Why men are emotionally repressive--and what the consequences are

You need to "read between the lines" regarding this press release:

"We investigated two types of parental reactions to children's negative emotions. One type of reaction was to minimize their child's emotions; for example, a parent might say, 'Stop behaving like a baby.' Another type of reaction was punishing the child for these emotions. A parent might send the child to his room for crying or being upset, or take away a toy or a privilege," Engle said.

When children reached 39 months, parents answered questionnaires about their child's current behavior problems.

Moms and dads who were apt to punish their kids for their fears and frustrations were more likely to have children who were anxious and withdrawn at the time of the second assessment. And the effect was especially pronounced for boys who had been identified as having a high incidence of negative emotions at 33 months, she said.

"When parents punish their toddlers for becoming angry or scared, children learn to hide their emotions instead of showing them. These children may become increasingly anxious when they have these feelings because they know they'll face negative consequences," Engle said.

The researchers are intrigued with the finding that little boys were especially affected when they're not supported during times of fear or frustration.

"In our culture, boys are discouraged from expressing their emotions. If you add parental punishment to these cultural expectations, the outcome for boys who often experience negative emotions may be especially detrimental," Engle said.

Please disregard all the politically-correct boloney in the article; although it's true that boys could probably use help working through their emotions, that's NOT what the study was about.

Boys repress their emotions because they're punished for displaying them. THAT is what the study is about.

Boys are "more affected" because they're punished more. Females condition each other to be more empathetic to each other's feelings, and condition males to walk on eggshells, but consideration from either sex does not extend to males.

Also overlook the nonsense about being sent to their rooms--it sounded like the author was being hypothetical--and politically-correct. More likely, the pattern is: mom tells boy to stop expressing a negative emotion (anger, frustration, fear), boy continues, mom yells, boy continues, mom smacks him. Other boys, and girls, tease, taunt, and ridicule him for displaying emotions on the playground or in school. Boy is scared, someone walks around flapping his arms and making chicken "bok bok" sounds. Boy likes a girl, some form of ridicule, blackmail, sabotage, etc. Boy is too chummy with one of his friends, gets called names that imply something humiliating about his sexual orientation (ironically, especially if he is, in fact, correctly gendered). Et cetera.

It's simple operant conditioning.

I've been suspicious for a while that it was a learned, and not innate, behavior. For one thing, it is so bad that:

  • Some males get a condition called "alexythmia" in which they can not describe their emotions. They can tell you that they're feeling an emotion, but they have difficulty naming or describing it. The one chap I know who has this was abused by his mother who was emotionally needy for having a "Stepford child". He was physically attacked for normal child behaviors.
  • When a man is overwhelmed by his emotions and can not resolve them, he is unlikely to seek counsel of any kind (including confidents) to help him work through them.
  • As a result, depression is common among men in their 40s and 50s. That's why they (we) have high suicide rates.
  • When aggrieved, men are likely to "hold it in" until the day they can't and "go postal". That is probably related to a lot of irrational male violence.

Even if it causes problems, I have considered the fact that male emotional repression might have some functional reasons that encourage it. One might be to discourage the expression of negative emotions that would cause social conflict. You can see the difference between certain cultures that are more emotionally repressive, and others which are less so: two guys get into a traffic accident, jump out of their cars, and start calling each other names! And "lover's quarrels" typically get signicantly more heated--though oddly enough precisely because the men are less emotionally repressive, the women expect such behaviors and don't freak out over them. Plus, the women themselves are also proportionally less emotionally repressive.

I've also heard conjectures regarding "warrior training" in martial cultures--like, say, ours. That is possibly so, but it seems to me that in that situation particularly, and to a degree overall, that's like taking up smoking to have some breaks from work: a dysfunctional "solution" to the problem, that's worse than the problem.

Let me give you a brief example: let's say you discover your 4 year old son is afraid of the dark. Let's say dad shames him into shutting up and going to bed alone, in the dark, which I believe is not an unusual paternal response. What you get is NOT a boy who is not afraid of the dark. WHAT YOU GET IS A BOY WHO IS NOT ONLY AFRAID OF THE DARK BUT AFRAID TO ADMIT IT!

The net effect is to produce men with a layer of bravado over a chronically frightened core. It makes them quite manipulable in ways that are contrary to their own self-interest. You can see it a lot where a tiny minority of bullies will frighten "the herd" into submission--like in politics. But also day-to-day life, like in corporate political situations.

A more functional solution would be emotional management. A percent or two of the male population have dramatically different, and more functional, patterns of emotional responses from other men, either naturally or by training. Ironically, high testosterone often correlates with this pattern of behaviors; it tends to have "anti-neurotic" effects.

