Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

The only two emotions men are allowed to feel and why it's a problem.

It’s the answer I probably hate most when I ask a question: I don’t know. And as a therapist who works a lot with men and adolescent boys, I seem to get it a lot.

Me: Why do you think you responded that way?

Male Client: I don’t know.

Me: Did that response serve you in any way?

Male Client: I don’t know. 

Me: How did you feel afterwards?

Male Client: Fine. 

It’s a painful conversation. And sometimes I can feel my patience running thin when the dialogue has gone on like this for most of the session. However, my empathy has expanded significantly in recent years as I’ve sought to understand this interesting dynamic when men are asked about emotional experiences.

There are two main emotions that men seemingly feel most of the time: anger and apathy. It frustrates many when they try to emotionally connect with a male only to be met with hostility or indifference. It drives many to believe that men are simple, ignorant creatures who have no feelings or emotional intelligence. But is that really true? Do men really only feel anger or apathy? I find this hard to swallow. And that’s because it isn’t true.

First, we must look at the history of what we understand to be traditional masculinity and the ways deemed acceptable for men to relate to one another. In the 19th century, men in America had much more latitude to be affectionate and caring with other men. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at these pictures:

(Photos taken from Picturing Men by John Ibson, 2006)

No, these men aren’t expressing their repressed homosexual desires. This was a common way men engaged and showed affection to one another during this time. So what happened? Why are men afraid to show emotion today when they were so affectionate with each other not so long ago? A lot happened.

E. Anthony Rotundo explains the complicated history of male friendship in his book American Manhood. In the 20th century, many religious leaders and politicians began to decry homosexuality as being incompatible with true masculinity. And in the 1950’s, homosexuality was seen to be closely associated with Communism. That was enough to scare any guy into keeping his hands off other dudes. The Industrial Revolution also encouraged men to view one another as competition instead of friends. And with the increase of mobility and vehicles, men began following their work to other places, which made it difficult to sustain friendships along the way. Prior to this, proximity allowed friendships to remain more stable and ongoing. Now with more people driving places farther and farther away, friendships naturally suffered.

Also, as homosexuality became more talked about and more commonplace, so did homophobia. Men became scared to be “too close” to one another for fear of being labeled as “queer” or “gay.” And as the rise of homophobia increased, so did the rise of gender roles (the set of behaviors, actions, or attitudes that we assign to a certain sex). But what exactly is the male gender role and what does it actually promote? That’s a good question, and some researchers thought so too. In their studies, they found that the American male gender role encourages men to:

(1)   restrict emotions

(2)   avoid being feminine

(3)   focus on toughness and aggression

(4)   be self-reliant

(5)   make achievement the top priority

(6)   be non-relational

(7)   objectify sex

(8)   be homophobic.

The negative aspects of such a gender role have left many men in a predicament. See, we know that men and women both experience emotions—we have the research to prove it. It’s not whether or not men experience the full gamut of emotions like women do—it is in how they display their emotions that we find the biggest differences. In one study on empathy, researchers found that men and women experienced emotions pretty similarly physiologically. However, women showed much more emotion on their faces in most situations. And this would make since if men feel pressure to abide by the traditional male gender role—they wouldn’t feel permitted to display their emotions freely, as the female gender role encourages. So instead, they numb or stuff them.

But this is the point I want to make: when a male chooses to abide closely to the male gender role, to restrict his emotions and focus on toughness and aggression, something negative begins to happen to this male’s emotional development. The male psyche does not then know how to handle emotions at all—his or anyone else’s. So the man becomes emotionally stunted, angry, and apathetic. This is the guy who shuts down when his partner expresses anger or frustration. It’s the guy who doesn’t know how to deal with something sad so he turns to alcohol, sex, or Netflix. Or it’s the guy who lashes out in anger when criticized or confronted because he doesn’t know another way to handle the feelings of guilt, shame or embarrassment.  We all probably know this guy and we have the strict male gender role and our collective upholding of it to thank.

Shame researcher Brene Brown discovered an interesting finding in her research on emotions. She learned that we cannot selectively numb emotions. That is, when we choose to numb the negative emotions like sadness, shame, or guilt, we also simultaneously numb the positive ones like joy, excitement, or happiness.

I want to give the men out there a more fulfilling way of handling their emotions. It is possible to increase your ability to deal with your emotional experiences better and more maturely. The following model will hopefully help you do just that. It was originally created by Kennedy-Moore and Watson and provides a template to men who need some guidance in reclaiming their emotional lives. I took this version of the model from male researcher, Dr. Will Meek. It has been adapted in recent years:

1. Prereflexive Action: An event creates an automatic feeling that is due to a physiological change within the body. 

2. Awareness: We become aware of the physical sensation. Problems arise when we ignore the feeling or deny its existence. Ask yourself: What am I feeling? What are the symptoms?

3. Labeling: We give a name to the feeling we are experiencing. Problems arise when we do not name them appropriately, or have a lacking emotional vocabulary. Instead of properly labeling an emotion, we use words like “upset”, “bad”, or “weird”. To help yourself express your emotions, learn to accurately identify them by brushing up on your emotional vocabulary. If you need help, visit here to see the different ways emotions can be labeled.

4. Interpretation: We draw conclusions about what occurred to produce the feeling. Problems arise here when the cause is not acknowledged, there is a lack of attention to possible causes, or when there is a misattribution. When this is true, we say things like “I have no idea why I am feeling this way,” and place the cause on something that doesn’t truly connect to the feeling. Or, many blame another state, such as being “tired.” Ask yourself: What really caused the feeling?

5. Evaluation: We evaluate the feeling as being acceptable or unacceptable based on the situation, personal identity, personal history, and cultural expectations. Problems arise here when we view an emotion as unacceptable, or a reaction to something as illegitimate. Remember: emotions are acceptable and valid signals of something that is happening, or are an understandable reaction to something.

6. Decision: We make a decision to take action in response to the feeling (such as expressing it or confronting the thing that caused the emotion. We might tolerate the feeling without taking action, or seek relief from it by other methods (redirecting attention, artificially changing how we feel, using a defense mechanism, etc.). Problems arise here when there are real or perceived limitations on expression, fear of losing control, a low tolerance for negative emotions, use of unhealthy coping strategies, or lack of access to or education about healthy coping strategies or alternatives. Ask yourself: What would be a healthy way to cope with this emotion? What is the result of doing it? 

It’s a tedious process to begin handling emotions for the first time, but it’s also an invaluable one. Some men may scoff at the idea that they need to increase their emotional intelligence. But emotional intelligence adds so much to our lives. It improves physical health as you learn to manage stress better and become more aware of how things affect you. It improves relationships and decreases the tumult that can often plague our closest connections when emotions are not correctly identified and handled. It fosters healthier conflict resolution when you accurately read others’ emotions and can extend more empathy. Ultimately this fosters a stronger connection to the other person, which diffuses conflict rather quickly. And, finally, good leaders are emotionally intelligent. They lead people well and people are more apt to follow the leadership of someone they know gets the basics of the human emotional experience.

It takes practice, patience, and an ability to be courageous as you traverse into new territory. I wish you lots of courage on your journey, friend. Shoot me an email to let me know how it’s going as you start. I’d love to hear from you.