We talk a lot about emotional intelligence these days in our work at the Men’s Resource Center. The topic of emotional intelligence is at the core of many key issues for men—accountability, empathy, and vulnerability. For men to be truly accountable, they need to learn how to be in touch with identifying and expressing their emotional world: “I am sad.” “I am fearful.” “I am anxious.” “I am disappointed.” “I am angry.” “I am lonely.” When we men are not able to identify and express those emotions, then that energy can come out in other ways without our necessarily realizing it.
When men are asked in group discussion if they would consider driving their vehicle with duct tape over the instrument panel, they look at me and say, “No, that would be a bad idea.” Because of course, there’s a lot of information on the instrument panel that they need to know in order to navigate driving the vehicle.
So we discuss the reality that as men, we often do in our emotional lives what we would never do in our vehicles: navigate with duct tape over our instrument panels, metaphorically placed there by male socialization. Men remain out of touch with their emotions, blind to the cues that they give. With the result that they do not learn to honor and value their emotions or experience how acting on their emotions in appropriate ways can enrich and improve their lives.
Developing the ability to identify and express feelings has mostly been relegated to female socialization. And we as boys grow up learning from our culture that it’s important to not be like girls. Our fathers, our grandfathers, and even sometimes our mothers and grandmothers teach us rather to be strong, independent, and in control.
The idea that girls are “weak and emotional” and therefore “less than” boys is at the root of much sexism. It’s also the Achilles heel for many boys and men. Masculinity becomes toxic when the full humanity of boys and men is diminished by asking them to reduce or minimize the expression of so-called “feminine” traits. And toxic masculinity contributes to all kinds of violence towards women, children, and other men.
Men will sometimes ask in group, “So are you trying to get me in touch with my feminine side?” I say, “Well, if that works for you, okay. What our program is trying to do is get you in touch with your human side.”
By not being in touch with their full humanity—by driving with duct tape over their instrument panels—men set themselves up for all kinds of relational and communication difficulties. Regarding discipline of children, especially the boys, men in our groups will say, “His mother is too concerned about his feelings. What about the rule he just broke?” When it comes to couples communication, men readily admit how often they offer rational ideas or advice for their partners’ complaints even though what women say they want in a partner is someone who will just listen and hold space for their emotions.
These discussions with men can morph into “You know the way women are? They just aren’t logical, they are too emotional—they don’t ‘get it.’” But increasingly, girls and women have been progressing in the language of rationality, science, math, and problem-solving. There has been considerable permission—in spite of some institutional resistance—for girls and women to become proficient in both the rational and the emotional languages. It is also quite clear that boys and men are playing catch-up in the realm of developing the language of emotions.
Encouraging boys and men to shift from a negative perception of developing emotional intelligence to the idea “it’s just like becoming bilingual” could be helpful in reducing the stigma that leads to toxic masculinity.
Often, men find the idea of getting in touch with their emotions somewhat threatening. They think developing emotional intelligence means becoming more “emotional”—which of course, they’ve been socialized to avoid at any cost. But the idea of learning a second language isn’t so threatening. Most people associate learning a second language with gaining something. After all, it’s not like you forget your first language when you learn a second one.
In fact, as this Psychology Today article states, “learning a language…strengthens your first language.” Elsewhere, the same article cites new research that indicates people who think through a moral dilemma in a foreign language make much more rational decisions. If men truly want to fully develop their rationality, perhaps they would do well to learn the second language of emotions!
In my experience, when men find the courage to begin this bilingual journey, they find that relationships change—relationships with intimate partners, friends, children, and co-workers. A whole new world opens up to them: a world of emotional vulnerability and empathy. They learn that, as in the words of Rabbi Adam Chalom, “We are not either/or; at our best, we are both and many more.”
Al Heystek, LPC, MA, MDiv
Licensed Professional Counselor and ordained clergy person. He has been a therapist with the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan at Fountain Hill since 2002. Al’s current practice revolves around spirituality, accountability, and empathy.