Guess What? Women Also Struggle with Emotional Expression

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Parents coach their sons to present a facade of emotional toughness and their daughters to admire that facade in men.

There is a commonly held cultural narrative which goes something like this: Men who share their emotions make better husbands and fathers. Women value this in a prospective partner because women are already naturally able to share their emotions. In a nutshell, women are the emotionally able ones, men can learn to be.

Growing more empowered emotional expression for men and women is crucial to making a better world. But the first step to getting there is to set aside these kinds of simplistic ideas about how we all operate emotionally.

Women do not automatically navigate emotional expression better than men. It would be nice if they did, but given how our culture operates, it is simply not possible.

So, for the record, women do not automatically navigate emotional expression better than men. It would be nice if they did, but given how our culture operates, it is simply not possible.

We need to acknowledge that gaining emotional fluency, the ability to navigate our internal emotional landscapes, is equally challenging for all of us. Exploring our own emotional histories can well can be the equivalent of opening an internal Pandora’s Box, which, once opened can unleash wide ranging and challenging consequences.

Men’s Hidden Emotions
One aspect of our simplistic cultural narrative is certainly accurate. Boys and men are not prone to sharing their emotions. But it is not because men are born without these capacities. It is because they are taught from childhood to hide their emotions; that “real men” are emotionally stoic, that real men “man up” and tough it out. Boys and men who express a wider range of emotions, especially those that present as vulnerability or sensitivity (behaviors wrongly labeled as feminine), are typically bullied and policed. They are called sissies and wimps. They are considered to be failed men.

To get a sense of what boys face in our culture, take a minute and view the trailer for “The Mask You Live In.” This is a powerful documentary about the messages that are hammered into boys on a daily basis.

When we are forced to be emotionally tough, boys and men are cut off from learning how to process our more complex emotions. Why? Because learning to process our emotions is not a private act. It is a social act. It happens in relationship to other people. For boys growing up in a culture of emotional toughness, the relational doorway is shut, the way forward, barred.

Men, Women and Emotional Fluency
Meanwhile, although women may be a bit freer to express their feelings, emotional fluency, the capacity to engage the layered and complex landscape of our emotions, is far more than simply being free to express ourselves. Emotional fluency is the result of learning via the trial and error of emotional expression within relationships over time. Learning to do this well can take years, even decades. Like learning a language, it is a skill set most easily acquired when we are young, engaging emotional expression in our homes.

But in America’s culture of emotional toughness, boys and girls alike aren’t typically given an opportunity to learn these complex skills in their families of origin. A crisis later in life, such as the potential collapse of a marriage or a challenging illness, can launch them on a journey to awaken these emotional capacities.

But it is in these moments that men, doing this work with a spouse or partner, can unwittingly allow their spouses to become emotional gatekeepers for them by virtue of our myths about women and emotions. In doing so, men can get shut down again.

For example, a man learning to more openly express sentiments of love toward his partner or affection toward his children is likely to be encouraged. These “pleasing” expressions of emotion represent little or nothing in the way of a challenge for his partner.

But many men may stop there and proceed no further, because of the negative reaction they face when expressing less appealing emotions like loss, grief, and sadness. Not surprisingly, the expression of these emotions can create huge anxiety for women who have been given little opportunity to process these kinds of emotions in their own lives.

Women have long been relegated to the greeting card school of emotional expression. Love or condolences with a nice filigree. Nothing threatening. Nothing dark.

Our Culture and Women’s Emotions
When we assume women to be more adept at managing emotional communication, we are keying on the fact that women are granted permission to publicly express a somewhat wider range of emotions. But women have long been relegated to the greeting card school of emotional expression. Love or condolences with a nice filigree. Nothing threatening. Nothing dark. You won’t find a Hallmark card for despair or rage. You won’t find a Hallmark card for panic or insecurity.

When women express darker emotions like rage or despair, they are told to calm down, that their emotions are simply the result of “their time of the month”, or that the emotional frustration they feel is not based in a rational (i.e.: masculine) world view. While men’s emotional expression is marginalized as feminine, women’s emotional expression is infantilized. It is in this repressed emotional space that the alarming sense of being gaslighted can emerge for women.

The end result? Women’s path to learning emotional fluency is also closed off.

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Men and women expressing their emotions more openly is crucial to creating a healthier more humane society.  I have seen the power of stronger emotional connection play out in my own life and in the lives of my family and friends. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that learning to express our emotions is the key to a better life.

