Friday, February 15, 2008

Come On “Man” – Show Some Emotion… Tell Me How You Feel

In my graduate class in Marriage Counseling and Therapy at the University of South Florida, it is not uncommon for one of the female students to say something like, “Sometimes I get so frustrated… I just wish my boyfriend (husband or significant other) would tell me how he feels.” Expressing and sharing emotion is an important aspect of life, yet for many men it is a challenging, daunting and difficult thing to do.

In psychology, emotions are complex evaluative (positive or negative) reactions of the nervous system in response to external or internal stimuli (e.g., fear, sadness, anger, happiness, surprise, ambivalence, and others). Different types of emotions are associated with relatively distinct patterns of subjective (internal) experience, overt behavior (e.g., crying or laughter), motivational states (e.g., approach or avoidance), physiological arousal, learning, and activity in the nervous system. Emotions are evolutionary adaptations, as they enhance an organism’s ability to experience and evaluate its environment and thus increase its likelihood to survive and reproduce.

Interestingly, the Stoics named four primary passions. In On Passions, Andronicus reported the Stoic definitions of these passions:

1. Distress – an irrational contraction, or a fresh opinion that something bad is present, at which people think it right to be depressed;

2. Fear – an irrational aversion or avoidance of an expected danger;

3. Lust – an irrational desire, or pursuit of an expected good; and,

4. Delight – an irrational swelling, or a fresh opinion that something good is present, at which people think it right to be elated.

An intriguing website discussion of aspects of relationships, poignantly says, “Nothing defines us more than a full and unguarded expression of our emotions. They reveal private and personal information about us. As Dr Sandra Scott says, ‘it’s no wonder that at times we have difficulty expressing them freely’.”

Ultimately, our fear is of the consequences of showing our emotions – how will people react? Moreover, some men can feel under the additional burden of believing that displaying their emotions will make them appear less masculine. They can feel emotionally trapped by traditional “macho images.” These images seem to dictate that some emotions are “feminine” such as fear, anxiety and sadness, and that these can only be shown in restricted measures. However, if showing our emotions leaves us feeling exposed and vulnerable, then why do it? There are two main incentives to do so – the first is the effect on us, and the second is the effect on our personal lives.

I found an excellent Men’s Health article that addresses the question, “Are men really less emotional than women?” Over the past decade or so, the article suggests, the effects of emotional expression on health, and the differences between men and women in this regard, have become more widely understood.

An increasing body of research shows the importance of emotional expression on emotional well-being, and while the exact mechanism between emotional expression and health is not entirely clear, the link appears to exist. Men are traditionally thought of as being less emotional than women but the evidence points more towards a situation where men tend to show emotions that are bad for them and the people around them. Here is a quick overview of some of the research findings about men, their emotional expressions and their health. There is substantial evidence that compared to women:

* men have more difficulty in expressing their emotions and exert greater controls over the expression of emotions;

* men spend more time ruminating over negative emotions;

* men share their emotions with far fewer people;

* men express emotions with less intensity;

* men use less emotional language and fewer “emotion” words;

* men’s behavior seems less affected by expressions of emotion;

* men are more likely to under-report negative feelings; and,

* men are more willing to express emotions likely to be viewed as demonstrating power or control.

In my three contemporary romance novels, I purposefully wanted my heroes to be heroes in every way – Troy (in My Sweetpea: Seven Years and Seven Days – at least before he started drinking too heavily), Jack (in Fear of Feeling Loved) and Michael (in If Ever Again… It’ll be for Love) all expressed their emotions to others – men and women – without feeling any less of a man or homophobic.

In my clinical work I always have believed that once a person knew and understood why they were the way they were, they then had a choice either to stay the way they were or to try to change. “When does your explanation become your excuse?” is a question I many times have gently asked my clients.

Question: What has been your experience with your (and/or your man’s) inability to openly express emotions?



xina said...

Hi Dr. Bill,
Great Post! I wonder if it is because males and females are woven from different fabrics or if it is because men are not taught to acknowledge the whole array of emotions that are avaliable to them. My significant other compares my depth of emotion to the "ocean" and himself to a "puddle". I say, "if you think you are a puddle, that is what you will always be!"
All the best,

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Xina,
I appreciate your stopping by and sharing your experience.
In response to your implicit question, men do indeed seem to be less emotional than women; however, I see it as being a learned phenomenon not an inherent one. Thus, if a man has learned to be less emotional, he can learn to be more emotional. And as I say in my Post…“When does the explanation become the excuse?” You may want to ask him if he would like to be less of a puddle, and if he says “Yes” then you could help him – he may not ever resemble an ocean, but a lake maybe better than a puddle.
Again, thanks for stopping by.
With all best wishes for success and happiness with your significant other,