When was the last time you asked a man in your life – any man that you know well – how he feels? Not what he thinks. Not what he should or should not do. Not even what he expects what will happen, next. But, how he feels.
To hear some people tell it, men lack emotion. And, in some cases, this is absolutely true! In studying perpetrators of violence, I am reminded of this constantly. In other cases, I see that men’s emotions have not been nurtured, going all the way back to boyhood, and therein lies the prevailing issue.
Not in the same way that women’s emotions were nurtured during their adolescent years. Even now, as a parent, I hear parents telling their sons to shake it off. AKA: Don’t allow yourself to feel (insert an emotion here); instead, son, act like it never happened. Or maybe the phrase, act like a man resonates more. Maybe even toughen up. No matter the phrase, though, the end result is typically the same – do not show emotion.
Unless it’s happiness, then, yeah, men can experience those good feelings. Anger, yes. Frustration’s okay.
Anything else is met with shake it off.
So we end up actually having three prevailing issues. First, men are taught to turn off emotions, save for just a few. Men can experience the joy and jubilation of winning a game, match, or landing an internship. Similarly, when men are frustrated by that same game, match, or internship (for any reasons), that’s also okay. Anything else in between is not. It’s not nurtured and not discussed.
Which brings me to the second issue: Because we teach men to not express emotion, we rob men of the language to communicate their emotional states. Language is important. It’s one thing to not feel loneliness, for instance. It’s another thing to feel lonely, and not know how to label it.
Sadly, for many men, given those two dynamics, emotional expressions other than happiness and frustration often expresses as frustration and anger (point #3). If I’m happy, it express as happy. If I am lonely, not only do I not know the language to convey how I feel, that feeling expresses as frustration and anger. So unless I’m happy, I’m angry…even when I’m not.
For many of us, this is not new. So let’s fast forward into adulthood and how this manifests itself. Imagine a husband has a significant other who is unable to conceive. Are we asking how he feels? How he’s coping with things? How he is taking care of himself? Sure, we’ll almost demand that he take care of his significant other – and for good reason! But what about his emotional welfare? When does/should/is that allowed to come into play for him?
When the couple has the baby, we laugh as the man jokes about buying a shotgun, now that he has a daughter. But what are the emotions behind that façade? Are we asking him to identify them? The joy and happiness. The insecurities. The guilt or shame. The overwhelming feeling of parenthood.
Let’s say that men loses his job — in addition to asking how many applications he’s completed on any particular day, are we asking how he’s feeling? Like a failure, unable to do the one thing he’s been working towards for years? Perhaps relieved that he can spend time finding his passion?
When a different joyous moment occurs – a promotion, coming out, buying a car for the first time – are we, as friends and family members, helping him to nurture the myriad of emotions? As confusing as they may be. Untangle the web. Help him to make sense out of it all.
Now, certainly I don’t expect other people to take responsibility for men or men’s actions. When a man expresses anger by throwing a video game controller, that is his issue to sort through. Not yours or the video game’s.
And yet, the phrase Yes, And comes to mind.
Yes, I’m not asking my family and friends to do the work for men. And at the same time, I am asking my family and friends to show the same amount of interest in the emotional welfare of the men in your lives as you show for the women.
Two things – seemingly opposite – can both be true, and both have their places in the world. Just as we nurture girl’s emotions – enabling them to grow and become emotionally intelligent and emotionally available beings, so too can we nurture boys’.
We want men to show compassion and empathy and warmth, now, as their adult selves. So the next time you’re speaking with a man in your life, ask how they feel. And don’t stop when they answer what they think. Certainly this isn’t to suggest that we do more for men, or do this for men. Instead, just as we ask women how they feel, so too can we ask men how they feel.
This is an open-letter to my friends and family, about men and emotions. Maybe yours are different. I hope that is the case. I want the lineage of displaced anger to end with me; and not get passed onto my sons.