For a lot of men, it can be hard to recognize emotions that don’t fit with our self-image. So instead, we mask those feelings, calling them something else. Anger is often happy to take the blame. We don’t find it hard to say we’re angry when, for example, we are unfairly overlooked for a promotion at work or we find out a former long-term partner is now dating someone new.
Yet for many men, what’s lurking behind that tough-guy anger or aggression may be fear or sadness: emotions that can be hard to recognize, let alone admit to. Fear of getting older in a career that has now peaked, or the sadness that the person we loved has moved on are difficult feelings to reckon with. And so, we end up naming them something not quite accurate, something we understand better.
Strengthening your “emotional intelligence”—the ability to correctly recognize and emotions and express them to others—sounds simple in theory. In practice, it often isn’t.
Yet without improving our emotional intelligence, we may find our feelings tripping us up by being expressed in the wrong ways, like slamming doors in rage when really we need to sob tears of sadness. Or worse, not expressing them at all.
This isn’t just bad for our mental health, it can be detrimental to our physical health, too. A 2014 study by psychologists from the Harvard School of Public Health found that suppressing emotions may increase the risk of heart disease and certain forms of cancer. According to the research, health risks increase when people don’t express or act on their feelings appropriately.
And of course, the other risk to health lies in the behaviors that we often turn to in order to insulate ourselves from our most painful feelings.
This happened recently with a client of mine who I’ll call “Jack.” Jack is a successful entrepreneur, married for more than twenty years, with a couple of teenage kids. On the surface everything in Jack’s world is great. Yet Jack has developed a habit of visiting prostitutes several times a week. His wife doesn’t know. He leads a double life that threatens everything he has built and cares about.
Jack’s double-life places a brief, distracting bandage over his hidden and very painful feelings of loneliness. He was adopted as a baby and became an only child raised by emotionally remote parents.
My work with Jack, developing his emotional intelligence by recognizing and expressing the pain caused by his abandonment and loss, has helped him begin to heal. It hasn’t been easy, but now Jack is more able to talk about his feelings of vulnerability; his connection to his wife, family and work is rapidly improving. Importantly, he no longer needs the crutch of emotionless sex as a way to mask his feelings and get him through the week. Here are three strategies we used to help him on his journey, and that you too can use to build your emotional intelligence.
Think of It Like Going to the Gym
Developing emotional intelligence is like strengthening a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Check in every day with your feelings and, equally as important as that, talk them through with a loved one or close friend. This will help you to recognize feelings accurately. It will also improve your understanding of how others experience and feel emotions, too.
Keep a Journal
Writing about a life experience and how it made you feel is a powerful therapeutic tool for developing self-awareness. Writing helps focus the mind, plus the journal, over time, will become a rich source of material to reflect on. Being able to look back on how you felt and managed similar challenges at different times in your life will also help you see how far you’ve come.
Seek Professional Help
Naming and expressing feelings is central to the work of much counseling and psychotherapy. Talking to a therapist is often the easiest way to begin this journey, because of the safety in being able to talk to someone confidentially and without judgment. Greater self-awareness will result, and it will open the door to being able to express yourself better to the people around you.
David Waters is a New York City based coach and leads learning and development training for businesses and organizations.