"So do men like... I don't know... talk to each other about what they're feeling?" My father-in-law from the Deep South that is Meridian, Mississippi, burst into laughter. Like from the gut, how-is-that-even-a-sincere-question type of laugh. He had just gotten back from a hunting trip. I mean I don't know, I can only assume there will be whiskey and a fire burning at some point. He had shared stories of the old days and smoking peyote out in West Texas. The man has some soul to him. Surely some sort of depth conversation would arise. Instead, I might as well have been asking about how his tap-dancing lessons were going.
WTF do men do with their feelings? Seriously? I was raised with two older brothers. All 3 years apart, I was raised right: on Nirvana, sarcasm, and an epic ability to cram my emotions down into the ground. Just bury that crap down into the earth, ya know? Next to the dead hamsters of our childhood. It took me ages to figure out how to sort through my emotions and talk about them in a healthy way. I literally didn't have a clue how to do that. I think it's partly why I got along better with men in my younger years. We were awesome at having fun and avoiding the intimacy that comes with emotional openness. That thing that requires, UGH... vulnerability. At most we might get to a "hey, we cool? Ok cool." I remember asking my husband what he thought about vulnerability. He hated it. "Isn't that the same as weakness?", he asked. "NO", I blurted out in a Tourette's-like fashion through sadness, anger, and welled up eyes. It is most definitely not the same thing as weakness. Is that what our men think that is? This was getting too f*cked up for my liking. Tap dancing... Where do the feelings go?
I decided to take my investigation further. I asked the two closest men to my office. "I'm doing research on men and feelings." After having to clarify my request: yes, I did mean men AND feelings, I got down to some pretty prime answers: "Drunk?" I don't think that counts as an emotion, no. "I don't have emotions" was my other favorite response. I asked my husband about his feelings and he broke down my doctoral training in about 5 seconds flat: "happy, sad, horny, angry." I don't even think he took his eyes off of the Formula 1 race on our flat screen TV. He was actually not that far off at all. Our most recent research points to four basic emotions: Happy, sad, afraid/surprised, angry/disgusted with a plethora of emotions that stem off of this core. If we were to give our men 4 basic emotions that cut across all of humanity, we set them up for two, MAYBE three of these to be expressed. Anger would be a primary one and that's partly because anger is what happens when we bottle our emotions - all we can see is hot, ambiguous red. That's INSANITY. I feel about a thousand different emotions before I'm done with my Cheerios.
"Honestly, I try to talk about [my feelings] in a logical way but sometimes it just feels futile after a while."
I asked one of my male subjects with a sincere and overwhelming curiosity, "what are you feeling right now?" "Sweaty," he says with a wise ass grin. I smiled. It was a warm day I'll give him that. I tried again. I asked about what men do with their emotions. "Honestly, I try to talk about them in a logical way but sometimes it just feels futile after a while." It started to reach a what's-the-point barrier. I hear this kind of thing a lot from my men in therapy. They say that they try to communicate how they feel but they don't feel like it gets received well from their partners so they just shut down or as my other subject states, internalize. Crap. Is it possible that they're actually making more of an effort to show up than we're realizing? One thing that's played out in my own world is that I'm the one with all the feels. With few emotional needs being expressed on my partner's side, I recognized how easy it was for me to take up room for my own feelings. It was tempting as hell to bypass his emotions when they weren't in plain sight. It fueled a dynamic that didn't really suit either of us for the long term. After all, we're two happy, sad, horny, angry people.
One of the men I was speaking with shared similar reflections after a serious romantic relationship came to an end. It made him think. "I realized my emotions were dictating my behavior and I just didn't want that to be the case anymore." The logic in this response made we want to explode on the inside with a mighty YES. "Did people talk about feelings in your family?", I asked. More laughter. That was a no. He learned from trial and error. His life experiences helped him learn about himself and it assisted him in prying it out of his (now) wife when she would use similar tactics. If only we could just shove our emotions in a jar and live in peace, right?
"It's actually pretty hard to talk to other men about feelings. I don't know why. It's hard to explain."
The other problem was there was less of an opportunity to talk about emotions. Period. We give our women a bajillion more opportunities for expression. Mix that with hormones, societal norms, and neuroplasticity and you have two very different outcomes between men and women in the realm of emotion. My male subject continued, "it's actually pretty hard to talk to other men about feelings. I don't know why. It's hard to explain." The reality of this stinks in the worst way. I could give two craps about whether or not men get their emotional needs met via hunting, hashing it out in a journal, or what as long as they do it and do it in a way that brings real resolve to processing their experiences. They deserve that. WE deserve that.
If you're a human, it's in your best interest to know what you're feeling so you can make your best decisions and avoid unnecessary frustrations. Emotional intelligence also makes us more resilient so we not only make better decisions, we also bounce back faster. We learn to respond rather than react. In session, my men are absolutely amazing. They don't show their internal world to everyone but they are seriously incredible and if I'm being fully honest, it feels even more special because I understand how dang hard it is for our men to have a space for themselves to open up, get deep, and evolve at an emotional level. It's hard to grow in the dark.
>>> The things that helped these men open up about their feelings to others? A genuine desire to understand their experience and open-ended questions as opposed to criticism. They emphasized the criticism.
So how else can we help out our dudes? I got a big wake-up call when reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. I can't remember it word-for-word, but what I took from it was this powerful image from Wizard of Oz. When our men finally pull back the curtain and do open up, don't just hop in there with your opinions, criticisms, or judgments. I've heard it from numerous men in my world. Their vulnerability means giving up a lot of power. It's an honest to God piece of who they are and they don't want to have it thrown back at them. I remembered my "NO" moment when I asked my husband about vulnerability and what that means to him. Was I inadvertently shaming my man when he finally opened up like I asked him to? Huh. Pinning that one on the board for further reflection on my part. The last thing I would ever want to do is invite my man to share more of himself just to come down hard on him. I watch my reactions more carefully now and don't make a big deal of things when he shows up. I validate and try to better understand where he's coming from. It's helpful for both of us.
The author of Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel (video here), also had some interesting insights. GOOD LORD I LOVE BEING A THERAPIST. We read the most fascinating things. When our men get such few forms of emotional expression in our society, the outlet of sexual expression can be a big one. Particularly as a female, my focus has been more on empowering women rather than men when it comes to sex for a plethora of obvious reasons. Sexual expression is a nonverbal avenue to show up, be vulnerable, and intimate with their partner. It's also why therapists explore underlying emotional disruptions when sexual dysfunction occurs. A lot of psychological baggage can manifest down under. Expectations abound and so do all of the pressures that come with performing. I hesitate to leave things there because sex is such a huge topic for all genders, but for the sake of focus here, vulnerability can show up massively in the bedroom and everyone's trying to figure out how to navigate that. The bedroom is a great place to create security and safety of expression. When called for, stroke that vulnerable ego (or whatever) and don't hesitate to verbalize what you want too. Intimacy is intimacy.
To the men out there: don't get left in the stone ages despite all of the ridiculous ways we set you up for it. There are more ways to deal with emotion than bottling things up, video games, or "stuffing it down with brown" at the bar. Making room for emotions will help you refine your own capacity to understand yourself and your relationships. It will help you in your happiness, in Love, success in business, and other personal areas. For the record, vulnerability is hard. Otherwise we wouldn't be burying our emotions. It might seem counter-intuitive, but understanding and sharing your feelings will actually help you be more in control and not dictated by the things crawling around in the basement. To the women and loved ones of men who struggle with emotional expression: your man probably isn't a sociopath and you're definitely not alone. It's just that the struggle is real. Let's do a better job of supporting each other.