By Dan Griffin, Senior Fellow at The Meadows
“Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”
“What? Are you going to cry like a little girl?”
And, of course, the meaningless and obtuse: “Man the f#@$ up!”
Rare is the man who has not had at least one of these epithets hurled at him at some point in his life. We learn very early to stuff emotions down deep inside. We are expected to deny our vulnerability, first and foremost to ourselves and others.
Deep in our social consciousness is the idea that a man’s masculinity, or lack thereof, is tied directly to whether he shares emotions and shows vulnerability, especially by crying.
Man Rule #1: Don’t Cry
When I give talks, and I ask the audience to help me name The Man Rules—the rules we learn as young boys about how to be a “real” man—98 percent of the time, the first rule offered up is “Don’t cry.”
Deep in our social consciousness is the idea that a man’s masculinity, or lack thereof, is tied directly to whether he shares emotions and shows vulnerability, especially by crying. There are probably 20 Man Rules built into the Man Rule of Don’t cry. When I ask my audience to volunteer some of those, they invariably come up with these other offenders:
- Don’t show softer feelings
- Don’t be vulnerable
- Don’t ask for help
- Be tough
- Don’t show weakness
- Show no pain
- Don’t let other people in
The list goes on and on. The main message: Be a “Real Man” at the expense of your emotional and spiritual self—at the cost of your humanity.
Then, we hear these same messages repeatedly throughout our lives from our caregivers, our peers in the schoolyard, the kids in high school, and the media. We hear it from men and women. We even hear it from our spouses and partners. Even if they don’t mean to reinforce the Rule, our partners can have little to no awareness about how much they are subtly encouraging us to stay shut down.
The Cry Baby in Chief
With all that noise constantly swirling around in our social consciousness, how do we think most people will respond to a male leader who openly shows his feelings, especially cries? Mixed at best.
But yesterday, President Obama, while reflecting on the senseless killings that have taken place since he was in office, teared up that it meant something. This was not just a man—he is the freakin’ leader of the free world!
What are the rules for crying in public when you’re a man? There is no question that attitudes about this particular Man Rule are changing, but they haven’t changed completely. There is certainly not a consensus that it’s okay for a man in a position of power, or any man, to cry. All one has to do is look at the various comments made about President Obama or former House speaker John Boehner, who also dared to show emotion in public.
When it comes to this most sacred rule of toxic masculinity, we simply can’t have confidence in knowing how others might respond. In what contexts is crying going to be accepted and respected, when will it be given a pass, and when will it be mocked and ridiculed?
When sports heroes openly cry after losing the Big Game, you rarely see them bullied for showing emotions. But, when a president tears up while talking about children who were murdered senselessly. Well, that’s weak! It is certainly not what we want from the leader of the free world. How are we as a country ever supposed to project real strength if we have a little boy in the Oval Office? What is he, The Cry Baby in Chief?
For Crying Out Loud
Of course, many are lauding President Obama for showing a few tears – literally a few tears! It is not like the man broke down sobbing at the podium. However, there are just as many who are pillorying the man for being weak or for manufacturing his emotions for political gain.
I, like Chris Cillizza, confessed in his recent Washington Post article, am a crier. I have always been and always will be. I deeply respect a man who allows himself to show that kind of vulnerability publicly whether it is a politician, an actor, an athlete, or Mr. Everyman. Yet, I would be lying if I said publicly, that l didn’t have some visceral knee-jerk reaction toward that man at some level, no matter how minute; I may still have judged him as weak. The difference is that I am aware of it. (Most of the time.)
The truth is this is not always how it was. There was a time when men showing emotions and crying was considered a high form of respect, honor, admiration, and love. Something went drastically wrong, and it’s not only killing men but all of us. Honestly, it is sad that President Obama’s show of emotion is even considered a story. However, that is the state of our society, and it is far from relegated to the United States or even Western civilization. The toll this emotional suppression takes on men, our relationships, and our lives is immeasurable. I just hope someday, the authentic expression of male vulnerability and empathy will be genuinely viewed as a strength. I hope men are encouraged and supported one day in truly embracing our full humanity. I hope the day comes when this is not newsworthy.
Why Do Men Avoid Their Emotions?
Women express their feelings more openly than men because society has set different expectations for how men and women should process their emotions. Women are often viewed as sensitive, while men are viewed as strong and fearless. As a result, men expressing their emotions are seen as weak and taught to suppress them because it doesn’t align with the male identity.
Telling men to hide their emotions won’t make them go away. These gender norms and stereotypes can lead to toxic masculinity, significantly impacting men’s mental health. Women are more likely to get diagnosed with anxiety or depression. However, research shows that 30% of men experience anxiety or depression during their lifetime, and 9% report struggling with these feelings daily.
According to research, men experience the same level of emotions as women, but because men and vulnerability aren’t socially acceptable, it seems that they don’t experience feelings at all. When men are told not to express their emotions, they must go somewhere. Therefore, they often channel grief and sadness into more “masculine” emotions such as anger or aggression.
Expressing our emotions is part of the human experience, and suppressing them can negatively impact our mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and suicide.
The Consequences of Emotional Avoidance
Expressing our emotions is part of the human experience, and suppressing them can negatively impact our mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and suicide. Research shows that men are more likely to commit suicide than women, with men dying by suicide 3.56 more often than women in 2018. Emotional suppression in males starts in childhood and carries into adulthood. As a result, men become conditioned to turn off their emotions or cope with their feelings in more “masculine” ways, creating a cycle of toxic masculinity.
A Man’s Way to Personal Freedom
It’s critical that we alter the perception of men and emotions and how men express their feelings. We must teach men how to be vulnerable and express their emotions freely from a young age instead of embodying toxic masculine traits. However, this can be a complex process for some, especially if they’ve become accustomed to masking their emotions their entire lives. Encouraging men to be honest about their feelings, finding therapeutic hobbies, and seeing a therapist are great ways for men to become more vulnerable.
If you’re interested in learning more about The Man Rules™ and how they impact your career, your relationship, and your life, join me for A Man’s Way™ Retreat at the Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows. I’ll be conducting four of these 5-day sessions in January, April, July, and October. For more information, call 855-333-6075.