On Men, Emotion, and How We Fail Our Boys

on men.png

Pull yourself together. Walk it off. Man up. Stop being so sensitive. Brush it off. Are you crying? Little bitch. Stand up. Don't whine. Snap out of it. Boys don't cry. Grow a pair. Go cry to someone else. Don't be a sissy. What are you, a wuss? Lock it up. Rub some dirt on it. Sweat is just weakness leaving the body. Pussy. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Gonna cry to your Momma? Suck it up. Be a man. Tough it out. Buck up. 

Sound familiar to anyone? Depending on where you are, all 'genders' hear some versions of this, but in my region, folks walking around in male bodies experience a particularly vicious version.

One client summed it up nicely: "Just don't feel feelings." 

Women are also encouraged to stuff feelings and get praised for stoicism and suffering in silence, but there are sociocultural expectations that we at least privately share this suffering in sisterhood and verbally express our emotions, so the key is that even if we're dealing with some of the same issues, we generally face less alone-ness than our male counterparts. 

Males are taught that it's weak to share vulnerable feelings with each other, so there's not even an outlet. And on top of that, mainstream myths abound, like punching things or high octane exercise will do the trick instead of processing emotions. Research actually shows that trying to punch anger out/away really just amps you up and doesn't discharge the energy like many of us were taught.

Women may be told, "don't feel feelings" too, but men are told, "don't feel feelings AND don't you dare think about sharing them."


Oh, and males are then expected to *also* be able to grow up this way and then flip some magic switch when they're called to be in relationship. Instead, I listen to lots of female partners' criticizing, "Why can't you just be emotional with me?!" and insinuating their lovers are deficient or defective in some way. Guess how this lands on guys who have been primed to think on a spectrum from failure to success? 

Research shows that 'toxic masculinity' training starts tragically early in the lives of our little ones here in the US.

Last summer an article came out in The New York Times about "talking to boys the way we talk to girls," and I highly recommend it as an introduction to some of the research. 

A 2015 study (Pediatric Psychology) found that parents in emergency rooms talk differently to their children based gender. Mothers have been found (Pediatrics, 2014) to interact vocally with female daughters more often than sons. And it's not just moms; a study at Emory (2017) also found that dads sing/smile more at daughters; with sons, the language was achievement-focused, like "win," and "proud." 

It's also curious to note, traumatic stress changes brains of humans enculturated as males and those enculturated as females in differing ways according to Stanford researchers.

This makes tons of intuitive sense to my mind. When you're taught from the start to make sense of reality by taking your/others' emotions into consideration (empathize), and you are trained to connect (seek proximity) with others and co-create reality with shared language (communicate), in some respects you're better protected and insulated from aversive experiences and Trauma. 

This really started to click for me when I was listening to Vittorio Gallese lecture in NYC at Congress on Attachment and Trauma

Gallese and colleagues found that early aversive experiences (ACEs) alter facial mimicry of emotions as well as one's ability to emotionally regulate. If one experiences maltreatment as a child, as Gallese found studying boys living on the streets in Sierra Leon (2015), it can make it more difficult to recognize/read emotion in faces of others. 


Think about this for a moment. 

I started my counseling work with teens on probation and most of them came with diagnoses like "Conduct Disorder," and "Oppositional Defiant Disorder." Most of them also experienced profound abuse and/or neglect and ACEs. 

These kids were getting in fights not because they were "bad kids" or "thugs" as many of their teachers and POs thought, but potentially, according to Gallese's findings, also because they were misreading faces. If you see anger or aggression where it's not really (type I error), or you fail to see fear or sadness on a face (type II error), you can end up responding with inappropriate behavior. 

What's beyond fascinating is that as virtual embodiment studies emerge, we're seeing research that suggests that having a virtual experience where you see yourself as someone else and experience the world from another perspective can actually help increase your skills at reading and interpreting faces accurately. 

You can get better at emotion-ing with others! This turns a lot of theories on their heads that suggest your level of empathy is a kind of static thing that can't shift. 

If violent abusers are better able to see fear and pain in facial expressions after being immersed in a virtual experience, imagine the implications of this tech! 

Also, think about how our criminal justice institutions, then, systemically punish people who were punished already in early life by ACEs. This is the heart of the ethical terrain to me. 

If you're into tech, philosophy, and ethics, I highly recommend checking out work by Thomas Metzinger. An accessible way to get into his work might be an article from The New Yorker by Joshua Rothman, "Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality?" Stanford's Jeremy Bailenson also knows his stuff and is accessible for a variety of readers. I recommend his, "When Does Virtual Embodiment Change Our Minds?"

From where I sit as a clinician, the view honestly gets pretty heartbreaking. I see these themes again, and again, and again in work with relationships, particularly hetero couples. Especially when there's Trauma history. 

The heartache comes from seeing the caustic emotion-dismissing culture males are steeped in from the get-go, and watching clients who identify as men being pulled into counseling by their collars like naughty boys for not properly emotion-ing with female partners, who have been trained by society since the get-go to speak the language of emotion and interpersonal connection. 

Remember learning the definition of a double bind maybe in Psych 101? Double bind: "a situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action."

We systematically tell boys and men that it's not safe/hip/attractive/necessary to be attuned and "emotional" or "sensitive." Then as soon as they partner up, they're faced with two scary options: share feelings or face an angry/disapproving partner. 

Or worse, try to share feelings to an angry/disapproving partner, and any communication skills that are there go offline when prefrontal cortex peaces out and leaves you with fight/flight/freeze/submit brains. Then it becomes this self-fulfilling, "See? You can't do this emotion thing!" 

And people who were raised identifying as female can often take for granted just how much enculturation and training we received from pretty much everyone around us in direct and covert ways. Obviously this is a broad stroke and there are certainly males whose experiences called them to develop traits that have historically been associated with femininity, like empathy and communication skills. 


Let me just share a quick, final little secret with you which is the opposite of what so many clients come in for counseling thinking: men have emotion and women have libido.  

Men don't exist solely in the physical plane and women don't exist solely in emotion. The whole "men are from Mars women are from Venus" thing is passé. 

Also, because researchers' papers that don't find exciting 'gender differences' often get shoved in a drawer since they're not "interesting" enough to publish, there's actually quite an exaggerated sense that humans are wired really differently based on 'gender.'

Sure, hormones absolutely color our realities differently and when pressed by colleagues who worship at the altar of evolutionary biology I can acknowledge a certain level of differences that can be attributed to sex, but at the core of our DNA is the same message regardless of what's between your legs: get close to other people or you will die. You'll hear that in the research as "proximity-seeking behaviors." 

In any case, I am feeling moved and inspired by the outpouring of articles over the past year or so calling for us to expand the definition of "masculinity" to be more inclusive and "redefining masculinity." Let's keep this conversation going! Our world depends on it.