The last thing a man ever wants to be called is "impotent". If you think I'm exaggerating, consider that the market for erectile dysfunction drugs in the US was $3.6 BILLION in 2020. Apparently guys really do not want to be called "impotent"...
It makes perfect sense. Our culture - like many throughout history - exalts men's virility. Outward signs of strength, or potency, are desirable for many reasons. Genetically, culturally, and biologically, men with strong bodies are seen as being capable of protecting, providing, and reproducing similarly strong, healthy children.
Considering our oldest, hard-coded human survival needs, any signs of weakness or infirmity in those areas can be perceived as a threat. We hold strong beliefs that men need to be potent - and we deride them if they are physically and/or sexually impotent.
It's simply not ok for men to be impotent in these ways.
So why is it that men are ok with being emotionally impotent?
Wait, you say. Emotionally impotent???
What does that even mean?
Good question. Let's break that down a bit to be sure that we're all on the same page before we get into why it matters.
According to dictionary.com, the adjective "impotent" has several meanings, the first three of which are:
not potent; lacking power or ability.
utterly unable (to do something).
without force or effectiveness.
(The other two entries refer to physical strength and sexual ability, which while relatable to the point I'm making in this piece, I will leave aside for now.)
Let's consider now what it would mean to be "emotionally impotent" based on those definitions. It might break down like so:
Lacking the ability to understand and express one's own emotions.
Utterly unable to participate in emotional exchanges (e.g., conversations, interactions, relationships) with other people.
Having so little experience with emotions that one's attempts to use them are tentative, timid, clumsy, and/or ineffective.
Throughout my life, both personal and professional, I've found that men often struggle with one or more of these areas. And of course they do! A guy who cries - a clear sign of being in touch with deep emotions like sadness or grief - is typically seen as weak. Being seen as nervous, worried, wounded, frozen, afraid or any other type of vulnerable feelings can invite ridicule and shame for men.
Men growing up in our culture have been socialized to believe that showing emotions makes them impotent!
Normalizing the "Syndrome"
And yet we've somehow gotten to a point where it's ok to be impotent in the most embarrassing sense.
Do you know why men (and women, but mostly men) spent $3.6 Billion dollars on drugs for sexual impotence? Because we've normalized the syndrome of erectile dysfunction! We've even made it something to laugh about.
And, you know what? I think that's great. There are so many different challenges that we'll run up against in life. We will never be perfect and adding a sense of shame to our challenges only makes it harder to overcome our struggles.
I would love nothing more than for us to put the same type of energy that we've put towards erectile dysfunction into normalizing the tendency for men to have underdeveloped emotional skills. The sad - and tragic - truth, however, is that we aren't nearly as invested in developing men's emotional capacities. Here are some data points to consider:
People have willingly made that aforementioned $3.6 Billion annual investment in the E.D. drug market. (And that's just what consumers spent - it doesn't even factor in the money poured into making and selling those products.)
SAMHSA, the federal agency that runs the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, had a total budget of $5.7 Billion in 2020. Only about $90 Million of that funding went towards programs directly related to suicide prevention.
Men, in particular white men, are the most likely people to die as a result of suicide. Males have a 3.7 times higher rate of suicide than women; white males accounted for 69.38% of suicide deaths in 2019.
A series of studies by the National Institute of Health found that higher levels of Emotional Intelligence (or "emotional potency", if you will) correlated with lower risk for suicidal behavior.
Connecting those dots, we have men being discouraged from leading their natural emotional lives, the living of which protects us from the most harmful decisions we can make for ourselves, who are ending up killing themselves at staggeringly high rates in relation to other groups, yet we invest a tiny fraction of our resources in supporting men's emotional and mental health.
In simpler (and cruder) terms, we are spending more money on keeping men's dicks hard than we are on saving their lives. I mean sex is important, but c'mon guys...
Why Does Emotional Potency Matter?
Let me restate one of those statistics I quoted above a bit differently:
7 out of every 10 suicides results in the death of a white man.
Men are literally killing themselves because they are depressed, sad, frustrated, angry, disillusioned, and isolated. This is tragic. And avoidable.
We can build emotional skills. Period. Emotional intelligence is not a fixed ability that people are born with. They can be built, like muscles.
For example, let's say that you have a well developed ability with Assertiveness - a key emotional intelligence skill. But perhaps you don't know how to employ Empathy. To complete the analogy, you're emotionally crushing the bench press ... and you're skipping leg day. (In terms of how a person like that might come across to others, they might be bulldozing their way through life without understanding the impact they are having on other people.)
Maybe you think that it's easy for a guy like me who's so comfortable with emotions to say all this. After all, if you browse my blog posts you'll see a lot of content about emotions, feelings, intimacy, and relationships.
Well, guess what? I used to be that guy, the one who skipped my "emotional leg day" (and shoulder day ... and ab day ...), too. Then I realized that to get to the life I wanted I needed to build my emotional muscles.
I needed to stop being emotionally impotent.
So I did the work; I started showing up for all of my emotional workouts. It was not easy. Though at times it has been brutally difficult, it's been entirely worth it. I enjoy being able to allow my feelings to naturally move through me, as they always do when I allow them. Even better than that, I now have more access to pinnacle feelings, like joy, since I'm no longer using my mental energy to ward off feelings that once felt bad or scary.
Sometimes I shudder to think what would've happened had I stayed in my emotional impotency. It might've even killed me.
Jim Young is a coach who helps men develop emotional intelligence, relationship skills, and intimacy across all areas of their lives. Though these topics are often viewed as being confined to our personal lives, Jim disagrees and seeks to help men develop them in their professional lives as well.
When he's not pursuing his professional passion of helping men get their lives back, Jim is most likely engaging his emotions in one of the following ways: parenting his three terrific teens, creating laughs with his improv troupe, or learning all sorts of things about himself with his partner (who introduced him to the term "emotionally impotent").
Jim will soon be rolling out an online course for men to help them get comfortable with their emotional skills. He also runs small men's groups in which he teaches those skills in an interactive format. If you are interested in learning more about either of those resources, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .