3 men sitting side by side
Mo BrosImage by: Movember
3 men sitting side by side
11 December 2020

Hungry, Happy, Horny and Angry - The 4 Male Emotions.

Dr. Alex Cameron
6 minutes read time

Hungry, happy, horny and angry - I was attending a training on working with men who had been charged with domestic violence when the facilitator stated that these were the four emotions men are taught it’s ‘safe’ to express. It was 2011 and at the time there were few organizations focused on men’s mental health.

The training went on to describe anger as a secondary emotion; meaning that while anger may be that expressed, it is often fuelled by other emotions experienced simultaneously. The easiest way to think about it is envisioning an ‘anger iceberg’. Ninety per cent of an iceberg is hidden below the water with only 10 per cent visible above. Similarly, while anger may be the visible symptom, in many cases there is often significant underlying emotions hidden beneath the surface that aren’t easy to see or identify.

Anger is the 10 per cent – yet it is being fed by the 90 per cent of what remains hidden under the surface: shame, guilt, sadness, frustration, grief, disrespect etc. I would argue that all four of the original emotions described above (hungry, happy, horny, and angry) are examples of secondary emotions, driven by underlying feelings that are hidden ‘below the surface’, exactly like an iceberg.

So why is it challenging for many men to express beyond these secondary emotions? I would say it comes down to emotional literacy and vulnerability.

Emotional literacy is the ability to both identify and express one’s feelings. This is far more challenging than you might think. However, being able to identify what one is actually feeling is the first important step to being able to heal. As a society, we need to do a better job teaching people to identify what they feel but also the language and skills to be able to express those feelings. This ability to communicate is at the heart of so many challenging relationships. But it means being vulnerable to actually risk expressing any of these feelings.

Men are taught to be tough, in command, in control, aggressive, and stoic. These traits are celebrated in every facet of society from politics to sports to literature. Society celebrates the ‘strength’ in men and rewards them with status and power. However, I would argue it takes more strength and courage for men to express vulnerability - not only to themselves - but openly with others.

It is much harder to stand up and say, ‘here is why I am sad, here is why I am hurting, here is why I need help, here is why I am unable to do it alone…’ Think about the last time you expressed such feelings to someone or had someone express these types of feelings to you. I would imagine that it had challenges; that it was both uncomfortable and difficult.

I once had a male client tell me he was in an abusive heterosexual relationship. He expressed that this had gone on for years and that he was afraid to tell anyone about it - again. “Why do you say ‘again’?” I had asked. My client mentioned that he had in fact told someone that he had trusted. The person responded by questioning his openness and in fact, implied that most people wouldn’t believe him or would react negatively if he spoke out about it. The client shut down immediately. He did not share his story again until years later with me.

He closed himself off from his emotions completely after that experience, turning to risky behaviours as a way to escape the emotional pain he was feeling. He lost his job and ultimately his relationship ended as well. Vulnerability continued to be something that he struggled with understanding, constantly questioning his worth ‘as a man’.

What can I/we do?

The first step is to create safe spaces for men and others to express their emotions and being vulnerable. There are two components to this. First, ask the question and listen when someone shares in a vulnerable way. Second, respond with respect and unconditional support.

Asking the question is easy but ensuring that it is asked with the intention that you really want to understand is the key. When you open up and create a safe space for someone to share how they are feeling, you are acknowledging that you care and value them as a human. When we feel safe to express ourselves, taking the chance to be vulnerable is so much easier.

It’s also important to go beyond the surface. Saying things like, ‘I have noticed that you have been staying in more. I have not heard from you as much. I wanted to check in and see how things are going for you?’ are all great examples and go beyond the typical ‘hey, how are ya?’ The difference is subtle but powerful. Think about when you pass a co-worker and ask them how they’ve been and how surprised you are when they say anything other than a positive experience.

When you do ask the question, you need to be prepared to hear something uncomfortable. This is a major reason why many of us avoid asking. What if I hear something that I can’t fix? In my experience as a therapist, it is not the ‘fixing’ that people are often seeking so much as the ability to express what they are actually feeling and to feel validated. If all you do is let someone know that you understand and care, you are doing so much more than you think. You are validating that person’s experiences and letting them know they are not alone.

Imagine if your feelings could be shared and understood by someone you trust? That you could talk about what’s hurting without fear or shame? That when you expressed an area of difficulty in your life, you felt support from those around you, less isolated, or even felt no shame at all? How powerful would that feel? Now imagine being able to create that experience for someone you love and care about and the immense weight that it may alleviate for them. You may be the one person that shifts their day, their week, or even their life.

As Movember 2020 comes to a close, it’s important to continue to start these conversations with the men in your life all year round. My challenge to you as you read this is to take that first step - reach out to someone and ask them how they are really doing. Let them know you’re thinking about them. On the other hand, if you need to connect with someone, reach out to someone in your life that you trust and talk to them about what you’re experiencing. Then, tell those people what it meant to have them share or listen and how much they mean to you.

Let’s shift to a culture of strength instead of fear.

About Alex Cameron: Originally from BC, Alexander is a psychotherapist with over 8 years’ experience working in men’s mental health. He has volunteered with agencies such as NextGenMen and has collaborated with Movember speaking on men’s mental health. He currently has a private practice serving clients in both Ontario and Alberta and also works as a clinical supervisor overseeing three clinics for Alberta Health Services. He has extensive experience working with males in a range of capacities and has a passion for helping people take control of their situation and live their best lives.