Men cop a lot of flak for being out of touch with our emotions. Constantly we are told we’re not as emotionally intelligent as women. We are generally derided as unevolved boneheads with far too much testosterone and far too little sensitivity. Our pathetically low EQ’s are apparently to blame for wars, economic disasters and most of the other crappy things which happen in this world.
While all of this may be somewhat true, simply pointing out male shortcomings is not very helpful. For anything to change, we first need to understand the very powerful forces which help shape many of us into the emotionally cut-off creatures we are.
Most of us learnt the lesson early - boys don’t cry. In the playground shedding tears rated just below wetting your pants and just above accidently calling the teacher “mum” on a scale of embarrassment. Crying was an invitation for bullies to ridicule you, humiliate you or beat the living snot out of you. Boys were taught that “crying is for girls” and being caught with tears in your eyes was something dangerous and shameful. From a young age we learnt to fear our emotions and push them away.
Like father, like son
While we may try and rebel against our dads, it’s scary how common it is to end up just like them. Unhelpful behaviours are passed down from father to son like they were a golden watch. In generations past, many who experienced horrific trauma in war were told to simply block out their emotions and stay silent. The children of returned serviceman learnt this was the way to be a man. Their grandchildren learnt the same thing. 70 years on from the last World War it is a lesson we still haven’t unlearnt.
Bond, James Bond
Our greatest male icons are all completely unrealistic, unemotional tough bastards. While sitting in the cinema we’ve all received some remarkably unsubtle lessons about what is required to be a “real man”. Like James Bond we should never get emotional. In fact, we should be utterly unflinching and barely break a sweat, even when a laser beam is about to slice us in two. After a hard day of near death experiences, we should be able to quickly forget about it all with the help of a few vodka martinis and a quick seduction of a disposable woman.
The Knight in Shining Armour
Even fairytales aren’t helping us. In families men are often expected to assume the position of the valiant Knight in Shining Armour, riding high on a white horse. Many men feel great pressure from those around them to be solid, dependable and stoic at all times. They worry about what would happen should they step down from the horse, take off the armour and show any vulnerability. While comfortable providing a shoulder to cry on, many men don’t feel like they can ever ask for support.
The stiff upper lip
Many of us come from cultural backgrounds which place a great emphasis on self-restraint instead of emotion, particularly in men. The British are famous for their “stiff upper lips” and in many other cultures the expectations of men can be just as difficult to wrestle with. Whether a man is descended from a line of Maori warriors, Japanese fishermen or Swiss bankers, they may be having to contend with some very unhelpful ideas about how to interact with emotions and what is required to be a man.
Clearly, there are many factors which shape males into having a very fraught relationship with their emotions. But we are all capable of change. We just need to learn a few important lessons.
Emotions help us
While some emotions may not feel comfortable, they actually have a really important purpose. They are not there to torment us; they are there to help and guide us. Emotions are closely linked with our values and when something doesn’t sit well with our values, it’s normal to have an emotional response. Men who understand this link can harness their emotions for their own benefit. By making decisions in line with their values, they can keep their life moving in the direction they want.
There’s nothing tough about avoiding emotions
Men do all sorts of things to avoid emotional discomfort. Some of us drink far more than is healthy. Some of us bury ourselves in work. Some of us compete in ironman triathlons. A concerningly large number of us punch walls and end up in the emergency room, wondering how to cope with the added emotions of embarrassment and regret, whilst nursing a broken hand. None of these acts is particularly tough. Men who choose to work with their emotions are far stronger than those who avoid them.
We don’t have to keep up the act
We are allowed to be human. We don’t have to be pretend we are doing fine all the time. At times we may feel happy and cheerful, but at other times we are going to feel sad, concerned, frustrated or grief-stricken. It’s no use trying to keep up an act for the benefit of others. It’s okay to take off that shining armour once in a while. When we are struggling it’s extremely healthy to ask others for support.
It really is okay to cry
Bob Hawke cried and people loved him. Roger Federer cried and people loved him. Most of us can now appreciate a man who is honest enough to let their true emotions show. If salty liquid occasionally springs from a man’s eyes when he’s experiencing an intense emotion, it won’t make him any less of a man – it will just make him less of a robot. Real men cry. It shows we’re human. It shows we care. Its shows there are things in life which matter to us.
Action heroes need help
If only we could gather James Bond, Rambo, Jason Bourne and John McClane from Die Hard together in a group therapy room. We could discuss why being closed off isn’t helping with their emotions. We could discuss why alcohol isn’t helping. We could then discuss why it’s impossible to shoot emotions, blow them up or wrestle them to submission in hand to hand combat. We could let them know that instead of simply acting tough, they can employ a range of practical strategies, capable of delivering far greater resilience and wellbeing.
There is hope for all of us men, however for us to become better at dealing with emotions, we probably need a major re-think about who we aspire to be. Do we really want to be one-dimensional action heroes? Do we really want to be closed-off clones of our dads? Do we really want to be fairytale knights silently suffering knights inside all that shining armour?
Instead of trying to be all these things we are told we should be, it’s time we got comfortable being ourselves. Following old macho stereotypes won’t make us stronger or better men - learning to deal more effectively with our emotions will.
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