Why Men Suppress Emotions

Written by
Michael Wells

Why Men Suppress Emotions

And How We Learned To

Written by
Michael Wells

Why Men Suppress Emotions

And How We Learned To

Written by
Michael Wells
SERIES

This article is part of the series 

Developing Emotional Maturity

.

This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.

QUESTION
"Why do men suppress emotions? How does this work? And where did men learn this practice?"

Look around you at the men in this world. Maybe you are one of them. What are the biggest personal issues that you see men facing today?

If you live in a "first world" country, you'll probably agree that modern life offers some decent challenges. Finances, career, friendships, health, romance. All of these are important to us and affect our lives in important ways.

But despite these, the biggest challenges most of us face are inside of us.

The most popular ones include...

  • Extreme levels of stress
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of motivation
  • Anger issues

Clearly, these challenges are not limited to men alone, but in today's society, they are almost defining characteristics of the modern male experience.

You've probably noticed that all of these issues are tied to emotions.

And if you're looking closely... you've also noticed that they are all tied to suppressing emotions.

What Exactly is Emotional Suppression?

Emotional Suppression happens any time you feel an emotion, and try to respond to it by controlling the emotion itself.

This includes...

  • Ignoring that emotion.
  • Actively suppressing that emotion, trying to keep it hidden.
  • Trying to hide the outward expression of that emotion - things like facial expressions, tears, nervous shaking, physical tension or agitation.
When we suppress, we're treating the emotion itself as "the problem," rather than the thoughts, or external events that triggered the emotion.

Later in this series we'll go into depth on how to engage with your emotions usefully- they're incredibly powerful.

First, however, we need to dig into how suppression happens, why it happens, and why it doesn't work.

Why Men Suppress Emotions

The modern world teaches men that negative emotions are a “problem,” and that they must be suppressed.

Boys are taught that we must slay our fear. We must control our anger. We should not feel sad, or depressed, or moody, or anxious. We shouldn't be envious, or jealous, or needy.

Emotional behavior, and even emotions themselves have become identified with women and children, and - when expressed by a man - these are often perceived as a sign of weakness or vulnerability.

For a man to show emotions indicates either immaturity or a lack of grit- and men don't want to be thought of as feminine... Or childish... Or weak.

Therefore, the emotions must go, and they have lost their place in our masculine identity. We're replaced emotional maturity with emotional suppression.

And the world is suffering for it.

This warped perspective is based on a huge misunderstanding of what masculinity is, and what emotional maturity looks like. If this is important to you, make sure to read this whole series.

That's what it's about.

The Four Levels of Emotional Suppression

Emotional suppression is like a fine art, that mostly involves wielding a sledgehammer.

In tackling emotional suppression effectively, it's important to understand how it happens.

In my own world, I can identify four distinct levels of emotional suppression. Any time I've experienced a negative emotion, I'd react to it in one of these four ways- depending mainly on the intensity of the emotion...

  1. Passive Suppression ( Light ). I'd simply try to ignore those emotions if possible.
  2. Active Suppression ( Medium ). If those negative emotions are strong enough, ignoring them is difficult, and I'd become agitated and frustrated. Here I'd begin actively suppressing them, trying to keep my reaction under control.
  3. Reactive Suppression ( Strong ). If my emotions became too intense, I'd feel attacked, and become defensive. Here you would clearly see visible reactions, and maybe angry ones.
  4. Chronic Suppression ( Overwhelming ). Unprocessed emotions accumulate. Over time, I suppressed too many big things, for too long, and they’d become overwhelming. I'd feel panicked, or depressed. I'd feel like shutting down, or be on the edge of breakdown, or explosion.

Maybe you can relate.

Men in particular often embrace emotional suppression as part of their masculine identity.

When you know what emotional suppression looks like, you can catch it in yourself, your partner, your children, or your co-workers, and encourage them to deal with those emotions in a healthy and effective way instead.

How Were We Taught to Suppress Emotions?

As I'm writing this and reflecting on my own childhood, I see an interesting and specific pattern emerging, that I think others can probably relate to as well.

In our modern social world - all the way from our parents to our teachers to the TV and movies we watch - we are "educated" into a specific modern masculine identity.

This masculine identity includes an idea of "not reacting to emotions."

Our emotions don't control us... we control them.

For young males, the emphasis is on controlling negative emotions - and this is the path I see most males take in their developmental years...

1 to 5 years old

First, we're taught that sadness is bad.

Whether it's a broken toy, or a bruised knee, or a friend that won't play with us, we're told to toughen up, and most especially to avoid outward expressions of sadness and pain.

No tears. No sobs. No quivering lip.

"Don't be sad... big boys don't cry"

5 to 10 years old

Then we're taught that fear is bad.