Our culture’s views about the benefits of male emotional expression are a dangerous combination of simplistic and idealistic.

Unfortunately, our culture’s Disney-esque views on the benefits of male emotional expression are a dangerous combination of simplistic and idealistic. To trivialize the process in these ways is to miss the fundamental levels on which emotional expression operates.

The source of our collective challenges is generational. Having grown up themselves in our emotionally averse culture, parents coach their sons to present a facade of emotional toughness and their daughters to admire that facade in men.

So, even as women might seek emotionally expressive men, they, like men, carry deeply retrograde conditioning that causes them to want confidence and emotional toughness in their partners. It is a double bind for both women and men, who, when under stress, are tempted to fall back on retrogressive gender stereotypes in an overly complex world.

The Damage Done
As a young boy, I remember distinctly the sensation of “feeling like I should be having a feeling.” I was seven when my father divorced my mother. He then went to work overseas. My father was the source of emotional warmth in our family. When he left, I spent years grieving his loss. Then, at some point, those emotions fell silent, creating a blank numb space. And below that? Something very bad was hiding. I call that place the basement.

The end result was, I simply could not name any of the emotions I was feeling; with the possible exception of a consistent baseline of self loathing.

Whatever emotions I was feeling, I was left to process in isolation. The end result was, I simply could not identify any of the emotions I was feeling; with the possible exception of a consistent baseline of self loathing.

I recall sitting in the pew at my grandmother’s funeral, witnessing myself attempting to cry. As if I was standing next to my own loss, detached, two steps removed. What should I feel? How should I feel it? Why can’t I feel anything? I stood there watching myself doing a vague performance of grief, feeling nothing. But there was something there. Just out of my line of sight. A place I had worked so hard not to see that I couldn’t look towards it now if I wanted to. A place of loss and loneliness that I simply walled off, reducing it to a dull ache. For decades I simply didn’t look.

To this day, I still don’t want to look.

The result? Ten years of binge drinking as a young adult; struggling to figure out how to present myself in relationships. Ten more years after that of lurching through emotional chaos, struggling day by day to make my way back up into some kind of emotional self awareness. Decades more of seeking a foothold and then beginning to sort out my past. To this day, its terrifying to “go down to the basement.” There’s a seven year old down there in the dark and he’s not happy. He’s full of rage and despair and he holds me responsible.

“Why didn’t you do something?,” he screams at me. “Why didn’t you fight?” “Why didn’t you fight them back, hurt them back?”

Hurt who? I don’t guess I know. Ghosts, phantoms, bullies…family. The people who should have helped a young boy but did nothing. The violent bullies who ringed me around, smelling the damage and fear on me. I have yet to untangle all the anger and grief that I suppressed. I may never fully succeed in doing so.

But I know this. I would have talked. I always wanted to talk. It would have spilled out what I was feeling day after day, but we don’t do that with our sons. We assume they’re okay. We demand they be okay. We don’t want to see their fears, their sadness. It reminds us too much of our own. So, we don’t ask.

We subject our sons to a kind of emotional solitary confinement when we don’t engage their emotions. Our boys cease to trust their instincts. Their inner voice, their spiritual true north, given no external confirmation or support, falls silent.

We subject our sons to a kind of emotional solitary confinement when we don’t engage their emotions. Our sons cease to trust their instincts. Their inner voice, their spiritual true north, given no external confirmation or support, falls silent, blocking them off from the innate resiliency that can help them navigate life’s challenges. We subject them to decades of lost connections.

And those of us who love them have to deal with the fall out.

The Missing Piece of the Relational Puzzle
So what about the men and women who are committed to achieving more emotional intimacy in their lives? For those of us who have grown up in the culture of male emotional toughness, what skills are central to success if we want to be more emotionally intimate?

The biggest challenge couple’s or parents face are the emotions that can arise in us when we hear our partners or children express theirs.

Surprisingly, expressing our emotions is not the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge couple’s or parents face are the emotions that can arise in us when we hear our partners or children express theirs. Witnessing in others, the darker emotions of fear, sadness and grief, or even more challenging, witnessing emotions we cannot even name, is terrifying. How do we listen when our partners share emotions like these without collapsing into them?

