When I was a kid, I didn't have many friends. I didn't talk to many people about how I was doing, or what was going on for me. My childhood wasn't bad (it was actually pretty great), I just never talked about myself. As I got older, it got harder to talk about myself or my feelings. It was even hard to talk about what I wanted.
That's normally not an issue. It didn't matter much if I was happy, sad, or frustrated in math class. It didn't matter if I was excited or ashamed at work. Just do the things and keep moving.
Being able to express feelings only really matters in relationships with people. Unfortunately for me, it turns out that relationships with people are everywhere. Not just romantic relationships, but also friendships and family relationships. Relationships with teachers and coworkers. Even my relationship with myself. Everything seems easier for people who know what they feel, and can talk about it.
I didn't know how to tell people what I was feeling. I barely knew how to tell myself what I was feeling. I couldn't ask for what I wanted. I often couldn't even understand other people's feelings when they were telling them to me straight up. Needless to say I had a string of frustrating romances. How could a romance work for me if I didn't even know how to say what I wanted?
It was almost by accident that I learned about Non-Violent Communication, a method of talking to people about my own feelings and theirs. A friend was taking some classes in it, and I went along. At first it was hard for me to get into. It's a bit hokey; it feels stilted to talk using a formal system. But it helped.
The empathic listening exercises we did really helped me to understand other people when they told me what they felt. I listened to people talk about their feelings, and for the first time really was able to understand that other people are different than me. People are different, and that's awesome. I was able to support people in their sad feelings and celebrate with them in their happy feelings.
Learning to listen empathically was great, but being listened to was world-changing. It's a freeing feeling when someone you've built up trust with over weeks of classes says they're listening to you. At first it was hard to say what I felt. Then it was harder.
As I started to talk about some things that made me sad, to really say how I felt, my body went cold. I felt dizzy. My hands were freezing and my face was hot. I was shaking and crying. And the people listening didn't hate me or shun me for it. I just got a good hug, and I got to cry about something that mattered to me.
After that it got easier. It's still not easy, but I can talk about it when I'm sad. I can tell people if they bother me, instead of avoiding them completely. I can show people when I'm happy, or when I'm sad, or even when I'm angry.
There's power and freedom in being able to recognize and express your feelings. It's a freedom that's been hard for me to find as a man in American society. It's a power that I didn't even know I had.