Men and Emotions
Dr. Ron Levant, a professor at Harvard University, coined the term "normative male alexithymia". He teaches that most North American males suffer to some degree from the conditioning of our culture which causes men to be underdeveloped emotionally. His research shows that men have developed two primary responses to emotional issues. For vulnerable feelings including fear, hurt and shame, he sees men using anger as the "manly" response. For nurturing feelings, including caring, warmth, connectedness and intimacy, he sees men channeling these feelings through sex. It is called normative because his research shows that this limited dual response of anger or sex is the norm for men.
It is a male condition because he has found that women have a much wider range of emotional responses. He has found that women function through "emotional empathy"; whereas, men function through "action empathy". Emotional empathy is other oriented and exhibits the capacity for understanding interpersonal perspectives and emotions. Action empathy is self-serving and presents itself as the ability to enter into another person's point of view from the perspective of knowing what the other person is likely to "do". That is why men want to fix. Fixing is a "doing" activity. Alexithymia is the condition where "doing" replaces the cognitive step in the emotional experience. We can see this in the way that the four steps of the emotional process function:
1) emotions originate in the limbic system in the brain;2) then, they move to the autonomic and endocrine systems;3) next, they move to the muscles and skeletal systems which engage theflight or fight activities (doing); and4) lastly, the cognitive awareness of the emotion is experienced.
Dr. Ron Levant believes that many men stop the emotional process at the third step and, therefore, cut off the cognitive awareness of the emotional experience, i.e. control their emotions. The result of stopping the emotional process at step three is that emotions become somatized in the body, resulting in physical symptoms such as: constrictions to the chest, throat or face, shortness of breath, upset stomachs, headaches, backaches, tension in the shoulders, insomnia, high blood pressure and heart disease.
How do men learn to handle emotions in this way? In the North American culture, there has been a persistent theme that one can call the "traditional male stereotype". From the Marlboro Man to Clint Eastwood and from football heroes to the father and grand-father who went before them, men have learned to do the following:
- control your emotions - "Don't cry, be tough!"- be self-reliant - "Stand on your own feet and solve your own problems."- perform - "Work hard, achieve high performance."- compete - "A winner never quits and a quitter never wins."- avoid being feminine - "Don't be a wuss! Be a man."- disconnect sex and intimacy - "Be a great lover"