Men and managing emotions
This section provides an introduction to enhancing emotional awareness, and skill in managing emotions, for men who have experienced sexual abuse. Topics covered include:
- Common gender-based challenges in managing emotions that men who have been sexually abused face.
- Expanding men’s emotional awareness and literacy.
- Introducing distress tolerance and emotional regulation.
- Useful strategies.
Common gender based challenges that men who have been sexually abused face in managing emotions
“One of the most significant consequences of early trauma is disruption to the development of emotional regulation. Psychiatrist and trauma expert Dr Bessel van der Kolk has argued that ‘at the core of traumatic stress is a breakdown in the capacity to regulate internal states’, which may include fear, anger and sexual impulses. A child who cannot regulate internal states may have lifelong difficulties tolerating or regulating distress, behaviour and impulses. This may result in self-destructive, self-harming behaviours, as well as excessive risk taking and thoughts of suicide in later life.” Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Final Report, Volume 3 Impacts 2017: 79
“In Western culture, men are taught to be the tough ones: They’re not to cry, they’re supposed to have the answers, be the providers, and above all it’s not okay to show emotion…” (Participant 274, Easton, Saltzman & Willis, 2013).
Some fundamental components of masculinity in our society include men's ability to be strong, in control and emotionally contained. This concept of the relationship between men and emotions is often grounded in boys from an early age and strongly cemented by adulthood. Dominant ideas about masculinity significantly impact on the way in which men express and experience emotions, including in relation to childhood sexual abuse. The limitations imposed on emotional expression and understanding often leave men with an inner turmoil that they feel they are unable to label, describe or express. Consequently, some men may be left experiencing a number of emotions that they feel unable to control. This can add to men who have been sexually victimised feeling distressed, overwhelmed and disempowered.
Although there is considerable variation among men and women, gender differences exist in the acceptance and social expression of emotions. Women are generally socialised to express more directly certain feelings, such as fear, anxiety or sadness, but are taught to dampen or avoid others, such as anger (Briere & Scott, 2006). Societal gendered expectations, in relation to the expression of emotion, are part of a person’s social and emotional development. It is worth noting:
- Expression of emotion is often associated with being seen as weak, cowardly or overemotional;
- The suppression of emotion is strongly associated with masculinity;
- Both men and women face limits on their expression of emotions, but in different ways;
- Learning acceptable male and female emotions begins early;
- Boys learn to repress certain emotions to avoid the stigma of appearing weak and ‘feminine’;
- Messages about the expression of emotions are learned as we grow up in our family of origin, and are reinforced further by peers in their teens and adulthood.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Childhood Sexual Abuse noted that CSA can impact on a man's experience with their masculinity. It states that:
“The social pressure to be ‘appropriately masculine’ – stoic, strong and dominant – is at odds with the pain, vulnerability and helplessness associated with child sexual abuse, and as a result many male victims struggle with their masculinity. While child sexual abuse may leave many male victims feeling inadequate and ‘unmasculine’, others deny these feelings and adopt ‘hyper-masculine’ attributes, and some experience problems with anger and rage”, (p. 46, Final Report, Vol. 3: Impacts)
Many men who have been sexually abused in childhood are only too aware of the learning and rules around the expression of emotions. As one man says:
“Women appear to be more aware of the names of things. Such as I’m feeling depressed or I’ve been having a real struggle for the past couple of weeks and this is the circumstance. I don’t know what half of that stuff is called... Boys are not brought up to say I mean I was never brought up and told, ′You need to be more sensitive to your brother’s needs,’ No I was told things like ‘Kick his ass’. Teram et al (2006)
- Where did I learn about emotions?
- What do I ‘know’ about men and emotions?
- What strategies or models have I found useful in managing emotions?
- What emotions are particularly tricky?
