The dictionary defines the phrase “Man Up” – ‘verb to be brave or tough enough to deal with an unpleasant situation.’ In my opinion this is one of the most ignorant and destructive messages given to boys and men in our culture. From “Stop crying, boys don’t cry” when we are children, to things I don’t want to put in this blog, in middle school, to “stay strong” when we grow up, the cultural messages of the male ideal are overwhelming.
Psychologically, repressing emotions is extremely unhealthy. Bottling up emotions makes them stronger, and eventually they manifest in very destructive patterns. We wonder why so many young men in our society rebel, end up in prison, sexually assault women(and men), and struggle having healthy emotional relationships. Yet is it really surprising when we don’t teach them how to become compassionate, emotionally open individuals.
Personally I was inundated with the message that men were supposed to be strong, self reliant individuals that ask for help or express their emotions. While my parents were very emotionally open people, (my mom being a preschool teacher and my dad a therapist), it was not hard for me to absorb this message from school, friends, movies and even my sensitive hippy parents.
It is such a strong cultural belief that for most boys, myself included it’s impossible not to. I had a lot of problems with anger growing up, and I firmly believe that if I had been shown how to healthily express my emotions I wouldn’t have had near as hard of a time. I was diagnosed very close bipolar, yet through years of therapy, crying on friends shoulders and taking care of myself physically and emotionally, now it’s not even something I think about.
“Negative” emotions are always going to be a part of life. Too often we want to stay positive and ignore that bad things about life. Brene Brown, an author who talks a lot about the importance of vulnerability states “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” When we block out the bad stuff we block out the good.
Also while unpleasant, emotions like anger, fear and sadness are there for a reason. They tell us when something is wrong and we need to take action to fix it. When we push down our anger we forget to take care of ourselves and set boundaries. When we run away from our fear, we are missing out on important chances to learn and grow. When we ignore our sadness we lose our sense of empathy towards the suffering of others. “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” (Brene Brown)
I think one of the biggest reasons this ideal of stoic and tough men keeps being spread is that because boys model a lot of their behavior after their fathers. I have only seen my dad cry once or twice in my life(not even at my grandmother’s funeral), and I have heard the same from most of my friends and people I know.
When fathers model to their sons that it’s not okay to be open and vulnerable, then they internalize that message and pass it on to their children. I was having a conversation with my friend the other week, and one of the things he said was that he always felt comfortable crying and expressing his emotions because his father had.
He told me, “Growing up I wanted to be just like my dad, so if my dad cried I was going to.” Like a reflection on a pond, we mirror the actions of our role models and mentors in our lives.
This gives fathers, coaches, teachers and other adults in a boy’s life, an incredible responsibility. One that is sometimes neglected, when the football coach cares about winning more than the boys on his team, when the fathers want their sons to be successful more than happy, when the teachers say “boys will be boys”.
There is nothing wrong with wanting your son or student to succeed or win, it’s when we place these things as the apex of life that we neglect the most important things, like self expression, empathy, and happiness. Plenty of successful people freely admit they struggle with self doubt, depression and anxiety. While material success is undoubtable important, it is not the end all and be all, and doesn’t guarantee fulfilling relationships and happiness.
In conclusion, the idea that men should have to always be strong, and not show weakness is outdated and cause a lot of harm to individuals and society. While being strong and independent isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is important for men to feel free to express their emotions and vulnerability. We will all benefit from having emotionally healthy men in our society.