Men and Emotions

Emotions are important to optimal life functioning, but due to conditioning and socialization, many men in our society tend to be at a disadvantage when it comes to recognizing, understanding and managing them. This is largely due to the way we have historically raised and treated boys in US culture. Fortunately, it is possible increase one’s understanding of emotions and learn to manage them more effectively.

What are emotions?

Emotions are a response to stimuli involving:

  • Body reactions or physiology
  • Thoughts or interpretations
  • Behavior or actions

Researchers have identified a number of primary human emotions from which all others are derived such as joy, acceptance, fear, submission, sadness, disgust or contempt, anger, and anticipation.

Why are emotions so important?
Emotions provide important information about one’s self, others, and the environment.  The ability to identify, understand, use and manage emotions has been called emotional intelligence.  Better emotional intelligence has been linked to:

  • better health
  • better relationships
  • increased self awareness
  • access to a wider range of information
  • better adaptability to change

Higher emotional intelligence is correlated to increased intimacy in relationships.  The sharing of emotions increases closeness, which is especially important in relationships. This has been demonstrated in a number of research studies. In addition, a lack of closeness is a major reason for the dissolution of many romantic relationships.

Emotional Intelligence is also important for parenting.  Children learn most lessons about emotions from their parents including the ability to:

  • control impulses
  • delay gratification
  • motivate themselves
  • read other people’s social cues
  • soothe themselves and cope with life’s ups and downs

There appear to be a number of health benefits correlated with higher emotional intelligence.  Research has shown unhealthy management of emotions such as anger and anxiety can lead to a host of problems such as:

  • substance abuse
  • aggressive or thrill-seeking behaviors
  • other mental health problems
  • heart disease
  • immune system problems

If emotions are so important, why are they so hard for some men to grasp?
There’s actually a word for low emotional intelligence:  alexithymia, literally meaning “lack of words for emotions”.  Researchers have found that a mild-to-moderate form of alexithymia is widespread in our society, especially among men, who often seem to lack conscious awareness of their emotions.

  1. Emotions are a very abstract concept.  You cannot hold an emotion in your hand and examine it.
  2. Emotions get a bad rap – being emotional is seen as “out of control”, weak, or vulnerable.
  3. Certain biological factors may differ between the sexes.

Emotions in Men vs. Women

  • The amygdala plays a key role in both emotional reactions and emotional memories. Research has shown that the female amygdala tends to be more efficient in processing information.  This may be why women seem to recall more emotional memories more quickly, and their memories tend to be richer and more intense.
  • Women have a stronger connection between the hemispheres of the brain (called the corpus callosum).  The left side of the brain is considered the logical side while the right is seen as the emotional side.  Women have been shown in research to use more of both hemispheres when they talk, while men primarily use their left.
  • Men may be more sensitive to emotional arousal and thus avoid emotional stimuli.  Researchers have found higher levels of stress hormone in men’s bloodstreams when exposed to emotional stimuli and it takes much longer for their blood pressure and immune system to return to normal than with women.
  • Men have more testosterone than women, which may work against emotional intelligence.  A study demonstrated that the higher a baby’s level of fetal testosterone, the less eye contact the child makes at age 1 and the smaller his or her vocabulary is at 18 months.  By age 4, children who had the highest testosterone levels in the womb, had the lowest scores on tests of social skills (Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D).
  • Our cultural expectations may suppress emotional intelligence in men.  Boys are generally discouraged from experiencing or talking about their emotions.  Traditional cultures tend to teach men to stifle their feelings – especially if those feelings are tender or vulnerable.

Where do emotions come from?
We used to think that emotions were no more than reflexes or automatic responses – no more than a cascade of chemicals in the brain.  But we started to discover that people experience different emotions in similar situations and that some cultural groups experience emotions that are quite distinct from other cultures.  Now we realize that physiology plus beliefs and perspectives make up emotions.  Our beliefs and perspectives come from our teachings, experiences and the influences of others.

Thoughts lead to feelings

Event → Thought → Feeling 

Feelings aren’t facts, so they can be neither right nor wrong.  They are subjective like tastes.  However, our response to emotions can be adaptive or maladaptive.  Because our feelings are determined by our beliefs and perspectives rather than facts, we can sometimes be misguided by them. Emotions are adaptive when they:

  • motivate behavior that helps us respond appropriately.
  • help us make good decisions.
  • aid in remembering things we need to remember.
  • warn us of trouble or alert us to new opportunities.

Emotions are maladaptive when:

  • they are too intense or out of proportion.
  • they last too long.
  • we are unable to manage or cope with them.
  • We react impulsively or destructively based on them.

We Defend Against Powerful Emotions.
Emotions can be very powerful – even overwhelming.  Sometimes our emotions are so overwhelming or so “unacceptable” that we need to protect ourselves from them.  This can be a positive thing in moderation.

Here are some examples of emotional defenses:

  1. Denial – refusing to acknowledge an emotion or problem.
  2. Identification – assuming the qualities of someone else you admire.
  3. Compensation – making up for a perceived weakness in one area by excelling in another area.
  4. Rationalization – finding excuses for actions or feelings.
  5. Projection – putting your own faults onto another person.
  6. Daydreaming – fantasizing to escape an unpleasant reality.
  7. Displacement – taking out emotions on something other than the source (kicking the dog).
  8. Reaction Formation – behaving in a manner opposite of the way you are feeling
  9. Regression – reverting to immature behavior to express emotions.
  10. Sublimation – directing energy into a useful rather than an unacceptable goal.

How can men become more emotionally intelligent?
Awareness is key:

  • Notice the cues that you may be experiencing an emotion and practice identifying the feeling
  • Keep a journal of the day’s events and try to identify the emotions you may have felt
  • Create a list of feelings, write down times in life when these feelings were likely experienced and notice what happens inside you as you remember these events.
  • Listen to emotional music or look at emotional pictures and notice what happens inside you.
  • Talk to other people about emotions.  Listen to what they have to say.  Pay attention to their body language and actions.  Ask them what they are feeling and how it affects them.
  • Increase your emotional vocabulary.
  • Ask yourself what’s underneath your anger.

Talk more about your emotions:

  • Choose the right place and time
  • Start with someone trusted and safe
  • Listen
  • Validate – this does not mean agreeing, its more like acknowledging
  • Take a risk – confront your fears
  • Be assertive
  • Use your emotional vocabulary

Teach your sons about emotions:

  • Be a good emotional role model for your child
  • Be aware of your child’s emotions and recognize them as opportunities for intimacy and teaching
  • Listen and validate your child’s feelings
  • Help your child use words to label their feelings
  • Set limits and explore strategies to solve problems

Practice good emotional management.  It has been said we have a “half minute window” to stop and think before reacting impulsively to our emotions.  During that half minute, engage in the following steps:

Step I:  Recognize your feelings and identify the thoughts that lead to them
Step II:  Explore alternative perspectives and explanations
Step III:  Explore possible responses, including non-response, and follow through

If you are having difficulty managing your emotions and it is causing you distress or interfering with your functioning, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can help you learn to  identify and cope with your feelings more effectively. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy, or GoodTherapy. Please also visit my local resources listing site for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

1 thought on “Men and Emotions

  1. “alexithymia…a mild-to-moderate form of alexithymia is widespread in our society, especially among men”

    This is a new word I will add to my psych practice vocabulary and I am very glad of it. I have long wondered whether research has identified gender differences in ability to identify one's emotions. It sure seems so, at least from an anecdotal standpoint. Thanks so much for this.


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