March 25, 2015

Teaching Boys to Have Feelings?

On our Rite of Passage weekends, on our adventure outings, and in our school and other support group circles with young men, the adult men in this man-making work consider ourselves to be language instructors. In addition to all the many benefits of being around good and caring men, we are in the business of helping young guys develop their emotional vocabulary.

Most recently, the opportunity to develop the emotional tools for young guys came up in support group circle at a local high school. During the process of checking in for group, the guys are often asked to say their name and identify what they were feeling at the moment. As is very common and predictable, week after week they were continuing to use a very limited feelings vocabulary with words like tired, hungry, relaxed, chill, numb, sometimes mad, and many saying flat out, "I don't know what I feel." These are common responses because most of the guys don't get enough sleep or enough to eat. In addition, these young males simply don't have a good connection to their internal world of feelings. Except for the most rudimentary emotional language they really can't describe what's going on inside themselves in any detail.

. . . they really can't describe
what's going on inside themselves
in any detail.

Early on during group development, we will challenge them to not use their standard words and instead use basic feelings words such as mad, sad, glad, or afraid. Even those simple words are sometimes a stretch for them. In the simple choices, "mad" is the most popular word. Anger is the one emotion they see men expressing in the media, they see in their violent video games, and hear in their music. On top of that, so many of the young men have a lot to be angry about, but that's another blog post. I'll say more about anger in a moment.

To further develop the depth of their emotional language, I brought copies of a feelings wheel to the circle. While many different charts are available, the feelings wheel puts the most basic emotions in the center and then expands those feelings outward with more expressive words. For the young guys, it's a whole new landscape of descriptive options. The first time they see all the possibilities they're a little silly trying on a new words. It's fun to hear a young dude say, "I'm feeling fascinating," or "I'm pensive today." I love hearing them claim words like respected, skeptical, insignificant, delightful, amused, daring, and even sexy.

We also ask young men to use "I" statements. That means when they are sharing an opinion or feeling, instead of saying, ". . . you know when you feel angry at someone and you want to hit them . . . ." they will say, "I felt so angry I wanted to hit someone." In this way, in addition to growing their emotional vocabulary, we're helping them to own their feelings, to become more self-aware, and to be in touch with their internal feelings world.

Because anger is such a big part of a teen male's life, one important benefit of a little emotional self-awareness is realizing when he's feeling angry, and then watching it come over him. If, in that moment, he can pause to just experience it, he creates a choice point where he might elect a self-affirming rather than a self-defeating and often violent response. One young African-American guy told the group a "stop and frisk" story, a too-common experience with the police in his neighborhood. He said that even though he knew he was being unfairly profiled, as he was being aggressively pushed over the hood of the police car, he chose not to let his anger explode. He said he took some deep breaths, remembered what was talked about in group, and chose to be polite and cooperative. While I and the group felt uncomfortable hearing about the unfairness in that story, I considered the young man's choice to be a huge victory, and a solid lesson for the group.

Using a group environment to understand and better manage the surge of angry emotions also opens up the possibility of working through the darker feelings like sadness and grief, low self-esteem, and hopelessness. While these themes show up regularly, a willingness to explore them often depends on how well the group had gelled and if there is sufficient trust in the circle. Like dealing with anger, exploring these topics helps teens not become victims of their deeper feelings.

. . . if you understand your own emotional life
you're better prepared for understanding others.

Empathy is also an important tool in anyone's emotional skill set. Simply stated, if you understand your own emotional life, you're better prepared for connecting with others at a deeper level. To help young guys develop empathy, we invite them to consider the impact of their words or actions on others. We may use questions like, "How do you think it makes a girl feel to be called a stupid, fat, bitch, or a whore? How would you feel if someone was saying that to your mom or sister? What do you feel right now when you just think about someone saying those things to the women in your family?" Eventually the guys get it, and it really does make them more considerate.

We are always looking for opportunities to get our young guys to name a feeling, asking about how others might feel, then praising them for emotional honesty and for making good choices about dealing with their feelings. I guess it's not so much teaching them to have feelings as it is helping them to understand, describe, and work with the rich emotional life already happening inside them. It's good work and very gratifying to see these young men emotionally ripening over a twelve-week semester.

What would your life be like today if you had been given the opportunity to be in a safe and supportive place, with caring men, who were helping you to develop these live-giving emotional tools?

If you want to read more on this topic, check out this recent Man-Making Blog post.

If you're interested in actually doing this kind of work in support of young males in your community, give me a shout and we can talk about how you might get started. I can assure you the gloriously imperfect and fearful part of yourself makes you the perfect man for this work. I can also assure you that at this very moment the young guys in your community are waiting for you to step up.

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