“Too many men I know experience shame because society places pressure on them to withhold emotion: emotion and sensitivity is weak. I have found the opposite is true: emotion and sensitivity is what makes us strong.” ~Natalie Brenner
Recently I saw a teen male client who struggles with depression–although one would never guess it due to his joking attitude and quick smile. When I asked him who in his life knew how he was really doing, he told me the most heart wrenching thing: Men are not allowed to feel pain in society. Because of this common, yet damaging belief, he had not told anyone about his struggles. He was left all alone to manage his emotions, without even hardly understanding them himself.
Society nurtures strength and emotional toughness (almost aloofness) in men; meanwhile, accepting that women are emotional and tender. This is a dangerous concept we are instilling in our men and women alike and we are perpetuating the problem. The truth is that men have strong, powerful emotions, too! Not only that, these emotions are just as normal in men as they are in women. Men often do not understand their own emotions (or that of others) because they are not taught to do so.
Did you know that not expressing your emotions can negatively affect your health? A few of the ways include: Poor sleep patterns–insomnia and chronic physical exhaustion; self-destructive behaviors like binge eating, excessive spending, substance abuse, gaming addictions; weight gain (common since comfort eating has a direct relationship with bottling emotions); high blood pressure–respiration and heart rates increase with the mental stress that is a direct consequence of suppressing emotions; digestive problems–stomach cramps to ulcers, constipation and acid reflux. This does not begin to account for the mental, emotional, and relational toll that not managing emotions causes for men!
Here are some scary statistics for you. Male suicide rate is astronomically high. The biggest killer of Irish and British men under 35 is suicide. Men also account for over 70% of missing person cases, almost 90% of the homeless population and over 95% of the prison population. Within the 95% of men imprisoned, over 90% have one or more serious mental health conditions. Could there be a correlation that males tend to suffer emotionally and the fact that they are told to withhold essentially all of their emotions from childhood on?
Emotions are the natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. They are energy in motion. They are what you feel at any given time of the day, and can change at the drop of a dime. Being able to identify and express emotions often leads to a greater sense of well-being and connection with the world around you.
How can men begin expressing their emotions? Here are a few ideas to get started:
- Simply ACKNOWLEDGE the emotion(s). Let yourself notice that you are feeling something. You do NOT need to identify exactly what it is right away! It is important to simply stop and acknowledge that you noticed a shift inside.
- Accept it. You may tell yourself, “I am feeling something…and that is okay.” Accept that you are feeling something, and also accept that it is normal to feel things in general!
- Try to put a word to it. Next, try to put a word to how you are feeling. Sometimes this step is tricky. I often suggest my clients (male and female alike) look at a list of emotions to simply see which, if any, jump out. This word does not have to make sense. Putting a word to your emotions is an extremely powerful way to validate that your emotion is real!
- Then get curious. It is important to recognize how you’re feeling; that is step one. Then go a little bit further to increase your self-awareness. Ask yourself why you are feeling that emotion or reaction–what led you to feel this way, etc. It may be something someone said, something someone did not say, something that did or did not happen, an interaction with a coworker, friend, partner, etc. The very act of identifying and describing the feeling can have far-reaching, beneficial effects!
- Process with self-care. You all know I am a staunch believer of self-care. Debunking another stigma here–self-care is not just for women! It is for everyone and it is powerful. Take time to soothe–be it running, gardening, cooking, singing, yoga, hiking, reading or anything else. I also cannot recommend journaling enough; it is therapeutic, cathartic and freeing. Exercise is another particularly powerful in this context because studies have shown that people regulate their difficult emotions better after moderate exercise!
- SHARE. Wherever applicable, share the emotions that need to be heard, with the intent of letting yourself be known–NOT to make or prove a point, nor to teach or lecture. You may share with a partner, friend, family member, or a certified therapist. I can assure you that talking about it will not only help alleviate your stress, but it will also normalize this idea that men have feelings, too. : )
Remember the young man from my introduction? What can we do to make the boys and men in our lives feel less alone? How can we better support them to feel and express their emotions? Men deserve to be rid of this social stigma. Men deserve compassion and the space to feel whatever emotions they may be feeling. To all the men out there reading this, your emotions are real, they matter and they are valid. I encourage you to simply acknowledge when you have emotions, accept you have them and then try to identify them. After this, get curious, practice self-care, and share with someone you trust. You are learning how to do this and you will only get better as you keep trying. The world will be a better place when more men give room for their feelings. It starts with YOU!
Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.
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