For generations, women have complained about the men in their lives being stoic, flat, unemotional, and even like robots. Whether it is their father, boss, or significant other, many women find it nearly impossible to get an emotional response to the question, “How are you feeling?” Keep in mind this phenomenon is not exclusive to men, as we certainly see some women end up in this place, just as we know there are some men who are very capable of being emotional. In clinical practice, it seems about 80% of men struggle with emotions and about 10-15% of women struggle with expressing emotions. In this three-part series, we will discuss how so many men come to be so emotionally restrained. In the second article, we will discuss how it is that men are able to interfere and hamper their own emotional expression. In the final article, we will discuss the path back to emotionality for our men.
The Two Part Emotional Process
When it comes to feelings, there are broadly speaking, two main components to the process: the experience and the expression. We see many men who believe they are quite in touch with their internal experience of emotions in that they can label and identify what they are feeling on the inside. Some guys are confused about what they are experiencing, and others rarely feel anything on the inside. Where most guys fall down is on the expression side of the fence, meaning they do not let their emotions out whether it is with words, emotional expressions like crying, or journaling one’s feelings. Most guys tend to stuff and ignore their emotions.
There are a number of developmental processes going on from childhood, to adolescence, and to adulthood. We develop physically, intellectually, socially, and also emotionally. What is interesting about the emotional developmental process is that all kids (boys and girls) start out at the beginning of development with no control over their emotions. All infants and toddlers simply have an emotion (experience) and it automatically and uncontrollably comes out (expression). We often see toddlers every day having tantrums in the grocery store or crying about some injustice and unfairness. These emotions run their course and the child moves on with their day having processed and emoted the feelings. As children continue to grow and develop, they begin to gain some mastery and control of their emotions, what we might call healthy control. Often between the age of 6-10 kids are able to regulate their emotions better. They are able to moderate the intensity and duration and even contain the emotion to process at a more opportune time. Where we see many young boys go awry is when they take the healthy control too far and start to overcontrol their emotions. These young boys and men begin to suppress their emotions and rather than wait for a good time to process their emotions, they ignore, stuff it, and end up warehousing a lot of old emotions that begin to accumulate.
Reasons Why Guys Don’t Express Their Emotion
Simply having the ability to suppress emotion, doesn’t really explain why many boys actually choose to do it. Let’s look at some of the common reasons why young boys are stuffing their feelings.
- Cultural Influence: Many people remember the iconic actor John Wayne who starred in a number of 1950 western films. He was the epitome of a man’s man. He was rough, macho, individualistic, strong, and unflappable. His characterization and depiction of a man only took the screen in the 1950s but represented an ideal that had been around for generations before John Wayne came to the screen. This image and persona has been passed on from generation to generation sometimes spoken, many times not, and became the template for what it means to be a man. Having and expressing emotions was not a part of that template. In fact, it was the opposite and historically represented weakness. On the opposite extreme, most women grew up being supported and nurtured for the emotional expressions, albeit mostly from other women in their lives. Most women get to experience and express the whole spectrum of emotions and they are supported for doing so, with the possible exception of anger, which historically has been frowned upon by women expressing.
- Cultural Messages: We have worked with many men who vividly recall growing up in an era where between the ages of 5 and 10 they began hearing messages that discouraged their emotionality. These messages came from stories, movies, teachers, peers, and even their own parents who loved them the most. Many young boys remember hearing things like, “Real men don’t cry”, “I’ll give you something to cry about”, “Are you a chicken or a pussy”, “Don’t be such a cry baby”. The very clear unspoken message to our young boys was that it was not ok to have and express the feelings that were occurring and they were experiencing.
- Role Modeling: Even when we put the societal role models aside and we look to the home, most boys did not have good emotional role models. Young boys inherently look to their fathers for what it means to be a man, a husband, and a father. Most men we speak with say they rarely if ever saw their fathers’ cry. In fact, most say they never saw any real emotional expression, except for anger. When young boys are struggling with their emotions, they tend to look to dad to see what he does with his emotions. Unfortunately, for our youth, there wasn’t much to draw upon there.
- Life Events: There can be any number of life events that can serve to deter someone from expressing emotions. In clinical practice, we often hear stories from clients detailing specific events where they made a conscious decision to stop expressing their emotions. This may have been a family member or loved one berating or attacking the emotional expression, or we often hear stories of youth being emotional at school and being taunted, laughed at, or ridiculed, after which they made a clear decision to never do that again.
These are just some of the most common variables that impact and cause boys and men to suppress their emotionality. In the next article, we will talk about how boys and men go about restricting and stuffing their feelings, something that initially took some conscious effort. If you are interested in exploring your own emotional inhibitions and the impact it may be having in your life, feel free to contact IPC so you can schedule a consultation with one of our psychologists or therapists so we can help discuss treatment options. Please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete a thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.
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