Why Men Can't Feel

Excerpted from

Angry Men, Passive Men: Understanding the Roots of Men's Anger and How to Move Beyond It

By

Of all the various professions psychotherapy seems to offer the most ready access to the inner lives of men and women. Sociologists examine broad trends and patterns. Physicians work with tissue and bone. Philosophers ponder universal truths. Linguists dissect words and phrases. But therapists are privy to the hidden fears and secret longings of their clients.

Being a therapist who works primarily with men has given me some insight into the male condition. By counseling hundreds of men in private practice and thousands of men in weekend retreats called Wild-man Gatherings, I have broadened my view of men's emotional problems. More important, I've used what I have learned to develop a gender-specific therapy to help men resolve them. Through a series of techniques especially adapted for men, I've helped hundreds of men diminish their emotional pain and lead richer, more joyful lives.

In the early years of my practice most of my clients were women, so the insights I had about men came secondhand. I didn't go out of my way to attract female clients. It just happened that they were the ones who showed up. I would sit in my office day after day and listen to women talk about men. I heard all the familiar complaints: "My husband is emotionally dead." "My husband won't listen to me." "My father was always working." "My boyfriend frightens me with his violence." "My husband is too passive." "My boyfriend loves me but he doesn't want to get married." "I am the only real friend my husband has." "My husband is having an affair." "My husband is depressed." These women felt that the men in their lives had difficulty connecting with them on an intimate level. The men were either too passive or too domineering, too angry or too repressed, too clingy or too wary of commitment. For one reason or another they struggled with emotional intimacy.

As women began to bring their husbands in to me for marital counseling, I saw grounds for their complaints firsthand. The men seemed to find it much harder to express their feelings than the women. I could imagine how difficult it would be to live with these stoic men. One couple stands out in my mind because they were such a study in contrasts. John and Karen were both in their mid-thirties. John was a witty man. He enjoyed humor and light conversation and would dominate the discussion at the beginning of each session. However, when I managed to maneuver the conversation around to their marital struggles, John would retreat and let Karen do most of the talking. She was much more comfortable in the "feminine realm" of feelings and relationships than he was. As she talked, I noticed that John would watch her impassively, no matter what she said. He rarely changed his facial expression, not even when she cried. It didn't surprise me that one of Karen's chief complaints was that he was cold and indifferent to her.

During one session Karen finally realized that John was determined to file for divorce. She started to cry. It wasn't unusual for her to shed a few tears during a session, but this time she was crying so deeply her whole body shook. She was grieving for the end of their eighteen-year marriage. As she sobbed, I noticed that John continued to look at her with the same blank expression.

When Karen stopped crying, I asked John what he'd been feeling as he witnessed his wife's misery. "I know this seems brutal," he said, "but I felt absolutely nothing. I know I should have felt something, but I didn't." A thought popped unbidden into my mind: Was this man one of those "unfeeling bastards" I'd heard so many women describe?

I pressed John to tell me what he might have felt had he been able to feel. He said, "I don't know. I guess I should have felt sad because she was crying. Maybe I should have felt guilty, too, because I'm the reason she's so unhappy." Then, to my surprise, John stood up and said, "I can't do this. It's not going to work. I'm sorry."

I asked John to stay with us for a few more minutes and explore his feelings. He sat down reluctantly, and I asked him to talk about the powerful emotions that were making him want to flee the room. "I'm not feeling anything," he said. "It's like there's this barrel around my chest and nothing can get out of it. I've tried to feel and I can't. Nothing gets in and nothing gets out."

John's discomfort was so intense he had a hard time staying for the remaining minutes of the session. He wanted out of the chair, out of my office, out of his marriage. His wife's pressure on him to express his feelings and my unwitting collusion with her were almost more than he could bear.

How Boys Are Taught To Suppress Their Emotions

As I began to work with an increasing number of male clients, I discovered that a majority of them were emotionally blocked. It took them months to display the same openness that most women revealed in their first few sessions. Even then the men's emotional range was more restricted. Their thoughts and feelings seemed to be dampened by their intellect. It's as if they were living life from the neck up.

Why are so many men repressed? I was talking with two men the other day and one of them said, "I've been mad, scared, or numb since the day I was born." The other commented, "I've been lonely and isolated all my life." To them it seemed as if their emotional problems were evident at birth. I assured them that, when they were born, they were emotionally whole, just like all other babies. A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon with a seven-month-old baby boy and his mother. I found myself fascinated by the little boy's expressiveness. His face was constantly in motion, reflecting everything that was happening in him and to him. A gas bubble, a hunger pang, the comfort of being held, the fear he felt when his mother handed him to me while she answered the phone, the relief he felt when she came back to reclaim him - all of these sensations and emotions registered instantly on his face. He didn't filter his thoughts or stuff his feelings.

