We’re Sidestepping Emotions

It’s not about masculinity. It’s about emotions. For some time now, that’s what I’ve been trying to say.

I’m reading a book by Marc Brackett, Ph.D., the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. I picked it up after hearing him discuss his work, and his life experience, on a podcast episode with Brené Brown (see below). In Permission to Feel, and in the podcast episode, one thing he talks about is how, just as people tend to avoid emotions as much as possible, the scientific community has largely avoided the study of emotions.

That idea, that even in research, psychologists and other scientists have veered away from studying emotions, for much the same reason so many of us avoid experiencing emotions, because they’re messy, reaffirms what I’ve concluded after consistently reading, writing, and talking to people about men, manhood, masculinity, etc. for the past several years. If we focus on emotions, the rest will work itself out.

We can teach boys and men the things we associate with masculinity. We can tell them to be confident, and to be assertive, and to be leaders. We can encourage them to be more decisive. But, when someone has a functional relationship with their emotions a lot of this is unnecessary.

If I can navigate my emotions effectively, I have self-esteem. I have confidence. I can be assertive and decisive. If I can’t navigate my emotions, I can’t possibly esteem myself adequately. Then I show up in life in one of two ways. Either I have little-to-no confidence, or I’m arrogant.

Until, on a societal level, men make peace with their emotions, we will continue to be plagued by men who are either hyper or hypo-masculine.

To their credit, Psychology Today devoted their March 2023 issue to men and understanding male emotions. But, that is a glaring exception. Be it in bookstores, on podcasts, on social media, or someplace else, everywhere I look, I see people trying to help men. Some of them infuriate me. Some of them inspire me. None of them are talking about emotions. Be it healthy or toxic, they’re talking about masculinity.

They may refer to the importance of emotional intelligence. They may encourage men to talk about their feelings. They may even create spaces where men can do that. Many advocate to “let boys cry.” They give us permission to feel, as Brackett’s book suggests (as if that’s necessary). They emphasize that we need to be emotionally grounded, emotionally balanced. But, no one is talking about how to do it.

There is an army out there, of both men and women – coaches and therapists and even retired bartenders – who men pay to teach them how to be masculine. How to be men.

I don’t see any of them teaching men how to reconcile their relationships with their emotions . . . while living in a patriarchal society that tells men they are not emotional, and that, from boyhood, systematically desensitizes them from their emotions.

I’ve watched too many boys and men take their own lives, or destroy themselves in one way or another. Year after year, decade after decade. All because, as a society, we don’t want to deal with emotions. We don’t want to talk about our feelings.

If we’re ever going to put a dent in this problem, it will require a major shift in perspective. We compel men to ask themselves the question, how do I feel (as in, what am I feeling). It’s great if someone can respond to that clearly. But, we need to teach men to use the same words to ask an entirely different question.

How do I feel? How do I experience my emotions?

We need to not only help people learn what they feel. We need to teach them how to feel. For some of us to do that, we, ourselves, must learn how to feel. As Brackett alludes in his writing, and as I have seen in my life, this ability has nothing to do with what letters might follow one’s name.

Because emotions are taboo in our culture, and males are socialized to disconnect from themselves, to pretend not to feel, they are starved for love and connection. Teaching someone how to be a man, or how to stand in his masculine power, or how to be an “alpha” or a “high-value man,” rather than being a “simp” – that might help him find a partner. But, it will never give him the love and connection for which, I promise you, he aches. He’ll just keep living in heartache and pretending he doesn’t feel it.

It’s not about masculinity.

It’s not about toxic masculinity.

It’s about emotions.

This piece was originally published on Substack.

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