Men are often lampooned for their reluctance to express the full range of emotions. “Why can’t he just tell me what he’s feeling?” Or, “I wish he wouldn’t clam up when I ask him about something emotional!”
Though it may not seem like it sometimes, men are born with limbic systems – the parts of the brain than generate emotional experience.
I’ve found that it is much easier to talk with men about their emotions when the discussion is concrete and practical. Many men benefit by talking first at the conceptual level – that is, by considering a simple definition of what an emotion is.
Here is how I’ve defined and illustrated emotions in my clinical conversations with men.
The word “emotion” comes from a Latin root (motivare) meaning “to move.” That is what emotions do. They move us to observe, to think, and to act. Emotions, therefore, are important tools in helping us respond more effectively to events in life. They direct our attention to situations that need to be addressed, and motivate us to do something about them.
ATTENTION. An emotional experience is really a sequence of events. It starts when something grabs our Attention. We see something—on the wall, in the road, on the dinner table, on a person’s face. We hear sounds—made by people, devices, machines, the natural world. We smell odors—from food, perfumes, chemicals, toxins. We are aware of being touched—by breezes, caresses, handshakes, tools. We taste things that are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. And we may intuit the presence of something that we can’t immediately identify. At virtually all times, events are occurring around us.
AROUSAL. When our Attention focuses on something that stands out from the ordinary, or is different from what we expect, our bodies react, whether we notice the reaction or not. This reaction is a physiological Arousal, and begins the emotional experience. The Arousal may influence the respiratory, digestive, circulatory, and reproductive systems; the immune and hormonal systems; muscular-skeletal activity; and the central nervous system. As a result, emotions affect the way we stand, sleep, sit, look, eat, sound, breathe, or move. Some emotions speed us up through the sympathetic nervous system (pupils widen, heart pumps rapidly, breathing rate increases, digestion slows, skin perspires, blood sugar elevates). Other emotions slow us down through the parasympathetic nervous system (heart and breathing rates slow, blood sugar lowers, salivation and digestion are stimulated). Typically, we can explain our Arousal with a single emotion word, such as angry, sad, happy, afraid, etc.
APPRAISAL. The Arousal leads to an Appraisal of the event that has caught our attention. When we are aroused by an emotion, we want to comprehend it, interpret it, or clarify it. Is this a problem I need to address? Do I need to do something right now? Am I at risk? The appraisal can be made immediately or deliberatively. Even when the Arousal is intense (very angry or afraid), we try to “make sense” of the situation, so that we will know what to do.
ACTION. The emotion sequence continues when the Appraisal of a situation leads to an adaptive response—an Action. In effect, emotions are tools that assist us in adapting more effectively to our behavior or our surroundings. The point here is crucial: All emotions have a purpose, a function. To illustrate, when used well, anger motivates us to challenge barriers to some appropriate goal we want to reach. Sadness motivates us to seek support or comfort from someone else, thus reducing our distress. The purpose of fear is to motivate us to respond protectively to pain or threat. Disgust moves us to avoid things that are unhealthy or risky. So emotions energize us to adapt more skillfully to the ever-changing situations of life.
Example. Consider the sudden appearance of a large furry object on a mountain trail, an event that captures our Attention. Our heart pounds, and blood protectively flows to the torso; we are Aroused. We might call this emotion fear. Then comes an attempt to Appraise the situation. This might be a bear, and it is large. Perhaps hungry. What are my options? Freeze? Fight? Climb a tree? Offer food? Finally, we take the most adaptive Action we can manage—hopefully one that preserves both lives.
Here is what I’ve found in my clinical consultations with men: When a man develops a a conceptual understanding of emotions as being useful, constructive, and practical (along the lines of the cascade described above, or a similar approach), they become more willing to talk about their emotions.
Inviting men to express emotions is not about getting them “to cry like women do.” It’s about helping them develop skills at recognizing physiological signals of emotions (their own and others), and then finding language to convey those emotions safely and constructively to others. This process can be launched by something as simple as a practical definition of what emotional experience actually is. This process can improve a man’s overall mood and outlook, his productivity, his relational experiences, his very enjoyment of life.
It’s never to late to activate a long-ignored limbic system…