Isabella Donnell on Emotional Training in Men + A Culture of Misinformed Science

Meet Isabella Donnell, a Master’s student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University in New Orleans. We’ve been friends for over a year now, and she has been an anchor in my world. Additionally, our conversations have led me to challenge my preconceived notions of the world. Like her radiant personality, Isabella’s world view is refreshing and crisp.

lots of laughter and a dog on the right

Emotional Training

Speaking on the phone, Isabella brings me up to date on her first year as a masters student. She just completed a sexual harassment training that focused on growing awareness of other people’s emotions. It accomplished this by asking the students to watch videos and detect the emotions that the characters were displaying.

Isabella, “It forced you to be more aware of the situation.”

Through videos and quizzes, the course teaches body language and nonverbal cues, building awareness by asking students to ‘read’ the emotional context of the social and professional situations. This training embraces the idea that emotional awareness can be taught– though there is strong evidence pointing towards childhood as being the ideal window for building EQ awareness. Teaching emotional awareness is something that we give young boys a pass on, Isabella notes. This in turn negatively affects them in later development.

Isabella, “There is a problem with the cultural expectations that we have for children and the way we raise young girls versus young boys. We have norms that allow boys to be emotionally immature further into adulthood. This screws everyone over because they become adult children.”

It is the emotional investment we put into a child that results in emotional intelligence and produces maturity. This is also called emotional training. The genetic claim that men are less emotionally capable than women is simply fake news.

Sydney, “You have to teach people to be considerate and think about other people’s feelings. A child will not necessarily do this on their own, it needs to be nurtured.”

a girl wearing glasses and talking about emotional training in men

Toxic Male Messages

Boys receive many messages that focus on being tough and manly, not on building emotional awareness. “The self-awareness in men is different, and there is a lot of toxicity as well. They just may not be getting these messages as directly as women do.”

Sydney “I wonder if these toxic messages are less spoken about in men because of this disparity in emotional education. Women are taught a level of self-awareness that enables them to more easily recognize and speak about toxic messages.”

Isabella disagrees, “Even if the self-awareness was there, men are taught to internalize rather than share and express. It could be recognized, but still not spoken about.”

Emotional examination and expression are what make feelings develop into identifiable issues. Dialect is a key part of overcoming/identifying toxic messages. Isabella remarks that some subreddits (the conversation forum of Reddit) are examples of a shift towards speaking about these internalized emotions and messages.

However, subreddits display a culture of hypercriticism and anger. Isabella, “There are threads where men pick apart the physical reasons they believe are preventing them from getting a girlfriend. In reality, they don’t have enough practice talking to women, or socializing normally in general, and choke up when they try.”

a girl and a sunflower

Looks Over Emotions

Sydney, “We place a large emphasis on looks in the dating game, but there is more that goes into ‘seduction’ and relationships. These other aspects often surpass looks.”

Isabella, “Yes, but being conventionally attractive does predispose people to react in a certain way.”

Sydney, “It does create that immediate reaction, but you can overcome that. Even through one interaction, we normalize the other person’s appearance.  Both ‘flaws’ and ‘beauty’ become less noticeable and less powerful.

“Looks are a mixture of a biological attraction to youth (clear skin, health markers) and socially deemed ‘desirable’ features. Checking both boxes does enable quicker connections. Trust is more easily gained. But such connections can be achieved through personality and ‘inner beauty’. And if you have the emotional maturity, you can pursue, strengthen, and preserve these relationships over time.”

a selfie of a girl

Emotional Development in Men

Isabella, “It comes down to the parents and the culture, as the culture determines how the parents raise the kids. The culture focuses on certain attributes in each gender. And I think it splits into:

  1. The maternal caregiver
  2. The male provider: ie. ‘Don’t think about your feelings, just make sure you are actively doing enough’

Isabella, “The latter is the standard message for men. This is its own type of pressure because then you’re not given time to self-explore and it makes you harder to talk to. And it spirals because, with such a message, you are more likely to be awkward and uncomfortable talking to other people. The only way to improve this is by practicing talking to more people.  But as we get older, it is easier to isolate ourselves.  So we work on such social skills less. And then you’re 30 and you’re going on subreddits to figure out what’s wrong with you. And then you join alt. right– it is a spiral.”

