Historically, anger has come naturally and easily for men. Probably because on some level, we evolved to be warriors, hunters, and physical laborers. Every single one of us comes from a lineage of bad assess that knew how to scratch and claw to survive. Our ancestors’ lives were brutal, and we carry their DNA because they were the ones that lived just long enough to reproduce. That was no small accomplishment either.
Anger has been the fuel system that’s motivated men to push up against life challenges with force. It increases blood flow to our large muscles and reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex (largely responsible for intelligent thought), while the more primitive structures of the brain kick into gear. Exactly what we needed for when life was brutish and short.
Yet we live in different times now. Our aggressive tendencies have been criticized, and for good measure. We are much more likely to be held accountable if we lash out verbally or physically, which is warranted. And the expectation to keep our worst impulses in check are ever-increasing. These corrections were long over-do.
I’m glad we have made some changes, but I’m also afraid that we have not defined alternative ways for men to express emotional pain. Not that it was ever okay, but we used to (sort of) get by with tantrums and outbursts, even though we suppressed sadness, confusion, loneliness, and other “soft” emotions that lie beneath the surface. But now that norms are changing, it seems like many men have completely shut down. I see it all the time in my clinical practice, and, to be candid, I work against this tendency in my own life.
Psychological research has clearly demonstrated that emotional suppression leads to all kinds of mental, physical, and social problems, and if we take into account the prevalence of suicide, violent crime, addiction, and chronic disease among men, there seems to be some legitimate evidence that something has gone seriously wrong.
True, these aren’t exactly new problems for men, but since the age of accountability has begun putting male anger and impulse in its proper place, we haven’t exactly seen the type of progress one might expect. At least anger seemed to make a little sense, but figuring out how to express the various layers of our emotional reality can make the mind go blank. I don’t want to imply that this is the case for every man, but saying what we think generally isn’t so bad. It’s more comfortable to operate on the intellectual level. But talking about how we feel? Yeah, how about you back off and leave us alone.
Deep down, we know that isn’t the solution. Most of us are aware that we too have emotional needs, but the words tend to escape us. All of a sudden, our native language can seem foreign and inadequate. But at some point, we have to shed our demand for absolute clarity and begin accepting the fact that genuine emotional expression is messy work.
With that in mind, I want to offer a basic template to help us men sort through the mess. But before I do so, a quick message to women: you deserve credit. The structure of your friendships is much better suited to satisfy your emotional needs. Although there are some biological factors at play, it still takes courage to be vulnerable. I admire that.
Okay, back to the template…
First, ask yourself who in your life is willing to listen? If you don’t have anybody, consider talking to a counselor, pastor, or joining a support group. It’s not easy to reach out, but it’s worth it. This first step is often the most difficult. Just figure out a way to break the ice, and like most things, it will get easier with time.
Second, talk about talking. Discuss what it might be like to start expressing your feelings and how to do so at the right pace. Advocate for your needs too. What are you looking for? Advice? Someone to vent to? It helps to be clear about how the other person can be useful to you, especially if they are not a mental health professional. A lot of times, it’s instinctive to jump in and try to fix someone’s feelings, but if this isn’t what you need, make that known up front.
Third, stumbling and fumbling is normal. This isn’t a performance art. It’s real life. I have found that if people give themselves the permission to be imperfect, they generally function better. And this is certainly the case with expressing feelings. So drop the ego. It’s imperative to create space for trial and error. Your ego will only distort this path.
Lastly, remember that men have real grievances too. Our culture tells us that our pain is trivial and that we really have nothing to complain about. Come on, that’s ridiculous. It’s the type of mentality that can lead to tragedy. The truth is we can still be masculine, still be tough, still be a man, and also pursue emotional health. We just have to run the experiment to find out for sure.