Men & Emotion: Thoughts on a gender in search of itself

Boys in our culture are systematically taught to split off or disown their feelings by the time they start school. They learn that to express emotions such as loneliness, fear, and sadness is perceived as weakness, making them vulnerable to attack by other boys.

After a while, this splitting off process becomes second nature; depriving boys of the opportunity to develop an emotional vocabulary to express how they feel.

In the absence of education and emotionally articulate male role models, emotionally inarticulate boys grow up to become emotionally inarticulate men.

As men age, their inability to understand or express their emotions makes it increasingly difficult for them to navigate the complexities of adult life and relationships.

Further, men pay a terrible price for their emotional illiteracy. They suffer disproportionately more than women from stress and anxiety related ailments (physical as well as psychological), alcohol and drug addiction, domestic violence, infidelity, depression,suicide … the list goes on and on.

Cracks are now appearing in our culture’s old monolithic façade of masculinity. Men today seem less inclined to accept the narrow, confining and rigid definition of masculinity, typified by actors like John Wayne as being physically strong, silent, and able to endure pain & suffering without displaying emotion.

While this hyper-masculine male persona no longer resonates for men in our culture, a new one has yet to be born. As a result, men today are a gender in crisis.

The Chinese word for crisis is actually two words: wei ji. They are loosely translated as danger & opportunity. I believe framing the situation men find themselves in today with this use of crisis is helpful. (Crisis = danger + opportunity.)

Stepping out from behind old ideas about masculinity and expressing emotions pose real dangers for men. They risk criticism, ridicule, and worse.

However, the men who have the courage and fortitude to explore new ways of connecting with their masculinity by expressing their feelings and creating new relationships based on a more authentic sense what it means to be a man create the opportunity to live richer, more emotionally vibrant lives.

Howard P. Goodman, MA
6/25/09