How to Raise Boys to Be Emotionally Intelligent

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It’s a myth that boys are born less emotionally complex than girls. What is true, says LA-based psychotherapist Shira Myrow, is this is learned over time. We raise boys in a culture that continues to perpetuate that myth—and the result is that boys often learn to shut down their feelings earlier. “A gap in the capacity to express and articulate feelings—but also listen—profoundly affects intimate relationships,” Myrow says. “I see it every day with couples: Men come in with a huge deficit. They don’t have language for their emotions, and so they can’t decipher what their partners are trying to communicate underneath their emotional reactivity.”

Myrow works to help the men in her practice slow everything down and start at the beginning, which requires learning how to become emotionally attuned, engaged, and responsive to their partners. She believes, too, that this is a meaningful step we can take as parents to sensitize our sons to be become more compassionate, more emotionally intelligent. In other words, these are the steps it takes to be mindful.

Raising Emotionally Intelligent Boys

By Shira Myrow, MA, LMFT

Having emotional intelligence is equivalent to possessing a social superpower. Learning to pay attention and attune to what’s happening for you internally can help you communicate much more effectively and authentically—in all of your relationships. We may come to understand this only as adults, but we can help our children gradually build these tools for themselves.

It’s also time to dispel the myths our culture gives to boys. They are often taught that expressing their emotions makes them appear weak and vulnerable and that sexual conquest is more important than respecting a sexual partner’s boundaries. Those two myths are linked. There’s a lot in the culture—especially porn—that contributes to internalized distortions around sex and women. When we objectify others, we cut ourselves off from our own humanity, from our own moral compass. It obscures what real sex and intimacy look like. We move into a dissociative place that prevents us from seeing one another as vulnerable, complex human beings.

As parents, we have to accept that we have way less influence than previous generations did when it comes to educating our children about sex. Social media and the internet present exponentially more competition. That’s in addition to their social peer group, which naturally takes on more importance as they seek belonging and connection with kids their age. But we can educate ourselves first about the influences our children are exposed to, and we can provide alternative information while being mindful of our own anxiety. That said, it’s no easy task.

Tackling that challenge starts with an intention to overcome our own squeamishness about sex and dating in today’s world and normalize conversation about them. Casually ask your kids questions about what they’re seeing online or at school and how it makes them feel to get them thinking and talking to you. Conversation is absolutely critical. (Dr. Gail Dines is doing incredible work in this field, and she offers free scripts and questions for parents to broach the discussion, walking anxious parents through the entire process.)

Mindfulness practice is really useful in creating emotional intelligence, especially for boys. It can give them a simple process to identify the difference between emotions, thoughts, and sensations so they can become more responsive and self-aware. Mindfulness also helps us regulate our difficult feelings and impulses. Instead of shaming kids, we can teach them to gently sit with their feelings and hold the discomfort until it passes.

You can invite your teens to observe their thoughts, emotions, and sensations—instead of emotionally reacting like a pinball machine to every emotion that comes. To view emotions as if they were looking at a snow globe, noticing how the snow particles can initially swirl and then slowly settle. That’s the first step. Reassure them that all feelings come and go—and often with great intensity in the moment. But we don’t have to overidentify with any emotion as a permanent state.

The next step is to become curious about our emotions and try to name the feelings that arise instead of suppressing them. Once you can name your feeling and get clarity, you can make a much more conscious decision about how you want to respond in any kind of situation. Mindfulness fosters compassion, self-compassion, empathy, and acceptance—relational values that are critical for building healthy self-esteem and healthy relationships with others. You’re learning to listen to the value present in the emotion. What’s the emotion that initially arises? What’s your knee-jerk reaction? What’s behind the fear? And then: What would a thoughtful, compassionate response be?

