There is a global crisis happening.
It is killing millions of people around the world.
And no, I do not mean the COVID virus.
I’m writing about the issue of men (and some women) who are so disconnected from their emotions that it damages and kills almost every relationship they are in;
- with their partner,
- with their children,
- with their friends, family, and coworkers,
- but most, with themselves.
The consequences are lack of communication, connection, intimacy, and safety.
The results are broken, fractured, and shattered relationships.
I know because I was there.
The Cost of Not Owning and Sharing Your Feelings
Growing up in Hawaii, in an Asian family. We were both close and not close at the same time.
Every weekend my immediate and extended family would get together around meals, events, and to socialize and hang out.
But it wasn’t until much later, in my 30s and after I had left Hawaii for a decade that I was able to see the fractured dynamic of those social engagements.
Family members spoke AT one another, not WITH, and emotions and how we were feeling were never discussed.
The idea of family and you’re being a member of it, were used to guilt, shame, and manipulate each other to behave a certain way that didn’t embarrass or make other family members uncomfortable.
And all the pain, sadness, and discomfort was hidden behind smiles, hugs, and platitudes of love.
We told each other how much we loved one another to hide the pain of our true emotions of disconnection, pain, and sadness.
Emotional Literacy – The First Step in Solving a Problem is Being Able to Name the Problem
As one of the youngest kids in my extended family, I was labeled by one emotional name, grumpy, with occasional bouts of angry or silly.
So growing up, I viewed myself as a grumpy person. I not only took on the label, but I also took on the identity.
It also didn’t help that my job was as an electrician in construction, where the first thing you learn on the job is that you need, “a thick skin.”
You’re not supposed to let your emotions get in the way of the work, you stuff it down, grin and bear it, and get ‘er done!
It wasn’t until later, when I met my wife, that she started to help me to expand my vocabulary around my emotions and feelings.
But that opened a Pandora’s Box
And that’s when the hard work began…
You Are Not Your Feelings
To say that I was lacking in Emotional Intelligence would be an understatement, and yes, I understand that some people believe there is no such thing as an EQ.
But for the sake of discussions, let’s call your EQ, your awareness, and management of emotional regulation. Your ability to step outside of your emotional feelings and not be ruled by them.
Akin to the volume button on your computer, when it’s screaming too loud in your face and you are able to turn it down.
When I first began to become aware of the full range of emotions, it became overwhelming for me. It was too much to process and I had years of bad habits and lacking emotional regulation.
In some ways, I felt even more emotionally challenged by this new insight into emotional literacy. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, it was easier being grumpy, angry, and happy.
But it was damaging, and almost killed, my marriage. And I had a choice to make, I either learn how to acknowledge, address, and accept my emotions and the impact they were having on my marriage, or I would be saying goodbye to my wife.
I knew this because the dynamic I had with my family members were already becoming frayed, broken, and severed. Some permanently.
But I wasn’t going to let this happen to my marriage.
Getting Back on the Mat
For almost 20 years, I was involved in the practice of Hapkido under GM Han. He taught us that the way we respond on the street is based on the way that we train on the mat.
I would have instructors that would regularly overwhelm me with kicks, punches, and throws to see how far I had come in my training. The idea is that the higher the level of intensity that you train, the higher your ability to maintain your composure under the strain of that intensity.
This served me well, on the street and with my construction coworkers, I was much better able to not feel fearful, intimidated, or to be triggered by the usual male-jostling for position.
If it worked on the street, I knew it could work in the home.
I knew I needed to train as diligently to learn to be able to develop emotional regulation and I had developed my social regulation.
The key is that when you are in the heart of an issue, that is almost the last place to work on the issue.
When you’re angry, it makes it hard to work on your anger. It is better, and easier, to work on it before it happens.
No different than training on the mat. I would practices for hours, days, and weeks before the inevitable situation of my instructor turning it up a few notches. And those incidents were brief, only for a minute or so. Then I could go back, with better insight, on how to continue training.
The same thing with emotions, I set up scenarios and drills to practice and hone so that it would increase my ability to keep my composure feeling an emotion and raise my threshold of handling the emotions.
Step 1: Develop Awareness and Sensitivity
You can see in the emotional literacy wheel above that at the core of the wheel are the strong primal emotions and feelings.
And as you move further out, the intensity is less strong.
Too often for too many people, they never developed the sensitivity and awareness of their emotions until it’s too late. They don’t recognize the frustration, that leads to anger until they are mad, yelling, screaming and making those around them feel unsafe.
It’s important to check in on a regular basis to track how you are feeling. It also doesn’t hurt to begin tracking how you’re feeling to begin noticing patterns.
In this article, I created a simple tracker to check and gauge your emotions throughout the day to gain a better awareness and sensitivity.
Step 2: State What You’re Feeling
Miscommunication and the lack of communication is as much at fault for damaging relationships as the lack of emotional awareness.
The second major mistake I made in my marriage was not communicating effectively how I was feeling. Either expecting my wife to be a mind-reader and/or not wanting to own up to what I was feeling.
My coach helped me to understand that for emotional safety to be created, I had to be able to state how I was feeling and realize that having the feeling was not the same as acting on the feeling.
It is completely valid to feel angry, it is a primal base emotion. What is not valid is acting out irrationally around the emotion of anger.
I learned by taking the time to stop, become aware, and then state how I was feeling was the first step in changing the behavior and habits around my feelings.
Step 3: Practice
Like the mat, if you want to know how you will respond on the street, practice on the mat as if you were on the street.
But build up to it first. You can’t expect a white belt to be proficient on the street but after years of diligent practice, a white belt will eventually become a black belt, someone who is better capable of handling themselves.
The same thing applies at home. Practice emotional awareness, sensitivity, and regulation.
Role-play with it, think of it as martial arts sparring. Soft and easy and first, and then gradually address deeper and deeper emotions.
As an example, if there was a pattern that led to fights with my wife, I can initially reflect and rehearse the process by which the pattern emerges. I can then come up with ways of trying different strategies and actions instead of my usual habits.
It’s what the Stoics called a premortem, thinking and planning for a possible bad result ahead of time. In that way, you can explore possible alternatives and practice them before you need them.
One strategy that has worked for me is that when I feel that I have become too upset to speak or think calmly, I give myself a timeout. I take a moment to become aware of how I’m feeling, I state that feeling to my wife and I then say that I need a few minutes to calm down, then I go for a short walk.
Ever since adopting this new strategy, it has reduced the occurrences of heated arguments that lead nowhere and damages our relationship.
Step 4: Knowing That All Your Emotions Are Okay
Some people want to be happy all the time.
Others are adrenaline junkies looking for the next episode of excitement.
We want to feel good all the time and with everyone.
But that’s not realistic.
I’m not saying you can’t feel better, but the idea of always feeling good is a trap.
It’s part of the human condition, and trying to avoid, ignore, or repress “negative” emotions makes it that much more difficult to address and move on from them.
My family has swept so much under the rug that the mound often blocks out everything else. It is the proverbial elephant in the room that everybody is choosing not to see.
I love them, but I love them where they are at, I do my best to reach out and open the lines of communication to get to the underlying feelings.
For some members of my family, we are beginning to speak more openly, intimately, and lovingly, for others, not so much, but I’m doing my best to shift this global crisis.
In the meantime, I also work within my sphere of influence to create an environment of heart-centered leadership, connection, and community.
And most importantly, I strive to repair, build, and nurture my relationship with my wife.