Obviously, there is some humor in this. And Isabella does not think men or women have it harder in these gendered upbringings, but they breed different animals. Isabella thinks that in a gendered society, the roles forced onto men and women disadvantage both groups in different ways. Let’s explore the emotionally unaware male.

a girl sitting with a slew of candles around her and talking about emotional training  in men

Harmful Beliefs

Isabella, “When you are in the position of being awkward and people think you are uncomfortable or gross– how do you fix that? The only way you can fix that is by practicing. But it is hard because not only are you bad at socializing, but many men develop internalized misogyny. So now, you’re out of practice and you are insulting women while you’re trying to communicate with them.” This can be unconscious rather than intentional, though it is often interpreted as intentional. We are not quick to give other adults the benefit of the doubt.”

Again, what results is a spiraling, compounding behavior of isolation. 

Isabella, “If you are just awkward, someone can help you improve your social skills. But if you self-isolate or have very harmful stereotypes about other people, you will counteract anyone being able to reach you.”

Sydney, “And these beliefs are embedded in us at a very young age, making it hard to detect them and change them. We are also raised to believe one thing or another. But this does not make these beliefs factual. It makes them a belief, a way of viewing the world. What should be questioned is, ‘Is this belief useful? It is serving me?’ But such insight is difficult to obtain, especially in someone who is emotionally stunted and poor at communicating. Their beliefs become their world, rather than a world-view that they recognize as such. My question is: how do you get someone to break through these toxic beliefs to build their awareness, social connection, and interpersonal communication?”

two people and a pumpkin
Deprogramming Beliefs

Isabella, “It takes a bit of deprogramming. And other people need to step in and help you. But who is willing to step in a teach a grown person how to be an emotionally healthy adult? That is the work of the parents, but for boys, it is often an ignored part of their upbringing.”

Sydney, “And it is harder for an adult because not only are these thought and behavior habits now embedded into someone’s worldview (creating semi-solidified neurological and behavioral patterns), but other people are less tolerant to teach these life skills. We can change the structure of our thoughts and habits, but there must be help from the outside. Changing a centralized belief is not analogous to remodeling the inside of your house. It can be compared to tearing down the entire house, then building a new foundation and structure upon which you build a house.

“Even if an adult recognizes an internal, toxic belief, there is deep shame tied into such recognition. This traps people, preventing them from reaching out for help.”

a girl stares into the camera
Shame

One of the most powerful emotions is shame. We avoid it at all costs.

Isabella, “You see this shame in the culture around sex and ‘getting girls’.

Sydney, “There is definitely status around losing your virginity for young boys (and girls). Turning sex into a status symbol takes away from its emotional side.”

Isabella, “It could be emotional if they let it. But if it is executed poorly, it could induce trauma.”

Isabella flips people off

Fuck Boy Culture

There is the concept of a ‘fuck boy’ that permeates young adult culture, and it is centralized on this idea of ‘sex without emotions’.

Isabella, “By the time an 18-year-old enters college, they have established thought patterns and ways of acting. They think such patterns are who they are and how they are supposed to act. Or they mimic these beliefs to fit. These behaviors start in early high school, sometimes middle school. Maybe they had a bad experience that turns them off from being vulnerable. Or they want to feel included and normalized, so they follow this stereotypical ‘fuck boy’ behavior.”

two women talk about fuck boy culture and emotional training in men
Isabella and I

Women in Fuck Boy Culture

Isabella, “And women also perpetuate this ‘fuck boy’ culture as well.”

Sydney, “As a woman, I sometimes feel like I am perpetuating these stereotypes. I have carried a fear that I over-sexualized interactions with men, introducing seduction when it need not be the case. It’s produced a back-and-forth behavior pattern, and I am still unsure where I stand on it. That being said, I do see sex as an emotional act. So, I am grappling with how to match my behavior with my inner beliefs.

“Growing up, the girls around me had different feelings about sex. They sought to strip emotion away from sex, which I saw as unnatural and, yes, traumatizing. It has been difficult to come to terms with my own beliefs, accepting this preference within myself, if we want to call emotions a preference.  I am working on distancing myself from the narrative of ‘how I am supposed to be’, be that in sex, life, work, and so on.”

Isabella, “It sounds like you went through a bit of self-isolation, and came back to sex when you were more equipped to handle it.”

