Contra Costa Men’s Center eNews

  The “Feelings” Toolkit:

An Essential Guide for Guys, Part 1

By Steven Freemire, MFT, CCMC Director

Fall 2013


Just as every skilled carpenter needs a well-stocked toolkit, boys and men need

a “feelings” toolkit to lead healthy and productive lives. In this article, the first

of a two-part series, CCMC provides an instructional guide on how to identify what

we are feeling by tracking the physical sensations in our bodies and our thoughts.

By Steven Freemire, MFT, CCMC Director

The “Feelings” Toolkit: An Essential Guide for Guys

The Four Primary Feelings: Anxiety, Sadness, Anger and Happiness 1

“If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.”

Anyone who has ever done a construction project knows the importance of having

the right tools. As a start, our toolbox would likely include: a tape measure; a

hammer; an adjustable wrench; a utility knife; Vise-Grips; and a set of socket wrenches. 2

And, depending on the job, we may need drawings or plans, or an instruction manual.

If we were to attempt to build a desk without following any plans and using only a

hammer, we would be seriously hampered in how well and how easily we could build it.

That is the predicament many boys and men find themselves in when it comes to

our emotional lives. In that realm, a well-stocked “feelings” toolkit would include a

set of skills enabling us to:

  1. 1. Know what we are feeling (self-awareness) 

  2. 2. Manage our emotions and reactions (self-management)

  3. 3. Harness our emotions to take action and work toward goals (motivation)

  4. 4. Recognize and understand what others are feeling (empathy)

  5. 5. Use this knowledge to build and manage relationships at home and in the world (social skills) 3

Many men are taught to prize logic and reason, and fear that emotions will cloud

our thinking. Indeed, if we don’t have the skills to interpret and integrate our

feelings, they may well paralyze us or misguide us. The answer is not to ignore or

override our feelings; rather, it is to use them as important information that can

help us make well-considered decisions, take decisive action, and build better


Unfortunately, guys have been humiliated or shamed for showing our more tender

feelings. If a boy gets hurt on the playing field and starts crying, he may be teased

for being a sissy or sternly commanded to stop crying, buck up and be a man. If a

guy shows fear when facing a daunting challenge, he may be teased for what is

actually a healthy response. Experiences like these have taught many males to hide

those more vulnerable parts of themselves, first by not showing them and

eventually by cutting off from the feelings entirely to lessen our vulnerability to

being hurt.

Not surprisingly guys may turn to coping mechanisms such as alcohol, drugs, porn or

compulsive sex, and even an excess of pleasurable activities such as watching

sports and playing video games, to numb ourselves from or override our feelings.

As a result, many males do not develop a full range of emotional skills; and for some

men, in what is the equivalent to having only a hammer in our toolbox, we may feel

and express one emotion above all others: our anger.

Two Eye-Opening Studies

In a landmark study, Harvard researcher George Vaillant 4 tracked two groups of men

over a 60-year period to determine what makes for happiness later in life.

Men who had struggles with careers in mid-life and physical sickness and emotional

pain in later life were more likely to have expressed anger through explosive

outbursts or dealt with it by burying it deep within themselves. By contrast, those

men who were happy and successful demonstrated a sense of comfort and

acceptance of their emotional lives, and an ability to talk about their emotions. 5

In another research project, psychologist Stefanie Spera 5 studied a group of

unemployed engineers, most of them men in their 50s, who had worked at a Dallas

computer company for thirty years before being laid off. One group went about

their job search as usual, while another group added one additional strategy: they

wrote for twenty minutes a day for five consecutive days about their deepest

thoughts and feelings related to the layoffs and how it affected them personally

and professionally.

Eight months later, 53 percent of the writing group had found full-time

employment compared to 14 percent of the non-writing group even though both

groups had gone on the same number of job interviews.

Because that difference was statistically very significant, the researchers

concluded that the writing group had found a way to come to grips with their anger

and hurt over being laid off, and were able to better put those feelings behind

them and present themselves more effectively in their interviews.

Keys To Assembling A Well-Stocked “Feellngs” Toolkit For Boys And Men

1. Step One: Read the “Feelings Instructional Manual”

Over the years I have purchased furniture from places like Ikea or Target that

required assembly. The instructions always say to make sure you have all the parts

and to read the instructions fully before proceeding.

On occasion, I have done that, but on others, I was impatient and didn’t take the

time. Bad move! I had to disassemble an entire desk when I realized I had skipped

a critical step at the beginning. Another time I had spent several hours by the time

I discovered for one set of shelves I had two “left sides” instead of 1 right and 1

left, and had to return the whole thing to the store and start all over.

What does an instruction manual have to do with boys and men and their feelings?

Everything. Not infrequently males are so conditioned to want to fix problems that

we may give in to our first impulse to act without surveying what is motivating us

and then assessing what is needed. Our impulsive actions might be best described

as “Ready! Fire! Aim!” We may be firing before we aim because we don’t know what

we are feeling. Or in other cases, such as when we are “blind” with rage, we may be

firing wildly because we are experiencing feelings so intensely that we don't know

how to modulate them.

To act effectively, we first need to read and understand the “blueprint” of our

feelings before we plunge into action. We have at our disposal two essential

sources of information: the physical sensations in our bodies and our thoughts.

