Voice Male Spring 2004
"I Don't Know What I'm Feeling":
A Therapist Looks at Men's Emotional Literacy
By David Kundtz
Alexithymia: Difficulty in describing or recognizing one's emotions. "The word is used to describe persons who define emotions only in terms of bodily sensations or behavioral reaction"
When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that's my religion.
Given the culture in which [men have] been raised, it's no wonder that many of us are challenged by the feelings part of life. We often can't seem to recognize and talk about the feelings we are having at any given moment.
What we do instead is run away or cover up. As soon as we feel something, or someone else in our presence is feeling something--especially if it's a strong feeling like fear or attraction--we run from it before it has a chance to let us know it's there, much less get expressed. Running means changing the subject, distracting yourself with some other activity, or moving on to something new.
Or we cover it. With TV, music, sports, humor, sex, laughter. Anything that covers over and hides the feelings that are there.
So when someone asks us what we're feeling, we can often truthfully say, "Oh, nothing." We're not lying, because we run so quickly from the feeling or cover it so well that we literally don't know it is there.
Here's a story of a man who is very good at the thinking side. He is a member of Mensa--only very high IQs invited. His name is Steve. He and his wife, Amy, are in their late thirties, with two young kids, their own home, and successful working lives. They have come to see me, a family therapist, because their marriage is troubled.
During our fifth or sixth session, without warning, Amy says she believes their marriage cannot survive and she wants a divorce. Bam! Just like that.
To this sobering announcement, Steve reacts with a sad, vacant stare into space. It lasts a long 15 seconds; no one says a word. I am as surprised as he is. Then, without saying anything, he calmly stands up, picks up his coat and briefcase, and walks out of my office. Jump ahead two weeks.
After several attempts, I convince Steve to come in on his own "to talk about it." When he comes to my office, I can feel him bristle. He doesn't want to be here. We start talking; or rather, I start talking. From him I get nothing but grunts, noises, or shakes of the head. Clearly he is in pain. A couple of times he glances at me, silently begging me to end the torture and let him go. He just can't say much of anything.
After one particularly long period of silence, I notice I am really getting annoyed and think to myself, This must be what his wife feels. Then I ask, "Well, Steve, what about just telling me, briefly, what you are feeling right now, knowing that your wife intends to divorce you?"
His response begins slowly, then quickly builds force as his eyes snap wide to attention, rise up, and rivet me. His face becomes flushed, his body rigid, his fists clenched, and his look enraged.
Then he bolts from his seat, storms across the room, turns back toward me--now fevered and furious--raises his arms high (to attack? to entreat?) and literally screams, "You sound just like my wife! Don't you see?" And then even louder and more anguished, "I don't know what I'm feeling!"
When my heart returns to its normal beat and I take a deep breath or two--he is now slumped in his chair, spent and embarrassed--I say in a quiet voice, "Oh."
After a moment I said it again. "Oh." I could only hope the simple word expressed what I wanted him to know: that I heard him, not just his words--I'm sure half the building heard those--but him.
More important, I wanted him to know that I actually believed him: he did not know what he was feeling about his marriage, his possible divorce, and even about his wife.
Steve simply did not know his emotional state, and thus could not put it into words. He knew he was in pain, but beyond that, he simply didn't know. It wasn't that he didn't want to know. In fact he did want to know. It wasn't that he really knew but just wouldn't tell me. No, he really didn't know. He truly had no words for his feelings.
Steve was a man in his late thirties when this happened. He was so used to not knowing his feelings that he didn't know that he didn't know.
It's Not Too Late
In this situation--not being able to put into words the emotions we are experiencing--many men find we are misjudged as stuck-up or stubborn or even stupid. Sometimes we even judge ourselves with those words. But in the vast majority of situations this is not true. Almost always what we are going through are the effects of our lack of training in the ways of dealing with feelings.
Many times, when the feelings finally do come out, they come out in an explosion, like Steve's did. And often they get us into trouble. At best we're accused of overreacting; at worst we're seen as fearsome or violent. It's a no-win situation.
There's a point I want to make with Steve's story: If you begin now to find ways to attach words--or some other healthy means of expression--to your feelings, you can avoid such sad situations. It's never too late!
Today Steve continues his slow but sure journey to emotional fitness. Although he and his wife separated for a few months, they both did four months of counseling and he joined a weekly men's group. They got together again and are now giving the marriage a second chance.
David Kundtz is a family therapist and public speaker, with degrees in psychology and theology. His website is at www.stopping.com. This article was adapted from his book Nothing's Wrong: A Man's Guide to Managing His Feelings, published in 2004 by Conari Press. Used by permission.