Sydney, “I think that is correct. What I have discovered is that sex is powerful and intense, and it will exacerbate or numb pre-existing problems or insecurities. Additionally, your behavior carries messages, and if you do not like what you are receiving, you must look at what you are sending out.”

a girl wearing a hat and talking about emotional training
Isabella on her birthday

Sex Without Emotions

Isabella, “Sex without emotion happens when sex becomes a performative activity and the other person is now the audience.”

Sydney, “For example, I hear women talk about how they look during sex and how that is what they think about.”

Isabella, “Which is problematic and comes directly from the porn industry.”

a large frog and a girl squatting net to it

Sex + Religion

Sydney, “To state the obvious, sex is more than how you look. It can be many different things, used and viewed in multiple ways. In spiritual practices, it can be a tool for meditation. Actually, there are many ways sex is used in theological traditions. The goal can be to lose yourself or to delve into the present moment or to build spiritual awareness. It is a way of using your body to get out of your body.”

a girl next to some plants

Sex + Pleasure

Isabella, “I don’t usually hear people talk about sex in that way, usually, it is seen as a form of pleasure. I feel cautious when I am discussing what sex is; I know for a lot of people it is about pleasure. While I haven’t orgasmed yet, I know sex is pleasurable without an orgasm.”

Sydney, “I know there is pressure for orgasming as well. It is not uncommon for it to take a while for women to become comfortable enough to orgasm, be that comfortable with a partner or in their own bodies during sex. Not just in one specific instance, but in the course of a woman’s life, orgasming is not immediate, nor is it guaranteed in each sexual encounter.”

Isabella, “Something strange I noticed in myself is that I seek sex more when I am bored than when I am lusting. Either in my relationship or when I am on the ‘prowl’, my desire for sex comes out of boredom more often than lust.”

a woman talking about emotional training in men with a graffiti background
Men Need Sex to Bond—Right?

Sydney, “I was talking to someone about how men bond more physically and women bond more emotionally. Which ties into the idea that men need sex and women need conversation to build a relationship. Would you say that is a socialized ideal or a biological ‘truth’?”

Isabella, “Almost completely socialization. Biology is tricky to talk about. Personality, for example, can be tied to genetics, but it is about 60/40 environment to genetics. Some people differ in the percentage claim, with a slight emphasis on the environment. You can be predisposed to be drawn to physical comfort, or you can be less verbally inclined. But I also think that women are socialized and trained so much better in communication when we’re young.

“And then see a dude who, again, lacks verbal and emotional training, but is socialization to weigh heavily on physical appearance. They focus on how ‘hot’ they are as a tool for getting women: do they have a six-pack, are they on the football team, are they manly, etcetera. Taking this thought pattern to a social level, sex is turned into a tally, a numbers game.  How many girls has a guy had sex with, and how hot were they? This ‘hotness’ of the sex partner, the woman, is judged by their male peers. And women play this game, too.”

Sydney, “A guy can emotional connected during sex, but because they’re trained to focus on image, they become more concerned with how the girl. This becomes the key indicator of how successful the sex was.”

Isabella, “Yes, and not at all about how good it felt. Or if the other person enjoyed him or her-self. Or even if there was a connection, if they liked the other person or not. To speak more about genetics and the environment, my current boyfriend is more emotionally aware and attentive than I am. And a large part of this comes from his mother, who is a psychologist and put so much effort into developing his emotional gauge. I, on the other, lost my mom at 16 and my dad was basically a single parent who had to deal with losing a spouse. By the time I was 18, I was a bit emotionally repressed because of this past. As a result, I developed some not-so-great coping mechanisms. And now I am still working through them at age 22.”

Sydney, “I think the positive is that you can work through these past traumas. And you can teach emotions at any age. Going back to the biology being complex to talk about; while nature can trump nurture, nurture vice versa can often trump biology. If it comes down to ‘if men are more physically inclined than women’, you can still teach men to develop an emotional gauge that will serve them in their adult relationships and teach them how to manage their physical inclination.”

three women with a backdrop behind them

B-A-D Science is a Real Thing

Isabella, “I’ll say it again:

“There are no real studies supporting that claim (genetically or biologically), neither gender nor sex is better at communicating, or being nurturing, or a better natural leader. All are learned skills:

“I think these are gendered stereotypes that we have used pseudo-scientific studies to justify.

