Traditionally, across culture and across time, men have served as protectors and providers for their family and tribe. Over the years, men cultivated skills and characteristics that would ensure that their family is safe and secure. A family whose father was strong, invulnerable, fearless, self-sufficient, and a leader was most likely to survive. Specifically, being invulnerable required physical strength and emotional stoicism. An essential component of successfully defending one’s family and doing physical labor is to have control over emotions (a man who went to battle and started to cry was in trouble). Hence, men learned to suppress emotionality and society used shame to ensure that men stay within this structure. Ever since, emotional stoicism has been passed down as a masculine virtue. We no longer hunt for food or fight to protect our young (most of time), however, we still propagate the ideal that a “real man” does not show emotion. Through socialization, boys have learned that showing “soft” emotions (e.g. hurt, sadness, fear, pain) are not acceptable. Social and familial interactions teach boys that they will be ridiculed for crying in public or admitting to physical or emotional suffering.
The ideal of emotional stoicism has immense consequences. Much effort is expended on masking emotions which can lead to feelings of irritability and impatience. Men often report feeling confused and unable to identify what they are feeling. Unfortunately, men who cannot identify their emotions express their feelings through anger, and in extreme circumstances through rageful outbursts. Doctors also note that men’s emotional problems will manifest in physical ailments causing mental health problems (e.g. depression) to be overlooked. Sadly, when men finally do share their feelings, they experience anxiety and discomfort which leads to shame of not being “man enough”.
The inability to be emotionally expressive interferes with relationships. When we block off one emotion, many other emotions are inhibited. As a result, some men have problems expressing not only negative emotions (e.g. sadness), but also caring and loving emotions.
Contrary to the lay-public belief that men are unable to express emotions, men could express emotionality, however they choose to inhibit their emotions. On the upside, some men do express their emotions particularly to close friends who they trust. Also, men will share when they feel sad, distressed, or anxious with a loved one but they qualify their distress by re-assuring the listener that they are managing and handling the situation.
First and foremost, learn to not give a F****. Capitalize on your strength of self-reliance by turning it on its head. Instead of using invulnerability to be emotionally stoic, use fearlessness to disregard how others feel or react to your emotional expression.
Second, begin to identify what you are feeling. If you need help with identifying how you feel use this emotion page. In fact, being oblivious to your internal emotions leaves you vulnerable because being unaware could lead to problematic decisions.
Third, take the risk and share what you are feeling with a friend, family member, or spouse. Men have been socialized to take-risks: take-risks that will benefit you and your family.
Fourth, start listening. Once again, this skill is inborn. Men have listened (for thousands of years) with their ear to the ground for the slightest sound of danger.
Fifth, be a leader and take initiative. Show your family friends what being a “man” truly looks like. In our current times, protecting the family requires emotional attunement more than physical strength. A man who is in touch and attuned to his families needs can foresee problems, strategize accordingly, and protect his family.
Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, LMHC is a licensed mental health counselor in NYC, where she provides individual counseling and intimacy counseling. You can contact Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more blog posts at www.mwr.nyc