Often men keep from being vulnerable by being vague, especially about feelings. Feelings are avoided because they are confusing or hard to identify. Men often aren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings. In fact, they’re sometimes discouraged from doing so. Additionally, men often tend to shy away from vulnerable conversations. This cultural expectation can easily make things more difficult for men in relationships.

Male Depression & Emotional Inexpressiveness

Often men keep from being vulnerable by being vague, especially about feelings. Feelings are avoided because they are confusing or hard to identify. Men often aren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings. In fact, they’re sometimes discouraged from doing so. Additionally, men often tend to shy away from vulnerable conversations.

Many times in my office I’ve seen men get bombarded by a partner dumping a giant pile of emotions & complaints. I think that it can take time for anyone to learn to sort through their own emotions, much less someone else’s.  

Many times I find myself explaining to male partners sometimes just being a witness is important when someone is upset, you don’t necessarily have to do anything. (& of course this could apply to women or non-binary folks as well). Being a witness to someone else being vulnerable & authentic can be very meaningful in a relationship whether or not something is being done to fix or solve a problem.

Vulnerability with your partner about difficult emotions like fear, hurt or sadness is one of the building blocks of relationships. We all seem to live in a culture where aggression has become more acceptable & there may be less incentives to “just” be a good man. 

If anyone has shame about a difficult situation that can always make vulnerability even less likely to happen. Vulnerability requires courage & the ability to identify feelings, wants & hurts. Society supports men being strong & on top of things. In August I was in the audience at a lecture in Chautauqua & heard The CEO of Levi Strauss, Chip Bergh acknowledge his biggest failure as not recognizing the need for diversity at higher levels of management. I loved how authentic he was & realized it also felt like a unique experience.

Today’s guest is going to shed light on male emotional inexpressiveness:

Ronald F. Levant is a psychologist and a former president of the American Psychological Association. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology at The University of Akron. Dr. Levant has authored, co-authored, edited or co-edited 19 books, his most recent was coauthored with Shana Pryor & it’s called THE TOUGH STANDARD. Dr.Levant is one of the key people responsible for creating the new field of the psychology of men and masculinities.

#1.  Let’s begin with defining masculinity, my thoughts about that would be boys learning to take vulnerable feelings & turn them into aggression. Going from a powerless/vulnerable position to powerful. What are your thoughts about this?

Dr. Levant: Well, that’s part of it. But I think we have to take a wide-angle view & try to define masculinity. In my way of understanding, there are two general ways that that term is understood in the public, not professionals like you & I, but just everyday people. Masculinity is synonymous with being male. You know, it’s essentially thought of, well, he’s a male, he’s masculine, & that’s kind of the end of the story.
In psychology, where I live, related to social work, where you live, it’s defined differently. Masculinity & femininity are thought of as gender roles, composed is of a set of norms, social norms. Now we’re all familiar with social norms. Basically, you know, we live by them, we know how close we can stand to people holding doors for people coming after us.
We have a whole range of social norms, but we also have gender norms. & these gender norms exist in a given culture, in a given historical time, tell us how, in the case of boys & men, tell us how boys & men should think, feel, & behave.
Now, because they are gender norms, it doesn’t mean that they’re followed always, & to the same degree, by everyone. & that’s why in psychology, we think of masculinity as what we call an individual’s difference variable. That means we measure it, & individuals will score differently on a measure of masculinity than other individuals.
So basically, you’re going to have men who endorse the strongest version of masculinity, & you’re going to have men who reject completely the norms of masculinity & everything in between. & that’s important, because it’s those norms that I think become problematic, particularly when it comes to men’s depression, & they’re inexpressiveness.
Rhoda: Absolutely, I would agree. How can a more rigid view of masculinity that requires being the top dog, meaning stoic, or aggressive, & above all, independent & not needing help, create problems?
Dr. Levant: Well, let me count the ways. I mean, basically, you have a set of personality attributes. & you have boys, as this is who these norms are typically imposed upon, who vary enormously in their personalities. Let’s take aggression. There’s a scale, the Buss Perry aggression scale, I could give that to 100 boys. & I would find a bell curve with some boys, like I say, very high on & very low on it.
If you take a boy who’s very low & aggression, who’s sweet & kind & compassionate, & punish him for not being aggressive, think of the harm that you’re doing to that boy’s personality.
Rhoda: Yeah, & every boy is unique, & so has to be treated in a different way. I always say that’s why it’s delightful to have more than one kid because they’re different. & it’s so interesting, you know, that fingerprint of who they are.
Dr. Levant: Yeah. So, you know, you can kind of understand that if boys are all forced into this mold of being masculine, irrespective of who they are. You’re doing outrageous damage to boys. You really are. & I think that’s part of the reason that—I just got this question from some somebody else today. You know, why is it that boys & men are doing so poorly? I think part of it is that boys are made to feel deeply ashamed of themselves, for what we consider to be normal human emotions.
What’s the worst thing that you can say to a boy? Is that you walk, talk, throw or act like a girl, right? So, masculinity starts off being anti-female, & boys watch girls, & they don’t do anything that girls do. & if they do, they typically get punished very hard.
So boys, & like say, if it’s in their nature, to be nurturing & compassion, like a little boy likes to take care of his baby sister & he gets punished for that, again, you’re really harming that boy. We should let boys be who they are & not really worry about whether they fit into masculinity.
Rhoda: I like that. The male role norms inventory short form specifies seven norms or beliefs that define traditional masculinity. Could you share more about some of the seven?
Dr. Levant: Sure. When I want to measure masculinity, I have to start off with a focus group of men ask them for their opinions. I have to construct questions. Typically, these are statements that you ask, to what extent you agree or disagree. So one might be: the President of the United States should always be a man, & they’re given a choice to strongly disagree all the way to strongly agree.
& then you test these questions out with your lab & your colleagues, then you have to go collect a sample. & you have to do what’s called an exploratory…I won’t get into the details, you have to do a variety of statistical techniques. & eventually, & like you mentioned EMR & ISF, that went through five iterations of different forms until we got it to the point that is now the most widely used masculinity scale.

