Most boys are taught from an early age to act tough and repress their emotions. According to author William Pollock, whenever boys do not conform to the “boy code” and instead show their gentleness and emotions, they are usually ostracized and humiliated. In particular, sensitive boys learn to deny their real selves in order to be accepted and approved of by their peers. This denial can create fear, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
Author Paul Kivel has written that boys are put into an “act-like-a-man box,” which means that they must be aggressive, tough, strong, in control and active. Whenever males step out of the box, they are humiliated. In their book Raising Cain, authors Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson state that if boys express emotions such as fear, anxiety, or sadness, they are commonly seen as feminine, and the adults and other children in their lives typically treat them as though these emotions are abnormal for a boy. Conversely, girls who express emotions are fulfilling others’ expectations, which actually helps them be more accepted by other girls.
Males Learn to Repress All Emotions Except Anger
Given our societal norms, it may come as a surprise that newborn boys are actually more emotionally reactive than girls. One study showed that baby boys cry more than baby girls when they are frustrated; yet by the age of five, most boys suppress all their feelings except anger. However, even though boys are taught to maintain emotional control, measuring their heart rate or skin conductance (sweaty palms) in emotionally arousing situations demonstrates that there is no difference between boys’ and girls’ responses. Boys have the same human needs as girls. For example, a kindergarten teacher who welcomes her students each day with hugs has a calming effect on the most disruptive boys since all boys have a basic need to be loved, cared for, and respected.
When males act aggressively or are silent, it is accepted as normal; yet when they express normal levels of fear, anxiety, and sadness (which are considered “feminine” emotions), others treat them as abnormal. The effect on males of having to conform to wearing a tough-guy mask creates suffering on both a personal and societal level and is particularly devastating for the sensitive male, who has to try harder than the average man to repress his emotions.
Violent male behavior may stem from the perpetrator’s fear that they aren’t behaving aggressively enough and may be thought of as feminine. However, the behavior that is associated with girls (actions that demonstrate empathy, sensitivity, compassion, and so on) is also natural male behavior—it is simply not recognized as such in many societies. Anthropologists have demonstrated that in certain cultures violent male behavior is nonexistent, such as in the Semoi of Malaysia. Likewise, the Hutterite Brethen, the largest and most successful Christian communal group in the United States, has enjoyed more than 350 years without a murder. We may infer then that violence isn’t natural for males but is a learned behavior.
What Is Masculinity?
Many males become uncomfortable in discussions of male sensitivity, since this trait has been interpreted as feminine. In the common duality that strictly separates what is masculine and what is feminine in our culture, being compared too closely with the feminine will likely threaten a man’s constructed sense of manhood.
Many males who are destroying their lives to feel “manly” are not acting like real men; rather, they are performing a distortion of a cultural stereotype. By disowning their sensitive side, many males become half a person. The aggressive, nonemotional male needs to learn to emulate the behavior of the compassionate, emotionally sensitive male to become a fully functioning human being—acknowledging and honoring each of their human qualities instead of segregating most and aggrandizing a few.
One of the most distressing aspects of the rigid boy code is the idea that males should never cry or express fear. The devastating effect of repressing emotions is demonstrated in male depression and suicide rates. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema at Stanford University found that boys aged eight to twelve were significantly more depressed than girls. Even sensitive males avoid crying. While the research of Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, shows that men and women are equally divided in having the trait of sensitivity, the only area where sensitive women scored significantly higher than sensitive men was in the statement, “I cry easily.”
Males are also taught that it is a sign of weakness to ask for help. This follows logically from the pressure to suppress negative emotions besides anger; after all, if you are not supposed to have distressing emotions, why would you need help for them? The result is that many men suffer in silence, which can have horrific effects for a male in his relationships, career, and health. I recently read the following quote at my local Veterans Administration hospital: “It takes the courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help. If you are in emotional crisis, contact the V.A. hospital.” A real man needs to use his inner strength to shed years of media, familial, and societal brainwashing in order to be able to express his emotions and vulnerability.
Male Emotions and the Survival of the Planet
Repressing emotions and sensitivity have devastating effects on men and the people who love them. But this expectation also has terrible consequences for the world at large. Males who repress their emotions have created a planet on the brink of disaster, since many male world leaders behave in a bellicose and combative manner rather than exhibiting compassionate and cooperative behavior. We are at a turning point for the planet in which our male political leaders can either continue acting in an insensitive, belligerent manner, risking the destruction of humanity, or choose a new, collaborative, understanding approach to foreign, economic, and environmental policy. By embracing the diversity of human experience—including masculine sensitivity—we can usher in a new era of world peace.
In order for a society to function at an optimal level, there has to be a balance between the sensitive male and non-sensitive male styles. While most non-sensitive men will be found among the soldiers and chief executive officers of large corporations, and the sensitive men will more often be counselors, artists, and healers, I think sensitive men can function in almost any occupation so long as they do it their way, thoughtfully and without unnecessary aggression. The point is, societies that ultimately succeed and flourish are the ones that honor both the aggressive warriors and the sensitive advisers. The sensitive male has an important mission, which is to balance the aggressive behavior of some nonsensitive males who treat humans, animals, and Mother Nature in a callous fashion.
While sensitive males may not be warriors fighting on foreign battlefields, their battles take just as much courage. Fighting to uphold righteousness in society, long the purview of sensitive men, takes a strong backbone and much fortitude. Personal and global peace can only be achieved through the resurrection of such masculine heroes as Jesus, Buddha, the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It takes a strong man to speak the truth about morality, virtue and justice as these great spiritual leaders have done.
The time has come to break the outdated, rigid male code that insists that all men should be aggressive, thick-skinned, and unemotional. As sensitive males become more confident and self-assured, they will be empowered to help create a more peaceful, healthy planet where all men will eventually become fully functioning human beings—exhibiting sensitivity, compassion, and vulnerability.”
Ted Zeff, Ph.D. is the author of The Strong Sensitive Boy and Raise an Emotionally Healthy Boy. For more information please visit drtedzeff.com.