Be gentle, we men have mammy issues

 

THAT'S MEN:Men can be oversensitive to women’s criticism

WHO MATTERS more to the average husband – the mammy or the wife? Lots of wives suspect that they are in second place – and lots of wives could be right a lot of the time.

Sigmund Freud suggested that a man can spend much of his energy and effort in an unconscious bid to impress mother. So Sigmund was with the wives on this one. Lots of women, he suggested, try unconsciously to become their mothers – therefore, whatever way you look at it, mother matters.

In an interview the other day on Oprah.com, a psychologist called Jay Carter suggested that this attempt by boys and men to impress their mothers has a huge influence on how men react to women’s criticism.

If, even unconsciously, you make it your mission to impress somebody, you are, in effect, handing control of your self-esteem over to that person. If the other person is impressed you can feel good, if not you get to feel bad. So setting out to impress mother means handing that control to the most significant female in your early life.

When you marry or get into a long-term relationship with a woman, much of this control transfers to her in the normal course of events. According to Carter, who has spent nearly 30 years counselling couples, this has huge implications for how men and women get along together.

For instance, a woman might want the man to acknowledge her anger at something he has done or not done, and might then be prepared to let the matter go. But the man is on a mission to impress, and her anger is telling him he has failed.

The male reaction, whether that is to fight his corner or to retreat into silence, may seem to her – and, later, to him – to be completely out of proportion to what was originally said.

But when you look at what’s going on beneath the hood, so to speak, and at how it’s tied up with unconscious efforts to impress women, including mothers, it becomes more understandable.

What to her is a single-issue criticism is, to him, a global judgment. And if her mode of criticising is to declare that he “always” does this or “never” does that, then the judgment becomes even more global.

What’s to be done? I’m afraid I don’t have a formula for you. All I can suggest is that men calm down and realise that a little criticism from herself isn’t the end of the world – after all, she’s not your mammy.

And perhaps women might do well to start off the criticisms softly rather than harshly. The conversation should go better if they do, if Dr Freud is correct.

And it’s not only Freud. Now that neurological researchers can study what’s happening in the brain while we experience certain emotions, interesting things are coming to light. For instance, on a neurological level it seems that men and women have different responses to stress, in particular to stress caused by someone else’s anger.

In a study at the University of Southern California, written up in the journal NeuroReport, men and women were asked to look at angry faces.

The part of the male brain that helps us to interpret emotions from facial expressions, became less active. But in women it became more active.

I suppose this might also help to explain why men don’t usually respond with enthusiasm when women want to discuss problems. The man doesn’t just go into a metaphorical cave when faced with this prospect – he goes into a neurological one, too.

So, ladies, be aware that we are far more sensitive creatures than you might think when it comes to criticism, and that we need lots and lots of understanding and tolerance and sensitivity and tender loving care from you. Just like we used to get from the mammy, before you stole us away from her.


Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@ireland.com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is free by e-mail