There was a British version of "The Apprentice", that had some episodes featuring a gentleman nicknamed "Jedi Jim" (Jim Eastwood) who had an uncanny way of getting his way with people. In one scene, he's sitting in a meeting that was intentionally set up to be highly confrontational. He aggressively defended his position without any visible signs of emotion. In another scene, an austere and intimidating Margaret Mountford calls him an "ass" to his face, and he chuckles and brushes it off.

The official party line was "Irish charm", but observers with more of a psychological bent noticed the unusual pattern of emotional responses, and one of them drew my attention to it.

In some cases, default emotional responses are dysfunctional. For example, if your boss is screaming at you, becoming either enranged or fearful (or a bit of both, most likely!) is likely to make the situation WORSE. If you beat him up, you're not only out of a job but sitting in prison. If you act like a wimp, you will destroy whatever respect he might have had for you.

You might need to repress these typical emotional responses for lack of other solutions, but a better solution if it's available to you is to never experience rage and fear in the first place (he can scream at you all he wants, but he'd better not lay a hand on you or HE is in trouble with the law...) remain coldly rational but warmly empathetic.

By the way: emotions are controlled by a part of the brain called the "Limbic system", aka the "mammalian brain" or the "chemical brain". Once a situation matches a programmed "threat", it floods the rest of the brain with mood-regulating hormones and neurotransmitters. The effect is to totally overwhelm the rest of your brain, incuding the otherwise rational and problem-solving pre-frontal cortex.

Once your mood shifts, so does your access to intelligent memory due to the "access state principle". "Neurons that fire together, wire together". Let's say that you are murderously enraged at your boss. You will in that moment temporarily lose access to that time he bailed you out of a bad situation, or gave you a big bonus for your wedding, or any solution to the problem that doesn't involve cleaving his skull with an ax...

The effect is to shut down about 60% of your problem-solving capacity. Everything starts reducing to "fight, flight, or freeze". That's why people turn stupid when they "go postal".

There are huge numbers of situations that trigger, effectively, "false threats". Someone says something condescending to you at a party, and it "ruins the whole evening". (That's why men are prone to "social anxiety"--"something happens", they have a negative emotional reaction but repress it, it's never resolved, and it just keeps building up). You get nervous in a job interview, and create a self-fulfilling prophesy of faiure. You get performance anxiety in public speaking situations. You procrastinate out of sheer terror of facing up to unpleasant facts or situations--perhaps unpaid bills, or some mistake you made that you're afraid to face up to and fix. This is one of the most common reasons for personal under-performance.

The situation not only causes trouble, but cuts off access to potential solutions: men are also afraid to discuss their feelings with someone who might be able to talk them through it.

More later, but right now I'm interested in your thoughts.

Tags: emotions, repression

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Thanks for posting this.

One thing I notice is the idea -- which I get, to be sure -- of being open to an emotion, so you can get through it.  And I do that.  But isn't that strange:  that emotions would be something to get through so you can get back to the task at hand?  And they are.  If I'm angry with a difficult person, it doesn't help me deal with him.  I have to set aside the anger somehow, and then I can deal with him.  Wouldn't it make more sense if the anger could be useful, rather than merely accommodated?  And the same goes for sadness, and (unreasonable) fear.

being open to an emotion, so you can get through it.


Good point, Will. When you do have an emotion, whether it's functional and appropriate, or not, you need to accept that you're having it, rather than repress conscious awareness of it.

An example of what goes wrong is when a man is unconscious of his own hostility and anger, projects them onto others ("it's not ME, its HIM, he's the one always picking fights with me!"), and therefor constantly finds reasons to lose his temper (if you've ever seen the original "Donald Duck", before cartoonists in the mid 1950s decided he was a bad influence on children, he had a very real and identifiable personality disorder), where another man who is more aware of his own emotions will tend to have a more realistic appraisal of other people's emotions and motives and how to deal with them.

But isn't that strange:  that emotions would be something to get through so you can get back to the task at hand?

There are several factors that make it strange. One is a legacy of more primitive ways of solving problems. The legacy of the "reptilian brain" that resolves all problems into "fight, flight, freeze, feed, and fornicate". Anything requiring more intelligence than that is lost on a lizard. Our "reptilian brain" still exists, and is still close to the core of the brain, so that a lot of our behaviors default to reptilian until and unless we train our brains not to revert to reptilian behaviors.

So, sometimes you have an emotional response that is rational but sub-optimal.

Unfortunately, another case is where you get the emotional response that is irrational. Ever known a woman with borderline personality disorder?

Him: "Hi, honey, I'm home."

Her: "Don't you 'hi honey' me you no good son of a ...(attack) (snarl) (growl)..."

She has negative emotional responses to situations where her reaction totally does not make sense to a more rational person. Unfortunately, "we're all a tad borderline"--it's just a matter of degree. We all have some negative emotional responses to situations where the emotional response does not make sense.