Common beliefs held by men regarding emotions influence the way in which emotions are understood and expressed. With the masculine imperative to be ‘active’, it can lead to men externalising and seeking to act on their local environment as a means to reduce the sense of pain or distress (Briere & Scott, 2006). Common beliefs held by men regarding emotions:
- Men don’t cry
- They shouldn’t show any emotion
- Male feelings are different from female feelings
- Feelings are weak and unhealthy
- Emotional expression is juvenile
- Adults outgrow their need to cry
- Women have free access to their feelings and men don’t
- Logic is masculine and feelings are feminine
- Men are naturally less emotional or cut off from their emotions
- Feelings get in the way of thinking
- Being able to contain emotions, is part of ‘being a man’
- Expressing your feelings means you’re out of control
In listing these common beliefs, it is important not to presume we know a man’s beliefs or experience in relation to emotions, but to open up a discussion to develop an awareness of how he negotiates these expectations in his own way, in relation to his unique context. We cannot assume how an individual man will react to these cultural expectations. What men do commonly appreciate, however, is the opportunity to explore these expectations, which usually operate in an unspoken and unexamined manner.
“Emotional issues were often among the most debilitating mental health impacts of child sexual abuse survivors described in private sessions. They included feelings of:
- low self-esteem and self-worth
- shame and humiliation
- guilt and self-blame
- grief, sadness, emptiness and loss.
Living with the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse can be emotionally difficult for men, in balancing their perceptions of what it means to survive and live with complex trauma with their perceptions of what it means to be a man. For male trauma survivors, anger may provide an accessible, and somewhat socially acceptable emotion to express. Men are more often socially encouraged to express ‘harder’ emotions such as anger, over ‘softer’ emotions such as sadness (Briere & Scott, 2006). Practitioners should be mindful, however, that this is rarely the only emotion a man may be experiencing. Rather, that with significant effort he may be controlling other emotions through avoidance, isolation and denial. The fear of expressing emotions is closely linked to feeling out of control, broken or weak. Emotions can be layered, with a primary emotion (eg. anger) being shown and secondary emotions (eg. fear, hurt, loneliness) being hidden (to the self and to others).
While identifying and communicating feelings may be a simple task for some,the ability to monitor, name and differentiate between emotions can be difficult for others. Problems discriminating between emotions may increase an individual’s perception that their emotional state is ‘chaotic and intense, is not logical or predictable’ (Briere & Lanktree, 2012). For men, this may foster a sense of helplessness, loss of control over their emotional or bodily states, and a loss of hope for recovery. It is useful to recognise that ‘intense’ emotions can ‘flood’ people’s resources and leave someone feeling completely overwhelmed. This is why working with someone to develop their capacity and skills in emotional awareness and management, grounding and self calming is essential.
Presenting for therapeutic support may be the first opportunity for men to explore and express their emotions without the fear of social judgement or the pressure to appear masculine. In fact, men’s very attendance at therapy can be regarded as a significant act of resistance to many dominant ideas about masculinity.
“Because the pain is so intense you don’t think anyone will understand it. As a man you’re not supposed to feel that level of pain, that level of loneliness, that deep, deep, deep feeling of being utterly and completely alone. Of being lost in a darkness so complete there’s no hope of light”
(Participant 090, Easton, Saltzman & Willis, 2013)
How men configure, understand and respond to emotions significantly influences their personal and relational well-being. Many men are reluctant to talk about and explore their experience of childhood sexual abuse, because they are concerned that they will become emotionally overwhelmed and not be able to cope. This concern is not surprising given that sexual abuse produces very intense emotional responses. Men often talk about ‘not wanting to open the can of worms’, out of concern that they will never be able to put the lid on what will spill out. An alternative analogy to introduce and discuss with men is to see the work as helping to slowly ‘release the pressure on a pressure cooker’. This ‘lifting the lid’ analogy is useful, considering many men’s inclination to try and screw the lid down as tight as possible and, in the process of seeking to suppress any emotions, stop anything from getting out, which increases the pressure and feeling of being out of control.