Man Up: Engaging Men’s Emotions

It is depressing how many men have heard the phrase “man up” in one form or another throughout their life. Whether from a relative, teacher, or significant other, these two words have a powerful impact on men’s emotional health. The “man up” charge carries an expectation and a prescription given to boys and men particularly related to their emotional health. So, let’s consider three assumptions (or as I call them: deceptions) attached to the phrase “man up” and their remedies.

Deception 1: Men do not have emotions

Perhaps the most bizarre deception perpetrated is that men do not have emotions. I call this the evolutionary fallacy, and it goes something like this: the human male species has evolved so much that they have grown out of the need to feel. The fallacy continues with the notion that their ancient ancestors may have needed excitement, fear, and anger to survive, however, nowadays such emotions have become obsolete. All that is needed now is logic. We will see later how this evolutionary fallacy is easily dismantled with an understanding of our mid-brain. But for now, it is important to note that this belief continues whenever boys and men are praised for being logical and intellectual. The charge to “man up” creates more fracturing within men. Ironically, to not acknowledge emotions keeps men from evolving into fully integrated selves and being emotionally mature.

Deception 2: Men must stay cool, calm, & collected

This second deception includes the indoctrination that men must stay cool, calm, and collected. Such indoctrination comes from messages like: “Don’t react”, “Keep a level head”, “Stay even-keeled”, “Keep it together”, and “Chill out”.  Men often use this deception as another way to appear emotionally mature. Again, there is self-pride and outside praise for staying cool, calm, and collected. For example, “he’s so go-with-the-flow”, “he’s so laid back”, “nothing really seems to bother him”. Regretfully, this is numbing out masquerading as “emotional maturity”. Numbing out is birthed from one of two places: scarcity and/or fear.

Boys often have a scarcity of adult men to model healthy expressions of emotions. It Is not uncommon to hear guys say, “My dad was just a reserved man, who didn’t raise his voice or cry”. And such lack of expressiveness can have big ripple effects into the next generation. For example, “If the men before me didn’t, why would I need to?” If boys do not witness men expressing emotions outside of cool, calm, and collected, it is understandable why venturing out past the acceptable numbness would be difficult.

Fear can also keep boys in a cool, calm, and collected state. If boys have witnessed harmful, unhealthy expressions of emotions, such as rage, manipulation, or violence, there tends to be a rejection of emoting. If I’m constantly witnessing my dad rage against the rest of my family, why would I believe I could express anger any better? Such fear of inflicting similar harm, led by uncontrollable emotions, is too great. No wonder why it feels safer to stay cool, calm, and collected outwardly, and to be numbing out internally.

 Deception 3: Men are only angry or lustful

The other extreme is the passive acceptance for men to be angry or lustful. This also continues the same deceptively destructive path. Why? Because men can only channel their energy into one of two possible ways. When men are emotionally pigeon-holed into only anger or only lust, it creates extreme and unhealthy outcomes. Take bullying, insulting, sexual harassment, and even rape. Such unhealthy, harmful expressions of men’s anger and sexuality are not only given passive or active endorsement, but they are also offered as justification for what it means to be a man. For example, the phrase, “Boys will be boys” epitomizes such societal acceptance of anger or lust. And it is heart-breaking how deeply engrained these messages go, degrading both men and women alike.

Have you fallen victim to any or all three of these deceptions (whether by personal belief or perpetration)? I know I have, and it has taken a lot of work to unlearn what I have learned. Fortunately, these deceptions can be remedied with awareness, knowledge, and practice.

Remedy 1: Embodiment

Men become more emotionally mature as they become more embodied. Rather than numbing and ignoring, try noticing the sensations you are experiencing. The awareness of what is happening in our bodies is crucial. Body scanning helps draw attention to what is happening internally and can increase happiness (Dambrun et al., 2019). To do a body scan sit upright in a comfortable position. You can close your eyes or keep them open. For the next 3-5 minutes take some deep breaths in and exhale. While continuing to breathe, start from the top of your head and slowly move down your body until you reach your toes. All the while, just simply notice what is coming up. Where do you feel tension? Where do you feel tightness in your body? You do not need to do anything with this information just yet. For now, just notice, and when you’re ready open your eyes and begin to reflect on your experience. What did you notice?

Remedy 2: Knowledge

To take our sensations and feelings a step further, we need knowledge of our brain and body. It is important to understand how our emotions function and how our bodies can be a signal of our emotions. To do that we first need a lesson on the brain.

There are three main parts of the brain: the brain stem, the mid-brain, and the cortex. The brain stem is responsible for survival (i.e., fight, flight, or freeze). The mid-brain, for processing memory and emotions. And the cortex houses everything else, like the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logic, reasoning, and decision making. Did you know our brains process information from the bottom up—not top down? Why is this important? Because the “man up” charge to be un-emotional is biologically impossible. Before you can even make a logical decision, information has to pass through both the brain stem and the mid-brain. And where does your brain stem get this information from? Your body! What happens in your body gets encoded and processed and held. Our emotions are a response to that.  So, as we continue to understand more of how our body, brain, and emotions work, we can move to greater self-awareness.

Remedy 3: Curiosity, Comfortability, and Courage

To truly remedy the “man up” charge and be emotionally mature, there needs to be curiosity, comfortability, and courage. Be curious as to why your body is responding the way it is, and what it is trying to communicate. Be curious if and/or when you have felt that sensation before. For example, a curious stance would be asking “Have you always emoted anxiety through teeth-grinding?” “When did it start?” Or “With whom else did you feel that constriction in your chest?” Next, work on increasing your comfortability with naming an array of emotions. Can you count how many emotions were named in this blog? If you only know a few emotions, increase your emotional vocabulary by checking out the feelings wheel. And finally, practice being courageous and sharing with a trusted friend or therapist. Practice naming what you are feeling with “I” statements. For example, “I feel anxious about being emotionally vulnerable with others. However, I’m hopeful that by doing so, I can help others become more attuned to themselves”. In the end, the more men practice being embodied, aware, curious, comfortable, and courageous, the more emotionally mature they will be.


Dambrun, M., Berniard, A., Didelot, T., Chaulet, M., Droit-Volet, S., Corman, M., … & Martinon, L. M. (2019). Unified consciousness and the effect of body scan meditation on happiness: alteration of inner-body experience and feeling of harmony as central processes. Mindfulness10(8), 1530-1544.

Feelings Wheel. Retrieved from

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