Rhoda: Sure. & what are the seven? Avoidance of femininity, negativity towards sexual minorities, self-reliance through mechanical skills, toughness, dominance, importance of sex, & restrictive emotionality? Which one would you like to talk about for my audience?
Dr. Levant: Well, let’s start with restrictive emotionality, because we’re going to talk about inexpressive men. So little boys, as early as elementary school, get the message that you shouldn’t cry or show fear. You know, again, it varies a lot, depending on the kind of parents they have, the neighborhood they live in. But let’s say in a working-class neighborhood that values traditional gender roles, boys that cry, get punished.
But it’s not only crying or sadness, boys are not allowed to express affection or connection. If they’re too close to their mothers, they’re a mama’s boy. If they feel close to another boy, they get accused of being gay. & fathers of sons who are entering school, stop expressing affection to them for fear that they will feminize them.
So little boys get…Not only are the vulnerable emotions outlawed, but the caring & connections emotions are outlawed. & what’s left—& that goes back to your example in the beginning—is aggression. So, if a little boy, for example, gets pushed down in the playground by another boy, let’s say a first grader, second grader, & he knows he can’t come back with a face full of tears.
He has to take those vulnerable feelings that he has of, you know, sadness, maybe a sense of betrayal, maybe fear, & he has to transform the energy & those emotions into anger & aggression, & come back with his fists clenched. I grew up in a working-class home, my dad only had an eighth-grade education. & I had this kind of life as a child.
& I know that boys who learned this lesson really well, grew up to be adult men, who when you hurt their feelings, they erupt into rage, almost like touching a match to magnesium. They just rrrr, just like that. & it’s because they learned so well, to transform those vulnerable feelings into aggression.
Rhoda: Fast, that really is fast. Research has shown that men have a harder time expressing or even naming their emotions identifying them, why is that & what are the consequences for themselves & others?
Dr. Levant: Who are reared to conform to masculine norms, particularly restrictive emotionality, at the very least know not to display those emotions, but some boys also lose the ability to identify them. & basically, all they can identify—& this persists throughout development, so they become adult men who can’t tell you what they’re feeling. If you ask them what they’re feeling, they might tell you what they’re going to do, or what they’re thinking.
But because of all this childhood socialization— & a lot of it comes from other boys, it’s not only the parents, but other boys—they literally cannot tell you what they’re feeling & this condition is called, wait for it, it’s a big word, alexithymia. Okay, alexithymia.
That’s composed of a series of Greco Roman roots, a for without Lexus, not the car, Lexus four words & thymus for emotion. So it literally means without words for emotions. & men who meet criteria for the his condition, really have a hard time telling you what they’re feeling. They really do.
& I did a lot of research— this goes back to the 90s, all the way up to the present—showing that men meet the criteria for alexithymia more than women. We did some neuro psychological studies, I won’t get into the details, kind of trying to figure out where the inhibition occurs early or late. & we studied it for about 30 years.
So it is a thing it does exist. & men have it more often than women. You asked what are the consequences? Well, there’s a bunch of consequences. There are consequences for relationships.
Rhoda: Yeah.
Dr. Levant: Because all relationships except the most superficial, require the disclosure— you were talking about disclosure & vulnerability – requires a disclosure of your emotions. & if you can’t do that, you know, it’s very hard to have a good relationship.
I’ll give you an example from one of my clients, who was alexathymic. & he was at this session, we were talking about his wife’s expectation that that he’d be more intimate. His question to me was, what does she want me to do? rip her clothes off when she comes in the front door, make love to her on the foyer?
In other words, he could not conceive that you could experience intimacy through conversation. It just was nothing he’d ever heard of. Intimacy to him was sexual intimacy. & that was the way it was. & I had a colleague write to me & asked me for a recommendation for a book or article for a client, who wanted it for a husband to explain what emotional intimacy was.
Rhoda: In my own practice, I first noticed sexual abuse victims & then males having a hard time identifying their emotions. So, on the emotions page at www.therapyideas.net, my website, I developed a two page list of feeling words to use with our partners to help with the feeling word vocabulary.
What do you think about a feeling word vocabulary being useful to men to learn perhaps how to think about their emotions?
Dr. Levant: I think it’s a great idea. Earlier on, when I was just beginning my work with this, I was doing group therapy. & one of the exercises I asked men to… I had a blackboard & old chalk blackboards is a while ago, before whiteboards. I go way back to the dinosaurs.
