Allowing Masculine Emotional Expression

“That is your problem.”; “Stop complaining!”; “What are you going to do to fix it?”; “Figure it out yourself.”; “Stop bitching and fix it.”; “I don’t want to hear your problems.”; “Just do it.”; “What do you want me to do about it?”; “I didn’t make you feel anything, you’re the one being emotional.”; “Sounds like you just need to “man up”.”

All of these phrases I have heard throughout my life. Starting as a young child on the playground. Many of them I have heard in my relationships with others. Whether it was friendships, family, or romantic relationships. I heard many of these during my 8 year marriage.

In our culture there is this message that is being sent to little boys, who become grown men, about their feelings, emotions, their heart. The message is “real men don’t need feelings, emotions, or their heart.”

When a boy or a man begins to express themselves emotionally what is found in our culture is that these boys or men are shut down. They are shut down by the phrases above or ones similar to them.

Every time they are shut down it reinforces the disconnect from heart and head.

Such disconnect leaves a boy or man with nowhere to turn during times of emotional distress. He is left to attend to his own emotions, usually by pushing them aside. With each push aside the emotional damn that is holding these emotions back becomes less capable of keeping the emotions in their place.

What happens when this damn breaks and all the held back emotion comes pouring forth?

My opinion is that when that damn breaks it comes out in many negative forms. It comes out as mass shootings, homicide, domestic abuse, suicide (men have highest completed suicide rates), isolation, depression, alcohol addiction, sex addiction, drug addiction, and many other violent acts.

Interesting thing that I have observed in my life, client’s lives, and friend’s lives. Is that the something similar may result if a boy or man goes against the stereotype and is emotionally expressive throughout their live. They do not change that they are emotional expressive, yet society tells them continuously that there is no space for them.

There is a lack of space for a man that admits to his fears, anxieties, worries, sadness, frustrations, desire for intimacy. For a man that talks about what keeps him up at night or a man that admits he is scared when he hears something in the middle of the night.

This post is not for the man that finds himself lacking emotional expression or the man that expresses emotions, yet it falls on deaf ears.

This post is for the fathers, mothers, friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, teachers, mentors, coaches, and anyone else with men in their lives. Please read intently. Understanding this may save a life.

How can we begin to foster the change that allows men to emotionally express themselves in health ways.

The biggest thing we need to do is hold space for men.

What I mean when I say hold space is that we are giving men a space that is psychological, emotionally, and physically safe for them to express themselves without us showing criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stone-walling.

For us to provide such a space it requires effort, focus, active listening, willingness to understand, and presence.

Research conducted by psychologist Dr. John Gottman over a period of 35+ years has shown that some of the most damaging attitudes in a romantic relationship are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stone-walling. I believe these findings also translate to any close relationship.

I also see that the absence of them is essential for holding space for a man to experience and express his thoughts and feelings.

Criticism is seen as a form of judgment that is expressed as disapproval of the individuals thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. When a man is expressing himself he is being vulnerable. A vulnerability that leaves him open to being attacked. If someone sends criticism his way during this time he will shut down. This shut down might lead to an unwillingness to open up.

Contempt can been seen as hostile humor, mockery, name calling, mimicking, offensive nonverbal communication, ridicule, belittling, and so on. It comes from a place of long held negative beliefs or attributes about others. It can be seen as a form of superiority. Dr. Gottman refers to contempt as “sulfuric acid to love.”

I am guilty of this. Recently, with appreciation to a woman in my life, I have become very aware of how my long held negative beliefs about certain things in life can be received by others as me believing that I am superior to others. I have come to realize that it comes from a place of overcompensation for low self-esteem. Always a work in progress, men.

One cannot hold space for others if they have contempt towards them. It is important that we hold a non-judgmental bias towards our loved ones in life. When a man begins to share with you about his fears, anxieties, mistakes, joys, or anything in his life remove any idea that you are superior to this person. They are entitled to experience life as a whole human, emotions and all.

Defensiveness is a person’s reaction when they feel they are being attacked and must defend themselves. If the men in your life begin to express themselves about how they feel or think when it comes to you, you might want to defend yourself. You might want to tell them how wrong they are or correct them in some way. When you do this it stops you from being present and listening to him. This leads to him feeling a lack of understanding or validation about his own feelings and emotions. He has a right to his emotions, just as we all do. Listen with love in your heart rather than the fear in your head.

Stonewalling is when there is a direct refusal to communicate, compromise, or cooperate. When it is your time to respond after holding space for the man to be vulnerable and transparent it is important that your response comes. If your response is to withdrawal or hold back because you are experiencing hurt, resentment, or frustration this can be damaging to the relationship.

It can also be damaging to the space you just held for him. The message he may receive is that when you hold space he is not safe in this space to express himself because then you will shut down and withdrawal from him.

If you feel stonewalling occurring, it is best to let the person know you need to take a break. After your break then you need to practice some self-soothing techniques. This could be meditation, message, deep breathing, body relaxation and such.

Being aware of these attributes that you might experience while holding space for the men in your life is important. With your awareness you are able to manage them better, which in turn will foster a stronger, positive relationship. It will also allow those you hold space for to experience a relief of emotional distress or turmoil they are experiencing.

Now that we understand beliefs and attributes to avoid or manage, let’s talk about what it takes to hold space for another person.

The first thing is that we need focus. Focus on the other person. We need to be able to focus on their words, their nonverbal communication, and what we are feeling from them.

In order to have a strong focus we must have a clear mind. It is a natural tendency for us to want to solve the problem, give a suggestion, find a way to fix it all, relate what they are going through to ourselves, or talk about what we are feeling and thinking as they are talking.

As I said it is a natural tendency for us to want to do these things so to inhibit them requires effort and energy on our part. We need to clear our mind and allow ourselves to hone in on the other person.

As we are honing in on the other person we need to also practice active listening. Active listening is when we listen to hear the persons whole story. We listen with compassion and empathy.

Brené Brown in her book Gifts of Imperfection discusses how when we need to share our stories with others we want to share them with people who have earned the right to hear them. She talks about how we want to avoid people who respond with sympathy rather than empathy, disappointment, uncomfortableness with the authenticity, justifying it to reduce their tension, or tries to one up your story with their own. What she says is that we want someone who will listen intently, show empathy, understanding, and compassion. This encompasses so much of who we want to be when we hold space for men to express themselves emotionally.

A willingness to understand the other person comes from a place of curiosity and compassion. With my coaching clients and therapy clients I have noticed how strong of a desire there is to be understood by another. When someone is understood and listened to it is a great feeling.

Earlier this week I was talking to a great woman. As we were talking I was being authentic and vulnerable. At one point she said to me, “I understand you.” When I heard those words I felt this warm tingling sensation come over my body. I felt amazing to feel that she understood me. That she had a willingness to understand. For me hearing those words from her meant so much. It meant that she was holding a space for me to be vulnerably expressive about my thoughts and feelings. I am appreciative of her for giving me this gift.

The part of holding space that is actually in every other piece of it, is being present. Being present with the person is when we clear our minds, we focus on them, we practice active listening, and we show a willingness to understand. We are in the here and now. We are not dwelling in the past. We are not thinking towards the future. We are in that very moment with that specific person. Being present with them reinforces that they are in a safe place for them to express what is going on without criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or/and stonewalling.

Holding space does not happen overnight. It requires regular awareness and practice. The next time a man in your life is bidding for your attention. Stop, turn towards them, and hold that space for them.

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