― John Lennon

First, we would build Beck’s Emotional Vocabulary. It seemed a revelation to him when I shared the five basic emotions that most other feelings can be traced to: Anger, Sadness, Happiness, Fear, and Shame.


Beck didn’t have access to these words for our basic feelings. Of course he knew the words themselves, but they hadn’t been part of his normal vocabulary. He hadn’t realized that feelings are generally referred to with one word (mad, thrilled, bummed, scared, embarrassed). He just hadn’t talked about emotion.


Another part of Emotional Vocabulary is that Beck will learn how to talk about emotion. It includes how he thinks about his own feelings. Whether it precedes discussion or happens simultaneously, he’ll have to sort out his understanding of emotion in order to talk about it.


Beck will learn to think about and discuss emotion with others. In his case, it’ll probably first be with me, then I’ll show him how to do it with his wife.


This leads to my second step for Beck, Emotional Mastery.


Emotional Mastery


This is Beck’s capacity to feel.


It’s his ability to recognize what he’s feeling.


It includes his skill to effectively express his emotions without stuffing them down or firing them off like weapons.


As Beck grows in Emotional Mastery (no one ever arrives), his confidence will increase. That’s because he won’t be fighting internally so much, so he’ll have more attention for what’s out in front of him.


He’ll grow in his sense of calm and contentment. He won’t be so distracted by his internal struggle with this universal human characteristic that we call emotion.


It’s a process, not an event

“Whatever the cost of courage, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant man.” ― Kevin Bergen

Along the way, Beck and I may point out that emotions cannot hurt him.


They may be unpleasant and even involve pain, but they cannot injure.


As he remembers this, I hope he’ll grow in his tolerance to feel his emotions.


And learn from them.


And learn with them.


Another major benefit for Beck as his Emotional Mastery grows is that his capacity for emotional intimacy will expand.


But I won’t scare him off with that just yet. He’s confused enough by emotion. I don’t think intimacy is even on his radar other than as a polite word for sex.


I’ll ease him through the turbulence of emotion, first.


Most things are best approached one small step at a time.


* ”Beck” is what I’m calling a composite character that is based on several clients. This preserves everyone’s confidentiality.

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