Here’s an example: If your teen is doing something with their friends that they know is wrong or not respectful of another person but they feel pressured into by their friends, you might point out that the anxiety or even anger they feel is a sign that they’re not in alignment with their integrity and this could be a moment to assert a boundary. That means having the courage to say no despite being afraid of social rejection. I often suggest hypothetical moral dilemmas with my sons while driving in the car to get them thinking about these kinds of situations in a no-pressure environment.  Once they get into a basic understanding of how to use mindful awareness with their emotions, they can use it to tolerate the discomfort and confusion they can feel around sex and sexuality, which can be incredibly vulnerable and hard to talk about.

TOOLS FOR PARENTS

Ongoing communication: Engage in open-ended questions about healthy masculinity, mutual consent, the complex feelings that can come up around sex, and respectful and direct communication in relationships. Accept that you may feel as awkward, anxious, and ambivalent as your teens do. They probably won’t initially want to talk with you. But try anyway.

Don’t shame or blame them: That’s the quickest way to shut your children down. I love the sex educator Emily Nagoksi.  She provides a wealth of wonderful information for late-teen and college-age kids, especially about female sexuality.

Be sex-positive: Frame sexual experience as a natural, necessary part of human development. It’s natural to be curious, to have strong urges and strong feelings. It’s part of our common humanity. Sex doesn’t have to be split off from all the other conversations around maturity. Sex-positivity necessarily includes an understanding around explicit consent, integrity, respect, and clear boundaries.

Understand the difference between influence and control: You want to help your children critically assess what they’re watching in the culture—be it a TV show or porn or the news. Unpack the conversations they’re having with friends and be aware of how much peer pressure shapes and influences their expectations. Trying to issue blanket moral edicts or control their behavior through shame and guilt is going to backfire. As difficult as this sounds, allow them to learn from their experience and make their own mistakes. They need to discover and experiment and fail—especially in relationships. It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to spare your kids from suffering, but it’s through the suffering that a new awareness or understanding can emerge.

Model emotional intimacy: Authenticity, respect, vulnerability, compassion, and curiosity about the other. There’s a lot of fear around committed relationships, but healthy ones can offer so much support, love, security, and connection.

It’s critical we stop perpetuating the unnatural split between feeling and expression in boys—it’ll be better for them, and for all of us.


Shira Myrow is a mindfulness-based marriage and family therapist and meditation teacher. Myrow is the founder of the LA-based Yale Street Therapy Group and the curriculum director for Evenflow, a meditation platform and app.

How Redefining Failure Creates the Seeds of Resilience (Q & A)

   “We’re all going to fail at something in life. It’s a given. So we have to figure out not how to avoid them entirely, but how to relate to them when they happen.”

“We’re all going to fail at something in life. It’s a given. So we have to figure out not how to avoid them entirely, but how to relate to them when they happen.”

Failure feels like such a loaded word. It still carries a social stigma to it. How can we reframe it in a way that is less off-putting?

I agree. On the surface, failure sounds like a final judgment, an endpoint in which there is no recovering from. And there are definitely cases where people can do serious harm or have severe lapses in moral judgement. But failures are also subjective. There’s a spectrum.  We’re all going to fail at something in life. It’s a given. So we have to figure out not how to avoid them entirely, but how to relate to them when they happen. Often times the judgment we have about our actions are overly harsh and critical. I think failures can be an invitation into a different kind conversation with yourself if you can get passed the shame and tendency to shut down.  I think of it as an invitation to develop resilience by embracing the resistance and the uncomfortable feelings to get to the deeper meaning or lesson behind it.

How does meditation and mindfulness help us with failure experiences?

When we can combine contemplative practices like meditation and mindfulness  with a compassionate, courageous form of inquiry---we can become more skillful at working with our ourselves. And when we can soften our self judgement ,we can figure out what next steps to take. Do we accept that something isn’t going to happen?  Or do we try again?Meditation and mindfulness are amazing tools for self regulation...and for calming down the anxious mind.  You can’t metabolize the lessons of failure when you’re in an emotionally reactive state. You can’t get the value or the meaning out of the experience until you can distance yourself from the web of negative thoughts and emotions that can obscure the clarity and wisdom that might just be lurking beneath them.  