In her practical and valuable book, “The Emotional Toolkit,” UCLA Professor Darlene

Mininni, PhD, identifies what she calls “The Four Primary Feelings: Anxiety,Sadness,

Anger and Happiness. (Or, as I often reference them, “Afraid, Sad, Mad and Glad”).

As a first step in assembling our “feelings toolkit,” here is a concise checklist and

“Operations Manual” for understanding and identifying these primary emotions:

Anxiety: Generally involves a speeding up; associated with fear about a threatening

               situation in the future and a belief you can’t cope

1. Body: Racing heart, tense muscles, knotted stomach, sweating, dry mouth, feeling

   on edge, shaking, shallow breathing, and difficulty sleeping

2. Thoughts: Thoughts racing and focused on worries about what will happen in the

    future. Often involves the thoughts, “what if.” Two types of fears:

  1.   Fear of danger (bodily harm, illness, death)

  2.   Fear of loss (of a job, relationship, status, opportunities, your reputation,

            your self-confidence).

Key questions to ask in identifying anxiety:

  1. 1.What do I notice happening in my body and how might that suggest I am afraid of something?

2. What am I afraid of losing in the future?

Sadness: Typically experienced as a slowing down and associated with an actual or

                anticipated experience of loss, rejection or failure

  1. 1.Body: Tiredness, heaviness, a shift in appetite, oversleeping or the inability

   to sleep, tearfulness or crying.

  1. 2.Thoughts: Focused on actual loss (loved one who has died, a road not taken in our

    career or personal lives, a falling short of our expectations of ourselves) or

    anticipating possible future loss.

Key questions to ask in identifying sadness:

1. What do I notice happening in my body and how might that suggest I am sad about something?

2. Is there some actual or possible loss about which I might be upset?

Anger: Often associated with injustice or unfairness, of having been wronged

            or criticized unjustly.

  1. 1.Body: Similar to anxiety, involves a speeding up, and often involving a rush of energy

    that wants to be expelled or it feels like something will burst in us. Frequently

    accompanied by tension in the jaw or chest, hands clenched.

  1. 2.Thoughts: Generally focused on the source of injustice, the person or situation you

    feel has wronged you.

NOTE: Anger can mislead us! What we think is about being wronged might instead

hide an underlying sadness or fear, or even embarrassment and shame. With boys

and men especially, anger is often more accessible than those more vulnerable

feelings. In the case of “defensive anger,” we may blame others instead of looking

inside and owning up to the embarrassment or shame we feel for our own poor

choices (such as a teen boy who blames his parents instead of recognizing his own

responsibility for what happened).

Key questions to ask in identifying anger:

  1. 1.What is happening in my body and might that be a clue that I feel angry?

  2. 2.What is the wrong that has been done to me?”

  3. 3.Might I be experiencing fear or sadness underneath the anger instead of

    truly being wronged or violated?

  1. 4.Might I be blaming others for something I feel embarrassed or ashamed

    about my part in (and may not even fully realize)?

Happiness: Usually involves gain that enhances our sense of pleasure and contentment

  1. 1.Body: Can be a speeding up of feelings when elated (racing heart, fast breathing, smiling) or a more quiet feeling of lightness (relaxed muscles, calm, slow breathing)

  2. 2.Thoughts: Focus is on something pleasurable added to our life and the well being that comes with that (i.e., getting into college that will lead to good times and success, or learning to play basketball or a video game that brings a greater sense of competence and expectation of good times playing with others)

Key questions to ask in identifying happiness:

1. What do I notice happening in my body and how might that reflect me feeling happy?

2. What have I gained? What might I gain?

Step 2: Put The Manual To Work Every Day:

Now that you have this “Operations Manual” for identifying feelings, go through

this checklist regularly to assess how your feelings may be connected to what is

happening. As you make this more and more of a habit, you will get increasingly

conversant with knowing what you are feeling.

To identify if certain feelings are a problem, ask yourself:

  1. 1.Is it causing me to feel distressed?

  2. 2.Is it negatively affecting my ability to work or play?

  3. 3.Is it negatively affecting my relationship with others?

If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes," then it will be important to dig

into your "feelings toolkit" to help you manage and process what you are feeling so

you can eliminate the problems they are causing in your life. These are the tools we

will provide in Part 2 of this article.


A well-stocked “feelings” toolkit starts with following the “instruction manual” to

identify our feelings using our body sensations and thoughts. The more we know

about our inner experience, the better we can respond to others, and to challenges

and opportunities in our lives. The more we cut off or numb ourselves to our

experience, such as with alcohol, sports, video games, gambling or other addictive

activities, the more we likely we are to be stumbling in the dark and to have to

depend on others as our guides. Once we can name what we are feeling, and also

have some idea why, we can then use additional tools to regulate and manage our



1. Attributed to American Financier Bernard Baruch

2. “The Modern Man’s Toolkit” – Toolmonger,

3. (“Emotional Intelligence: Why is it Important?”

Lifehack; why-important.html)

4. “Aging Well,” Valliant, George, MD

5. Mininni, Darlene, PhD, “The Emotional Toolkit,” pp. 186-87.


Mininni, Darlene, PhD, “The Emotional Toolkit,” St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2005.

Return to Articles Page