Fallacy: Men Are Not Emotionally Cut Off
By Matt Mirabile, June, 2021
Men and women seem to connect to different things in a recovery setting. And while a majority of in-patient recovery programs are populated by men, many of the theories behind treatment label male socialization as part of the problem. Men, they say, are socialized to avoid difficult emotions, and this is why they struggle with addiction or maladaptive behaviors. I am going to contest this assumption.
I have spent countless hours with men struggling to overcome addiction and life-controlling behaviors. Men that have experienced sexual abuse, domestic violence, divorce, and combat trauma. None of them were cut off from their emotions. Just because some men were taught to suck it up or not to cry, did not mean they successfully cut them off.
I have also met with women in a group setting and pastoral and marital counseling settings. Many of them have done just as good a job at suppressing difficult emotions as men. Suppressed emotions are not unfelt emotions. They are always present and lying beneath the surface, driving our thought life and behavioral responses. They are simply unrecognized.
First of all, lets deal with the assumption that rests at the bottom of a lot of talk about therapy - the idea that feeling emotions is somehow the key to recovery. We are told men are cut off from their emotions and that part of their path to healing from trauma, or recovery from maladaptive behavior, is about feeling something. As if feeling something is itself healing. This is not true. Furthermore, it is said this is enculturated into the male psyche. Let's make something clear, men feel things. They feel trauma, isolation, anger, emotional pain and shame deeply. They are feeling everything. Just like women are. Just because you do not see them cry does not mean they are not feeling things deeply.
When a man has a fight with his wife and spends the rest of the night at the bar, it is because he is feeling something! When he loses his job and feels worthless, he is feeling something, even if he appears stoic. When he sits on a park bench with his head in his hands as he thinks about how much he is a failure, he is feeling something. And it is soul crushing! When he is awake at 3AM because he is thinking about a close friend lost on the battlefield, his heart is wrenching. Men are not blocking out emotions. They just choose a different moment, often to avoid direct confrontation. In fact, they long for resolution.
Are women better than men at processing emotion? I am not so sure? In my experience, both men and women are often lost in a sea of emotion and unable to identify why they feel what they do. Neither men nor women are any better at describing the source of their trauma and how it affects their behavior. They seem to be equally unable to identify the patterns of thought that feed those feelings and struggle equally to respond with healthy strategies. If you ask them to put words on their experience, both will struggle to do so. There is no cultural barrier here. It is the human condition. Our inner experience has become darkened and we, the entire human race, are cut off from our ability to see and sort out those inner experiences. Especially those arising from trauma. The Eastern Christian ascetical tradition sometimes refers to this as a darkened intellect. This afflicts us all.
In my observation, men and women do seem to gravitate towards different responses when seeking help. Men want tools so they can resolve their anguish and women want to explore their emotional experience. Men appear to be less interested in exploring their emotional experience. That is, they are less interested in spending time feeling those feelings and want tools to escape them. Women may want to dwell in them more. This may explain why more women experience depression and anxiety, while more men express emotional distress with anger and frustration. They are solution and outcome oriented and looking for something to do, to act on, and are at a loss. Of course, these are generalizations and there are men and women who reverse or merge these paradigms more or less easily.
Neither of these is right or wrong for either gender. Men often do need to spend some time doing the emotional work necessary to resolve their problems and women do need to learn tools and apply them so they don't get lost in their emotional experience. If it is true that male brains are wired differently, from front to back and more purpose and outcome driven, then they are in danger of using methods or tools as management and not for resolution. Especially as it relates to the emotional centers of the brain and trauma, it is important to give those parts of the brain their due and not bypass them. Similarly, when women (and men) fall into the black hole of emotional experience without applying tools that activate rational and objective parts of the brain, they can't apply corrective behaviors and they may remain stuck.
Scapegoating society and stereotyping masculinity does not help men overcome emotional wounds or trauma or advance their therapy or recovery. In fact, it may even do more damage, as it condemns an intrinsic part of their personhood. Those who do so, regardless of how good their intentions, undermine the trust needed to help men openly encounter their emotional content and access the deeper causes of deep-seated anguish and maladaptive behaviors. Men, like women, need to feel supported and understood. The masculine antagonism men often perceive in the culture at large drives them into isolation, in the same way a woman goes into isolation when she does not feel valued, listened to or diminished in a marriage. This complicates and harms healing encounters. We are more the alike in these ways than not.
The biological, social and psychologically driven masculine impulses to lay aside feelings like sadness, grief, fear or rage temporarily have a positive role to play in the family and society when they are not hijacked by trauma; threat protection. We cannot say the masculine drive to take this role is socially programmed only. It is biological and spiritual too, by design and necessary. It was necessary in the pre-modern world and, I would argue, continues to be necessary.
Men need healing opportunities that honor their masculinity and provide tools they can put to use. Dwelling too much on emotional content, with the assumption that they are not feeling enough, or emotionally cut off can drive them away. Give a guy a tool and he is happy. Spend enough time on the emotional stuff to recognize it and move on. Deep Recovery gives men and women tools to use, not just feelings to feel.