It’s ok to cry, and not to cry, says psychologist Esslin Terrighena.
We are increasingly nudging men to show more emotion, to talk about their feelings, and to indulge in a newly-granted permission to embrace their softer side, while reassuring them that being “weak” – code for sad or fearful – is actually a sign of strength. Heaven forbid you could lose some of your rough-edged manliness over those few tears you shed when Simba’s lion daddy died.
For centuries, we have been told that male and female brains are wired differently: women talk, men act. Eventually, socialization effects were acknowledged: women talk, men act, because this is what society prescribes. Indeed, studies show that when gender stereotypes are deliberately counter-acted, men and women report similar types and complexities of emotional experience.
Yet the media still tell us that men are not only scared to, but intrinsically less able to, feel. Society implies that tears are for girls, but then again that women like men who cry – as if male tears are the key to enigmatic female minds. Whimsical rules arise and disappear. Can you cry when your mother dies, because that is what “real men” do? How about if you’re stressed at work or had an argument with a mate? It poses the puzzling question, how does one really get in touch with their feelings?
It must be a baffling time for men. Experiencing the full spectrum of emotions is a wonderful concept, but men have been trained for generations to suppress feelings of “weakness” lest they get in the way of “rational” solutions. Now society lifts the invisible ban and suddenly we expect men to go from nil to a hundred in gooey talk and embrace this new device “emotion” without handing them so much as a manual. This approach also doesn’t take into account that getting in touch with your feelings is not a blanket solution because different things work for different people.
Here’s a more practical approach: improve your emotional literacy. Emotions have evolved because they contain information that guides rapid understanding of our current situation, thereby enhancing our chances of survival in the face of danger. There are seven basic emotions: joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust and contempt, however, we experience a much greater depth than these simple labels suggest. We also have the tendency to describe feelings as actions (‘I feel taken advantage of’) rather than adjectives (‘I feel sad’).
Emotions are tricky. Pre-bungee jump, are you nervous, excited, proud, scared, regretful, numb…? Psychologists use word-flashcards to train individuals to refine their emotional vocabulary. Naming the feelings we experience can be practised several times a day: pause and make a deliberate “I feel” statement. Specific emotion labelling is an excellent tool to identify discomfort, determine the source of the problem, and take action to fix it with an effective, lasting solution. This process has been scientifically shown to improve stress resistance, increase productivity, and play a crucial role in successful communication in work and personal relationships.
So honestly, you do not have to jump on board the get-in- touch-with-your-mushy-feelings rollercoaster, but we could all do with improving our emotional communication.
Esslin Terrighena is a psychologist with the passion for guiding people towards stepping out of their struggles and hopping onto the path to greater well-being, using a holistic mix of cognitive-behavioural, emotion-focused and meditative strategies. She also enjoys a healthy bit of cynicism, backpacking adventures, smoky whiskey and helping men and women rise above their miscommunications.