Most babies are allowed to be free with their emotions until they are around one year old. Then about the time they begin to walk and talk, their parents start to clamp down on them. The degree to which parents repress their children varies from household to household, but there are some overall patterns. In our culture parents tend to discourage so-called "negative emotions" such as fear, sadness, and anger. We harbor a naive belief that if we can make our children act happy and well behaved, they will become truly happy and well-adjusted adults.

To some degree this management of emotions applies to both sexes. When boys or girls show feelings that their parents deem inappropriate or that threaten to reveal the dysfunctional nature of the family, their parents find some way to stifle them. Parents do this in a variety of ways. Depending on their parenting style they may ignore their children ("Go play with your toys"); contradict them ("You do not hate your baby sister"); invalidate them ("There's no way you could be feeling sad on such a sunny day"); shame them ("When you cry like that, you sound like your baby sister"); ridicule them ("If you stick your lower lip out any farther, you'll trip on it"); "educate" them ("Yes, you do want to share that with your brother. Some day he will be your best friend"); bribe them ("Please stop crying, honey. Want a cookie?"): distract them ("Did that big doggy scare you? Look, there's a bird!"); punish them ("How dare you look at me that way! Go to your room!") or physically abuse them ("All right young man! You're going to get the belt!").

It is the rare child who is not subjected to some form of parental repression. But as a rule, little boys are required to restrict even more of their emotions than little girls. Men in this society are assigned three traditional roles: providing, protecting, and procreating. In order to fulfill those roles little boys are required to repress more of their emotions. Our culture maintains - and rightly so - that men are more efficient workers and warriors when they are not inconvenienced by tender feelings. To this end boys are raised according to a masculine code, a complex set of beliefs that influences how they think, feel, and behave.

The masculine code is not taught through institutional or formal means. Boys learn how to be men by absorbing the thousands of messages about manliness that filter down to them through parents, siblings, peers, ministers, teachers, scout leaders, comic books, cartoons, TV shows, action movies, and commercials. Taken as a whole these messages encourage boys to be competitive, focus on external success, rely on their intellect, withstand physical pain, and repress their vulnerable emotions. When boys violate the code, it is not uncommon for them to be teased, shamed, or ridiculed. Society's goal is not to cause emotional injury to the boys but to harden them to face the difficulties men have always had to face.

Men as Providers

Of the three traditional masculine roles, providing and protecting demand the most stoicism. As a provider a man is the primary supporter of the family. He rarely has the luxury of working when it pleases him or selecting only those tasks he enjoys. The weather, the economy, or his boss dictates what he does, when he works, and how long he toils. Historically men have had to put aside what they really wanted to do and spend most of their waking hours providing for their families. This has required them to shut down their senses, dampen their emotions, and focus on the task at hand. This fiercely channeled masculine energy has built our railroads, logged our forests, tilled the soil, and forged the steel that has made this country a world power.

Most men today expend even more energy in the role of provider than is required for their family's survival. Having bought into the cultural notion that external success is the manly road to happiness and security, they do whatever is required to hone a competitive edge. In order to gain power, status, and wealth, they unwittingly sacrifice their leisure, their health, and their love relationships. All too many men follow an exaggerated version of the Puritan work ethic, which leaves them exhausted and emotionally drained.

Traditionally women have also had to work long and hard in their age-old roles as wives and mothers. As much or even more than men, they've been required to put aside their own desires and tend to the needs of others. They, too, have rarely been able to do what they wanted, when they wanted. But there is a fundamental difference between a woman's traditional role in the family and a man's traditional role as provider - a difference that has had profound consequences for both sexes. Historically a woman's role in the family has required her to be emotionally responsive. One of her time-honored functions is to monitor the feelings of family members and create strong family ties. She pays as much attention to the ebb and flow of relationships as a fishermen pays to the tides. Her role in the family may exhaust her and leave her little or no time for herself, but for the most part it allows her to express a wide range of feelings. She can cry, show compassion, display tenderness, reveal her weaknesses, ask for help, and broadcast her joy - emotions that few men would feel comfortable displaying in the workplace.

Many women today play a dual role in society, working both inside and outside the home. As they make this transition, they may be required to adopt a more masculine posture on the job. Mimicking male values and behaviors is regarded by many as the best way for women to succeed in a male-dominated workplace. But when a woman opens the door to the family home at night, she immediately becomes the emotional hub of the family. The fact that she leads two lives may deplete her energy reserves, but it has not seemed to diminish her capacity to feel. Now, as always, women have the luxury of greater emotional wholeness.

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Tags: Personal Growth


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