Why men struggle so much with emotions

Photo by wildpixel/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by wildpixel/iStock / Getty Images

Last time I spoke about the danger of loneliness and not openly talking about mental health. Honestly, my goal there was not so much advice-giving or instructing, but more a call-to-action to talk about a problem that is eating away at so many of us. I felt like I wasn’t quite finished with the topic though, but since I didn’t want to make that post endlessly long I decided to “split” it into two parts. So, without further ado, here’s part two (that rhyme though).


The conditioning of my conditioning

The male identity really is a fascinating concept. What does it mean to be a man? Am I a “true man?” Given that I’m a guy, what things do I think are socially expected from me and what ideas do I need to conform to?

Us men in particular are not at all raised to be emotionally vulnerable and capable of sharing emotions. No, this doesn’t mean that you should be balling your eyes out every time you feel a tad unhappy or tell everybody about your childhood traumas. I simply mean that we are conditioned to think that displaying any type of emotional vulnerability with other men, or any emotion somewhat resembling sadness or nostalgia, is an unmanly thing to do – especially if you’re in your early twenties or younger. We’re socially conditioned to never explicitly acknowledge any emotions that may seem unmasculine.

I’m not going to get on a soapbox to preach about how much of a shame that is – or how disgraceful it is that something like therapy is stereotypically perceived as something for mentally ill people – but I think it’s important to logically deconstruct the series of events that happens as a consequence of this conditioning. If I’m ‘punished’ every time I’m emotionally vulnerable with another guy, in the form of social embarrassment or a deterioration of my manliness, then I am incentivized/conditioned to not display that behavior again in the future. If I never display that behavior, I will be completely incompetent at this skill. Due to this, I’ll never know how to process or talk about the inevitable emotional highs and lows of life, such as the anxiety about not knowing what I want to do with my future, the immense emotional fulfillment I get from making cool software in my free time, or the sadness I get because, no matter what, I always feel inferior to my peers. All of these unexpressed tensions will exact a serious toll on my mental wellbeing –and just like that, we’re back to the topic of mental health.

They really buy into a culture that doesn’t value what we’ve ‘feminized.’ We’ve made feminine relationships, emotions, empathy, all these critical things… So boys begin to devalue their relational parts to themselves [such as] their relational needs and desires.
— Dr. Niobe Way ('The Mask You Live In')

So, what can be done? I could say “hey c’mon guys, learn to feel! Learn to share your emotions and be vulnerable!” Or I can plead to the women to help the guys in their lives out, because I think it’s fair to say that discussing emotions with women is far easier than doing so with men. But this is, frustratingly, the best I can come up with. I feel frustrated almost to the point of powerlessness while writing this because I honestly don’t know how to solve this problem. Sure, I can urge men to shed those destructive, ludicrous stereotypes of machismo and accept the concept of emotional openness and vulnerability, but is that enough?

Although I’m not intelligent enough to offer answers to this troubling problem, there are thankfully people that do better than I do in this respect. The guys over at The Art of Charm (and the Art of Manliness) produce some fantastic content, especially on their blog and podcast, that is geared (primarily) towards men to help them become the best they can be.

I recommend going through their blog categories, toolbox page, and Minisode podcast episodes where they don’t just talk about this in isolation, but also about dating, networking, productivity, and so much more. Their 360-degree approach on what it takes to become your greatest self really impressed me and made me realize that you cannot just look at issues like emotional vulnerability in isolation.


The Mask You Live In

Which is the lie: the mask, or my face?
— Jhin

The inspiration for this topic came after I saw the documentary The Mask You Live In on Netflix. It was an extremely insightful 90min exploration of the male identity in the United States and analyzed the impact that media, entertainment, pornography, sports, and movies have on what young boys think they need to do to “be a man.” It was striking how this documentary connected all the dots so seamlessly; the lack of emotional expression, rape and domestic abuse epidemic, male treatment of women, disproportionately high incarceration rates of men… all of these variables really are interconnected. It’s an absolute must-watch, the same counts for its female equivalent called Miss Representation which is also on Netflix. This one basically asks these same questions but then for women and towards the female identity. If you put these two documentaries together, you get a brilliant, holistic understanding of the struggles that both genders face on a daily basis and how this manifests itself in the psychological battles that everybody faces every single day.

The loss of the intimacy in male friendships that causes young boys to oftentimes feel very lonely and isolated, they really enter into a culture of masculinity that makes these bizarre equations that male intimacy has to be about sexuality.
— Dr. Niobe Way

Introspection: Who are you?

This whole thing sounds awfully doom and gloom, I know, Lord knows I won’t save the world just by writing a long-ish blog post about the topic. But it’s a serious topic that I think requires serious attention and discussion. Nevertheless, I’ll try to end it on a somewhat lighter note.

As I discussed above, this sensation of (emotionally) feeling something is massive but it all starts with introspection and becoming aware and conscious of what you are feeling. Just stop for a second and think about the sensations you feel on a daily basis. Anxiety? Contentment? Comfort? Concern? Did you feel good about the things you accomplished today? If so, why? What about the times that you felt invigorated, what were you doing then and why did these activities energize you?


Every time I write “why” several times in a row, I just think of that scene in the Matrix where Mr. Smith goes “why Mr. Anderson? Why? Why? Why?” Classic.


The point is to simply get into the mindset and habit of becoming powerfully conscious of what you’re feeling when you do the things you do every day so that you can accurately trace the sources of those feelings. If you can do that, you can begin to plan your actions to deliberately reproduce the scenarios where you feel great and avoiding those where you feel shit. Say, for example, that you realize during this process that the common factor of you feeling great is when you’re teaching others how a new computer skill/software, well then you can start to shape your life towards getting into those situations more often. I know that this process of introspection and active internal dialogue has been extremely powerful to me in getting to understand myself instead of aimlessly stabbing at the dark when wondering about what’s going on in my head. It brings a little bit of method to all the madness and makes something that seems so arbitrary far more deliberate and purposeful.

I know, I’m slowly wandering into the treacherous realm of cringe-worthy, talk-show advice. The thing is, the deeper we get into this process of moving forward in life, the more I actually have to touch upon these things because, well, the messages behind them are often completely on point. The problem is just that they’re framed in a language that only computes with certain people, but alienates a large chunk of other people. So my goal is to put it in a language where different people, like the gamers, the geeks, and the ‘other guys’, understand it.

I hope that by getting the ball rolling on this conversation, I provoked some insight, action, thoughts, or inspiration about this problem that men have with emotional vulnerability (I recommend this Art of Charm podcast episode for further discussion). Because there’s no doubt in my mind that this is a problem. Hopefully, together, we can solve this.

See you, Space Cowboy.