National Men’s Health Month | When Masculinity Meets Emotion
Updated: Jun 11, 2019
This June, we are celebrating National Men’s Health Month. Since mental health can play such a vital role in a person’s physical health, we have decided to focus on one critical component that doesn’t always get enough attention: emotions. Often times men are accused of being “emotionless,” “vacant” or “distant,” but if we look further into this topic, we will see that is hardly the case.
Specialists, such as Daphne Rose Kingma, author of The Men We Never Knew, have pointed out that men are taught from a young age not to cry or show emotion (1). It is no wonder men can find it difficult to express themselves in healthy ways. To put it bluntly, they have never been taught to show emotion. In fact, in many cases, they have been told to do the exact opposite.
These societal pressures have caused men to adapt by converting their emotions; ie. Exchanging sadness for anger (1). Society has deemed anger an emotion acceptable for men to display, but sadness has been labeled a predominately feminine emotion. Other times, men may present their emotional distress through physical ailments such as headaches or backaches (1).
But why is it so difficult for some men to show emotion? Simply put, it is the norm for their emotions and vulnerabilities to be socialized out of them (3). Sayings such as, “Man up,” or “Boys don’t cry” further ingrain the pattern of bottling up emotions in order to support one’s masculine identity.
Dr. Niob Way, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, conducted more than 20 years of research which led her to conclude adolescent boys are able to form deep and meaningful relationships just like their female counterparts. However, by the time they reach the age of 15 or 16, they no longer demonstrate those behaviors, and instead are left with the desire to have those relationships but no longer have the social capability to support them (3). This unresolved desire for close relationships can, undoubtedly, cause angst and irritability.
In general, women have strong support systems through friends, family, co-workers and significant others. However, most men received most of their emotional support and connectedness through their romantic partners (3). Therefore, they don’t have as many people to discuss their thoughts, ideas, and worries with. Many times, unloading heavy emotional distress onto a partner can be stressful in and of itself. This can lead people to avoid discussing difficult emotional situations with their partner in order to bypass the potential stress it could impose on a relationship.
Such emotional distancing can also be a result of a condition known as Alexithymia. Alexithymia is characterized by a person who experiences difficulty articulating their inner feelings into words (2). However, Alexithymia is only one reason a person may find it difficult to express their emotions. A partner’s response, the fear of being vulnerable or embarrassed, along with the pressure of social stereotypes can all act as barriers to those who try to express their emotions (3).
However, ignoring emotional tensions doesn’t alleviate them. In fact, often times, it makes those issues manifest into a larger set of emotional issues. Basic emotional needs failing to be met are often expressed by more “masculine emotions” such as anger, withdrawal, and even aggression. These reactions can perpetuate the problems of dis-ease and mistrust and lead to ongoing patterns of unhealthy emotion regulation and a lack of self-awareness (4).
In order to avoid these destructive behaviors, it is important for men and women to recognize the social pressures men face when it comes to sharing their emotions. Accepting that everyone has feelings, and is trying to deal with them the best way they understand how is critical to building a solid foundation in every relationship. Expressing those feelings is normal, healthy, and a way for people to navigate through the world.
Furthermore, spending some time being mindful of harmful emotional patterns can help to be proactive in uncomfortable situations. Being willing to be vulnerable, to share your feelings, and to accept the growth those actions will produce is also essential to learning how to be more open and honest about your thoughts and feelings (5). Surrounding yourself with other emotionally mature men, having conversations with them, and making time for yourself are all ways in which you can take time to reflect and modify your behavior to be more constructively open with those around you. This may require some difficult conversations, setting boundaries and exercising a bit of humility, but in taking the steps necessary to open up, you can relieve mental tension and become a healthier, happier, more emotionally responsible person.
1. Markway, Barbara (Ph. D.) “How to Crack the Code of Men’s Feelings.” PsychologyToday.com. January 18, 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-the-questions/201401/how-crack-the-code-men-s-feelings.
2. Henriques, Gregg (Ph. D.) “Why is it So Hard for Some Men to Share Their Feelings?” PsychologyToday.com. November 13, 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/201411/why-is-it-so-hard-some-men-share-their-feelings.
3. Reiner, Andrew. “Teaching Men to Be Emotionally Honest.” New York Times. April 4, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/10/education/edlife/teaching-men-to-be-emotionally-honest.html.
4. Shrira, Ilan. “Why Bottling Up Emotions is Central to Masculinity.” PshychologyToday.com. April 2, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-narcissus-in-all-us/201604/why-bottling-emotions-is-central-masculinity.
5. Subramaniam, Vishnu. “13 Signs of An Emotionally Mature Man.” MindBodyGreen.com. Retrieved from: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-23987/13-signs-of-an-emotionally-mature-man.html.