How Can Men Learn to be Comfortable with Feelings?
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Boys will be men. Teach Boys that Feelings are OK.
In a group text, a friend brought up that her husband was being cold and unaccepting of her feelings. She complained “He has no problem shutting me out and not answering me when I get emotional. I told him I’m not some brainwashed, robot Marine” Oh Snap! I asked her if she really said that to him and she confirmed it. Being in the military, that’s part of his particular hardness, I’m sure.
Why do males have a hard time hearing females' emotional outbursts?
I think there’s a common pattern that a lot of men can’t handle strong emotions and that a lot of women get very emotional. There lies the problem in relating and feeling understood between the sexes. I know I’m generalizing here, but stay with me…
Imagine a world where we were taught as kids that ALL emotions and feelings are normal. Kids could learn appropriate ways of expressing strong emotions and that they can feel better once they do.
One friend confided this about her husband, “He is emotionally unavailable and when he hears pain or sadness from me, he sees only criticism or an argument to win. It’s so frustrating.”
Another vented, “He won’t communicate with me, he always says I’m wrong, I took it wrong, I’m crazy.”
I know I have never liked being called crazy when I’m trying to express myself! This seems to be a thing guys say when they want you to stop being emotional, but I don’t think it works very well.
I wonder if men are so conditioned by the image of a tough guy, in control of everything, saving the day – that they can’t allow themselves to show their sensitive side. Don’t they know that super heroes are scared, worried and very sad sometimes?
I believe males feel like they need to show an outer toughness and calm to the world. Maybe that’s what they saw in their dads. But where do their strong feelings go? Can they express sadness and fear to those closest to them?
Would we (partners) be OK with our men falling apart sometimes? I would hope so.
Personally, I would like to see vulnerability in my husband sometimes. That would make me feel trusted and needed.
Somewhere down the line boys get the message to not be overly upset, it’s not “manly.” Nobody wants a “crybaby” for a son – do you? Is it more acceptable for your daughter to cry?
What if we changed the cycle and taught that feelings can be expressed appropriately and that even uncomfortable ones are OK and will pass? Nobody likes to hear their child upset, but trying to stop it at any cost will not teach them to deal with their feelings. In fact, suppressing emotions comes at a high cost.
In my book, Parenting Well After Childhood Abuse, I explore the importance of teaching our children how to process their feelings from a very young age. This of course, goes for boys and girls. I don’t think there’s a difference in how toddlers process their emotions. Boys and girls get sad, angry and frustrated; with crying and screaming their usual expression.
By a parent accepting that their child is sad over a broken toy – naming the feeling and saying “I’m sorry your balloon popped, you must be so sad. You were really having fun playing with it.” This shows that you understand the feeling of being sad when you were enjoying something and then it’s over. You’re not treating them as acting crazy over a small thing, but rather showing that you see their feeling of sadness and it’s OK.
By staying calm and accepting their feeling as reasonable, you are giving them permission to feel it.
Besides naming feelings for children, accepting that they feel it will teach them that they can accept their own feelings and not be afraid of expressing them. They can learn that after they cry or scream they will feel better.
In the broken toy scenario, instead of rushing to “fix” the problem and replace the toy, what if you give them a minute to be sad about it and cry? Is crying so horrible that you need to distract them and make the crying stop immediately? Maybe you would need to examine your own feelings about expressing emotion. It’s very valuable to teach children the acceptance of feelings – you will be fine even if you feel strongly right now – and then watch the feeling pass. In my experience expressing how I feel and what I think ALWAYS lessens the intensity of how I feel.
I believe that expressing emotions can be a healthy part of relationships. It builds trust to be OK with your kids – or partner’s – feelings. You are just a witness. Another’s feelings have nothing to do with you.
Maybe this is one of the problems with men’s acceptance of female emotions, they take it personally. Or they just want to fix it, don’t know how, so they shut us out.
Men may want to be left alone when they feel sad, scared, frustrated, angry, etc.. But then they are left alone to deal with their problems. I believe if they learn to share with loved ones who don’t judge them, they could feel supported and understood.
Being left alone when they’re feeling bad is probably the last thing women want.
Generally, we want reassurance and comfort, or the ability to vent and to be heard. That’s what girlfriends are for. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask from a man that is your partner in life. I have learned to specifically ask, “I have a request...can you just hear me out and give me a hug after I tell you something?”
Back to the scenario with your child: You may be tempted to use reason and problem solving but it won’t show empathy and teach them to deal with feelings. You may be tempted to say, “Stop crying, we’ll just blow up another balloon.” If you brush off the crying and move on by “solving the problem,” you’re teaching that bad feelings are to be ignored, shut down and avoided. You must fix them immediately.
I wonder if boys learn to be afraid of strong emotions and cannot handle them in others because they never got the message that it’s normal. They usually got the message that intense feelings are NOT OK.
Life can be challenging. Being able to name feelings and work through emotions instead of stuffing them inside will make for happier and healthier lives.
Here’s my steps in dealing with feelings:
See the Reaction
Name the Feeling
Acknowledge that They Feel it
Watch it Pass
Move on to Problem Solving
When moving too quickly from step one (see someone crying) to solving the problem for them (new balloon) kids miss the lesson of allowing feelings and feeling understood. Children need to learn that emotions aren’t bad and they can deal with them.
What if your husband/partner took the above 5 steps next time you were upset? Hahaha. Can you imagine?
He sees you crying and says “What’s wrong, honey?” You talk fast and hiccup about how your sister disrespected you and called you…… and instead of his usual, “OMG family drama” before walking away – he sits down and says “I'm sorry you aren’t getting along with your sister, you seem sad and really upset.”
You don’t even have to tell him all of the details of the problem (which may be what he wants to avoid) if you feel that he accepts your being upset. Maybe he just holds you and strokes your hair while you cry. Then you can gain strength and not feel so emotional. You could then say, “I know what I’m going to tell her. Thanks babe, for being so understanding and sweet!”
I hope that we can raise some kinder, gentler human males to make the world a better place. I, for one, like a sensitive man.