The Call Came and I Answered
Earlier this year I had the amazing opportunity to hear Justin Baldoni's TED Talk, Why I'm done trying to be "man enough". I was moved to a point of my existence I had never felt before. Here was a "man" discussing his struggle to reconcile who he was amidst the societal standards of what it meant to be masculine, to be strong, to be a "man". This is certainly not a new topic in the field of psychology, gender studies, education, etc. But...here is the most amazing point, here was a man showing vulnerability, talking about emotional authenticity and sensitivity, encouraging men to be confident to connect with women on every level, and to stand up to other men for the injustices that occur against women and men. Compassion is evident within Justin. But my question remained, how do some men come to a space of being able to express emotion, embrace shame, be vulnerable, and simply be kind humans while others struggle to transcend to this level of emotional existence? I had received the call from the Universe that this was indeed the reason I was looking for to take my research in the field of emotions to something near and dear to my heart.....to safeguard my son's emotional well-being. I had found a new calling to protect my son with all my might to ensure he would be validated for his emotions, sensitivity, vulnerability, and compassion.
Emotions are Still Taboo
As a researcher in the field of emotional development and emotional regulation, I have struggled even with teachers who are women to be comfortable in sharing their authentic emotional experiences. How was I going to get men to open up and share their experiences? I knew I had a difficult road ahead of me but I was determined to get insight and pave this path that is so desperately needed in coming to understand the male psyche and how it is socially created. My first question centered around the taboo complexity of emotions within western culture. Why do we struggle with the essence of the word "emotional" and why does it carry such a negative connotation, especially for men? Part of the problem for some men may be that they have silenced their feelings for so long that they haven't developed resources for handling them when they do arise. Such unplanned, unexpected emotion can often prove overwhelming. And for those in opposite gender relationships, the feedback from their partners when they do express their emotions can lead them to complete emotional disequilibirum. Significant research and clinical experience has provided evidence that women want men to express emotions, but only certain emotions which align with their goals and values. If men express emotions outside of their expectations, they are are seen as maladjusted. It is far more common for men to express anger and irritability as a release to stress, depression, and anxiety, whereas women are more likely to express sadness and fear.
Emotional Expression vs. Emotional Experience
Despite substantial efforts in gender differences in emotional responses over the past several decades, no consensus as to whether women are more emotional than men has been reached. In fact, a recent study (Deng, Chang, Yang, Huo, Zhou, 2016) has even gone as far to suggest the greatest difference still lies in emotional expression (the external expression of subjective experience) vs. emotional experience (an individual's physiological arousal evoked by external stimuli). That all in all, men and women are still very similar biologically which results in the manifestation of experience being pretty similar.
Parents We Need You
If boys and girls are inherently similar biologically resulting in similar emotional experiences, then why the significance disparities in emotional expression? This is simple....societal and cultural norms, parenting practices and expectations, and personality. For the purpose of this article, I will focus only on parenting norms, experiences, and practices. I will certainly be writing additional articles related to brain differences and personality in the coming months. But for now, let me dive into my professional and personal opinion of this matter. I will save the empiricism for the journal article and tell you the emotional truth of the matter. When our children become upset, sad, hurt, emotionally distraught, it is our very nature to make that feeling go away. We ourselves become uncomfortable which prompts us to say "Don't cry" or "you are ok", "shake it off", "you are stronger than this". These are just a few of the more gentle reactions I have heard and experienced. There are certainly the more assertive "man up", "strong girls don't cry", and my favorite (I am being fascicious of course), "suck it up buttercup". The truth lies more into the feeling of being uncomfortable in the emotional reactions of our children, especially little boys. The uncomfortable feeling is known as "cognitive disequilibrium" or "cognitive dissonance". This is an exceptionally confusing place to be as we don't understand how we are feeling and just want to make it stop.
