Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Guys need to know it's okay to feel tough stuff

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Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Mark Mitchell

David Cunliffe's comments have reminded me.

When I was a teenage girl I wanted to be a man. I wore brogues. I smoked fags with my fingers curled, like a wharfie. I cracked my knuckles. I tried to speak with vocal fry.

Handily, I also had a Frida Kahlo-level facial hair problem.

My reasoning for wanting to be a man, was that men are cool. They don't emote all over the place. They take their troublesome feelings and sensibly squash them down or channel them into making stuff.

I wanted to stop feeling emotional pain and be cool. Ergo, I wanted to be a bloke. Nick Cave, preferably.

I was rather confused though. (Incidentally, back then I was so out of touch with my human animal self, I thought sex was simply an optional extra, a hobby that couples did like stand-up paddleboarding.)

But the point I'm trying to get to is that I'm grateful to David Cunliffe for his candid apology for being a man. I think it was brave. And the uncomfortable reaction to him being so honest ironically proves the point; men are still stuck feeling they have to be emotionally hardboiled when, actually, the truth is there is no such thing as a tough guy. Men are every bit as sensitive and emotional as women.

Don't take my word for it, I've got proper measuring stick research here. It's true that shown disturbing pictures, girls are more comfortable than boys to say they feel other people's pain. But when you look at physiological measures, rather than self-reporting - and the body doesn't lie - the difference disappears.

No sex differences are detected in blood pressure, heart rate or pupil dilation - all measures of emotional responsiveness. That suggests males and females feel the same thing, but report what they feel differently. It's okay for girls to say they are upset, but boys don't cry.

And now there is new cutting-edge research that shows that although men and women feel emotions in the same way, they are different in the way they process or down-regulate emotions, sometimes called "blunting" because it is how we shut off painful feelings.

In this research people were shown images that typically arouse strong positive or negative emotional reactions. The results showed quite clearly that men and women did not differ overall in their intensity of moment-to-moment emotional reactions to the images.

But the way their brains processed the images was different. Women deeply experienced the emotions within their bodies. But male brains processed the images in a way which allowed them to shift the emotional impact of the images away from themselves. In this way, men may be better able than women to distance themselves from others' emotional pain.

Psychologists have noted this can be adaptive for combat or torture or cruelty, but can prove problematic for connecting meaningfully with others. You don't say.

There was no information about whether we teach our boys this - or is it hardwired?

Either way, I think we should look at the way we teach boys to process painful emotions. These days I am a mother and I no longer wish I could be an emotionally avoidant skinny male rock star in black stovepipes with a vault full of repressed feelings. In fact, I blurt my feelings out in this paper every week!

But I do know as women, as mothers, rather than blaming men, we should be thinking about the way we bring up our boys. We need to do what we can to allow our boys to grow up without blunted feelings.

As I have said here before, at one time or another we all try to silence painful emotions. But when we succeed in feeling nothing, we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us and why.

Learning to validate your children's painful emotions is a real skill, especially tricky if, as a parent, you are highly emotionally responsive too. (I tend to be more Homer Simpson - "Oooh you little ratbag!" - than Yoda.)

We need to think about how to help our boys to grow up being able to feel. Because as vulnerability researcher Brene Brown has pointed out, we can't selectively numb our painful emotions. When we numb grief, shame, fear and disappointment, we also numb joy, gratitude and happiness. We need those.

- NZ Herald

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