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Are men less able to feel emotions?

March 24, 2010

The short answer is, no, men are not less able to feel emotions. Men may even feel emotions more intensely than women do, because they’ve been socialized to view themselves as unemotional, and may feel that their emotions are somehow strange or out of place. Also, in general, men are not socially permitted to express emotions or chat with friends about them as women are able to do, which leaves them few outlets for their emotions. In our social training and our social myth-making, we’ve created a pretty rotten situation for most men!

Wow, I’m reading the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain by neuroscience professor Lise Eliot, Ph.D., and in it, she writes that the differences between the brains of males and females are actually quite small at birth and throughout childhood. The old saw about men being less emotional or less able to feel emotions is not true. The old saw about men having smaller corpus callosums than women (the corpus callosum carries information between the left and right hemispheres of the brain), Dr. Eliot shows, was based on a study of just 14 brains, and has since been disconfirmed. But people hold onto this falsehood, and repeat it constantly, and write books and make whole careers around it, while men suffer silently with the emotions they clearly feel, but aren’t allowed to understand.

Cover for Pink Brain, Blue Brain

Dr. Eliot notes that there is some difference in verbal ability (girls are sometimes more verbal, but not always), and some difference in activity level (boys are sometimes more active, but not always) but not so much as we’ve been led to believe. In fact, there is more difference between girls in these traits, and between boys in these traits, than there is between the sexes. Wow.

Dr. Eliot also shows that the old information about girls being less able to read maps or do math has also been disconfirmed, many times. Sadly, that myth also stays in the culture as people repeat it over and over again, and provide less math education to girls. So the biological truth about boys and girls is ignored, while myths, prejudices, and socialization mold little brains into stereotypes. Ouch!

In sociology, one central focus of study is to discover what is socially created, and what is genetically, biologically, or objectively true. Race, for instance, is socially created. It is not true biologically. So even though race means nothing in the natural world, it means everything in the American cultural world, and it actually creates a class system. However, if you go to another culture, you may find that race is unimportant, while skin lightness, regardless of race, is the key to class distinctions.

What Dr. Eliot is showing us is that many of our ideas about what constitutes maleness and femaleness are socially created. They’re not biologically or objectively true. And because so few people understand the difference between objective reality and socially-constructed reality, the myths and falsehoods gain the status of truth.

So little girls are permitted to say they hate math, and little boys are permitted to stop crying at a certain age, even when they’ve been hurt deeply. Boys are told to “man up,” stop crying, there’s nothing to be afraid of, stop being “girly,” stop talking about feelings, and basically, stop being fully alive.

What’s very interesting to me is that men throughout the ages have found a way around this prejudice and stereotyping. In The Language of Emotions, I place the emotional, empathic realm into the element of water, which includes emotions, art, music, literature, and dance. And for a long time in our European history, women weren’t allowed into the art world. Hah! Men found a way to work with, express, study, and understand empathy and emotions, the sweeties.

And though it was prejudicial to keep women out of the art world, it is sort of adorable that men created a guys-only playhouse where they could make themselves whole without women telling them they couldn’t feel, understand, or express emotions properly. Yay men!

So the next time you’re tempted to belittle (or coddle) men about their empathy or their emotional skills, or belittle (or coddle) women about their map-reading or math skills, step back. If you make room for wholeness in other people, they’ll almost always rise to the occasion. Socially-created “reality” can only hurt us if we don’t challenge it.

Let’s all make room for talkative, emotionally-aware men and active, scientifically-aware women. Let’s sing a song, build a fort, talk about emotions, and map our way to a better, truer world while we solve the quadratic equation together and laugh about the obvious social cues people think they’re hiding!

12 Comments

Karla March 24, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Now, because men and boys are socialized out of their emotional awareness, it can be difficult for them to identify emotions in others as quickly as women can. However, because the brain is plastic and continually growing new neuronal pathways to manage new information, men can revive the areas of their brains that identify emotions. Yahoo!

Michael March 25, 2010 at 2:09 am

This is so very good,finally a language that matches my long struggle of being a male in america at this time.So many of my male/female friends have found my ability to work with & on Emotions as a form of commuication a odd,strange & at times frustrating exchange.Karla Thank You.One question thro,is there a distinction of connecting to emotion before managing/skillfull-means are applied?

Karla March 25, 2010 at 4:27 am

Hi Michael, I’m glad to hear from you! I don’t totally understand your question, though. Are you asking if there’s a different pathway for the act of feeling an emotion and the act of managing it?

Thanks!

Michael March 25, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Yes,because it seems my old way was to use the act of managing to deny the act of feeling,therefore not really understanding the message of the act of feeling.Does that make sense?

Karla March 25, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Answer for Michael: Oh yeah, I get it. If you deny the feeling, it’s hard to understand what message it’s trying to give you!

In the book and CD set, I talk about why people tend to ignore their emotions (it’s normal!), but ! contrast that with how important it is to understand what the emotions are trying to convey.

Interestingly, wallowing in them isn’t good either. To work with them, there’s a kind of skillful dance you have to do. And women are able to learn that dance (well, some women are), while men are often told to go outside and build something or play football!

But when you learn what the emotions are saying, you don’t suddenly get all emotional all over the place. In fact, you may become less overtly “out there” with your emotions, because you can learn to manage them yourself, rather than slapping them away, or expressing them all over the street or something!

Here’s the thing: If you’ve got the kind of superhuman strength it takes to deny emotions, then you’ve got all the strength you need to be able to listen to them. Yay!

Simon March 25, 2010 at 8:51 pm

You are a social justice warrior, Karla! You make me smile. Thank you!

Karla March 25, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Yay Simon the empath Man!

Christina May 9, 2015 at 5:42 am

amen amen amen

Michael March 25, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Thanks Karla,your comments are very much inline with my experience.Have you heard of Healing Through The Dark Emotions;Miriam Greenspan,she talks about the difference between contain & control vs connect & flow?You both have been great mentors for this 21st Humble man,nice to embrace my human wholeness!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Karla March 26, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Hi Michael, I like that book. People run like crazy from the dark emotions, but if we approach them properly, they’ve got a tremendous amount of wisdom in them.

They’re deep and rich, and that’s where you get the good info! Of course, they can also knock you out, so approaching them carefully is necessary!

Michael March 27, 2010 at 12:14 am

That’s exactly what I’ve learned both in my life & with the help of you & Miriam,it seems that just the reading of the words of you both gave me a kind of compass & kinship,which moved into sanity emtionally & cognitively.Peace Be Upon You;Mike

Katrina May 14, 2010 at 11:39 pm

I am one of those women who was good at math and science in school — no one told me I couldn’t do it because I was a girl! And now I make my living as a webmaster for a local daily newspaper.

And I read maps rather well, too — in fact, one of my best friends always depends on me to give him directions on how to get to or from somewhere.

But I also get to explore my creative and emotional sides in my (unpaid) work as an actor, dancer, and singer in community theatre and ballroom dance.

I’ve met some amazing men in theatre and dance — because those are realms where being a sensitive, emotional man is more acceptable. I find these men to be much more admirable than the “macho” men who try to be “tough” all the time (I tend to meet more men like that in the business world). Two of my best friends are sensitive, creative men; one is my acting coach and the other is a professionally-trained actor/singer/dancer.

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