How do you “redefine” failure?

Perhaps a more approachable way defining failure is a feeling of deep disappointment and loss frequently coupled with shame or frustration.  And when you define it that way--so many experiences in life can fit that description: losing a job, making a bad financial decision, going through a divorce.  Maybe we’re failing at love, or failing at parenting. It’s rather specific to the individual. One person’s success could be another person’s failure. Often times, we don’t realize that our feelings of failure have a lot to do with comparing ourselves to others, and that can influence our perception of how well or not well we’re doing. That’s something to be mindful of, so we don’t lose our connection with our internal compass.

Why are we so afraid of failure?

Failure triggers a stress response in our brains and our brains perceive the thought of failure as a threat. It’s not making distinctions though --whether the failure is an actual threat to our survival or, let’s say a perceived threat. It’s responding the same way. Social humiliation activates the same system of fight or flight in the emotional center of our brain.  None of us want to suffer with the painful emotions or hyper critical thoughts that we associate with failing. Of course we want to avoid it or even deny it. But when we don’t do the inner work, we set ourselves up to repeat the same patterning that led us to this point in the first place.


From your perspective, why is failure so critical in terms of our psychological development? And how does it foster resilience?

Failures drive our psychological growth. That’s why they’re such rich experiences to mine.  But we get so caught up in the the embarrassment or humiliation, that we miss how failures serve our development. Myself included.  A little self disclosure here. Resilience is born precisely out of adversity, out of challenge. We’re not born resilient. We don’t magically become resilient reading self books or watching TED talks. You become resilient by integrating those difficult experiences and consciously adapting.You only start to trust that you can resource yourself as you go through difficulty and crisis. And as parents, there is finally a recognition in the culture  that we’re not helping our kids anymore by taking away every disappointment from them. In fact, we’re doing them a great disservice if we never allow them to fail.


How does changing the story or narrative around failure help us become more resilient?

Language is so powerful because it shapes our experience.  If we get stuck in a shame story, we can’t move into a more  generative conversation --what did we learn? What would we do differently next time ?  What meaning can we get from this? In order to build resilience, we need a thoughtful process, an opportunity to mindfully assess and reflect so we can integrate the experience.

One way to ease the vice grip of  over-identification with failure is giving yourself  permission to learn and make mistakes or allowing yourself to be a beginner and have a beginner’s mindset when you try new things. Those are both compassionate reframes . When we change how we language our story, we can start to shift how we perceive it. I use it with the couples I work with who come in and feel like they’re failing at marriage because they’re fighting all the time. I show them that their reactive bids for connection or problem solving are what’s failing. Instead, curiosity, compassion, persistence and self-awareness, can create a set of patterns, to become skillful in relationship.


How does meditation help us with our resistance to working with failures?

Over time, a meditation practice not only teaches us how to sit with those difficult emotions, it starts to soften our resistance.  What do I mean by resistance? It’s our discomfort confronting and unpacking our feelings around failure. I like to think of the resistance as a monolithic wall that makes it seem impossible to walk through.  But the more we sit, the more the energy changes...and the wall turn into a fog that we can walk through and get curious and compassionate about. We still need courage --as we can’t always know what’s on the other side, but the resistance becomes permeable.  And it’s this experience that allows us to feel a renewed sense of possibility. That change is possible. Failure isn’t so much a barrier or inconvenience, or  obstruction in our lives as much as it is a doorway into self reflection and profound self growth.

My series on Redefining Failure on the Evenflow App is a deeper dive into that exploration of compassionate inquiry.  Making mistakes and confronting emotional challenges are extraordinary doorways to uncovering the essential questions in failure experiences but also discovering ourselves in the process.

