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.
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!