Boys don’t cry. That was the message I received growing up. Like the time I was pushed to the ground during recess at the age of 10. I remember the sharp pain in my knee, and my eyes filling with tears. As I lay there in pain, one of my friends said, “Stop being such a wuss and man up!” It’s one of my first memories of being ridiculed for not being man enough, but it certainly wouldn’t be my last.
I’m not the only kid who experienced teasing for not living up to masculine norms. At least I don’t think I am. It’s hard to know since men are less likely to express their distressing thoughts and memories than women. But why? What is it about men that keep them from opening up? Are we supposed to be less emotional?
As it turns out, research shows there are few differences between how baby boys and girls show emotions. Some studies actually show baby boys are more emotional than girls. In fact, in an examination of more than 150 studies, comprising more than 20,000 children and adolescents, few differences in emotional expression were found between boys and girls during early infancy. Differences grew more pronounced in childhood and adolescence. As you might expect, boys tended to express more anger and aggression, whereas girls expressed more sadness and anxiety.
Studies like these have led many researchers to think emotional expression is greatly influenced by what children learn from those around them. For instance, our culture teaches us that “real men” display very little emotion (except maybe anger). Turn on the TV and listen to the messages we receive about what it means to be a man. Some themes you might notice include strong, silent, stoic, assertive. We follow these social rules because they allow us to remain part of the in-group, but at what cost?
Boys and men are taught that if they remain strong and emotionless, they’ll live happier, more meaningful lives. But the research tells us something different. Since the 1980s, hundreds of studies have been conducted to find out how men fared when they tried especially hard to keep a lid on their emotions. What they found was that men who tried to limit their emotions tended to have more mental health difficulties.
I grew up learning that being a man was all about emotional strength, control, and staying calm. Nothing bothered real men, so I thought. I was wrong. The literature examining emotions in men shows we experience feelings, whether we express them or not. Ironically, it might be those men who tend to express less that feel more.
In multiple studies, hundreds of men were invited to fill out questionnaires. Some asked respondents about their tendency to act like a man, and others asked about mental health symptoms, including anxiety and depression. Most studies showed that those men who worked hard to act “manly” were more likely to have depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts compared to men who didn’t try as hard to conform to a traditional masculine ideal.
What’s even more surprising and counter-intuitive is that study after study showed the strongest predictor of poor mental health outcomes was the degree of emotional restriction. Of all of the ways men try to conform to the male ideal, bottling up and shoving down emotions is the very thing that leads to the worst mental health problems.
The moral of the story is: You don’t have to buy into the idea that being a man means being emotionless. The risk isn’t worth the reward. Not only is there a cost to mental health, limiting emotional expression tends to lead to problematic romantic relationships.
The alternative is to open up to your emotions – allow yourself to feel what you feel, without struggle. Other Lyra authors have done a great job of summarizing ways to be more open and welcoming toward unwanted thoughts and feelings. But with all the preconditioning we receive, it takes some practice.
To be honest, I still struggle with willingness to open up about my feelings. My mind tends to get in my way any time I notice emotions showing up: “You’re weak”, “You’ll never make any friends”, “Men won’t respect you”, and so on. Many times, those words from the kid at recess echo in my mind like a broken record. These thinking traps keep me stuck inside my own head, disconnected from family and friends, and battling my emotions alone. Our minds can be super convincing, so we end up assuming they’re telling the truth and live our lives governed by their stories, rather than the truth of our experience.
If you’re reading this article, you’ve likely made more of a commitment to face your thoughts and feelings than you ever have before. That’s a monumental first step and I encourage you to congratulate yourself. If you are willing to go further, that’s another monumental step.
Try this: Right now as you’re reading this paragraph, you’re experiencing some kind of feeling. When you finish, take 15 to 30 seconds to close your eyes, and simply look inward. Try labeling whatever emotion is there and see if you can identify places in your body where you’re feeling it. If it’s relaxation, do you feel it more in your arms, legs, or chest?
To challenge you a bit further, bring to mind something that has been a little stressful lately. Now what do you notice? Finally, as awkward as it might feel, try putting words to these feelings and saying them aloud. Words you can use as labels include stressed, sad, angry, frustrated, lost, hurt, or even content and relaxed. We’re not looking for some intense or dramatic feeling. It’s OK if there is an intense emotion, but its also OK if what you notice is something small.
The point of these exercises isn’t to make negative feelings go away or to create more relaxation, although sometimes that happens. Instead, practicing awareness can bring you closer to opening up in all situations, so thoughts and feelings have a lot less control over how you act. Notice how much courage this takes. If you are willing to do something that feels strange, awkward, and frightening, that’s courageous. I’m not saying you need to walk around showing your emotions all the time. Opening up to feelings can happen internally, so no one ever knows, unless you want them to.
This stuff doesn’t come easy or naturally, especially when you’ve grown up in a culture that draws such thick lines around the definition of manhood. Opening up is still awkward – and sometimes terrifying – to me. But after spending most of my life battling with whether or not I was man enough, learning to face my emotions has taught me to be human, which has made my life so much more rich.
The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zachary Isoma, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist and co-owner of Harbor Psychology, serving the Greater Tampa Bay area. He specializes in practicing acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) with men who struggle with anxiety and have difficulties expressing their thoughts and feelings. He is the founder of the Tampa Bay ACT peer consultation group and provides trainings, workshops, and seminars on ACT to students and professionals.