Are Open Marriages the Future of Relationships? A Couples Therapist Explains

To see the full article on Mind Body Green, click on this link

An open relationship certainly seems alluring on the surface: sexual gratification and novelty without the harm or shame of betrayal, especially for long-term monogamous couples who are no longer sexually satisfied. It is entirely possible that open relationships can work for some people and may be the shape of things to come. But that path needs to be taken mindfully, with careful consideration, and no illusions about the pitfalls. The ideal of the open marriage may be as much of a fantasy as an idealized monogamous marriage is.

Our culture has developed unrealistic expectations about sex, often fueled by unfettered access to online pornography and dating apps that promise constant and immediate opportunities for sexual gratification. The idea of being able to have it all—a primary partner and a diverse sexual life—is tantalizing. However, when the New York Times publishes articles on the joys of open marriage, it often gives short shrift to the very real pitfalls.

As a couples therapist, my clients are often struggling to manage the unresolved, unconscious issues open relationships bring up. The inconvenient truth is we bring our unprocessed issues to every relationship we’re in—particularly when we feel threatened by insecurity, anxiety, possessiveness, attachment issues, and jealousy. No matter how consciously an open arrangement may be negotiated,there are no guarantees that partners can maintain control of the situation or that love and sex will stay neatly compartmentalized. It gets messy.

All of these variables can complicate any marriage—opening it will only increase their volatility.

The problems only multiply in an open dynamic unless you’re dealing with people who are very communicative, psychologically secure and willing to live with disappointment, resentment, and frustration. Individuals who suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar and borderline disorders, addiction, trauma, abuse, and narcissism are inherently unsuited for this kind of situation.

Sometimes only one partner fares well in an open scenario while the other partner struggles and becomes resentful. Or worse, one partner falls in love with a secondary relationship and abandons the primary relationship altogether.

That’s the irony here: Transparency and full disclosure don’t ensure that no one gets hurt or betrayed. Children are often the first and most vulnerable casualties. And children are primarily the reason many couples get married in the first place: to create a stable structure for a family.

Sex advice columnist Dan Savage, a longtime proponent of "monogamish" marriage, says most gay couples inherently understand males need multiple sexual partners and have much less of a problem with incorporating the need for sexual variety into their partnerships than heterosexual couples do. But making the switch to a radically different paradigm is far more challenging if sexual fidelity is part of the foundation of your partnership.

And here’s the rub: Not only is it normal to be attracted to other people; it's normal to be curious about ways to explore those feelings. But there are no easy answers. If you’re contemplating opening your relationship, it might be wise to engage a therapist who can create a safe space for this discussion with your partner.

Here are a few important questions to ask as you begin to test the boundaries in your relationship:

1. Where is the line between privileging your personal sense of entitlement to happiness and prioritizing your relationship’s security and your partner’s feelings? How would you propose to avoid crossing that line were you to open your relationship?

2. Is frustration, boredom, or lack of interest within your relationship a shared responsibility, or are the feelings of discontentment something that is your responsibility to address?

3. Are passion, creativity, connection, adventure, and intimacy shared values in the relationship?

4. Are you asking your partner to shoulder those qualities?

5. What are the implications of an open scenario for you, your partner, and your children?

Sex therapist Esther Perel is absolutely correct in her assessment that long-term monogamy is buckling under the weight of the unrealistic expectations we have foisted upon it. While there are no easy solutions, there is room for thoughtful discussion. Before pulling a trigger, we can certainly become more compassionate, more curious, and more mindful about imposing our expectations onto our relationships or partners. And we can consciously nurture a sense of connection, joy, passion, and creativity between our partners and ourselves.

What if Your Partner Refuses to Go to Couples Therapy?

This is a very common question. There is trouble brewing in the relationship and you’re ready to reach out for help or you’ve been thinking about getting help for a long time. You’ve finally made the decision to act on it, but your partner refuses.  This can lead to tremendous frustration, depression, despair and even a sense of failure.

Many people have a strong resistance to the idea of therapy.  Maybe there is a fear of being vulnerable or a fear of being exposed in front of a therapist. But the solution isn’t badgering your partner into coming or giving him or her an ultimatum.  Couples therapy may not even be the right answer. 

