"All you ever do is tell me about all the things I do wrong!"
Updated: Jul 18, 2019
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. Dan Kindlon, Ph.D. and Michael Thompson, Ph.D. (2000). New York: Ballantine Books.
I will start this blog with several direct quotes that highlight key points of boy's and men's emotional realm underneath their behaviors.
p. 138: ...we see a mother willing to look upon child rearing as a practice--like meditation or yoga--and willing to try to view the world through her son's eyes in order to understand his needs. That willingness to learn from a child is the single strongest trait in a parent, and it is so important for the mother of a boy because she has so much to learn about a boy's experience of himself and his world. Her practice of this "mothering Zen: makes it possible for her to strengthen her relationship with her son even as the physical distance between them increases.
p. 196: Because masturbation is such a natural part of an adolescent boy's experience, he is a veteran of sexual pleasure before he ever becomes involved in partnered sex. When he is drawn by his desire for love coupled with mature sex, a boy has to make a precarious crossing over a bridge from that intensely personal, rewarding, and predictable fantasy exercise to a real-life girl with her own unfamiliar sexual and emotional terrain. From a performance standpoint, it's almost impossible to fail at masturbation. With a girl, what was simple becomes infinitely more complicated, physically and emotionally. With complexity comes the potential for frustration or failure, and if a boy hasn't learned how to manage those feelings any other way, he may react with hostility or anger toward a girl.
p. 223: In boys the motivation for aggression is more "defensive" rather than offensive or predatory. The aggression that boys display is usually in response to a perceived threat or a reaction to frustration or disappointment. Violent boys are not testosterone-laden beasts, as some would suggest; they are vulnerable, psychologically cornered individuals who use aggression to protect themselves.
p. 233: boys who have been emotionally miseducated can have an inner landscape that is as foreign to them as the dark side of the moon. As a result, boys who are mad or sad or afraid often don't usually know why. They may have a general sense that they are upset, but they often cannot identify the emotion and are even more blind to its real cause. In cases such as these, the human tendency is to look to the immediate environment for a cause. The blame may be inappropriately assigned to a certain teacher, a sister, a coach, or a girlfriend. This becomes particularly dangerous in cases where there is a reservoir of strong unconscious negative emotion, because it is continually seeking outlets.
How Do Gender Stereotypes Translate Into Emotional Trauma?
Emotional trauma can be overt, such that patients could easily attribute their depression or anxiety to a verbally critical mother or an angry father with alcoholism. However, emotional trauma is often covert. For example, many high functioning individuals, who hold a stable job and even possess successes defined by conventional standards, would describe their childhood or intimate relationship as good or nothing remarkable, but they experience symptoms like:
* Obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with appearance or achievements
* Low tolerance of minor setbacks
* Fear of judgment or making mistakes
* Constant struggles with relational intimacy
* Telling themselves to just be happy but cannot help feeling defeated
* Blaming themselves when experiencing negative emotions such as sadness
* Trying to do it all but never being satisfied regardless of their numerous achievements
Individuals who experience over trauma might not necessarily experience covert emotional trauma. However, individuals who experience covert emotional trauma often experience overt emotional trauma. This is the reason that people have a hard time recognizing or are not even aware that they experience covert emotional trauma. Indeed, it is so subtle in that 1) the perpetrator might not even be aware that they've been emotionally abusive to the individuals, and 2) many therapists who claim to be providing trauma-informed care fail to recognize it; they sometimes even inadvertently agreeing with the emotionally abusive messages that their clients received from the perpetrator.
One common form of covert emotional trauma is that individuals are constantly denied of their emotional state. Messages like "real men don't cry because crying is a sign of weakness;" " the strength of being a man is based on how much he can perform or give;" "a man does not need to be told what to do;" "a man should solve problem on his own;" "a man should always be in control;" "showing emotions means showing vulnerability and being vulnerable is unmanly" all contribute to the isolation and fear such as being regarded as less of a man, losing control of his situation or people around him, not measuring up, not being strong, aggressive, or accomplished enough, that men often face secretly. Imagine men are not supposed to cry when they lose someone they love dearly, men are not supposed to feel sad, or at least to show their sadness, when they get rejected by their romantic interest, men apologize when they feel like they are being emotional, and men compete with one another on who has more girlfriends, who is better are sports, who is better in academics, who drinks the most, who is the bravest, who lets things bother them the least, etc. All these add up to the stress, anxiety, irritability, self-judgment, drugs or alcohol issues, addiction, views that this world is not a safe place and they must have their guards up all the time, aggression or violence in men. If a man's feeling is never honored or listened to, he'd soon learn that his emotions are not worthy of understanding. As all relationships require some emotional awareness, men were disadvantaged with their emotional illiteracy. What's even more is that when men were being emotionally unaware, we explain it as "men are just being men."
So what can we do to protect the emotional health in men? When a little boy cries because his parents tell him to share his toy, rather than telling him not to cry immediately, take time to ask what makes sharing his toy so sad or upsetting to him? When a boy cries because he feels stressed at school, rather than telling him to get over it, take time to sit down with him and ask what about school that makes him feel so stressed? When a man cries because he gets rejected by a romantic interest, rather than laughing at him and teasing him with the message of being "pussy-whipped," take time to validate his feelings because no one likes to be rejected even though it was such as inevitable part of life. We are not cuddling the boys. We are being genuine and caring because we understand that emotions occur to everyone, regardless of their gender, age, racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation, country of origins, religious affiliation, occupation, etc. And being genuine and caring lays the foundation for any healthy relationships an individual is going to develop. Creating emotional literacy in boys and creating awareness in our contributions to unhealthy gender stereotypes are key to creating healthier relationship boundaries in all of us.