Emotional Shut-down

In my last post, I looked at one of the attributes of an ideal soldier: An ideal soldier is unemotional. Only anger and aggression are permissible.

Do we raise our sons to be unemotional so that they can be useful pawns for war? Do we create emotionally disabled men?

Or do you think men are naturally unemotional? But let’s be honest – young boys have as many emotions as young girls. They do not feel less fear or less pain. They are not less vulnerable or dependent.

We are the ones who harden emotions out of boys – or force them to hide their emotions. We teach our sons to suppress their fear and vulnerability and sensitivity. We do not want them to express deep feelings. Perhaps we don’t even expect them to have such emotions.

How do we do this? 

We use words, actions (or lack of action), facial expressions and body language to show boys that their natural emotions are unacceptable. We begin this soon after a boy’s birth and continue until boys are made to feel ashamed of their natural human feelings. Boys are seldom allowed to voice their pain, their insecurity, their fear or their loneliness. The message to boys comes over loud and clear: at home, at school, from other boys, from society. Soon a boy learns that many of his natural emotions are seen as inferior, are despised and rejected. A boy has to learn to endure feelings of insecurity, vulnerability and fear alone. A link is established between emotions, and failure and weakness. Often this is established through the father, who went through the same training when he was a boy. Many adult men would like to think that they seldom give way to their emotions. And it’s as if a father wants his son to also stop having these feelings. But this does not make them disappear. Let’s take a couple of examples: 

  • Most boys are hyper-afraid of disappointing their fathers, of somehow letting them down.  A boy learns quickly that any expression of fear or sensitivity is despised and rejected by his father. The boy will anxiously pretend to be tougher than he is to avoid his father’s impatience or mockery. All boys, but especially the shy, timid or sensitive boys, learn through humiliation, fear and with suffering how they should be, even though some will not make the grade – they will ‘fail’ to suppress their emotions sufficiently.
  • When they are small, boys are told: “Don’t cry like a girl” or “Big boys don’t cry”. We try our best to make them feel ashamed. What are we really telling them? Obviously, that their emotions are unacceptable.
  • If a boy shows fear he is called a sissy or a coward. We don’t accept that it is natural for a child to feel fear.
  • If a boy is in physical pain, his fear of expressing pain forces him to reject comfort, to be stoical and brave, even if these are the last things he feels.  
  • If he is not good at or not interested in sport, he is mocked or ignored or made to feel weak and inadequate. Sport and the teaching of sport are major areas where the expression of fear, pain, vulnerability or inadequacy is beaten out of boys.
  • Every boy wants to be popular at school or at least accepted by his peers. At school, boys police themselves and each other. Boys who are ‘weak’ or ‘sissies’ are picked on, ostracized and shamed. The fear of being bullied or rejected will motivate a boy to hide his emotions. It’s highly likely that the boys your son meets at school have also been mocked, rejected and brainwashed into acceptably masculine, non-emotional behaviour.
  • It is taboo for a boy to confide to his friends how he feels about a girl. A joking exchange about sex is admired but the softer feelings of vulnerability, fear or love go unvoiced. If he is rejected he cannot turn to his friends with his feelings of loss and pain.
  • Likewise he cannot turn to his friends with his feelings of loss and pain when there are problems at home between his parents.
  • We discourage the development of sympathy, caring and compassion. Boys don’t often get the chance to practice person-to-person skills such as caring, compassion or nurturing. Parents seem reluctant to give boys these tools. Denied this role of nurturer, boys become unused to caring and unpractised in expressing their feelings of closeness. At best a boy is given the opportunity to enjoy a close relationship with a pet.

Natural human emotions are ‘hardened’ out of boys. The cruel result is that boys are forced to stop sharing their emotions. Self-protection takes over. They hide or even shut down their inner reality. Over time it becomes difficult for boys to show softness or caring or any so-called ‘weak’ feeling, and impossible to expose their fear or uncertainty. The emotional capacity eventually becomes rusty from lack of use and shuts down.

As for the boy who cannot amputate his emotions, he can be overwhelmed by insecurity. Or he will use different ways to protect his emotional self, to hide the hurt. He may learn to respond to any mocking or criticism with defensive aggression, with anger or denial. Or he may adopt a non-caring, sullen attitude and defiant, rebellious behaviour.

We teach boys to keep many of their emotions tightly, dangerously and unhealthily submerged. They become emotionally impoverished, unable and forbidden to talk about their deep, important thoughts and feelings. Eventually they not only hide them, they are no longer capable of them.

It seems that we don’t trust boys’ natural masculinity. And therefore we can’t allow them to be children with the natural emotions of vulnerability, insecurity, fear or dependency of a child, in case they don’t turn out to be masculine enough.

How many men do we know who cannot understand or communicate their emotions? In my next blog, I look at the emotionally-limited, two-dimensional man.

The discussion continues on https://caygin.wordpress.com/two-dimensional-men/

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4 Responses to Emotional Shut-down

  1. I was browsing for information relevant to the subject matter. I found Emotional Shut-down | Boys to Men right here. You have offered your tips rather effectively. The information is exactly what is was looking for. I should hyperlink back to https://caygin.wordpress.com/chapters-3/emotional-shut-down/ in support in my up coming article. Credited.

  2. Pingback: Why Patriarchy Persists (and How We Can Change It) - Organizing Change

  3. jdcinsf says:

    One of the MAIN reasons process emotions differently that women is the brains of the sexes work differently, women are people/sharing oriented and men are results oriented. Men’s brains will pause before crying or running because men are the ones who might have to save others or rescue others. Women, generally are not the rescuers in flight or fight situations, women cry for help reaching out for support.

    Please DO NOT make it seem that boys and men are WRONG for processing emotions they way they do.

    • caygin says:

      Hi Tim.
      I guess it’s a question of older men stuck in the old-fashioned notions of both masculinity and femininity that you express. Notions that are inadequate for the requirements for modern life and modern men.
      Good luck.

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