We all have feelings or emotions. Both men and women are born with an equal capacity to experience and express a wide range of emotions. However in our culture (and many other cultures too) men and women typically learn to recognise and handle emotions in quite different ways. These different gendered expectations in relation to emotions can produce particular difficulties and challenges for men. This is especially true for men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault. Below is some information on emotions, men’s experiences, the impact of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault, and ways men can relate to and more readily engage with emotions.
In seeking to learn more about emotions, and how to acknowledge and respond to them in helpful ways, it is useful to recognise that there are no right or wrong emotions. There aren’t even ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ emotions. Emotions are emotions.
An emotion is a physiological response to a stimulus or an event. As emotions have a physiological element, they can feel as if they are ‘taking hold’ of us, to the point where we feel like we are going to be overwhelmed by them and lose all sense of control. However emotions are not harmful in and of themselves. To feel is to be alive.
What can make understanding and handling emotions tricky is that in our culture we are encouraged to think in terms of discrete, individual emotions. We are often asked to clearly identify which emotion we are feeling, such as happy, or sad, or afraid, or angry, or disgusted. The reality is that people can, and do, feel a number of emotions at one time.
Men and emotions
What has happened in our culture is that certain emotions have been labelled masculine. These emotions are considered to be acceptable for men to have and display. An alternative set of emotions have been designated feminine, and considered okay for women to acknowledge and express. This unnatural division impacts on the kinds of emotions that men and women feel that they are “allowed” to acknowledge and express, both in public and private.
Women appear to be more aware of the names of things. Such as, I’m feeling depressed, or I’ve been having a real struggle for the past couple of weeks and this is the circumstance. I don’t know what half of that stuff is called… Boys are not brought up to say, I mean I was never brought up and told, “You need to be more sensitive to your brother’s needs.” No, I was told things like, “Kick his ass.”
This restricted code impacts on how men deal with problems. Typically when women feel upset they are likely to express their feelings directly, and to seek the support of friends and family. Men, on the other hand, develop a habit of hiding emotions or withdrawing.
It is important to recognise that the way individual men acknowledge and express their emotions does vary a lot. However, in Western cultures men have historically been taught to limit their expression of emotion. The image of the “ideal” man has been promoted as someone who is self-reliant, keeps a lid on his emotions, and prioritises ‘acting’ rather than ‘feeling’. This way of being a man is embodied in the stereotypes of the hero, so often represented in film and television, as fearless, resourceful, stoic, and usually facing adversity alone.
So imagine a boy who sees the men around him being emotionally distant, and reluctant to express affection or vulnerability. This boy is told often that “big boys don’t cry,” or “wipe away those tears and get back in there!” His peers are told pretty much the same things. After a while he comes to understand that this is how he should be as a man.
Take a moment to consider these questions
Thinking back, what did you learn about men and emotions when you were growing up?
Was there a difference in the way that the men and women around you handled and expressed emotions?
How has this influenced you?
A way of understanding, learning about, and responding to emotions
Below is a way of looking at things that can help us to better understand emotions, and how men experience and handle them.
- Something happens and the body reacts physiologically.
- A conscious awareness of this physiological reaction develops.
- When a man becomes conscious of the response, he will typically attempt to interpret and label it.
- Once the response has been given a name, the emotion is evaluated in terms of beliefs and values. This is to determine whether the emotion is acceptable to the man’s understanding of himself. (e.g. Am I someone who gets scared?)
- If the emotion is found to be acceptable, the social context is then considered. This is to determine how expressing this emotion will be received by others, and what the impact might be.
So within this model, emotions appear, become understood, and are responded to. This all happens in relation to a bodily experience, the labels we can apply to it, the knowledge we have of ourselves, and our assessment of how the people around us will respond.
When reviewing emotions it can be helpful to think in terms of four basic human emotions: sadness, anger, happiness and fear. These are sometimes referred to as ‘sad, mad, glad and bad.’
Of these four emotions, only anger, and to a lesser extent, happiness, are considered truly ‘manly’ in the conventional model of masculinity. Yet fear and sadness are universal to the human species, not just women! These emotions serve a valuable purpose and are a common response to threat and loss.
However, because of the taboo against these supposedly ‘weak’ emotions, men can face extra difficulties dealing with sadness, anxiety, embarrassment, grief, shame, and other emotions associated with sexual abuse or sexual assault.