For example, if my spouse tells me her life “feels empty,” that’s going to be very hard to hear. For many, this emotional expression would lead to a defensive posture. “Are you saying that being with me can’t give you a full life?” It’s understandable. Its also not helpful.

Why? Because the challenge of living a life of emotional suppression is that the emotions we hide can become monolithic and distorted. Only by expressing these feelings can we hope of move past them. When first spoken, they can be difficult to say and even more difficult to hear.

But it is the expression of these darker emotions, these forbidden thoughts that are central to moving them out; to releasing them and moving on. On one side we have the need to express, to be heard. On the other side we have the need to react. To respond. Our reactions can come from an equally emotionally dark place. Suddenly you have dark painful feelings flying back and forth, doing more damage than good.

The Powerful Magic of Holding
Dr. Saliha Bava, a New York City based couple and family therapist, specializes in helping couples and families navigate the complexity of emotional intimacy. Dr. Bava talks about the idea of holding the emotions of others. She views emotional expression as a relational activity that is, the back and forth by which we create what she describes as “meaning, understanding and coordination within our relationships.”

Dr. Bava explains:

Holding the emotions of others is a skill set that we already have in the form of listening.

The next steps in growing this capacity include listening without attempting to fix things. For example, instead of being a witness to our partner’s feelings, we might try to fix things by saying ‘It will all be okay, its not your fault, etc.’

We also need to set aside judgement. For example, we might judge by saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t feel like this.’

And finally we need to set aside the urge to categorize, name or explain. For example, we might try and assign a reason for our partner’s feelings by saying, ‘Oh, you’re feeling this way because you didn’t get the raise you wanted.’

We listen for how they are making sense and we accept that they may not have an explanation or an understanding yet, only the expression. They may not even be able to name it. By not naming their emotions for them, we let their truth emerge over time.

When we try to fix, judge or name the emotions of others, we are seeking to resolve the uncertainty our partner’s emotions create in us. Learning to set these urges aside takes practice.

One way to cultivate the practice of holding the emotions of others is to visualize that your partner is on the stage and you are in the audience. Your time will come to be on the stage, but for the moment, you sit and witness. When your partner is expressing emotions, let their story finish resonating for them. Let their story be complete. Let the room fall silent for a moment.

Remember, silence is not a lack of response, it is the response. And it comes with signals of connection though our eyes, our hearts, our presence. It is mix of intuition and calmness.

Imagine yourself as a container. Not ‘you lost your job and so you are feeling this’. Simply ‘you are feeling this and I am a container for it’. Nothing more.

What we are talking about for couples is ultimately a three act play.

  • Act one, your partner is on the stage, and you are their witness, holding their emotions.
  • Act two: you are on the stage and your partner is your witness, holding your emotions.
  • Act three: you both take the stage on behalf of the relationship. From there, the process of how to go forward together emerges. This co-creating emerges out of holding and compassionate listening.

The dance of holding between couples grows their emotional capacities because of the passing back and forth of witnessing and sharing. It creates greater intimacy and vulnerability, a stronger sense of connection and support. In the process, we learn to park the uncertainty such witnessing generates.

Our darker emotions, long suppressed, do not, like the contents of the mythical Pandora’s box, represent the evils of the world. What we view as dark emotions can be powerful and generative forces for creating growth in our lives, but only if we engage them.

We can, as partners and parents, sons and daughters, learn how to liberate our voices and share our emotions. Sharing ours while holding the emotions of others is a transformational experience. It grants us more and better human to human connections in the world.

Which is the key to a wonderful life.

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About Mark Greene

Executive Editor Mark Greene’s articles for the Good Men Project have received over 250,000 Facebook shares and ten million page views.

Greene writes and speaks on culture, society, family and fatherhood. His work is a timely and balanced look at the life affirming changes emerging from the modern masculinity movement.

Greene writes and speaks on men’s issues for the Good Men Project, the Shriver Report, the New York Times, Salon, the BBC and the Huffington Post.

Comments

  1. Absolutely, Mark. Well stated.

  2. Travel a bit, you will find nearly everything you were told growing up was a lie, especially if you were raised during the Cold War.

  3. Men’s issues finally on the board, and that’s great.

    Preemptive “shame on us” if we, once again, reverse ourselves, and once again forget our girls. They are in their own little quagmire, and we have to be unafraid to critique, correct, and continue to teach then a sense of wholeness and not just create a generation of 1950s boys.

