In this article, I want to share my journey on overcoming my fears of discovering my true feelings.
I share my story and my journey in the hopes of inspiring other men (and others) to consider the price we pay for locking our emotions, using generationally passed modes of behavior that result in so much emotional damage, and end up harming our closest and most loved relationships.
In this article, I talk about the following topics:
- How boys and men are taught to lock their emotions and feelings
- Defense mechanisms commonly used against feeling real feelings
- Dangers we face in repressing our true feelings
- How we are taught to repress our feelings from generation to generation
- How to move from repressing true feelings to discovering them
Boys and Men are Taught to Lock Emotions and Feelings
Often, men (including me, in my past) are described as inaccessible, repressed or blocked.
The image of a man with locked emotions is universal.
In fact, many of the world’s greatest myths and legends, both in the East and West, point to the journey a man takes towards freeing himself and others from fears and monsters; only to overcome grave, life-threatening obstacles to transcend, transform, and return a Hero.
Call it what you want; but it’s a universal and common cultural phenomenon amongst men to deny, fake, resist and repress their emotional experience. The repercussions of this are vast.
Men are taught, moreover indoctrinated, by cultural standards imposed at the earliest ages to repress their feelings. Furthermore, generational standards of behavior are imposed and passed down from grandfathers to fathers to sons and grandsons; and from our uncles, coaches, teachers, and friends.
Not only are we taught to fake or fudge our emotions, but we are also often taught that even having feelings of whatever kind is not allowed.
A malfunctioning form of Stoicism is often the result.
Defense Mechanisms Against Feeling Real Feelings
Ask a man if he even wants to try to feel his true feelings and he commonly says, “Heck no! Why would I want to do that?”
That was me. I was terrified of my own feelings. I realize now we are all terrified of our feelings.
We are terrified because we simply don’t know what our emotions are, how to feel them, how to process them and contextualize them (and thus, don’t know how to fix them, and you know how us guys feel when we can’t fix things).
We don’t know what will happen if we examine our emotions; maybe the entire world we have constructed will come tumbling down and we will be annihilated by them.
Will the emotions overtake us and run away with our lives?
Will I end up in a pool of tears with my friends, family, and loved ones pointing and laughing at me?
Will I be forever seen as weak, ineffective, soft, impotent?
Here’s another key truth, and I know you can relate to this: there’s a large part of us that just wants to be annihilated or disappear anyway.
That’s why we smoke, drink, gamble, take up adrenaline high-risk sports, escape in TV, watch porn, and the list goes on…
Because the pain we feel inside is SO great and because we are so afraid of what the truth of our being wants to say to us that we will distract ourselves with ANYTHING to get away from it.
Anything. Yes, Anything.
Dangers of Repressing True Feelings
As men grow older, these defense mechanisms become more entrenched, more refined, deeply ingrained, and unfortunately, they begin to have devastating consequences.
Studies have shown the repression of emotions can cause anxiety, stress, depression and can manifest physically as pain, loss of sleep, fatigue, digestive issues, and increases risk of death by cardiovascular disease and cancer.
And what do they fear the most?
Feeling the breadth and depth of their emotions.
Generational/ Inherited Fear of Discovering True Feelings
In my case, growing up, my father was a sensitive person, but I could never access him.
In hindsight, I have a ton of compassion for him as he couldn’t even access himself and he was shut down. When my father was 12 years old, he witnessed his father getting kicked by a horse. This happened during wartime and unfortunately, there weren’t doctors available to tend to my grandfather because the soldiers were a priority.
Sadly, my grandfather died in my father’s arms from internal bleeding. So began the block of deep trauma and unhealed emotions that my father suffered.
Isn’t it uncanny that my father then sent me away to boarding school when I was just 12 years old?
That’s when the pattern began in me! Perhaps, because my father was so inaccessible, I pushed him away myself and in turn, shut down my feelings of longing to be closer to him.
Using Sports to Stop Discovering True Feelings
It may seem healthy on the outside when boys often throw themselves into sports. But, while sports may be great outlets for emotions, they are also perfect places for boys and men to escape.
For me, it was swimming. From the age of 8, I started swimming every night. By the time I was 12, I was a competitive athlete. At one point, I was number 1 in the world for performance and was on the French National Swimming Team. I was an Olympic hopeful.
