Why do men hide their feelings? Feelings are tough. There are gender stereotypes around expressing emotions. And we don’t teach men how to express their feelings in productive ways.
But let’s start at the beginning.
What is a feeling?
Feelings are words used to help describe our internal world. They are small, powerful words that can help give language to emotions that can feel overwhelming at times.
Why do men hide their feelings?
When you search online for the term “masculinity” synonyms like virility, machismo, muscularity, and ruggedness come up. That is a pretty narrow view of what it means to be masculine.
In our culture, we often expect men to be strong, stoic and silent. We want boys and men to obliterate their feelings. Think of the phrases “boys don’t cry” or “man up.” At the same time, we get frustrated if adult men don’t have the language or skills to communicate more deeply in an emotional way. Men are in a double bind about emotions.
This internal tug-of-war between having your feelings and being a man has been going on for generations. There are feelings that are considered more appropriate for men, like anger or joy. There are also feelings that could be considered less masculine, like sadness, shame or fear.
Emotions can be hard for some men to process because we have been conditioned since birth to be strong and macho. I argue that learning to understand and process your own emotional world takes a great deal of strength and virility.
As men, we’re often raised to control or eliminate our feelings and that can be an inhuman task. Whether we understand or cope with feelings in a healthy way or not, we still have them. If you are not able to have your feelings, so to speak, there can be many negative consequences down the line.
What does this look like as an adult?
Think about this example.
Say you’re a man who grew up in a household with a father who was emotionally distant. At school, you were made fun of because you were different and learned quickly how to communicate in a more socially acceptable, masculine way to avoid being bullied. Now you’re in your thirties, but you’re having trouble connecting with potential partners in a more intimate, meaningful way. You’re able to be open about some of your feelings after having a few drinks, but that’s it.
If you’re not able to have and express the full range of your emotions you’re more likely to resort to less helpful ways of cutting yourself off from your internal world. Some examples of ways that people cut off their emotions include throwing yourself into work, shopping, food, sex, drugs or alcohol.
Learning to attach in a new way
Attachment science has made huge strides in the last several years. When I talk about attachment, I’m referring to the ways in which we can connect and bond with romantic partners as adults.
This research initially started with infants and their primary caregivers. By observing infants and parents, researchers have been able to better understand how we can have more meaningful, connected relationships as adults.
Therapy is a great tool to learn how to better understand your internal world and in turn form more meaningful relationships. There are also tools that you can use on your own to begin the process of becoming more connected.
I’m drinking, working, or eating too much
When you have trouble connecting more fully to your internal world, it is tempting to turn to behaviors that can help numb, dull or obliterate your feelings.
Am I (fill in the blank) too much?
If you’re asking that question, you probably are. Sometimes people will come into therapy asking whether I think they’re drinking, working, having sex or using some other behavior in a way that is destructive or not “normal.”
Often a good place to start with a conversation like that is to explore what positive benefits are coming from that behavior. Even something that can be destructive can often start out serving some purpose in your life.
My partner thinks I need help
This happens a lot. Someone will come into therapy because their partner says they’re working too much or drinking too much. In a situation like that, I want to help you explore what YOU want from therapy. Do you think you’re working or drinking too much? If so, do you like the sense of accomplishment you feel when you’re busy at work? Are you avoiding feelings of boredom, loneliness or discomfort?
Follow the pleasure
If you can understand the purpose or role a certain behavior plays in your life, you can begin to know more about what feelings you may be keeping at bay. A good rule of thumb is to start with the benefit of a given behavior. Very few people drink more than they’d like because they enjoy the hangover. Often people will say that they like alcohol because it helps loosen them up in social settings or relax after a long day at work.
Once you begin to understand the benefit of a given behavior, you can start to identify some of the emotions that may be more problematic for you to tolerate.
Explore the discomfort
Take the example of someone who drinks a lot in social situations because they feel uncomfortable being more fully themselves with larger groups of people. Once you understand the benefit of a given behavior, you can take a look at some of the discomfort. Are there negative thoughts that go through your head when you’re socializing, like “I have nothing interesting to say or no one wants to talk with me?” Do you feel physically uncomfortable in your body and what is that like to cope with?
How to explore your feelings
Ok. You get it. Men can have trouble exploring, having, naming and expressing our feelings.
So what can we do about it?
Mindfulness is a powerful and scientifically proven way to help cope with stress, anxiety, depression and you guessed it, feelings.
There are a number of mindfulness apps you can download, like Headspace. You can also simply sit in a quiet room and focus on your breathing. For more mindfulness tips, check out this post.
Simply put, mindfulness is the easiest way to create some space and allow for whatever feelings you may be having to come to the surface.
Phone a friend. Ask a someone you feel close to out for dinner or a hike and share something intimate and vulnerable about yourself. You don’t have to tell your deepest, darkest secret, but start with something small and go from there. Often once we get in the habit of trying something new, it comes easier.
If this is a struggle for you, I recommend finding a local men’s therapy group. This can be a fantastic way to experiment with opening up with other men in a controlled environment. If that doesn’t feel safe enough yet, start with individual therapy. But start somewhere. Don’t wait until this becomes more of a problem.
If you’re someone who likes to write, journaling can be an excellent outlet for your feelings. Like everything else on this list, you may have to experiment and try a few different things before you find something that works for you. There are journals that will give you daily prompts, or you can get a blank notebook or Word document and go stream of conscious. Whatever works!
Once you get your feelings out, it may be easier to express them to others.
Maybe you’re a hands on sort of guy and you’d prefer to use art, woodworking or building to go inside. This can be another form of mindfulness if you’re tapping into what’s happening in your internal world as you work. This can be especially useful if you paint, draw or sculpt and can externalize your internal landscape. Pardon the pun.
Ultimately, whatever the path, the ultimate goal is to have more access, understanding and ease with expressing your feelings to others. Once you have a better handle on what’s going on inside, you can share that with the important people in your life. And it can make all the difference!
Therapy for men
What would it be like to work on masculinity in therapy? The short answer, it would be unique for every person. More broadly, we would get to know each other and I would work hard to make a safe enough space for you to begin exploring your emotional world. The hope is over time you would be more aware of what is happening internally so that you can be better able to connect with others.
While San Francisco is generally pretty open about mental health, there are a number of factors that can make it hard for men to seek therapy or counseling.
Challenges for men in therapy
Stigma. While we’re getting better as a society about prioritizing mental health, there is still stigma that exists around seeking therapy. This can be especially true for men.
I don’t like to ask for help. Men are often conditioned from a young age to be self-sufficient and not rely on other people for support. If you’re struggling with loneliness, depression, anxiety of a problematic relationship with substances, you don’t have to do it alone!
I don’t like to talk about my feelings. I get it. It’s tough to open up, especially to another guy. But what are the alternatives? Find someone you feel comfortable with and get support. I’ll say it again, you don’t have to do it alone.
There are lots of reasons men have trouble with feelings. But there is hope and you can find support to make things better. I’ll say it one final time, you don’t have to do it alone.