It has to do with how we mentally model reality. A borderline's mental models of what is going on are all messed up. If you can fix the mental representation of reality, you can fix those dysfunctional reactions.

Wouldn't it make more sense if the anger could be useful, rather than merely accommodated?  And the same goes for sadness, and (unreasonable) fear.

You're right, it would, and if they're callibrated correctly in the first place, they do serve a purpose. For example, the purpose of anger is to motivate you to enforce a "boundary" that someone else has been violating. The purpose of fear is to keep you from taking foolish risks. It's only when they are triggered by the wrong situation, OR when they interfere with more sophisticated, optimal solutions, that they turn dysfunctional.

And there is a way to manage them in such a way as to have them do their job, helping you work FOR you instead of sabotaging you. I only learned it recently--too much of what I was reading up to now had me trying to avoid anger and fear to the point of turning me emotionally numb. I'll cover the newly-learned technique in a later post, when I have more time.

I have two thoughts.

1) Good find, I like what they found
2) What exactly is so politically correct about the study? They found something, you didn't like it, so it must have some negative connotation put to it that you can only describe emotionally yourself?

“It's simple operant conditioning.”

Exactly!  For the most part we learn what to fear, what to hate, or love and all the other emotions to boot.  We’re obviously not born fearing “the dark” or being called names.

Good post.

Good point, Richard. I'm not trained in psychology, so I will have to take this as an act of faith: supposedy the only innate fears humans are born with are to loud noises and falling. Everything else is learned.

Some of those learned fears or hates are rational. Some are not. Sorting out the two and recallibrating them can optimize our responses to life, but first, we have to be aware of all the dysfunctional reactions, then realize that it's possible to change them.

I see myself in all of this.

It's depressing as there is no real solution given everything else going on.

As a result, depression is common among men in their 40s and 50s. That's why they (we) have high suicide rates.

I'm 49 and totally there.

That is depressing too, lol.

Becoming aware of the problem is the first step towards resolving it, Bud. There are aspects of your own personality that might very well be condusive towards resolving built-up emotional issues.

I don't have system-wide solutions, but I do have personal solutions. Some of them I worked out while troubleshooting my own emotional problems, and some I have worked out resolving, or valiantly trying to resolve, other people's emotional problems.

By "working out" I don't mean I discovered them; I only mean I figured out what in the collective legacy wisdom of the species actually works and is relevant, and what does not.

I've made the focus of these past few months becoming very, very aware of my responses to things. It helps....a little.

Sometimes they are so powerful, what you wrote shut down about 60% of your problem-solving capacity. Everything starts reducing to "fight, flight, or freeze still comes very much into play. 

I'd agree it is a result of 'conditioning'.  I'd probably disagree that its necessarily a bad thing, though.  "Repression" is a loaded term -- it used to be called "controlling yourself".  Emotions -- particularly irrational emotions -- are often a hindrance to actually getting things done to fix the situation.  Its not a bad idea to "repress", or control, those reactions so as to better control your response.

 

Telling a kid who says he's afraid of the dark that "there's nothing to be afraid of, so go back to bed" doesn't create a kid that's still afraid of the dark and afraid to talk about it.  It creates a kid that learns to face irrational fears, and eventually learns it ain't that bad, and grows out of his fear of the dark.  There's a reason most that boys who were afraid of the dark grow into men who aren't.

 

There are huge numbers of situations that trigger, effectively, "false threats". Someone says something condescending to you at a party, and it "ruins the whole evening". (That's why men are prone to "social anxiety"--"something happens", they have a negative emotional reaction but repress it, it's never resolved, and it just keeps building up).

 

I don't think I've ever known a man who has his whole evening ruined because of something somebody said at a party.  I've known plenty of women who have, though.  That's not social anxiety or emotional repression.  That's oversensitivity.  Entirely different problem.


JB

They're just not imaginative enough.  I solved the whole "afraid of the dark" thing rather reasonably.  The conversation went like this:

Boy:  I can't sleep in my room, it's too dark.

Me:  So?

Boy:  So when it's too dark the trolls will get me.

Me:  What trolls?

Boy:  The trolls that live under the bed.

Me:  There's no trolls living under your bed, that's silly.
Boy:  That's not silly.  That's what happens.

Me:  No there's no trolls under your bed.

Boy:  How do you know?

Me:  Because trolls only live under bridges.

Boy:  Oh yeah.  <walks off to bed>

Me:  Besides, it's the monsters in the closet which will get you.

Besides, it's the monsters in the closet which will get you.

I know!! That's why my house has no closet doors.

Jack, I know your personality type.

You (and most men who actively participate here) are wired differently than I, for one thing.

I am not one to go fussing over something said to me, I'll push it down and bury it, and it will add to the festering mess deep down. Sometimes I wonder if it's better to fuss over it and be done.

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