Cracking The Code On Men's Emotions

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”

-Helen Keller

Men have feelings. As a therapist, it feels almost silly to say this because it seems so obvious to me. Yet, the reality is that the emotions men have the 'green light' to feel and express are...limited.

Emotions are a part of being human. However, we are only now in the process of re-evaluating the way we have thought about emotions and masculinity for ages. And I mean, ages!

Think of the men in your life 1-2 generations before your own. What did masculinity look like for them? How did they express it?

And most importantly, how did that notion of masculinity shape YOUR life?

The prevailing ideas surrounding what masculinity is (and isn’t) affect all of us. Ever heard of toxic masculinity? Or, say, the patriarchy?

They are connected by a common thread: the potentially toxic way men experience and express their emotional lives (granted, this is a thread in a much larger tapestry).

The truth is that emotions are inseparable from nearly every aspect of the human experience:

Creativity

Love

Friendship

Parenting

Intelligence

Morality

Curiosity

Empathy

Learning

Identity

The list is endless. It’s astonishing to think that men are expected to be far from the reach of emotion! It’s like saying my hand is out of reach of my arm. Doesn’t make sense, right?

Let’s dive in and try to understand what is going on here.

This post will aim to address 3 questions:

How does early socialization impact the way men experience emotions?

How do men tend to express emotions?

What can we do to encourage boys and men to have healthier emotional lives?

"Boys Don't Cry"

There are certain emotions that are more difficult to express than others because they require vulnerability i.e. sadness and fear. Additionally, emotions that are involved in connection and intimacy often need us to let our guard down.

This applies to everyone, not just men.

However, boys are socialized every differently from girls when it comes to expressing their emotions!

Boys are primed from a very young age to suppress emotional expression.

Here are common phrases that communicate this message

“Toughen up”

“Don’t be a girl”

“Be a man”

“Get it together”

“Boys don’t cry”

These boys become young men who are encouraged and even rewarded when they mask sadness, fear, and nervousness with bravado.

These masks are carefully constructed, and very convincing- to the point where getting past the mask to the true emotional nature of a man is considered a bit of a game in the dating world.

When lack of emotion = manliness, young boys and men learn that to fit into the world of men, they must shut down their emotionality.

Not all emotions are suppressed though!

As a result of this constant pressure to suppress emotion and maintain a façade, certain emotions become more acceptable- namely anger, pride, and contempt.

In a world that rewards men for stoicism, anxiety and fear evoke feelings of shame. Therefore, being angry is more socially acceptable than being anxious, or afraid. 

Young Boys Are More Emotional Than Young Girls

Plot twist.

It's true- researchers at Harvard University Medical School found that from infancy through age 4-5, boys are actually MORE emotive than girls.

Moreover, applied psychologist Dr. Niobe Way concluded after 20+ years of research that in their early and middle adolescence, boys are capable of developing deep and meaningful friendships based in emotional honesty and intimacy.

Their ability to be vulnerable rivals that of adolescent girls.

So what happens? Well, unfortunately, we socialize the vulnerability out of them. By the time boys reach late adolescence and young adulthood, having close, meaningful relationships with friends and family is considered a threat to their facade of bravado.  

Whereas girls and young women tend to lean on their friends and family to meet their emotional needs, boys and young men are left untethered.

Where Does The Emotion Go?

Pushing emotions down and pulling off a disappearing act are two different things. It's important not to confuse a struggle to express emotions with a lack of emotion! The feelings may still be there, with limited options on where to go from here.

It's a good questions then- where does the emotion go? As humans, we usually cannot shut down that side of ourselves. Emotions tend to spill out in different ways when we don't express them.

Here are a few ideas on how this may look. It's important to note that none of this is exclusive to men. The purpose of the list is to show that we tend to cast the net wider when it comes to how men express emotion.

Changing The Emotion

Like I mentioned above, emotions that require vulnerability are particularly difficult to express. It is easier to cope with the shame of being sad, for example, by being angry instead.

