Toward Serving Men Better-Part 2: Suppression of feelings


This is Part 2 in a series.  For introductions, context, and caveats, please see Part 1.  I will assume the reader is familiar with these, and move forward.

As I mentioned in Part 1, I’ve often encountered statements by individuals and in the media imploring men to “be brave” and express feelings.  Indeed, I recall a pop song many years ago by a female artist, where the chorus said “I want to see you be brave.”  As I stated previously, I do agree that it is brave to express feelings, but there is a clear implication of criticism in these statements, as if suppression of feelings is cowardly and problematic.

I would argue that suppression of feelings can, not infrequently, be a highly adaptive and helpful coping mechanism for managing stressful and dangerous situations.  Indeed, in times of danger, I believe we instinctively look to the individual who is most advanced in the skill of feelings suppression to lead us through the danger.  The irony, of course, is that men who are criticized for not being emotionally expressive enough are often the first people others turn to in times of danger.  

The explanation is obvious.  Dangerous situations call for intense mental and physical focus, and emotional awareness and expression diminish this focus.  When crossing a tightrope over dangerous heights, the universal advice is “don’t look down.”  This makes sense because looking down will encumber the mind with information that the mind can’t afford to process if the hope is to get across safely.  Similarly, emotional awareness and expression in times of danger will distract from the focus needed to emerge successfully from the danger. 

In another vein, feelings suppression may be an adaptive coping strategy for managing a traumatic environment.  Children may learn that the best way to manage their traumatic home or other environment is to suppress feelings.  From an IFS perspective, coping strategies are best validated and honored, even if they have outlasted their usefulness.  The work is to identify the fear associated with moving away from this coping strategy and address the frightened child within.  Criticizing the coping strategy is counter-therapeutic.

Finally, we are all familiar with the scenario of the child who experiences a very minor injury, and looks to his or her parents for how to react.  The child will often adopt the response of the parent, and, if the response is overly upset and emotional, this can be problematic.  We all experience emotions, all the time.  If we were to identify and indulge all of them, all the time, we would have little room for much else.  We all understand that some emotions are best suppressed.  The trick, of course, is finding the ideal balance, so that we don’t end up suppressing emotions that require expression.

In an ideal world, we would be able to skillfully manage a perfect balance between emotional expression and emotional suppression.  We would evaluate each environment independently, and employ whatever level of emotional awareness and expression is appropriate.  In the real world, however, that’s a very tall psychological order.  We are not perfectly balanced.  Those that excel at feelings expression often struggle in dangerous situations to suppress feelings and achieve the necessary focus, and those that excel at feelings suppression often struggle to identify and express feelings when there is no danger and such expression is adaptive. 

I believe that part of the beauty of G-d’s world is that men and women come together to learn from each other.  To make the generalizations that this series traffics in, men learn from women how to be more emotionally expressive, and women learn from men how to be more emotionally suppressive, when necessary.  I would argue that in the best male-female relationships, both parties have a deep respect for the other’s natures, and deeply value the presence of the other to help achieve balance.

I am certainly aware that there are a great many boorish, insensitive men out there, but, in my life, the men I have encountered, by and large, have a deep respect for women’s emotionality.  They may struggle with it mightily and find it perplexing and difficult, but they respect it and viscerally understand the importance of it in their lives.  Unfortunately, I have encountered more women than men who do not share this mutual respect.  To return to the “I want to see you be brave” trope, I have often heard women variously criticize men for not being emotionally expressive, and then, sometimes even in the same breath, criticize them for not being assertive or aggressive enough. The double standard that I referenced before may show up in other ways.  Men may be criticized for not being emotionally expressive, but then be expected to take the lead in tasks that call for emotional suppression, such as setting limits with children.  But I digress, and run the risk of exposing some of my own resentments. The aim here is not to complain about attitudes.  The aim is to improve clinical practice.

Consider the following case/situation:  A pre-teen or teenage boy is struggling.  The mother feels he needs to express his feelings, and so brings him to therapy.  The therapist, with a natural bias toward feelings expression as a path to healing, agrees, and reaches out to the father.  The father expresses, actively or passively, that he is unsupportive of treatment.  One way or another, the father is often regarded by both the mother and therapist as “difficult,” “closed,” “stubborn,” or even “uncaring.”  The father’s reaction is often understood as an (problematic) opinion, stance, or attitude.  What if, however, feelings suppression was the coping mechanism that this father employed to get through difficulties in his own life?  What if it even helped him survive trauma?  When we push the agenda of feelings expression for his son, consider what we are asking of him.  Maybe this father regards feelings expression as dangerous based on his past experience, and he is seeking to protect his son from this danger.  This triggered perspective may indeed be inappropriate for the situation at hand, but the point here is to recognize the fear and emotion that this request evokes in the father.  From this perspective, the father’s position is less an opinion (though it may be verbally expressed as such), and more an emotional trigger.  The father is not being “macho.”  Rather, he is trying to help his son best utilize the coping strategies that worked for him.  Indeed, he is far from uncaring.  If we view this as less an opinion and more an emotional trigger, then it would suggest that the best intervention would NOT be an intellectual argument for why feelings expression is best for his son.  Such an intervention would completely miss the emotional reactivity taking place, and therefore likely be doomed to failure.  Indeed, I have even observed that even after an awareness that a male pattern of emotional suppression arose from childhood experience, there is often STILL a response that involves criticism instead of empathy and engagement. 

To serve men better, I believe we can do a better job of both respecting, validating, and honoring the benefits of emotional suppression, and recognizing and engaging the ways in which calls for emotional expression can be emotionally triggering.

To reiterate, as humans, we all seek an ideal balance between emotional expression and emotional suppression.  We would do well to nurture a deep sense of respect for the value of each other’s tendencies in this area, including recognizing the value of feelings suppression.  Most importantly, men’s resistance to emotional expression may arise from an emotional trigger that should be respected and engaged in treatment, rather than criticized and/or pathologized. 

As an epilogue, I will say that, in Judaism, the great Torah figures (both men and women) that are revered as exceptional people come closest to finding this ideal balance that I have observed.  They are deeply in touch with themselves and their emotions, but are also able, if the situation demands, to suppress their emotions in order to take the most appropriate action.  May we all aspire to such balance.