    Our girls need that same fathering from us men that we now see as a need for boys (mom too of course).

    • Hi -DJ-,
      Its interesting you mention preemptive shaming. Something which we are all at risk of doing when we assume the presence of one thing (men’s issues) automatically means the absence of the other (women’s issues). Or for that matter, the presence of women’s issues means the absence of men’s.

  4. Tom Brechlin says:

    Interesting that this appeared when it did. The residential facility that I work at will be adding an adolescent girls wing which is planed to be open at the beginning of March. Due to low census on the boys wing, it’s being reconfigured to add girls.

    My decision to stay with the boys is based on 1. I’ve talked to staff that have worked with girls and said they worked with females and took the job here so that they didn’t have to work with females. Females too difficult to work with. and 2. I’ve had the occasion to work with some of the students in our co-ed alternative HS and find that he girls are far more difficult to work with and get under control when they’re out of pocket.

    It should be an interesting year

  5. The struggle for emotional well being is real for us all.

    Its going to take understanding on both sides to get us all there.

  6. Go Travel – the Disney and Americana culture are pervasive – but not global. Go find a nice niche of the world that is not as corrupted and polluted – you will have an easier time finding your ’emotions’ that are true to you – outside of the pedantic stereotypes that the US society wants to paint upon you.
    Doubly so – the problem with ‘communication’ in America is that most spend their time looking for a chance to respond rather than actually LISTENING to the conversation, the person, the ideas and the intent of the conversation. I have always found this quits when I hop languages, cultures and nations. Things happen slower, and you have to work harder just to be understood at the basics – nothing is taken under presumption or granted; and you are not an ‘idiot’ for asking clarification.
    TRAVEL – GET a LANGUAGE – GET OUT.
    I wish I had done it decades ago, I wish I had never come back to the States once I did.

    • I do think you make a good point here boris. Your dislike of American culture is interesting. Not that it’s not realto you for valid reasons but they’re not mine. I have my own concerns and you might think them superficial. Among the larger nations of the world i still think we’re right up tjete regardless of our defects. But then again. I could be wrong.

  7. Rage or rather outrage seems to be the emotion du jour. Of both genders and all races and political persuasions. Quite frankly I am getting tired of f it. It has outworn its welcome to be useful. Its a function of social media not really human emotion. Kind of like how many thumbs up am i going to get. More people who agree with me means I’m really smart. My cause therefore is just and right. Not. Even close.

  8. I have meet too many women of all ages who let their emotions out particularly anger and rage over anything and everything and no matter how minor the issue is and whether the issue is real or a figment of their imagination just to get back at you. Many of them need to take anger management and/or practice self discipline in thinking before speaking or just learning not to say it at all.

    • Well G, I would say something similar only I would say it about men. It seems we’re all free to express anger and rage now, men and women alike. But rage is the most raw form of emotional expression. The question becomes how to get beyond it? When you bottle emotional expression up for generations, it can take a while to get the resulting rage out of our collective systems.

      • I agree with you about men; however, it is far and few with men unless you are dealing with top management, police officers, military officers and NCOs, I agreed with Mr. Brechlin’s view regarding him and his fellow co-workers in dealing with females. You talk to any self-respecting woman and she will tell you she rather work with men than women in the workplace any day.

        • It’s proven men show their anger more often and with worse results.
          I am a “self-repecting” woman and would rather work with women. Most women who don’t hate themselves will say the same, at least here in the developed world, Europe. In America it cold be different, of course; there misogyny reigns and women are also conditioned to hate their own gender to appear “cool” in men’s eyes.

  9. Yes Mark women have been trained like men to be as emotionally expressive as their gender is allowed to be. Very disney-esque on their side too. Thats how disney was so successful. Get a theme and stick with it. Cinderella snow white beauty and the beast it all the same. What I find interesting in todays teens and young adults is for both genders to be almost equally uncomfortable with emotional expression. Particularly the girls. They get quite an attitude which leans particularly stereotypically masculine when trying to get their feelings across. Many men are railing at the gods these days about the emasculating of men or the agenda of male feminization. I think it only seems that way as there is a true push to masculate women. As such both genders are actually narrowing their differences. So it may look like boys are becoming feminized but in fact I think it is women trying and being rewarded for behaving more like men. Superficial accouterments such as fashion styles are the markers for the simpleminded who can’t see beyond it to explain what it means to be man or a woman.

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