First you must face the disappointment you feel when your partner refuses your call to make a partnership more conscious.  You may feel let down, rejected, devalued, and even abandoned in the relationship. But you can’t change if you keep circling back to the idea that the only way forward is coming to couples therapy.

It’s easy and justifiable to feel angry and resentful, but ultimately, it’s disempowering for you. When we move from a position of victimhood, we lose our sense of agency when we allow ourselves to be driven by despair.  And despair stems from a sense that the possibility of change is a closed door to you.

But when you decide to do individual therapy —it’s a step out of a habitual sense of powerlessness.  It’s the beginning of a new process and it can open up a completely different kind of conversation. Beyond the circular fixation around the conflict—and perhaps the illusion of control that we can fix it through sheer will power —we have to anchor the discussion in the light of the fact that any radical change will come from you.

Couples therapists often say that if you alter your behavior and your actions, you will inevitably change the relationship.  The relational dynamic will shift into more tension or more harmony.  Either way it will change.

The bigger question is how you can show up for yourself despite the resistance you encounter. How can you stay true to yourself in your pursuit of a more conscious way of relating? If the conflict has obscured and diminished your sense of worthiness, how can you strengthen your inherent capacity for love and belonging? 

You can think of the grief, disappointment and stuckness you feel-- as a call to reclaim yourself,  re-assert your sense of agency, and an opportunity to rekindle the parts of yourself that have become buried in the relationship. 

 

Worthy of Love

On the road to finding an ideal romantic partner, many of us think we need to strive for perfection first, or strive to be fully self actualized in order to be worthy of attracting a loving, long term companion. The thinking goes—once we’ve lost those 10 lbs, or taken up  Ashtanga yoga or started volunteering at the local  animal shelter, we’ll finally be ready for that perfect soul mate. 

Or conversely, we may be waiting for Mr. or Ms. Perfect with a long, carefully selected bucket list of qualities they need to possess in order to be worthy of our love.

This kind of thinking can blind us to our own inherent worthiness of love exactly as we are, imperfections and all. It may also completely blind us to the love that may already be in our experience or coming in our direction because we’ve pre-defined and limited love to only present itself in one specific package.

Most of us know that perfection is an un-attainable ideal. If perfection were required for love, humanity would have died out a long time ago.


And yet popular culture relentlessly reinforces the ideal of perfection. Couple that with society’s focus on individual empowerment and agency, it’s easy to think both perfection and love are things you can make happen by sheer force of will and determination.

But love is not something we can orchestrate or manufacture. We can’t choose who we fall in love with or force romantic connection and intimacy. We may have to surrender the idea that we can control this aspect of our lives. Acceptance is really important here. No amount of weight loss, e-harmony dates or even therapy is going to guarantee that you’ll find a soul mate. But what we can take heart in is that attracting love actually has nothing to do with perfection, ours or anyone else’s. 

Many of us feel that finding a romantic partner is the most important kind of love relationship we can experience as adults. We can become more open to loving connection by casting off the heavy goggles of perfectionism and either an inflated sense of entitlement or conversely, feelings of unworthiness and insecurity. Both positions fuel the perfection trap.

The fundamental truth is that we are all in relationships, whether in a committed romantic one, or not. We all have the possibility to strengthen and expand our connection to our sense of love in our lives, right in the present moment. No perfection required.

Deeply entrenched habits won’t dissolve in a day, but if we continue to bring mindful awareness to this subject, we can experience a shift in how we we relate to this issue. Romantic love is not something we need to acquire, although it is something that most of us feel is absolutely essential to a fulfilling life.

We all have an evolving relationship to our definition of love and if we choose to cultivate it, a deep capacity to express love as well. If we’re not constantly privileging one expression of love over every other kind, we’ll start to become more and more aware that love is in our field of experience.

 All the time.