We see it on social media, hear it on television, read it in newspapers. We see in the everyday election rhetoric for president of the United States: men so enraged at women that they are driven to threaten, intimidate, name call and worse.
You can easily find tweets with horrific messages designed to degrade and humiliate women. During the election, it was not uncommon for Trump to unabashedly slander women such as Fox News’s Megyn Kelly.
Juliet Macur reported on the highly alarming threats that women who work in sports receive. David Brooks wrote on this rampant misogyny and the costs to our daughters. Recently, Roger Ailes is leaving Fox News for sexual harassment.
I want to consider this hate that some men have for women, whether in public on social media, or in private, where abuse by men against women is still all too common. The men who write these words seem to lack empathy. What causes that?
Because men can’t ― and shouldn’t ― get over their emotions
As a psychotherapist who studies trauma, shame and emotions, I recognize this kind of hate as a symptom of what some psychotherapists call “small ‘t’ trauma,” or what happens when the brain has to accommodate to environments that cause repeated emotional pain or neglect on a regular basis.
We live in a culture that refuses to recognize that men ― even Donald Trump ― have the same emotional needs as women. Because emotions are universal across sex, gender and culture, men (just like women) need an outlet for their pain, sadness, fears and loneliness. This statement alone will evoke protest, despite its biological fact and clinical findings.
Charles Darwin and William James wrote about the role of emotions in the turn of the century, but our society was already puritanical. In the time since, emotion researchers such as Silvan Tomkins, Paul Ekman, Antonio Damasio, Diana Fosha and many others have demonstrated the universality of emotions across culture, gender and sex.
But the mantra, “mind over matter” ― which is code for “get over your emotions” ― still dominates our society, at great cost, and mostly at great cost to men. The problem is we cannot “just get over” our emotions.
Can we control this?
To understand why, we need to learn a little about the science of emotions.
We have basically two categories of emotions. We have core emotions, like anger, joy and sadness, which are evolutionarily designed for survival purposes and pre-wired into our middle brains, and we have inhibitory emotions: anxiety, shame and guilt, which serve to block core emotions.
Core emotions are unconsciously set off when something or someone poses danger or pleasure. We can’t stop them from being triggered—they are not subject to conscious control. If a tiger bursts onto the scene, for example, humans had better run before the conscious awareness of danger sets in, or we’d be dead as a species.
Men and women have the exact same core emotions. We all have sadness, fear, anger and joy. We all have needs for love, connection, acceptance and emotional safety. As babies, children and adults, when it’s favorable for us to express our emotions, they resolve and we feel calm and positively connected to others.
The source of men’s aggression
We learn in our culture ― through our religion, family, peer groups, or all of the above ― that our emotions are not wanted, and worse, shameful. They stay in our mind and body unresolved. Blocked. When we lose connection to our core emotions, we lose connection to ourselves. We feel disconnected from others as well.
It can get worse from there, depending on the level of emotional deprivation. The more deprivation, the more anger, rage and shame. These are toxic emotional cocktails and they cause major symptoms, one of which is aggression.
Science proves that both men and women need love and attachment. The research is conclusive. But in our culture, boys are shamed into renouncing their inborn needs for affection. We first see signs of this in preschools and elementary schools when bullying behavior begins. There is a connection between thwarted emotions and aggression.
When women become toxic for men
The truth is, men who hate women really hate their own emotional needs, the very needs women are culturally allowed to display. Because many men are shamed into disavowing these fundamental aspects of themselves, they cannot tolerate women, who in our culture are the keeper of the tender feelings.
Men are forced to disavow large parts of themselves to fit into their fathers’, friends’, and communities’ definition of what it means to be a “real man.” So they must hate those emotions that women get to have. In a way, as a result, women become toxic for men. Essentially, it feels better to hate women than to hate their own tender feeleings, as if a starving person would resent someone eating a lot of food. Men need to hate the “feminine.”
The mask we live in is our danger
We can change the culture with education on emotions. In the documentary The Mask You Live In, filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to their authentic selves and their feelings while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. If boys and men could own the full range of their emotions, not just anger, joy, excitment and sexual excitement, we would see trends in rage and aggression towards women reverse.
Here’s why: When we block our core emotions, like sadness and fear, and needs for intimacy with inhibitory emotions such as shame, anxiety and guilt, we develop symptoms such as aggression, depression, anxiety and addictions. Symptoms go away when we become reacquainted with our core emotions.
I’m not saying that everyone will be aware they have those feelings. We learn to bury them and defend against feeling them, to protect against ridicule of which both men and women are guilty. But we can recover. The human brain is both resilient and capable of change and healing.
Healing begins with education, recognition and compassion about what it means to be a “real man” or a “real woman.” Men and women at the highest levels of society ― coaches, mentors, politicians ― must speak out about this “cultural mistake” that we just ignore emotions and “get over it.” We learn in high school that we have a stomach, heart, muscles and lungs. Why are we not taught about our emotions? There is knowledge available to help mankind find its collective empathy once again. And it will benefit us all.
For more posts on emotions, please check out my blog and articles on The Change Triangle, A Map To Recovering Your Authentic Self. Sign up to receive new posts and book updates (Random House, 2017).