“The media told the public that these claims were scientifically backed, but the reality was that these were just faked narratives that came from poorly run studies.

“The media created these fake narratives about gender and claimed they were scientifically backed when they weren’t, or they were citing a study and taking it wildly out of the original context trying to apply it something that it shouldn’t be.

a girl holding a cactus and another girl next to her
An example of survival of the fittest is this baby cactus ^ which died quickly after Isabella gave it to me.

Survival of the Fittest

“An example; Herbert Spencer who was the founder of social Darwinism, was the person who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ Darwin’s evolutionary theory had nothing do with economics or social classes. Social Darwinism was later used to justify fucking ghastly eugenics studies when social Darwinism itself was pseudo-scientific theory because it took Darwin’s theory of evolution and applied it to a system that it was never created for. 

“Many of the popular myths of biological basis for gender are there to perpetuate the patriarchal structure but have no real, fake narratives created for a real purpose – to maintain existing power structures – but there’s no science for it.

“In summary, anyone can learn to be communicative.”

a female speaks about emotional training in men

Accidental Misogyny in Science

Sydney, “And there is misogyny in science, as well. I think that is something people forget about. Inherently, the questions you ask, the design of the study, and the interpretation of the data are all influenced by the human being conducting the research. Their biases get infused into each step, which produces ‘conclusions’ that are very different from what another (non-white/male) human being would conclude. It is up to the scientist to remove themselves from their cultural biases and context– which is incredibly difficult to do. Science has historically been conducted by white males, which only concentrates the bias because there is a roomful of people raised in a similar cultural context. This produces little insight into their own gendered blind spots. A similar argument can be made for racial biases, cultural biases, and so on.

“Increasing diversity is not to appease the public and appear politically correct. There are concrete benefits for diversity in every field, from business to academic research to entertainment. In business, bottom lines and profit increase. In science, error is reduced because biases are reduced. And in entertainment, jokes and scripts broaden in scope and depth—women or US immigrants will find humor in different things than a male. This is due to their upbringing, cultural context, and lived experiences which are respective ‘forms’ of social and emotional training.”

a girl next to a lagoon
H-U-M-A-N  E-R-R-O-R

Isabella, “There is misogyny as a result of human error. The idea of science is that you get it as impartial as possible. But that is really, really hard. I would guess this human error shows up often in medicine and psychology because that is when we study each other.

“And that is when you see a lot of biased data, because the sample population or majority of the test subjects are white males, so then we extrapolate and say entire populations are likely to behave or respond the same way as a white man.

“Which is a huge and basic error, because your sample isn’t reflective of the whole population.

“In fields like chemistry and ecology, you are studying a beaker or a plant, so the data is not as easily skewed.”

Sydney, “From my understanding, psychology research draws heavily from college students. Depending on the school, this participant pool is mostly white, upper to middle-class kids. Their results and reactions are used to draw conclusions on human behavior. Now there are efforts to increase diversity. But the tradition studies, the ones that influenced the current narrative of pop-psychology, extrapolated from a heavily skewed data set—the data set is the human beings they were studying.”

a girl on a swing outside

Beautiful

Sydney, “With that said, let’s move on to the final question: what makes you feel beautiful?”

Isabella, “If there is a mirror, then it makes me happy to use the clothes I wear as a form of self-expression. So, if there is a mirror, I use it to craft a coordinated outfit, which makes me happy. If there is no mirror, then being able to perform physical tasks that I did not used to be able to. For example, doing heavy lifting in the greenhouse was a skill that took time to achieve, so now I can help by lifting heavy pots and bags. Or when I dance, I feel beautiful when I dance.”

Sydney, “It is like using your body to get out of your body. I love that.”

emotional training is what this woman and her friend have
Conversations

Isabella, “I also think being with my boyfriend and the conversations we have. It’s corny, but it is real. Connecting through emotions is important for both of us. Occasionally, we will have conversations where we intently listen and pay attention to the other person, and that attention makes you feel valued in a way that is less about your physical aesthetics and more about the inner light that you can bring into a conversation through your personal experience.”

Sydney, “The attention is an interesting thing to bring up because we use outward beauty to get attention, but there are several ways to get attention. Attention is found through emotional reactions, empathic interactions, and considerate conversation.”

Isabella, “And that is beauty, too. It is just not the marketed beauty that sells products.”

a woman talks about emotional training

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