You can easily find tweets, posts and messages on all forms of social media with horrific messages designed to degrade and humiliate women. And we just elected a president who unabashedly slanders and bullies women.
I want to consider the hate that some men have for women, whether in public, on social media, or in private, where domestic abuse is still all too common. These men seem to lack empathy for women. What could explain the lack of empathy that fuels misogyny?
Neuroscience suggests it has something to do with universal core emotions that men can’t — and shouldn’t — get over.
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.” Small t trauma is what happens when the brain has to accommodate to environments that cause repeated emotional pain or neglect on a regular basis. The current culture of masculinity, one where men are forced to disavow their more tender emotions such as sadness and fear, is one such emotionally neglectful environment.
We can begin to look at misogyny as a symptom of trauma.
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 at 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 men cannot “just get over” their emotions.
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, fear, joy and sadness, which are evolutionarily designed for survival purposes and pre-wired into our middle brains. We also have inhibitory emotions: anxiety, shame and guilt, which serve to block core emotions.
Core emotions get reflexively set off. We can’t stop them from being triggered — they are not subject to conscious control. If we experience a loss, for example, the human brain triggers sadness. If we win something, joy is triggered. If we are in danger, say a predator is about to attack, we had better run before the conscious awareness of danger sets in, or we’d be dead as a species. We are programmed to run from danger faster than we can cognitively process it. Emotions are thousand-year-old survival programs that work unless they are blocked.
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 safe for us to express our emotions, they resolve and we feel calm and positively connected to others. But when the environment thwarts emotional expression and connection, bad stuff happens to us.
The source of men’s aggression
Men learn in our culture — through religion, family, peer groups, and societal rules — that their tender emotions like sadness and fear are not wanted, and worse, shameful. Therefore, they cannot be expressed without the threat of emotional danger, i.e., humiliation, bullying, etc. The emotions remain blocked in the mind and body and eventually cause symptoms of stress, i.e., high blood pressure.
It gets worse from there. Depending on the level of emotional cut-off, the more anger, rage and shame will accumulate. These toxic emotional cocktails cause symptoms of stress, 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 that women are culturally allowed to display. Because many men are shamed into disavowing their tenderness, they cannot tolerate women, who in our culture are the keeper of the tender feelings. They must reject those emotions that women get to have. As a result, women become the object of hatred.
It feels better to project their self-hatred for the buried tender emotions outward on women than to hate their tender feelings inside themselves. Like a starving person would resent someone eating food in front of them. Men need to hate the “feminine” or tender emotions both inside their skin and in women.
Yes we can!
We can change the culture with education on emotions, redefining masculinity based on the reality of biology. Then men could embrace the full range of all their emotions, not just anger, without fear of shame and ridicule by others. We would see trends in rage and aggression towards women reverse.
Here’s why: When we block our universal inborn core emotions (sadness, fear) and needs for intimacy (love and connection) with inhibitory emotions (shame, anxiety and guilt), we develop psychological 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 who reads this will be aware they have those feelings. We learn to bury them and defend against feeling them. 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 with influence — coaches, mentors, politicians — must speak out about this “cultural ignorance” that people can ignore their emotions and “get over it” without paying a price in mental health.
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.