This could explain why it’s difficult for many men to make friends, go to therapy or find social support outside of romantic relationships.
Men who make a habit of ignoring or suppressing vulnerable feelings can develop what I’ll refer to as emotional efficiency. Many of you have probably witnessed suppressed feelings expressed as other emotions. For example, sadness, hurt, shame, and fear often manifest as anger; and surprise and uncertainty can manifest as fear. But what you may not know is that other vulnerable feelings, like trust, connection, and appreciation can manifest sexually.
To illustrate how this phenomenon works on a physical level, here’s a quick experiment you can try at home. Place your hand on a flat surface and try lifting each finger without taking your palm, or any of your other fingers, off the surface. Can you do it? I can, pretty easily.
Now remove one of your shoes and put your bare foot flat on the floor. Lift each toe without taking your heel, or any of your other toes, off the floor. Can you do it? I can’t. I practiced for weeks and was eventually able to lift my big toe by itself, but I haven’t successfully lifted any of my other toes yet.
According to biomechanist, Katy Bowman, our feet have the capacity to do this. They have the muscles and moving parts to be as agile as our hands, but people who keep them restricted inside shoes for most of their lives lose that agility.
This happens because our brains are efficient organs. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In basic terms, this means that when we perform separate actions simultaneously often enough, our brains wire the neurons involved together and make the combination more or less automatic—so we don’t waste mental energy. This frees our brains to concentrate on other things. Shoes teach our brains that toes almost always move together, so those neurons get wired together and whenever we try to move one toe, the other toes go with it. This way we don’t have to concentrate on lifting our toes one at a time when we take a step.
Something similar seems to happen when people regularly restrict their emotions. For example, those who suppress hurt they feel when someone insults them, and only acknowledge the resulting anger eventually condition themselves to feel only the anger. Likewise, when someone only discloses tender feelings or connects emotionally within a sexual context, they can lose their ability to identify their nuanced emotions and condition themselves to feel only the sexual feelings. Perhaps you’ve known people like this.
It’s not unheard of for heterosexual men to feel an inexplicable urge to kiss a male friend when they’re standing face to face. It’s also understandably challenging for these men like to maintain platonic relationships with women.
Because of moral and ethical limitations, empirical studies about sexual conditioning are lacking and are limited mostly to animals, but there is a fair amount of evidence for the existence of conditioned emotional and sexual responses, and practical experience demonstrates the effect. Freud called it transference and believed it was due to the “the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object.”
Dr. Gary Brooks writes about the phenomenon in his book, A New Psychotherapy for Traditional Men. He describes a client who abruptly ended therapy with a younger female therapist after just three sessions and then abruptly ended his therapy with Dr. Brooks after only two months. More than a year later, the client returned and said:
Dr. Brooks goes on to explain: “With female therapists, heterosexual men have great difficulty controlling fears of engulfment and a tendency to sexualize the relationship. With male therapists, men are subject to homophobic panic whenever they experience affection or emotional intimacy.”
A New Psychotherapy for Traditional Men is obviously a book about men, but I’ve seen emotional efficiency like this happen to both men and women. Historically, though, our culture has valued men who restrict their emotions more than men who express their emotions. In fact, one study showed that most men would rather shock themselves than be alone with their thoughts and feelings—which could explain why emotional efficiency seems more prevalent among them.
It’s not difficult to identify people who get angry or anxious a lot. It’s more difficult to identify people whose intimate feelings have merged. There are a few reasons for this. First, sexual feelings resulting from emotional connections between partners in a romantic relationship don’t feel surprising or out of place. It’s common for emotional moments to culminate sexually; so they are not noteworthy. And second, developing sexual feelings toward someone would feel incredibly uncomfortable in many other contexts and non-romantic situations, a therapist’s office for example, and most people would work hard to avoid situations that would trigger such out-of-place sexual feelings—which could explain why some men actively avoid sharing vulnerabilities with their friends, therapists, and other non-romantic social support systems.
The good news is emotional efficiency isn’t permanent. Just like I learned to wiggle my big toe by itself, men (and women) can learn to separate their emotions. Experts have known for years that changing your thoughts can change your feelings. Being aware is key, and after that it takes baby steps and a lot of practice to recondition yourself.
For those who want to begin separating their emotions, start by making a mental note any time you feel the first hints of anger, fear, arousal, or any other conditioned feeling you might have. Ask yourself, is there is a more vulnerable emotion, like hurt, uncertainty, trust or gratitude, that may have triggered your feeling? If there is, identify it. Give it a name.
Once you feel comfortable identifying your primary (as opposed to merged) emotions, look for ways to positively, and safely, experience them without resorting to your merged emotions. Dr. Norman Doidge says in his book, The Brain that Changes Itself, “Positive bonds appear to facilitate neuroplastic change by triggering unlearning and dissolving existing neuronal networks.”
To do this you might look for opportunities to start sharing small moments of vulnerability with people you trust, things like: expressing gratitude, offering sincere compliments, verbally admitting a mistake, or asking for help. Once you’re comfortable doing that, without reverting to your merged emotions, start progressing into longer, more personal conversations and eventually interpersonal disclosures.
This process won’t happen overnight, but as you continue to work on becoming more emotionally nuanced, you will probably find it easier to make friends, engage in long term therapy, and find additional social support.
Originally Published on The Good Men Project