Men and emotions… and sexual abuse
The experience of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault can further complicate things for men in relation to understanding and dealing with emotions. The emotions associated with sexual abuse or sexual assault can be very distressing. For example:
Shock, horror, fear, helplessness, grief, panic, betrayal, hopelessness, weakness, sickness, isolation, vulnerability, lost, anger, frustration, shakiness, hurt, shame, loneliness, disgust, guilt, confusion, emptiness, numbness, dread.
With the exception of anger and frustration, these common emotional responses to an abusive event do not fit with the traditional gender script. Therefore, any expression of these ‘unexpected’ emotions can make men feel very uncomfortable. Some men are not able to even recognise these emotions because they just do not make sense to them. As a result, the physiological emotional response might be reinterpreted and expressed as the much more familiar and acceptable ‘manly’ emotion of anger.
Another reaction to sexual abuse or sexual assault that can occur at the time, and flow on throughout men’s lives, is a practice of detaching from emotions by ‘checking out.’ Going numb, distancing themselves, or going somewhere else in their head. Although this can be highly problematic, it can also be useful at times for getting through very difficult situations. It can be a valuable survival strategy.
The idea that men should be in charge of their emotions, and themselves, at all times can create further problems for men. It can produce unrealistic expectations that men should not become emotional when thinking or talking about the sexual abuse or sexual assault. Unfortunately, men can beat themselves up over this.
When a traumatic event like child sexual abuse or sexual assault occurs, it produces an emotional response that can be triggered years later. This can happen in any number of ways. By thoughts of the assault, by seeing someone who was around at that time, or by revisiting where it occurred. It can even be triggered by a feeling, by a smell, by music, by a word, or just a sense that something isn’t right. Many men will know only too well the specific triggers that produce uncomfortable memories or emotional responses for them, and may have arranged their life to avoid these.
Emotional responses in the absence of memories
Some of the most troubling memories and emotions men who have survived sexual assault have to deal with are those that involve body sensations or emotions and little else. This happens when the cognitive elements of the memory (facts, time, place, what happened), those things that could help make sense of the memory or emotions, are lost. Men talk of feelings just coming “out of the blue,” where they have no idea what triggered the emotional response. At these times, men can start to worry that they are “losing it,” that they are becoming mentally unwell.
Some ways men can become more familiar with and deal with emotions
Like all people, men benefit from a safe, supportive environment in which they can experience, process and respond to emotions in ways that give a sense of control. That they feel in charge of themselves and where they are heading. Below are some tips on how to become more familiar dealing with emotions.
Step 1. Feel and think positive about yourself and your capacity to become more emotionally engaged
If you start from a position of encouragement and self belief then you are more likely to achieve what you are looking for. You might draw on your already established problem solving skills. See emotions as important elements to pay attention to when determining what is happening and planning any future action. Set yourself a task in relation to emotions: Identify what it is you would like to change, what time, information and resources you need, and who might be able to help.
Step 2. Start to increase your emotional vocabulary today
I am so glad for these professionals I have now, because they have really challenged me to learn not everything’s called “anger.” Some things are called “frustration,” some things are called “annoying”… I mean you’re not always mad. So for me being a man, I didn’t know that I was, like, pissed off. There was rage and there was anger. Then there were other feelings you didn’t talk about like intimacy, love, that mushy stuff.” 
Learning about emotions is not just about control; it involves expanding your emotional repertoire. Like women, men benefit from having a large vocabulary of words to describe how they are feeling. If a man has only a limited number of words available, this can get in the way of him expressing his desires, fears, frustration, sadness, distress. It can make conversations with partners about personal and emotional issues difficult.
Like learning any language, possession of a good vocabulary is necessary in order to understand what is going on, and to fully communicate with other people what you are feeling and what you need. Not having the necessary words to describe how you are feeling can be isolating. It can produce confusion, frustration, anger and a sense that you are powerless to change things.
Tip: Check out this list of feeling words and start trying them out for size.
Step 3. Take the time to learn more about emotions
Learning more about emotions and how they operate can help us to develop a more emotionally engaged life. Our emotional experience can be broken down into 3 key channels:
- Physiological: One or more noticeable bodily sensations.
- Cognitive interpretation: How you understand the physiological change.
- Behaviour: The action you choose to take.
Emotional responses appear and are shaped according to what you are doing physiologically, what you are thinking, and what you subsequently choose to do. This means that there are numerous opportunities to influence the way that you feel and how you respond to emotions.