Whether it's making new friends, confronting fear of the dark, the "monster under the bed", or scary movies, we'll experience fear and hesitation, and hear...

"Don't be afraid. Don't be a wuss. What, are you a 'scaredy cat'?"

10 to 15 years old

The next emotion under attack, I think, is anger.

We'll encounter situations where we feel confronted or threatened. Maybe a toy was broken or stolen by someone else. We get in a fight with our brothers or sisters, or face a school bully.

But that anger must be suppressed too...

"Control yourself! It doesn't matter what he did, you can never hit back, no matter what!"

I'm not condoning violence here, simply pointing out the obvious.

If you tell a boy that he must "take it" when someone teases or bullies him - even if he's physically attacked - and not fight back, than you are telling him that he is worth less than others, that he is not permitted to defend himself, and that he should be a doormat.

Anger is the natural emotional response to feeling attacked, but boys are taught that they must fight that natural instinct...

And therefore, the enemy becomes the anger itself.

15 to 20 years old

By the time we've reached our teenage years, we're clear on the underlying message...

For men, expressing or visibly reacting to any negative emotion is bad.

It's just not masculine.

By this point, emotional suppression is taking a toll. It's hard work, and at the same time, life has just become a whole lot more complicated.

We're now in new social situations, navigating new unwritten rules of the high school social scene. Puberty means we have entirely new hormones like testosterone creating entirely unfamiliar emotions and desires to connect with women, and pursue sex, love, and attention.

But we shouldn't be envious, or jealous, or needy... because all of these things are weaknesses too.

For a teenage male, having all of these powerful emotions, and being expected to suppress them all begins to feel overwhelming... and this is perhaps the best description I've ever found for the modern teenage male experience.

But guess what?

Being overwhelmed is not acceptable either.

What, are you feeling depressed, moody, and anxious? Weeeeak!

Toughen up, lad.

If you don't, you'll lose your friends, you'll lose the respect of your peers, and you'll lose any chance of attracting that cute girl in Biology class.

And your life would suck, forever. So suppress... and suppress hard.

Afterword

This article is the first of a series of articles focused on emotional suppression in men.

If you are female, much of this series will apply equally to you, so don't let the masculine focus of this article put you off.

I'd always known that emotional suppression is a problem- but until recently I hadn't clearly seen how integral it is to modern male identity, or understood where we learned it from.

My thoughts here are a combination of deep journaling I've done, along with hundreds of coaching sessions where I've worked with men who are suffering badly from suppressed emotions.

And as you've guessed, this is a topic of particular interest to me because I spent much of my life in deep emotional suffering, too.

If you're suffering- and considering some coaching to help you sort it out, drop me a line and I'll get you some details on how it works - mike@brojo.org.

Read more articles about...
SERIES

This article is part of the series 

Developing Emotional Maturity

.

This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.

First published on 
. Last updated on 
November 24, 2020

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      Addendum

      From what I can tell, emotional suppression is highly cultural.

      Some cultures suppress more than others. Italians suppress very little, while Japanese suppress a lot.

      Why do we have emotions anyway

      what are emotions

      and therefore what is the problem with suppressing them

      fight flight freeze

      most often choose freeze

      a world of men, who feel mostly paralyzed, and impotent

      ! Culture and emotional repression

      Why did this happen?

      No room for kids to be kids.

      Farms

      Cities

      Apartments

      For women in particular, who have a man in their lives, or who are raising a son, it's important to understand how emotional suppression works.

      When you understand it, you can see it, and you can then decide what to do about it.

      And it's super, super crazy complicated...

      Personally I don't directly connect Stoicism in any direct way with the relationships I have with others. But indirectly, it has a huge impact in that it defines my relationship with my self, and n particular my emotions.


      As a child, my earliest memories of my father was that he was distant and emotionally unavailable, and that I regarded this as a good thing, because when he was emotional, it was always anger. That created a very warped perspective for me on my own emotions, that they must be suppressed at all costs, and forced into submission.


      Stoicism and psych study changed that, I no longer see emotions as the enemy to conquer, but rather as the horse to ride. I just had to learn how to be a good jockey. It doesn't govern me, and it empowers me hugely- my emotions give me both power and energy in pursuing my goals, and a deeper awareness of the world around me through heightened senses.


      Both of these are very valuable in my relationships with others, because the better I relate to my own emotions, and the better I utilize their power positively, the more empathetic and responsive I can be with others too. I don't put my emotions on others, or hold them accountable. They're not riding my horse. And I'm not responsible for their emotions either so I don't feel compelled to be people-pleasing or confrontation-avoidant. Life and relationships are so much better with that perspective.