In hindsight, I recognize that in some ways, swimming was also a distraction from my emotions.
As I was looking at the Olympics at 17 years old, I suddenly quit as I also had a great fear of success. And, once I didn’t have swimming to distract myself from my feelings, I discovered pot, and soon that became my great escape to avoid discovering my true feelings.
What Hiding True Feelings Does to a Man
As I lived a very successful outward life, here is what I began to understand:
- I couldn’t communicate.
- I couldn’t tell anyone how I was feeling because I didn’t know.
- I lived with an existential feeling of wanting to disappear.
- I wanted to just check out… through anything possible: smoking cigarettes, drinking, and more.
While I was, and continue to be a very healthy person, I still wanted to disappear. I was in constant pain in my stomach. It’s like there was a secret wish to destroy myself, but without the desire to commit suicide.
My world was either black or white: I was either sad or happy and because I didn’t want to be sad, I often pretended I was happy even when I was sad… all the while not having any language for the complexity of my emotions and so I just kept finding ways to escape.
As life went on, I was honestly in a lot of pain.
I was married for 30 years, had 3 beautiful sons, and I still was in pain. I had a lot of opportunities come my way with business and work, and a lot of the time, I avoided them because of the pain.
And, I didn’t know why. I was just in pain.
Moving From Fear Into Discovering True Feelings
Then, I met my second wife. Because I trusted her so much and because she made me feel safe, I was willing to tell her how lost I was when she asked me, “How are you feeling and what’s happening?”
I was terrified because I didn’t have any answers for her. It was honestly her unconditional love for me and belief in me that got me to take the leap and walk the plank from Fear into Feelings.
It was a lot of work but once I took the leap, I continued on this journey with therapy, workshops, books, and coaching.
Here are some of activities that helped break the barriers to my true feelings:
- Couples Therapy – our therapist encouraged my wife and I to take the MMS Coach Training program
- Worshops that helped unlock barriers within me. For example, the Hold Me Tight Workshop and the Inner Negotiation Workshop
- And, books, lots and lots of books. Some of my continuing favorites include: Triggers: How we can stop Reacting and Start Healing by David Richo; You Are Not What You Think by David Richo; Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brow; and, Self Compassion by Kristin Neff
And, I also became a Certified Executive Coach and began to coaching others on their journeys!
Honestly, the best way to learn is to teach, and the coaching process has helped me internalize and live what I had learned.
I’ll admit, it hasn’t been an easy road.
Once I was able to access and name my feelings, I got way into my head. I started rationalizing and analyzing my feelings and I was in pain again. I needed to learn some new tools!
Active Dealing with Uncomfortable Feelings
There are many situations when I start feeling uncomfortable with my feelings. These are situations that could trigger my feelings, make me feel overwhelmed, or extremely uncomfortable.
Here are some techniques I use in each of these situations.
- Triggered – I slow things down and be gentle with myself and take time to identify where it comes from
- Overwhelmed – I create personal space for me to be with my feelings, sit and settle before I get back to the world
- Uncomfortable – I let the feelings come without judging them and I find my way to feel and express them.
I treat my feelings like clouds in the sky just passing by.
Sometimes feelings stick around for a bit and then I give myself time to be with that emotion.
If, for example I’m feeling sad and I keep feeling it, I might take more time to be with the emotion but if it’s something transient, I now know it will just pass.
Benefits of Taking the Risk to Understand Feelings
Here are the tue benefits of taking the risk and getting to know the entire breadth of feelings I can have:
- I’m not in pain for nothing, every single day
- I’m not in fear
Before I was in pain from any kind of trigger: where I felt abandoned, misunderstood, alone, different. Instead of feeling that feeling, I would have rather disappeared.
Now it’s rare that I feel those feelings… I realized those feelings were amplified because I was overcompensating with feeling good when really, I wasn’t feeling good.
I’m closer to myself because I can feel and express my feelings and then because I can communicate with my wife, I’m closer to her. I’m also closer to my wife because I can feel her love and I also love myself.
Now when I don’t feel her love it’s not about her or her love for me, it’s not about me needing something, but instead, finding a way to accept my uncomfortable emotions around things that aren’t often permanent.
The benefit is that I’m not in pain.
And, I’m not pretending to be anything other than who and what I am, and I want to be here now.