Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Will Meek, PhD. - Men and Emotions

Dr. Will Meek is a licensed psychologist in the state of Washington, and he is currently employed as the director of Counseling Services at Washington State University Vancouver. He has a private counseling practice in Vancouver, WA, and resides in Portland, Oregon. His site, Psychology of Men, offers some great info on men and masculinity.

This entry on men and emotions comes from his site. His section on processing emotions is consistent with the neuroscience, which is rare among therapists (who often confuse feelings and emotions).

As you have read in the masculine identity section, restricting emotions is a staple of traditional masculinity. This is also a central source of gender role conflict, since not having access to emotions, or processing them in healthy ways, can create a variety of negative consequences for people. The following is an overview about emotions, and some ideas on how to work with them in healthier ways.

Emotions 101
Emotions are essentially feeling states that have important and often complex information about our life experience. The English language limits the understanding of emotions since there are only a finite amount of words to identify these experiences. The actual human emotional experience does not fit nicely into boxes, and many emotional experiences are combinations of emotions that do not have names. However, there are a variety of theories that attempt to identify what would be considered “primary” or “basic” emotions that are categories of feelings that all other emotions fall into. A very basic example would be the following four primary emotions and their related states:

Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is the term used to describe how well someone understands and uses their emotions for healthy living. Overall, an emotionally intelligent person knows that emotions can be a signal to oneself, a motivator for action, a relationship monitor, and a signal to others. Asking yourself why your body experiences certain emotions can be one of the most powerful questions you can ask, since each will have a specific purpose. See the examples for the primary emotions below, again this is an incomplete description, since they can function in more nuanced ways for every person:

-ANGER: increase vigor during a competition, communicate displeasure, defend against attack
-SADNESS: recognize a loss or disruption, makes us to create meaning from life events
-FEAR: helps identify and respect a threat, avoid danger, and seek safety
-JOY: reinforces action and recognize positive outcomes

Processing Emotions
This model can be a framework for understanding the human emotional experience in five steps. Recent research on male emotional restrictiveness has encouraged use of this to understand the variety of levels that men can change their relationship to these feelings. It was originally developed by Kennedy-Moore & Watson.

1. Prereflexive Action: An event creates an automatic feeling that is due to a physiological change within the body.

2. Awareness: We become aware of the physical sensation. Problems arise when we ignore the feeling or deny its existence. Ask yourself: What am I feeling? What are the symptoms?

3. Labeling: We give a name to the feeling we are experiencing. Problems arise when we do not name them appropriately, or have an emotion vocabulary. Instead, we use words like “upset”, “bad”, or “weird”. To help, look at the above chart or emotions, name the one (or more) that you are having, and then rate how strong it is on a 1-10 scale.

4. Interpretation: We draw conclusions about what occurred to produce the feeling. Problems arise here when the cause is not acknowledged, there is a lack of attention to possible causes, or when there is a misattribution. When this is true, we say things like “I have no idea why I am feeling this way”, place the cause on something that doesn't truly connect to the feeling, or blame another state, such as being “tired”. Ask yourself: What really caused the feeling?

5. Evaluation: We evaluate the feeling as being acceptable or unacceptable based on the situation, personal identity, personal history, and cultural expectations. Problems arise here when we view an emotion as unacceptable, or a reaction to something illegitimate. I promote the philosophy that all emotions are acceptable and valid signals of something that is happening, or are an understandable reaction to something.

6. Decision: We make a decision to take action in response to the cause of the feeling (such as expressing it, or doing something related to the perceived cause), tolerate the feeling without taking action, or seek relief from it by other methods (redirecting attention, artificially changing how we feel, using a defense mechanism, etc). Problems arise here when there are real or perceived limitations on expression, fear of “losing control”, a low tolerance for negative emotions, use of unhealthy coping strategies (substance use, avoidance, primitive defense mechanisms, etc), or lack of access to or education about healthy coping strategies or alternatives. Ask yourself: What would be a healthy way to cope with this emotion? What is the result of doing it?

Myths on Anger & Aggression
There are two common myths about anger and aggression that deserve mention. First, it is not true that men are more aggressive than women. Research shows us that the levels are the same, but the expression is different. On average, men are more likely to express their aggression through physical means (fighting, violence, etc), whereas women are more likely to act through “social aggression”, which is the work of damaging relationships.

Another myth is that "getting your aggression out" through some form of catharsis (punching something, intense weigh lifting, etc) can provide long term relief. For most people, this can provide a temporary release, but if the anger/aggression-provoking source is not tended to, then another build-up is inevitable.

In conclusion, I hope that therapists and anyone else reading this information can get started on helping yourself or someone else continue to experience and process emotions in ways that are positive and life affirming.

PDF handout of this page: Understanding Emotions

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