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Why So Many Men Struggle with Their Emotions

Research on normative male alexithymia.

Key points

  • So many adult men find it difficult to know what they're feeling. There's a term for this: normative male alexithymia.
  • Boys are born with simliar emotional capacity as girls; emotional fluency is discouraged as they grow older.
  • Men can re-learn and reclaim their feelings through self-confrontation and a trusted partner.

As is the case with many men, it’s always been hard for me to know what I’m feeling. I would observe my behavior and from there try to deduct what’s going on inside me. I believe this difficulty might have played a role in my choice to be a therapist. Clinical training has taught me firsthand how to better recognize, own, and verbalize my feelings.

Over the last 12 years as a couples therapist, I’ve met hundreds of men struggling to feel. I’ve also met hundreds of their partners, feeling alone and frustrated by their emotionally unavailable mates.

Covert Male Depression

An important source of understanding this phenomenon is Cambridge, Mass. psychotherapist Terry Real. His seminal book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, describes how boys endure the “loss of the relational”—being forced to separate from their feelings and their mothers on the way to becoming “men.” They learn to turn away from their fathers and their own pain toward work, money, success, sex, drugs, and other distractions. They covertly experience depression, which manifests mostly as numbness, boredom, apathy, limited emotional range, and cynicism.

Their partners see them as emotionally handicapped, stoic, cold-hearted—and more. When I begin talking to such men about covert depression, they initially display surprise at the idea of depression but then quickly feel validated and understood. Their partner’s eyes light up as a new empathic discourse starts to emerge. Normalizing the emotional struggle of men helps the partners join forces to heal the hidden depression.

Permission to Feel

Accompanying the covert depression is another crucial phenomenon—what’s officially labeled normative male alexithymia. The American Psychological Association defines it as ”a subclinical form of alexithymia found in boys and men reared to conform to traditional masculine norms that emphasize toughness, teamwork, stoicism, and competition and that discourage the expression of vulnerable emotions.”

The inability to feel or describe emotions—considered normative among men—was what these men (and I) have been suffering from all these years. The fact that it’s normative doesn’t mean that it's natural or good. In fact, boys are born just as sensitive as girls. But through the socialization process, boys lose permission to feel and become disconnected from their core.

When a man suffers from covert depression and normative male alexithymia, he essentially is surviving and not living. He is not experiencing the whole emotional range and therefore experiences the world as hard, dull, and boring. Over time, his partner forms the impression that he is stoic, boring, and uninterested. Feeling unloved and alone, the partners often become bitter and look elsewhere for emotional companionship.

Reconnecting men to their feelings, expanding their emotional range, and subsequently their emotional eloquence, I began to witness changes in such couples. Hope and newfound animation began to spread through my clinic.

Photo by Galit Romanelli
Source: Photo by Galit Romanelli

So You Want to Feel?

Feeling is natural. We’re born feeling. But disconnection from feelings is often imposed on boys. Here are some useful suggestions for those wanting to overcome the imposed emotional handicap.

Choose to see that feelings are what make us human. The unique human essence is emotional. Therefore, if you want to enjoy life to its fullest, you must dare to feel the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Expand your emotional range. The wider your emotional range, the livelier you’ll be.

Choose to believe that the key to your joy is in your pain, so open yourself to the darker shades of emotions as well as the lighter ones.

Understand that joy is a verb, and therefore must be consciously practiced in order to rewire your brain and inscribe it in your life.

If you do all this, you’ll feel free in your relationships, because after all, love is to feel free.

As I apply these processes with men, they begin to open up and share their fears, vulnerabilities, and difficulties with their partners. They bravely stop running away and confront their past, their pain, and their wants. The men are returning to their full self, and their relationships began to flourish.

As for me, the word “feel” is now emblazoned on my arm.

How will you remember to feel?

Facebook/LinkedIn image: cheapbooks/Shutterstock

References

Bly, R. (1990). Iron John: A book about men. New York, NY: Hachette.

Chicago

Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel: Unlocking the power of emotions to help our kids, ourselves, and our society thrive. Celadon Books.

Real, T. (1998). I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the secret legacy of male depression. Simon and Schuster.

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