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Getting a Grip on Emotions (The Male Advantage–conclusion)

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 18, 2012

Alexythimic?

How about grown-up men?  How do we adapt to a society that increasingly acts as if we are not worth the trouble?   Psychologists argue that men need to continue moving away from narrow old notions of masculinity, because they no longer work in a more egalitarian world.  Most modern dads have long since figured out, for instance, that they are far happier escaping the limited old role of dad as the distant provider and dreaded disciplinarian.  But we still tend to be a little distant about our own emotional lives.  When psychologists talk about getting in touch with our emotions, it sometimes seems to me that they are asking us to become less like men.    Talking about stress, fear, depression, anger, and other standard male emotional issues seems like a way of undermining one of the best things about being a man—our sense of confidence, the belief that, even against overwhelming odds, we can still triumph, or die trying.

But acknowledging our fears may actually be a counterintuitive strategy for beating the odds in any situation, according to University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, Ph.d.  She’s the author of the recent book Choke and an expert on performing under pressure.  In an experiment she co-authored recently in Science, test subjects wrote down their insecurities 10 minutes before a stressful situation—and got a significant boost in performance.  “The idea,” she says, “is that getting your worries down on paper in a sense downloads them from the mind, making them less likely to pop up and distract you in an important moment.”

I also like the paint-by-numbers system of re-connecting with our emotions outlined by University of Akron psychologist Ronald Levant PhD.   “Alexithymia,” from the Greek meaning “without words for emotion,” is the common male syndrome of numbness to our own inner lives, and Levant’s treatment for fixing it begins by building vocabulary:  In five or ten minutes, write down as many words for emotions as you can think of.  For a lot of men, says Levant, angry, lonely, worried, disappointed, afraid, and pissed off come up right away.  Caring and loving are less common.  The second step is to watch a movie or television show to practice reading emotions by paying attention to tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and other signals:  That’s anger, that’s fear, that’s love.

Then Levant has his clients try the same thing on themselves:   “Every emotion has a physiological component–for instance, the way the heart races when you feel fear.  So notice how your body changes, write it down, and then ask who is doing what action and how does it affect you.”  The final step is simply to practice emotional self-awareness over and over, the way you would practice a golf swing or a tennis serve, so it becomes ingrained.  The idea isn’t to make the emotions go away.  But recognizing them can help us savor the good ones, and handle the troublesome ones more intelligently.

Women can also help by understanding that we sometimes express emotions in ways they might not immediately recognize.  Men are, for instance, entirely capable of experiencing The Big E, empathy, though conventional wisdom says we are too analytical and goal oriented for that sort of thing.   One line of psychological thought even holds that autism is just the ordinary male empathy-deficit taken to extremes.  But here’s a different way of looking at it:  For women, empathy typically elicits an emotional response.  They lift their eyebrows, coo, “Oh, poor baby,” and fold the unfortunate party in a warm hug.  This can feel good, but treating it as the One True Form of Empathy is like telling women that they can experience only one kind of orgasm.

Men tend instead to what Levant calls “action empathy.”  It’s a tactical more than an emotional response:  We see what the unfortunate party is experiencing and focus on what’s likely to happen next, what to do about it, and maybe even how we can help.  That is, we feel the other person’s pain and want to fix it.   It is yet another good thing about men.   But beware that if your wife has just gotten bawled out by her boss for poor record-keeping, and you offer to help her re-organize her computer, she might not instantly recognize that this is empathy.  Sometimes you just need to say it out loud: “That really stinks and I’m sorry.”  You might even try to hug her and coo, “Oh, poor baby.” Unnatural?  Maybe a little, but painless.  (And there‘s nothing wrong with thinking tactically:  It might just lead to sex.)

The bottom line is not just that men are good—and women, too—but that each needs to learn from the strengths of the other.  Balky feminists used to brag that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”  But the reality is that men and women need each other like a fish needs a school.

Living well is about learning to swim together.

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