What feelings were denied you as a child?
Did your parents or caregivers say:
Hendrix acknowledges that the rules of emotional expression differ between men and women. Early on, we realize that what’s “allowed” for boys and what’s “allowed” for girls is clear.
Hendrix recognizes that, for boys, emotional expression or the expression of empathy is perceived as weakness or fear. Girls, on the other hand, are encouraged toward these tender exchanges.
Males learn to cut off their own emotional experiences, which, in turn, impacts their ability to express themselves clearly and to develop empathy for their partners. The cutoff that I refer to here often looks like withdrawal, leaving the more emotionally expressive partner to chase after the distant one. These interactions create a negative withdraw-pursue cycle in the relationship.
In my work with both heterosexual and same-sex couples, I have seen these patterns play out repeatedly. Men and women repress their feelings based on a host of unique factors. Factors that influence emotional repression can be traced back to early childhood. These can include influential personalities in the individual's family of origin, cultural and religious background, definitions of masculinity and femininity, trauma, the political climate, and more.
Some of my most meaningful work with a person occurs when they learn how to undo their own emotional repression. Here are some of the steps we take to help them emotionally evolve.
1. Learn Emotional Language
When repressed enough, partners lose their ability to retrieve the language or emotions. Evidence of this may include responses such as “I don’t know” or “I can’t describe it” when a person is asked how they feel. In therapy, we start small, reviewing the six most basic human emotions: anger, sadness, fear, joy, love, and surprise. But knowing the feelings is not always enough to name them and experience them in the moment.
2. Work from the Outside In
We register our feelings in our bodies. We typically feel our emotions in our throats, behind our eyes, in our torsos (including back and chest), in our bellies, and sometimes in our legs, arms, hands, and feet. When you learn the sensations of the body you are then able to connect your experience to the learned emotional language. Heat in your cheeks might connect to anger, a lump in your throat might indicate sadness, loss of breath may connect to surprise, and butterflies in the belly or ice-cold palms may mean fear. Practice noticing your reactions to conversations and experiences, pay attention to your body, and begin to make the connections for yourself.
3. Verbalize the Feeling
Once you tune into the sensation and connect it to the relevant feeling word, you can verbalize the feeling by sharing with your partner. You can say, for example, “I’m aware that I have butterflies in my stomach and that I feel scared,” or, “I can feel my heart pounding right now; I know I’m angry and I need time to cool off.” Being able to verbalize your feelings gives you and your partner a chance to communicate about what’s fueling them and why they may be uncomfortable.
When you complete all three steps, you've begun to overcome emotional repression. You’re no longer detaching from your feelings. You’re no longer denying yourself the right to speak up about your experience. You’re allowing others to know you more deeply.
Of course, there are other feelings words, such as disappointment, loss, confusion, bewilderment, hope, excitement, and others. But for anyone who has a lifetime of emotional repression, the six most basic human emotions often capture enough to name the feeling adequately. As you become more habitual in sensing, naming, and verbalizing your emotions, consider expanding your emotional language to describe how you feel.
For those of you on the receiving end, check in with yourselves. Make sure you want what is offered. Anger, sadness, and fear are generally harder to receive than love, joy, and surprise. Sometimes, people tell me they want their partners to express themselves more fully, but when they do, the receivers struggle to take in what their partners say.
Healthy emotional communication requires everyone to be both a giver and a receiver. Reciprocation of emotional expression provides the best environment for intimacy between people to grow. If you are struggling with this, either individually or as a couple consider making an appointment with me or another qualified therapist.
Hendrix, H. (2008). Getting the love you want: A guide for couples. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks.