As a psychotherapist, I regularly hear men talk about the culture they grew up in. What surprises me the most is that while boys have grown up in the same country and school systems, they have often experienced high grade bullying and commonly shut down their emotions. Masculine culture has been described to me by male clients, and male friends. From what I hear from men, there is a strong hierarchy and pecking order where boys and men put each other down to make themselves feel better. It is a culture of bullying, criticism, and a fight/flight reaction I sometimes hear men talking about other men, and how they hold a deep distaste for the Alfa-male and the bullying that they have received from early childhood. Some of the men I have listened to, talk about bullying that was highly traumatic and abusive, just for the sake of other boys or men to feel powerful and strong. So it does take much of an imagination to work out why a lot of men have had to shut off their emotions to survive in masculine culture.
When Anger is the only Safe Emotion to Express
Some men report that they experience anger but not the “softer” emotions such as sadness or compassion. Anger is seen as a socially acceptable emotion in masculine culture. Sadness on the other hand, signifies weakness. Some men I have talked to described experiencing fear or symptoms of anxiety and yet did not consciously recognise that they were experiencing these feelings because they had not associated the words to the experience. They may use terms such as feeling “uncomfortable” or even “angry” when they are really feeling fear. A lot of men channel their other emotions into anger because it is more socially acceptable as a man to feel angry. Anger may have been the only emotion that was “safe” to feel. As soon as a boy or in some circles, a man is seen to be weak by expressing emotions other than anger, they are easy targets by other men.
Understanding & Healing from the Bullying in Masculine Culture
Understanding this process of shutting down and numbing feelings due to masculine culture is important for both men and women. When men struggle to feel certain emotions or to express them, it is important that they give themselves compassion and understanding. Let themselves off the “critical hook”, so to speak! It can take a while to connect with emotions that have been suppressed for so long. Also, suppression of emotion involves patterns of thought, action and emotion which would need to be turned around to stop continuing to further suppress emotion. This takes time, support from male and female culture, as well as practices such as mindfulness, to slowly undo what has been learnt over a life time.
For women, understanding the effects of bullying and masculine culture is also important. Often women expect men to be as connected to their emotion as women are, and to be able to express their feelings as fluently as women can. Women often become hurt and react when men are not as forthcoming with their emotions as their female friends. What women often do not understand is the enormity of the experiences that some men have endured for them to shut down and disconnect from their feelings. One friend eloquently stated, “I spent my whole life stuffing down my emotions and now she wants me to open up and express how I feel!” To many men it must seem an absurd prospect to begin to feel what has been suppressed for as long as they can remember. So women need to be patient and encourage our men to feel without further judgement and criticism. And to the men who have experienced bullying and criticism from other men and masculine culture, it is important to step forward and learn to feel again for your own personal empowerment, quality of relationship with other safe men and women, and even for your health.
Questions for Men…
Have you felt confused about which feelings you are experiencing and wondered why?
Have you ever overcome the shut of feelings and allowed yourself to feel softer feelings without criticism or ridicule from yourself or others?