Feelings And Actions That Are Forbidden For Men And Women Are Different
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, author Holly Whitaker explores her experience with substance use recovery that was notably not done using an AA program. She writes that the current tenets and values of AA were derived from a patriarchal antidote to (white, heterosexual) male privilege with its founders believing that, as she says, “the root of alcoholism was a mammoth ego resulting from an entitled sense of unquestioned authority.” This is not a blanket dismissal of AA, but rather, a wish to recognize the limitations of something that can be sacrosanct. Choosing a recovery program she likened to feminism, Whitaker realized she, like many women, needed to develop an ego, rather than shrink one that is too big. The politic that Whitaker brings to her essay is not so divorced from something I’ve witnessed in my practice: men and women sometimes need different approaches in therapy.
I want to be clear: as a therapist in New York City in 2020, I know and celebrate that people do gender in all sorts of ways. I also am aware that the world remains gendered in certain ways, and recognizing that matters too. The differences between what men and women need in therapy expresses itself most obviously with feelings and actions that are forbidden. For many men, much of the work in therapy is to not only create the conditions to safely articulate, rather than act out, their anger, but also to arrive at off-limits feelings underneath it. Establishing safety is also key in therapy with women, but in contrast to men, many women need therapy to make space for the anger that exists underneath shame and pain.
Mortal Kombat vs. House: Men and Women Are Socialized Differently With Relationships And Emotional Expression
Of course, both men and women come into therapy for a number of different reasons. However, what is common in many men I see in my practice is that they have not been taught how to relate to their feelings. Granted, feelings as off-limits territory for men is not a new concept. Research shows us that males begin to emote significantly less starting at the age of four, and continue this trajectory of limited emotional expression as they age. And this often comes from boys’ socialization. Not frequently in play are boys coached to look at something from the inside out, or asked to reflect and perspective-take. In fact, empathy is often a detriment; if boys were to stop and wonder how villains in video games got to be so bad, they would inevitably be worse at the game.
Though things are changing, most girls’ socialization, in contrast, has historically centered on a relationship. Practicing relationships invites girls to introspect about how Barbie might relate to her friends, or think about how Mom might feel, act or think while playing House. To win at Mortal Kombat is to accrue points; to win at House is to feel loved and valued by others.
Off-Limits Feelings Comes Out As Anger (And Loneliness) For Many Men
The consequences of this repression of emotion for men are varied and complex, but they almost always cultivate a deep and profound resonance of both anger and loneliness. It should go without saying that men feel things all the time: shame, joy, longing, fear, desire, etc., but when they repress it, their feelings can’t be validated, heard or seen. Over time, this feeling of invalidation takes a toll and breeds rage. Eventually, the rage can come out explosively at the wrong person or in an act of violence (whether physical, sexual or otherwise).
However, in many cultures, anger is not only condoned, but celebrated in men (particularly when compared with women). What men aren’t allowed to do, though, is reach underneath that anger to access the other feelings that exist.
Anger Is Protective: Therapy Creates The Safe Conditions For Emotional Expression For Men
This creates a need for therapy that is saturated with intimacy and relationality for men. But first, many men in therapy need significantly more help than women in developing conditions where emotional expression is safe. I help men first put words to their anger, giving themselves permission to really feel and name their rage rather than act it out. Sometimes this looks like saying: “I’m so mad at my partner,” or “I hate that asshole in the work meeting who embarrassed me and made me feel small.”
In most cases, anger is protective and helps the individual avoid the feelings underneath–often pain, shame or loneliness. A male patient is mad at their colleague, yes, and deeper than that, he might be also feeling shame or worthlessness. Helping men cultivate their self-awareness skills and develop their emotional intelligence leads them to be ready for the part of treatment focused on intimacy and deeper expressions of emotional vulnerability.
Women In Therapy Need A Therapist To Validate Their Pain And Help Them Arrive At Anger
Throughout history, society has told women that the acts of violence performed against them aren’t so bad and are, in fact, their fault for being “too much.” The underlying message is that women are often expected to remain in relationships or spaces that are unsafe. This informs the way women metabolize violence and harm; women tend to blame themselves for pain because female expression of anger is chastised or worse, sets women up to be unsafe.
In the same way men need to learn in therapy that vulnerable feelings exist inside their bodies, women need help learning that so many of their experiences of pain and shame are a result of a violation of their bodies and minds (see: gaslighting). I often tell patients that anger is useful; it’s an emotion that lets us know when we’ve been violated. Women in therapy often need me to lead in creating a space that can bear witness and validate their pain and shame, as well as help them arrive at the anger that feels forbidden.