In this episode, we will be continuing our discussion on vulnerability by taking a look at the emotional aspect of it. We’ll talk about how our culture has set different expectations on men and women regarding this topic, and we’ll address the need to identify all feelings as acceptable.
010: The Rhythm of Marriage—Vulnerability, Part 02
Truly Equal is a marriage podcast created by Kyle and Christi Playford. Our goal is to talk about marriage from a fresh perspective. We tell stories about our lives, talk about how marriage is like a love song, and give practical solutions to the problems we've encountered.
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Emotional Vulnerability from a Gender Perspective
Emotional Vulnerability is expressing your feelings through words. Simply put it's saying, "I feel this." Because of our culture, men have a tougher time with emotional vulnerability on the whole than women do. Men have been conditioned to suppress their emotions because they're viewed as unacceptable. However, there are a few specific instances in our culture where men's emotions are acceptable. When we talk about "acceptable" emotions, we mean that other men won't look down on you if you're a man, and you can feel these feelings in these places. For example, sports is an acceptable place for men to feel their emotions. It's acceptable to show feelings of excitement or frustration/anger while watching sports. When a man's favorite quarterback throws the game-winning touchdown, it's acceptable for him to jump and shout and do a touchdown dance. Another example is in the world of politics. If a man doesn't like a certain political party, it's acceptable for him to express his feelings of frustration or anger about that particular candidate.
It's also acceptable for men to look down or condescend towards the emotions of women. This is especially true in the workplace. Since men are valued more highly in our culture (especially in the business world), and because it's "unmanly" to feel emotions, then women feel compelled to become like men to succeed in the business world. If a woman wants to climb the corporate ladder and become a boss, she generally has to shut down her emotions to gain the respect of her subordinates. This condescension towards women's emotions also appears in dating. If a woman is labeled "emotional," it's generally not a compliment.
There are also "unacceptable" emotions for men to feel. For example, intense emotions are generally not acceptable—especially intense fear or sadness. It's usually difficult for men to say, "I'm feeling really sad right now." Oftentimes if men admit they are afraid, they'll be called weak or a scaredy-cat. Intense feelings of beauty are also not socially acceptable for men to feel. In a typical, macho-male culture it's really only okay for men to say that women are beautiful. However, there are many other things in this world that are beautiful. Sunsets are beautiful, things that people do for each other are beautiful, other people's emotions are beautiful, and so much more. But it's rare to hear men talk about these things. Love is another thing that can be unacceptable for men to talk about. Even to say something as simple as, "I love you," can be very difficult. And when it is said, it's usually not said with much emotion.
Should/Shouldn't Feel Certain Emotions
Vulnerability provides a space for either great pain or great healing. Sometimes we can think that certain emotions are okay to feel while others are not. If we express emotions that we shouldn't feel, then we're potentially opening ourselves up to great pain. Perhaps someone will judge us for these unacceptable feelings. Early in our marriage, I would ask, "Is that bad?" after telling Kyle a feeling that I didn't think I should be feeling. In my mind I would wonder, "Are you going to reject me now that I told you about these feelings I shouldn't have?" Mr. Rogers addresses this problem of having "bad" emotions in his book The World According to Mr. Rogers:
"There's no should or should not when it comes to having feelings. They're part of who we are, and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings." — Fred Rogers
It's unhelpful to judge ourselves for what we feel. If we have a feeling, the best thing to do is first acknowledge that it's not bad or wrong. Then we must decide what to do with it, because we can either hang on to feelings or let them go.
For example, let's say Kyle and I have a disagreement and he says something that hurts me. Then Kyle asks, "Will you forgive me?" When he asks for my forgiveness I often still feel angry, frustrated, and hurt. However, because he has already asked me to forgive him, I believe that I shouldn't be feeling those feelings anymore. I think that they're bad emotions. I feel like I can't forgive him yet because I still feel angry, frustrated, and hurt, but I also feel like I can't tell him that I feel this way because I believe those feelings are wrong. So instead of forgiving him or telling him my feelings, I simply stay silent. This is unhelpful because then Kyle has no idea what's going through my mind. So instead I've learned that it's okay for me to tell Kyle that I'm still feeling angry, frustrated, and hurt. When I'm emotionally vulnerable and express my feelings, we are able to continue talking through our disagreement until it's solved. This way when I forgive him, I feel like I'm being genuine because now he knows that I'm still feeling these feelings.
Acknowledging Your Feelings
Being emotionally vulnerable sounds intimidating, but it can be as simple as saying, "I feel sad." The other person can then ask, "What do you need? Do you need me to fix the problem, or do you simply need to vent and have me listen?" This step of asking what the other person needs is really important. We must not assume they always need us to fix their problems. Oftentimes that's not the best solution. All of this advice (about expressing your feelings through words and telling people what you need) has been gleaned from Milan and Kay's How We Love book/video. In the video, they also talk about using a list of feeling words that they stick on their fridge. When they need to express how they feel, they then look at the list and simply point to the words that best describe what they're feeling. Too often we use generic words like happy or sad. However, there's a big difference between despair and somber (which can both fall under the "sad" category). Instead, I encourage you to download Milan and Kay's list of feeling words here. Print this off and put it somewhere easy to find. Then, when the time comes, take out that list and point at the word that best describes what you're feeling. Remember that once someone is emotionally vulnerable and expresses their feelings, it's important to validate their feelings. That can be through asking, "What do you need?" and then listening to their response. Listening is different than simply hearing what a person has to say. It's more intentional than that. It's sitting down with the other person, looking them in the eyes, and being completely present with them. It's so easy (especially in our world today) to be distracted with all the tasks we have to do, and forget to listen to those around us.
The World According to Mr. Rogers — book by Fred Rogers
How We Love — marriage books and other resources by Milan and Kay Yerkovich
Soul Word List — a free printable of feeling words created by Milan and Kay Yerkovich
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