“When I began working more with adults, and more with adult men in private practice I found myself, and my feminist views being challenged.”
When I was in college I took a class called “sociology of emotions”, this class was dominated by women and we talked a lot about the socialization that women go through and the underlining do’s and don’ts that, as a women and young feminist I felt pulled to fight. I loved this course, exploring why I couldn’t get mad without being called a bitch, or if I cried being accused of being too emotional. I could get behind fighting for this, for equality’s sake. What we also talked about, was how men and boys are similarly, or not so similarly socialized around their emotions. What struck me then was the research that showed that boys are smiled at less by parents, and encouraged to “suck it up” and move on by just about everyone until this is part of the very fabric that makes a man a man. I remember thinking, how sad it was on many levels. That subconsciously parents feel less inclined to smile, or nurture their boys because they are boys. This idea that boys don’t need as much love, or compassion, or help along the way to understand and communicate all their emotions left me feeling that this is one area they are missing out on. This resonated with me more, 15 years later when I had my first son. Still identifying as a feminist, I was now also a social worker, child and family therapist and mother. I remember feeling ( and if I’m honest still feel) the weight of the world on my shoulders as I looked at this perfect baby who I was responsible in making into a decent human and man. I vowed to myself that I would teach him about consent, inclusivity, and always encourage him to feel and express his emotions in a healthy way.
When I began working more with adults, and more with adult men in private practice I found myself, and my feminist views being challenged. I have heard my friends and many other women talk about men when an argument came up in ways like “he has no emotions, he acts like a robot when it comes to feelings” or “he just sat there looking at me, as I cried and he seemed to just not care”. Or on the flip side, I heard about anger. On TV, in songs, from family members, friends, and partners I learned male anger is BIG. It gets loud, things can break, and myself or my female friends were left confused. The gift my male clients have given me, is a better understanding of all of this. I often ask my male clients what their relationship with their father’s were like, the most common response is “ it was ok, good, I guess”. When I ask about nurturing, or encouragement, or saying ‘I love you”, most tell me it was their mother who provided this. Did, I mention that the most common reason men say they started therapy was because their partner said they needed to, or a relationship ended and they are trying to understand why. This does not seem to be a coincidence.
When I read “The Body Keeps the Score” by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, I learned about alexithymia. It was like a lightbulb went off. Alexithymia is a fancy word for not knowing what emotion you are having when you have them, because you truly have no idea. I think this must be how we all feel in the very beginning, when no-one has taught us what sad, or happy, or mad is and the overwhelming sensations in the body say something is happening but we don’t know what it is. As babies when this happens, we cry and our caregivers show up and take care of our needs. But if anything goes against the current masculinity standard it is men who cry. As if crying means you are weak. So rather than be weak, so many man hold the tears, stuff them way down deep and let it come out as anger. When I began working with men more I realized that I needed to read more about men in therapy specifically. I was given the book “Men in Therapy” by David B. Wexler. It was here that I first heard of “normative male alexithymia”, meaning that all men, due to limited socialization and encouragement to understand emotions, have a very limited felt sense of most emotions other than angry, happy, and sad. This, was a very important piece for me to understand and increased my empathy for my clients and men in general. Now, Im not saying because most men have a baseline of alexithymia going on they are excused from being an asshole. What I am saying, is I was able to take a step back and reflect on how I learned about emotions, and how to connect and express them versus how men were. I started to understand that when my partner took what felt like forever to respond to my question about his emotions or why he acted the way he did, this was not his avoidance (at least completely) but rather that he really did not know. That it takes a bit longer for men to look back and the situation and really begin to understand what emotions were occurring in the moment for them.
“How do women, especially feminist women, increase compassion for the guys in our lives?”
So now what? How do women, especially feminist women, increase compassion for the guys in our lives? It starts with us, ladies. Not because it is out job to fix this for men, but because we were nurtured in a way to flourish our emotions. Using this, we can be a guid for the guys in our lives. And, perhaps more importantly, in all situations, good communication starts with the self. Understanding our feelings, how we respond or react to our feelings and express this to our loved ones. Exploring how you know when you experience emotions (across the range) and engaging in discussion about this with the men in your life. Perhaps asking them if they have felt this emotions before, and how they know; what is their experience? Increasing patience and not taking it personally when the man in your life doesn’t seem to quite get it feels like a good place to start. Exploring how you can encourage the man in your life to be ok with vulnerability and his emotions. After all, the same way men have been socialized not to cry, they have also missed some of the socialization or even awareness of all the positive emotions out there. Our brain can continue to grow and form new patterns of relating and expressing our feelings, we just need to learn how to get the brain to the gym every now and then. This is where therapy can help.