Men and Feelings: Why It’s Hard for Men to Express Emotions
Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. “
– Researcher and author Brené Brown
Emotional connection and security in our important relationships is a core human need. Without this foundation, any person will struggle to have a sense of well-being, find harmony with others, and live a satisfying life.
People often seek therapy to develop the sound relationships and inner peace they want and need in life. But, while men make up almost 50% of the population, only one out of three people seeking therapy are male.
What accounts for the difference? Is it possible that men simply don’t need therapy as much?
Challenging Attitudes About Men and Feelings
When asked why men might be reluctant to embrace therapy, one male friend answered: “It means failure. In our society, we’re supposed to take care of ourselves, and take care of other people. If we need help we’ve failed.”
Some men feel that the only socially acceptable emotion is anger. So, anger starts out being the only safe feeling to express. But as they go through life, anger suddenly starts causing problems in relationships at home or at work. Trouble with anger is one reason some men give for coming to therapy.
They are not sure what they can do about it, or doubt there is anything that can be done about it. There is a misconception that “this is just what it means to be a man.”
Therapy allows us to examine ideas that limit what it means to be a man, and what it means to be in therapy. Limited attitudes can lead to great hardship for men. Unless these attitudes are challenged, some men may continue to struggle to understand and talk about emotions at all, let alone with someone who can help, such as a therapist.
This is tragic, because the cost of emotional distance for men is too high – both for men, and for those they care about. What can we do to help men become more fully present to themselves and build stronger connections?
Helping to Lift Limiting Barriers Between Men and Feelings
It’s not easy for anyone to express themselves in relationships. However, sharing our emotional inner world is part of what makes us closer. It allows the empathy that makes intimate relationships so healing.
Many men are wonderful, involved partners, fathers and stepfathers. It takes hard work to keep family relationships together. However, fatherhood is often undervalued, and sadly, one in four children are raised without a father at home. According to the Census Bureau in 2014, women headed 80% of single parent families: the stakes are high for men and their families.
Therapist John Kim explains why a more positive view of therapy for men is so important to him:
I worked with teenagers struggling with addiction in residential treatment for four years. Every single one of them had one thing in common: an absent father. Either dad was actually out of the picture or emotionally absent…. These kids were thirsty for a positive male figure in their life, which none of them had.
Source: “Why Every Man Needs Therapy“, by John Kim, LMFT
So many children never had the chance to connect with a safe and present father figure while growing up. It is so hard for anyone to build such relationships later in life without this experience.
Life Challenges Men in Particular Ways
Sometimes people turn to substance abuse or other harmful behaviors when they are struggling with unresolved emotions. We know that certain mental health issues are especially challenging for men. Alcohol dependence happens more than twice as often for men than for women.
On a more somber note, men account for nearly 8 in 10 suicides in the U.S. today, reports PSMag.com. Even though women are diagnosed more often with depression and make far more suicide attempts, men are four times more likely to die by suicide. The trend in the suicide rate for white males in particular has been steadily increasing since 2005, says the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Though nearly the same number of men and women are referred to mental health services, disproportionately fewer men are willing to seek and work with a therapist.
Understanding Roadblocks to Therapy for Men
While some men are open to getting help with self-expression skills, others hesitate to seek therapy because they don’t trust it.
Some men say they hesitate to talk in a way that may expose a weakness. To open up about an emotional struggle takes courage and vulnerability.
Sometimes men (and women) wait until there is a crisis before they seek counseling. They reach out for help only after being urged by someone they care about — be it a spouse, a loved one, or an employer. And so, therapy may begin with a sense of threat, which makes it all the harder to engage from the start.
A good number of men do not have many positive experiences with therapy. The popular view of therapy is that it is something for women; some men feel that “therapy isn’t meant for me.”
Can a Woman Therapist Understand a Man?
One fear I hear from some men is that I may reject their way of looking at things, because I’m not also a man myself.
Another issue is that I may try to “work something on them” or change something about them that they are not aware of. They feel at a disadvantage when entering the realm of emotions.
This is when transparency about the process is very important in my work as a therapist when working with men.
Transparency Helps Earn Trust
As a therapist, my goal is to help those I work with to become more fully alive.
It is not my aim to take away or deny anyone’s masculinity. Admitting an area of weakness or struggle does not mean a man has to change in a certain way to meet my standards or anyone else’s. When we talk about areas that are difficult, my goal is to help each individual with the goals he has for himself.
There’s not some “ideal man” I’m trying to help a man in counseling become. But yes, I will challenge the belief that “men shouldn’t have emotions.”
Therapy is a safe place for all of your emotions. It helps you own all the different parts of yourself, and enjoy a fuller emotional life.
Some men find it harder to speak for their feelings than others. But that doesn’t mean men don’t have emotions. In our work, I encourage people to use the words that make sense to them. We work to understand how they define their emotional experience, and how they want to express it.
Men: How Knowing Your Feelings Is a Strength
I believe a lot of men (and women too) can experience so much more joy, security and healing calm with each other by knowing more about what emotional connection can feel like. Therapy is a safe place to explore this, and to learn why a richer human connection can be so beneficial for everyone.
Emotions aren’t masculine or feminine. Emotions are human. And pretending that they don’t exist, in all their richness and complexity for men, is hurtful, not helpful. If we don’t take the time to understand them, they come out sideways, and confuse us.
Emotional health or emotional awareness doesn’t look one way for everyone. If you’re coming to me for grief work and you’re not crying, that is not a problem for me.
But if you’re coming to counseling for grief work, and you’re not able to talk about how you feel about the person that you’ve lost, that’s when I’ll work with you to try and help you access that.
The way you talk about your emotions, or express them doesn’t have to look a certain way. Our work together is to discover what your emotional experience looks like for you.
Discovering the Power of Emotional Expression as a Man
Counseling for men is an opportunity to process whatever they want to work through in a way that feels appropriate and safe to them.
Helping men meet more of their own needs for mental health is vitally important. If more of us can open up to each other and find the support we need for any of our feelings, fewer need to suffer the isolation that leads to substance abuse and suicide.
The aim of therapy for men is not to make them into a different kind of person; rather to find the connections and freedom they need to be who they already are.
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