For some men, talking about their feelings can be a vulnerable and uncomfortable experience. This is largely due to social pressures that enforce traditional gender stereotypes in society, where men are expected to be “tough” and refrain from showing too much vulnerability. Unfortunately, the avoidance of emotions can lead to a variety of complex mental health issues and relationship struggles. By understanding the reasons why some men may avoid talking about their emotions, we can become more aware of the issues and work as a community to break down stereotypes. It’s everyone’s responsibility to dismantle old beliefs about what men and women should or shouldn’t do. Every single person – regardless of their gender identity – deserves to talk about their innermost experiences. Let’s explore some of the reasons why men might avoid talking about their emotions, while keeping in mind that every individual is different and it’s important to consider the unique identity and background of a person.
From a young age, boys have historically been treated differently than girls. It still happens in some families today. Boys are often taught to suppress their feelings, with phrases like “boys don’t cry” or “man up” ingrained in our culture. Some parents normalize masculine tendencies among boys such as roughhousing or being a bit reckless, claiming that “boys will be boys.” Boys are given trucks and tools to play with while girls are given dolls and homemaker toys. Boys are encouraged to become independent problem-solvers whereas girls are encouraged to ask for help and express their struggles outwardly. The acceptance and normalization of these behaviors reinforces stereotypes and leads boys and girls to follow their own respective gender characteristics. For many boys and men, this means adopting the social norm of avoiding vulnerable emotions.
In addition, boys are often taught to be protectors. They may be told to look out for their younger siblings, or to stand up for others who need help. This socialization can manifest in different ways as they grow up. It can lead men to prioritize the problems of those around them, whether that means helping in dangerous situations or taking on leadership roles where they feel responsible for others. Consequently, this can teach men to ignore their own struggles as they take care of those around them. Ignoring their own struggles often means ignoring their emotions. For example, if someone believes they need to prioritize the struggles of other people over their own, they will naturally ignore the signs of depression or anxiety within themselves, believing it’s not important or worthy of addressing.
Of course, there are exceptions and not every family subscribes to typical gender stereotypes when raising boys. We recognize that each situation is different and recent decades have shown significant progress in defying these stereotypes. Yet, studies have historically shown differences between socialization patterns among boys vs. girls, and it has led it to many adult men feeling uncomfortable asking for help or opening up about their emotions.
Beyond socialization during childhood, the media is responsible for historically portraying men as emotionally detached, aggressive, and unemotional. From action movie heroes to superheroes, men are often depicted as unyielding pillars of strength who rarely show vulnerability or emotions. This representation of men reinforces the misbelief that it is weak for men to show their emotions, and that power comes from withholding them. In addition, men have been traditionally represented in romantic movies as emotionally detached, as the female characters spend more time and attention on emotions compared to their male counterparts. This stereotype of men leads to the idea that in relationships, women are the only ones who are emotional. Again, this reinforces gender norms and teaches men that displaying a wide range of vulnerable emotions is not characteristic. This oversimplified portrayal of men and their emotions causes a significant disconnection between men and women and can lead to problems of intimacy, communication, and strained relationships.
Unfortunately, men who do not conform to masculine norms are often ridiculed or bullied, leading to further pressure to conform. It’s like being conditioned not to pay attention to feelings due to these past experiences. If someone has experienced negative reactions or rejections when attempting to open up in the past, they will probably be less likely to open up about their feelings again. Further, other past experiences can also reinforce current behaviors in men, such as growing up in a household where there was no emotional communication or never having an opportunity to see an adult man, such as their own father, express emotions in a healthy way. Plus, if men have experienced any trauma where expressing emotions would have been frowned upon, it could leave lasting emotional scars that could be buried for a long time. Having deeply-rooted emotional pain that has not been expressed or properly treated can serve as a long-lasting barrier to healthy communication about feelings.
Another reason why some men avoid talking about their emotions is due to a lack of skill. If someone has very little experience with something, it may be challenging to achieve. Although the idea of “practice makes perfect” typically applies to something tangible, like playing an instrument or learning a new language, practicing how to express our feelings is an equally valuable skill to hone. It takes effort and vulnerability to articulate what we’re feeling in any given moment, especially if those emotions are complex or uncomfortable. If men don’t have much experience with emotional expression, they may struggle with it. They may also be afraid of expressing things in the wrong ways or appearing uneducated about emotional complexities. The truth is that there is certainly no right or wrong way to express oneself, but it’s understandable that some men may be uncomfortable with emotional expression due to lack of experience or skill with it. Plus, some men may avoid talking about their emotions simply because they don’t see the purpose of it. Without a history of benefiting from emotional expression, it may be difficult for men to buy into the idea of emotional dialogue.
Finally, some research suggests that there even may be biological factors that contribute to the differences between how men and women process emotions. Studies have shown that male brains have more connections within hemispheres to optimize motor skills, whereas female brains are more connected between hemispheres to combine analytical and intuitive thinking. There is still a lot unknown information when it comes to neurochemistry differences between genders, but it’s worth noting that biology may be partly responsible.
Overall, there are a variety of reasons why some men may feel uncomfortable expressing emotions. Toxic social messages and the reinforcement of gender stereotypes can lead to a cycle of emotional suppression that can be damaging in many ways. As a result, suppressing emotions can lead to a build-up of tension, anxiety, and depression. Without an outlet to express their emotions, men may become withdrawn, irritable, and isolated. It may also become difficult for them to build and maintain healthy relationships as they are unable to communicate about feelings effectively. It’s time for traditional masculine stereotypes to change. At River Oaks Psychology, we want all people, regardless of gender, to feel wholeheartedly welcomed here. We want to actively work against stereotypes that indicate showing emotions is weak. The idea that vulnerability is a weakness is outdated and simply untrue – there is tremendous strength in acknowledging and processing our emotions.
It’s important for all genders – but especially males – to understand that it’s okay to acknowledge and express feelings, and that true strength comes from being able to open up and connect with others on an emotional level. By engaging with our inner selves and embracing those feelings, whether through journaling, therapy, or talking to friends and loved ones, we become more comfortable with the act of expressing ourselves. If you’re ready to take a step toward strengthening your awareness and understanding of emotions, please reach out to us. We would be happy to work with you.
Written by Lauren Presutti