“Cloudy Visibility”: Men’s inner emotional lives are more complicated than you might think

By Joseph R. Schwab, Michael E. Addis, Christopher S. Reigeluth, and Joshua L. Berger

Stereotypes of men tell us that they are stoic, unemotional, and in general not very interested in talking about their feelings. This is what women do, so the stereotype goes, and men are often assumed to be uninterested in engaging with the “feminine” side of life. And as stereotypes go, many of us are guilty of perpetuating this assumption about men’s inner emotional lives. We may not ask men about difficulties they may have recently experienced, or about “softer” emotions like sadness, grief, loneliness, or anxiety. Men themselves also perpetuate this stereotype by not talking to other people about the struggles they may be experiencing in order to appear strong and appropriately masculine.

Man walking

But if you talk to men about their emotional struggles––really sit down with them and ask the tough, introspective questions about what’s going on emotionally for them––you might be surprised by what they say. We recently did this in a study interviewing white adult men in the Northeast United States who were relatively educated and affluent. All of the men we interviewed had recently gone through a difficult life event, such as divorce, job loss, or severe illness, and we asked them questions about what that experience was like and who they talked to about it. What we found was a complicated picture of men both fulfilling the stereotype we have of them by not dealing with and talking about their feelings, while at the same time also counteracting that stereotype by openly expressing emotions about the difficulties they recently faced. What was most interesting about our findings is that every man we spoke with displayed both expression and concealment of emotion within the same interview.

We used the term “cloudy visibility” to describe this constant fluctuation between opening up and shutting down. The weather metaphor helps to explain the complications inherent in men’s emotional lives. All of the men we interviewed were able to clearly and openly express emotional difficulties they had recently experienced, talking about such emotions as terror, confusion, sadness, and loneliness. Many of the men even cried during the interview when discussing their difficult live events. However, these same men would also cloud these emotions by reasserting their ability to handle the situation. In other words, they would open up about such difficult and “soft” emotions like sadness and loneliness, but they would also wrap up their conversations by saying things like, “but everything is fine” or “all things considered I’m doing okay.” In this way, their difficult emotional experiences were clouded by a desire to appear strong and in charge.

They also talked about opening up to others in complicated and cloudy ways. All of the men we interviewed expressed interest in being able to talk to other people more openly about their emotions and difficulties. But they also expressed trepidation about actually doing this. They expressed fears of being rejected by others, that nobody wanted to hear about their problems, or that they didn’t want to burden other people with their own emotional baggage. Some men even talked explicitly about the importance of gender in these contexts, in that men do not seem to have as many outlets as women to talk about their feelings. Many of the men described themselves as interested in talking more openly about these issues, but they believed other men were not interested in doing this.

One of our biggest hopes in presenting these findings is that people of all genders can better understand and care for the important men in their lives. All men are complicated, and to assume that there are different kinds of men––some that are emotional and some that are not––is not fully engaging with them as a multi-dimensional person. All men are emotional, even though they may express these emotions in complicated ways. If we have a better sense of how men express emotions in cloudy ways, we may be able to better understand their struggle and talk with them in more nuanced ways. Just because a man appears on the surface to be okay, or says to you that he is fine, does not mean that there isn’t something more complicated happening on the inside. If we all sat down with our male friends and family members and really asked them about how they are doing, we might be surprised by what we hear.

Joseph R. Schwab recently received his PhD in developmental psychology from Clark University. His research investigates the narrative construction of identity, aiming to better understand how adolescents and adults create meaning and purpose in their lives through the stories they tell. Michael E. Addis is a Professor of Psychology at Clark University. His current research focuses on the social learning and social construction of gender as they intersect with men’s social, emotional, and physical well-being. He has a longstanding interest in the philosophy of social science and links between academic scholarship and clinical practice. Christopher S. Reigeluth is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Clark University and a trauma fellow with the Yale University Child Study Center. His research interests include boys and men’s experiences with gender policing, emotional silence and invisibility, and barriers to help seeking and mental health care. Joshua L. Berger is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Clark University. His research seeks to understand the various factors influencing help-seeking behavior, particularly in veterans. His current research focuses on the factors influencing both informal and formal help-seeking in veterans following deployment and during the civilian readjustment process. Their article Silence and (In)visibility in Men’s Accounts of Coping with Stressful Life Events can be found in the 30 (2) April 2016 issue here.

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