Anger is a more stereotypically 'masculine' emotion. It is also a secondary emotion, meaning that it usually occurs as a response to a more basic and instinctual emotion like fear.

This switch to a more socially acceptable emotion is not a conscious process- most of the time we don't realize what we are doing until we reflect on why we are so angry.

Problem-solving Mode

Channelling energy into coming up with a solution is one way to 'override' the emotions. In therapy, I often notice that when a client is experiencing a challenging emotion, they want. to switch to problem-solving mode rather than stay with the feeling.

Focusing on fixing our problems keeps us busy, which often has the effect of keeping the emotions at bay.

For example, we may jump into taking care of the logistics of the funeral rather than allowing ourselves to feel the grief.

Externalizing Behaviour

Emotions in men can appear as externalizing behaviour, which directs the feeling outwards, rather than inwards.  

Example of externalizing behaviour include:

irritability

strained relationships

increased alcohol use

drug use

avoidance

physical complaints (i.e. headache)

Intense, Displaced, or Sporadic Emotions

If you silence your emotions long enough, they can come out in unexpected ways. When this occurs, it can be difficult to manage the reaction because key emotion regulation skills are not well developed.

The experience is overwhelming, which confirms that expressing emotions is not safe, feeding into silencing behaviour once again.

How Can Men Lead Healthier Emotional Lives?

Being able to express and talk about emotions is an important part of our overall wellbeing. Without it, we end up bottling up stress and burning out because others aren’t aware that we need support.

So, what can we do about it?

1. Encourage Healthy Emotional Development In Boys

The young boys and men in our lives need to know that emotions are nothing to be afraid of- they are a normal and healthy part of the human experience.

Here are some tips on doing this well:

1. Help children develop an emotional vocabulary. Without resources to draw from, young boys (and kids in general) simple don’t have the tools to make sense of their emotional world. Use feeling words when speaking to children. I.e. “You look sad. It’s okay to feel that way” or “I could see how happy you felt when you won today!”

2. Talk about your own feelings (without expecting the child to help you manage those emotions). This helps kids see that emotions are important at all stages of life. I.e. “I was so scared at that part of the movie. How did you feel?”

3. Aim to listen rather than problem-solve. Young boys are not used to adults simply letting them feel something without either rescuing them or trying to solve the problem. Show them that it’s okay to just feel the emotion without doing something about it immediately.

2. Connect Emotions To Bodily Sensations

We often forget that emotions exist not just in the mind, but in the body too! This can be a doorway to understanding them better. When we notice someone struggling to express their emotions, we can guide them to what is doing on their body (heart racing, goose bumps, rigid shoulders etc.)

The body is one of the first places we tend to override when we don’t want to feel something. Connecting emotions back to the body is easier for someone who is uncomfortable with emotional language (i.e. how are you feeling?).

3. Time And Appreciation

Complicated emotions can take some time to figure out. It can be difficult for those who have been discouraged from reflecting on their emotionality.

It’s okay to let some time pass to let him process and understand his feelings and reactions. Confrontation or forced dialogue can make people feel alienated and result in them shutting down.

Appreciation and positive encouragement can be very helpful too! We know that many men are actively discouraged to be emotional or talk about their feelings. Showing your appreciation and honouring the vulnerability and courage it takes to undo all of that is important.

Wrapping Up

Men are socialized into a narrative that the 'strong silent stoic' type of man is the ideal man. This causes many young boys and men to become very good at suppressing their emotions- unfortunately to their detriment.

I hope that this post shed some light on how we can recognize different forms of emotionality in men and encourage the men in our lives to connect with this important aspect of their own humanity.

I want to hear from you: Are you raising a young person or know anyone else who is struggling with expressing their emotions? How are you navigating this?

As always, if you have any questions about this topic or need some additional support, flip me an email, or book an appointment with anyone from my awesome team! You can also book a free phone consult at anytime.

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services