In episode 300, I received a question from a male listener who struggles to communicate and express their feelings, especially within the realms of their relationships. In this post, I offer my thoughts on emotional literacy in men and highlights what you can do to improve your ability to communicate and express how you feel.
Hello, I’m going to try and keep my situation short and concise as it has been going on for 2 years. When the pandemic started I began isolating myself severely and never really broke out of it. This isolation lead to more problems like a short temper, worsening anxiety, and trouble communicating properly when in conflict. My girlfriend and I recently broke up for the second time and I never had it in me to really tell her what was going on with me. It caused major issues in our communication, and this made her believe I was just not compatible for her. She has her own anxieties which made things more difficult. I guess I’m reaching out to know what I can do in the future when I need to express the way I’m feeling, and express that it is not who I am. Thank you
Firstly, I just want to give props for being a man and caring to actually take accountability for your mental health. We need more emotionally literate men out there. I’m sorry to hear about your situation. It sounds like it has been a pretty tough couple of years here for you. I think that throughout the course of the pandemic, a lot of people have seen things in their life become much more difficult or even fall apart whether that’s relationships, jobs, or family situations. You’re definitely not alone in that. One of the other things about this period of time, though is that it has also served as a magnifying glass for issues that already exist.
It sounds like you are saying that you recognize you have some trouble expressing your feelings in general, and that with the circumstances of the pandemic and such, this has been exposed more and has progressed to the point that it has caused a rupture in your relationship. I have seen a lot of situations like this where issues are more exposed or accelerated due to the changing circumstances of the world. It’s tough to live with, but sometimes there is a little bit of a blessing in disguise, as it gives you a clear area to focus on improving.
Communication and emotional awareness
So. Let’s talk about some tips for communication and emotional awareness in general. One thing to consider is that, when you are coming from a baseline like yours, the feelings that are driving the way you behave may not always be immediately apparent to you. That means that, as you continue to work on this, you might need to address things after they have happened. So, if you have a fight because you got irritated and snappy about something that was really not worth picking a fight over, you might need to take some time after the fact and ask yourself why you reacted in the way that you did.
There are some basic cognitive-behavioral principles that would come in handy here. I’ve talked about them frequently on the show before. I also cover them extensively in my online course. My episode or handout on common thinking traps as well as the emotions wheel will be good tools to have on hand. From there, you can do something like a thought log to look at the situation that occurred, identify how it made you feel, and then dig into your own thoughts to see what belief or interpretation you had that drove you to feel that way.
Let’s make an arbitrary example here. Let’s say that you snapped at your girlfriend for leaving clutter on the kitchen counter. Something small, but it led to a conflict because you got annoyed at her and then she got upset at you for being so mean etc. You start with what happened. We just described that. Then you think of how it made you feel. Using the emotions wheel and working your way out, you might discover that you felt irritated and resentful. Then the question becomes why? Why did you feel so irritated by that? This is where both the thinking traps and the context of the situation come into play. Perhaps there was something else that you were stressed out about on that day and you simply projected that onto her. Maybe you were overgeneralizing a bit and assuming that this means she does not care about the space you are stuck in. There are any number of explanations and it might take a few tries to see what really fits.
Make time to talk and follow up
The point I’m trying to make is that after you discover the answer or some possible answers, you could follow up with your girlfriend (I know you aren’t together anymore, but this is a way that it could have been handled at the time). A lot of people don’t want to bring up old conflicts or issues because it feels like you are rocking the boat for no reason, but I encourage you to do it. It’s possible that now that there has been some distance from the event, you are both in a more stable emotional state and you would be able to interpret the situation and discuss in a more productive way. You could say “Hey, remember when we fought about the clutter the other day? First off, I’m sorry about that. I know that I put you on guard by attacking so much. I was having a bad day and I didn’t share that with you. You got more heat than you deserved. I’ll try harder to slow down and communicate in the future.”
It may also be helpful to just work on communication within relationships in general. Making sure you don’t get out of the habit of talking about things other than just small talk frequently. This could be something as rigid as a weekly check-in or it could be prioritizing more time together, making sure to eat meals at the same time while sitting at the table etc. It’s important to understand that you are allowed to feel anything you feel. In fact, you don’t really have a ton of control over when you feel – at least initially. Neither did she. I would encourage you to work on being more honest about what you are feeling. You can lead with the feeling and try to leave space to figure it out. You might be surprised how much leading with the feeling and trying to be collaborative could help. In that example from above if you were like, “For some reason this is really getting my goat. I feel irritated about the fact that there are things on the counter. Am I off base here?” From there, she might have said anything from, “No. You’re totally right. I’ve been neglecting things and I’m sorry.” to “Yeah, babe. I think that’s quite a bit for this little thing. Is there anything else going on that I should know about? Shoot, she might even have her own stuff to take accountability for.
Final thoughts and resources
There are a variety of resources such as books, courses, and videos out there to help with communication. I have a whole episode on communication tips https://www.duffthepsych.com/episode217/. Aside from communication, I think that your job will be to continue working on building your own emotional literacy by engaging in self-reflection. Looking at situations in your life and asking yourself what the emotional driver seems to be. You can also ask for feedback from others in your life. This could be from people that remain in your life such as trusted loved ones. It can also be from people like your ex. You could say that you are trying to do better and you wanted to know how she felt when you did xyz.
Lastly, working on your own regulation will be a big help here. It is super hard for your brain to think rationally when you are emotionally elevated. That’s just due to simple neurology. The logical part of your brain gets overloaded and it is literally harder to think clearly. Therefore, learning to recognize your signs that you are getting elevated, heated etc. can be useful and then having some tools that you can apply when you find yourself in that situation will be necessary. Deep breathing, giving yourself some physical space, getting fresh air, asking to postpone a conversation until you’ve had time to think about it, etc. These are all ways of giving yourself some time to process and giving your brain the conditions that it needs to be able to think rationally.
You can listen to this on Episode 300 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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