Step 4. Learn that you can experience emotions without becoming overwhelmed
It is important for everyone to possess ways of self calming in order to deal with problems or difficulties when they arise. This is not about controlling situations, or putting a lid on feelings; it is about feeling more confident and in control of your self. These skills are important, as the reality is that everyone is going to have to deal with distressing and stressful situations.
If an uncomfortable or distressing emotion arises and it feels like you are going to be overwhelmed you can respond to the:
- Physiological channel: Focussed breathing and other relaxation techniques.
- Cognitive channel: Attention shifting, cleaning your workspace, calling a friend, planning a holiday or recalling past pleasant events, counting by sevens, utilising positive visualisation.
- Behavioural channel: Take time out, do pleasurable or neutral activity to distract attention from distress.
Deep breathing is particularly useful in helping to calm yourself. Meditation, yoga and Tai Chi are helpful in providing you with skills to centre yourself, slow your breathing and push away unhelpful thoughts. Slowing things down does not deny emotions or make them disappear, it provides the space where you can take time to acknowledge their presence, to think about what is important to you and how you wish to respond.
Developing a safe supportive environment where you can take time to process and learn more about emotions is important. In order to do this sometimes it is useful to have strategies to limit and reduce immediate distress prior to deciding on the best course of action.
Step 5. Take time to process emotions
Emotions are an important part of being alive. Once you have identified what emotions you are dealing with and you are feeling sufficiently calm, it is useful to take time to process what is happening or happened and how you wish to respond. Remember that there may be more than one emotion present at one time and that a choice of action is made on the basis of what information is available at any one time rather than in terms of right and wrong thing to do.
You might choose to process these emotions alone or through talking with someone who is helpful and supportive. Some men have found it useful to adopt a semi scientific approach to learning about and understanding emotions through keeping a log or journal that records:
- Intensity (0-10)
A log or journal can help slow things down, providing time to identify patterns and expand on possible options. For example, if you sense that anger is present you might consider:
- What are the signs that anger is around? Physical signs – thoughts?
- What other emotions might you be feeling? Is sadness, fear also present?
- Does anger best fit what you are feeling? Or might it better be called frustration, annoyance, disappointment or betrayal?
- If you were to scale this emotion between 1 and 10, where would it register
- Would it help to relax yourself further before choosing a course of action?
- How come this emotion has appeared at this time? What has happened?
- Are you dealing with an emotional response relating solely to something that has just happened, or is there something else here you might want to consider?
- How are your thoughts influencing this emotion? What thoughts might assist you in responding to this emotion?
- What do you want to do now? What is your preferred course of action?
- Would it be helpful to talk with someone else now or later?
- Does anything even need to be done other than be aware that this emotions is present?
Step 6. Move from emotional regulation towards emotionally engaged living
As stated earlier men have a capacity to live a full and emotionally engaged life. However, growing up in our culture with an experience of child sexual abuse can sometimes make emotions difficult to understand and deal with. Learning about emotions and recognising their valuable role in your life is not just about controlling or regulating them, it involves actively seeking out emotional experiences.
- Plan pleasurable activities. Make a list of things you would like to do, places you would like to go, people you would like to spend time with.
- Don’t just stay in your comfort zone, push the envelope a little in a safe way and consider becoming involved in activities that you haven’t tried before.
- Put aside a few minutes a day for quiet time. In order to slow things down and check in with yourself in relation to what you are feeling.
- It can also be useful to put aside some time and let the important people in your life know about how you are travelling and what you are feeling.
- Try counselling. Talking with a ‘professional listener’ may help you identify the feelings behind a particular concern.
Identifying and expressing feelings is learnt behaviour – it only takes practice.
- This web page was made with reference to the ‘Men and Emotions’ page on Mensline Australia, and the below references.
-  Teram, et al, (2006). Towards malecentric communication: Sensitizing health professional to the realities of male childhood sexual abuse survivors, Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 27, 499-517.
 Y. Joel Wong and Aaron B. Rochlen, (2005). Demystifying men’s emotional behaviour: New directions and implications for counselling and research, in Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 6, 1, 62-72.
 M. Cloitre, L. R. Cohen & K. C. Koenen. (2006). Treating Survivors of Childhood Abuse: Psychotherapy for the Interrupted Life. The Guilford Press: London.