But anyway, I’d asked him to give me words for emotions, & I read it on the blackboard. & I may get 20/25 words, probably 18 of them were different kinds of expressions of irritability & anger & aggression & rage & all of that. & they’re probably six or seven that weren’t emotions, but expressions of being stressed out, “I feel zapped, I feel burned out, I feel burdened.”
& then maybe I find one word on the positive in the spectrum joy. So men have an impoverished vocabulary. & again, not all men, but alexathymic men, the men who would come to a group that I would set up to treat this problem, would have this problem, but not all men, obviously.
& so helping them, what you’re doing is very valuable. I’ve actually developed a manualized treatment for alexithymia. I’ve used it with both men & women because, you know, it occurs more often than men but women also can be alexa… Yeah.
& it has several steps, one of which is building up a vocabulary of emotion words, particularly those vulnerable emotions, the emotions that make you feel vulnerable, those caring & connection emotions, you know, & the fondness, & also missing someone feeling lonely. So, I go through that. That’s stage one.
Stage two is I teach them to recognize emotions & other people. So I teach them a little bit about nonverbal expression, about reading facial expressions, about what I call paralinguistic expressions like sighs & gasp & cries & things like that, as well as tone of voice & things of that nature. I ask them when they’re interacting with someone during the week to stop & think & ask themselves, what are they feeling by virtue of how they’re showing it.
So, I teach them to read emotions in other people. & I do that, because it’s easier to read emotions in other people than it is for an alexithymic man to read in him himself. So after they’ve got that down, then I asked him to keep an emotional response log, which can be like, basically, I say, you know, get some three by five cards that you can put in your shirt pocket, & stick a pin in there. & when something happens—& a lot of the men I’ve treated, like I say, will not feel an emotion, but they’ll feel a bodily sensation, like a tight band across my forehead, butterflies in my chest. Feel like my legs won’t stop jiggling.
You know, they have a physical symptom, that express that relates to the psychophysiological part of the emotion. But they don’t have the sense of the emotion, & they cannot put it into words. So, I say, “Okay, write down what you’re experiencing.” “Okay, I’ve got butterflies in my stomach.” “Okay, then the next thing is, who is doing what to whom right now? & how does that affect you?”
They might say, “Well, I was expecting to hear feedback on my report from my boss, & it’s about an hour after that, & I’m getting, you know, I don’t know what to think.” “Okay, so that’s good. Now go back to your vocabulary list & go down the list of words & find the word or words that express what you’re feeling is.” “Oh, okay. I think I was feeling apprehensive. I was worried.”
So you see, this is like emotional kindergarten. But it’s a step-by-step way to get the men to make the connections between that, you know, tightness in their chest, & what’s happening socially, because we’re social creatures, after all, &, & then to figure out what they’re feeling.
Rhoda: It makes me think of the Korean television show, I’m watching right now, it’s a little too sappy for me, but I it’s very highly rated. & she is an autistic lawyer & she’s brilliant. But she’s learning emotions. She’s learning how to kiss, she’s learning what it means, how to read other people. & I enjoy that part of it, the part of her that is trying to figure things out, & is tenacious about it. It’s called The Extraordinary Attorney Woo.
Dr. Levant: I want to write that down.
Rhoda: Extraordinary Attorney Woo, it’s W-O-O on Netflix. But I really enjoyed that part of it. Based on your clinical experience, what are some of the most effective techniques for men who want to escape the prison of traditional masculinity ideology?
Dr. Levant: So, first of all, what do I mean by the prison of traditional masculinity ideology? Well, that’s my words, but other people have other words for it. One guy calls it “the man box.” But a lot of people, sociologists, psychologists, counselors, social workers, recognize that men who are conformed to these norms are really very limited in in their ability to essentially function in the modern world.
& I want to go back to the point of the consequences in a minute, but let me deal with the consequences & then I’ll come back to this point, is that okay? Because it’s more logical to me.
All right, so as saying relationships are one of them, that if you can’t identify & describe your emotions, relationships will be difficult, your close friends will complain.
The second thing is that stress management, the most effective means known to humans to deal with stress, is to talk about your experiences with a trusted other person: a family member, a friend, a therapist, a religious counselor, a coach. & through that process, you describe how you’ve been hurt by somebody, you might even talk to the person who hurt you. & you get usually typically back, empathy & compassion & an opportunity to understand how to resolve that particular problem.

If you want to hear the entire episode hit the triangle in the above player. If you want to learn more from Dr. Levant you can find his website here: https://www.drronaldlevant.com

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