Emotions become a bad thing which wake up parts of our inner selves that have yet to be resolved. For the man who has yet to resolve his own emotional struggles, those of his son can be even more perplexing. Men begin to fear these emotions, judge them, avoid them at all cost. Suppression becomes the dominant method of emotional expression only to result in loss of control when they are face to face with their son's emotional needs. These emotional needs are often the same needs they had as young boys which were most likely not met or validated. The immense amount of shame men hold and carry within their lives is immense. I read an article once on why there is no war among animals? No shame...no blame? The author commented that it is because if animals feel something, they show it, they release it. Have you even seen a prey animal escape death from a predator? Watch their reaction afterward, They shake until the adrenaline is lowered and they move back into life, thus releasing the pressure. Again, as was stated earlier in this article, this emotional suppression, silencing, transferring of emotional reactions on to their sons, may come from the fact that they haven't developed resources for handling these experiences when they do arise.
Suggestions to Safeguard the "Emotional" in Boys and Young Men
When you get to the heart of it, boys are just as emotional as girls. They have a natural desire to feel and emote. It is only the society reaction or parental response which teaches them that what they are feeling or how they are expressing is not appropriate. There are several strategies one can employ when working with young boys to help them feel safe in expressing their emotions.
1. Give boys permission to have an Internal World - As the author of Raising Cane, Dr. Michael Thompson suggests, the very way we communicate to our sons about the reality of their internal world, the more adept they will become in developing an emotional vocabulary and expressing emotions more freely. Just as we assume everyone is going to college these days and often forget to ask students what they want to do with their lives, we too can begin to use this thinking in communicating consistently about their feelings, emotions, vulnerability from a place of every day conversation. This should not just be for those serious moments. This pattern of communication with their son should be the rule, not the exception.
2. Provide boys a safe space to physically express emotions - This can often be a difficult option for parents as anyone doing something physical can evoke our sense of fear related to the behavior. However, research has shown time and time again that emotional release can be inherently good for boys. Allow for a safe space in which they can scream into a pillow, kick/throw a ball, punch a punching bag, or engage in any physical activity to release the reaction to suppress. Some boys may have better results with artistic outlets such as coloring, drawing, writing, etc. For many boys, physical expression is the best way to clear their minds for productive processing. Often in order to put their feelings into words, they must first put those feelings into action. Once the adrenaline has been dissipated through physical activity, they are much better able to do the cognitive work necessary to process their feelings.
3. Ask a question before demanding or requiring an action - Often times boys will follow impulses due to their slower developing frontal lobes when compared to girls. This may often lead to them engaging in tasks or actions which may lead them to being criticized for their behavior. Instead of scolding or moving into behavioral management/corrective methods, pause, and ask a question. Ask your son what he was feeling (not thinking ) when he decided to do what he did. When we move into questioning and talking about the emotion leading the action, boys will gain a greater sense of self-control over the connection between head and hands. This can be a very powerful strategy as boys often want to feel capable and self-regulating.
4. Examine your own emotional lens as a parent. As stated earlier within this article, it is often common for parents to want to stop the emotional reaction of their children as it evokes and awakens unresolved emotional trauma within their own inner landscape. Responsible parenting is also about looking within our own lens and doing the inner work to face these shadows. The only way to stop the perpetuation of emotional suppression, fear and shame is to look at our own and do the work. Then and only then will we be able to fully be present with our children and honor their emotional experiences vs evoking our realities unto them.
The Future of "Emotional Boys"
It is my mission to protect the emotional landscape of boys, to better educate parents of methods to improve our conversations and emotional experiences with our boys, and to help boys become comfortable in their own emotional expression. I hope you will see the beauty in balancing our own feminine and masculine energies so that we can model best practices for the future generations to come. Everyone deserves the opportunity to freely express how they feel and to not bear shame for any aspect of their emotional being.
I am Here to Help
I know that facing your own shadow as a parent can be quite daunting. The emotional memories of the trauma and the fears of the unknown are quite enormous. Know that I am here to help if you feel you are ready to face this aspect of your journey. My Emotional Alignment program is designed to aid you in understanding your own emotional complexity, needs, and wounding. When you have successfully worked through these core areas, we can begin to help you align your emotional landscape with that of your child's. Issues pertaining to control, fear, and self-regulation are also included. Reach out to me on my website and tell me your story www.transcendentheart.com.
From the Bottom of My Heart,
I dedicate to this to my son Aleks.