Men talking about emotions and toxic masculinity
As a counselor I can attest to the fact that men are as emotional, or more so than women, when it comes to feelings that pull on the heart. I've seen this countless times when a man comes into my office and begins to tell his story and can't hold back tears. Honestly, it was shocking when I first became a counselor.
The messages we get as boys in Western culture are that we should be tough, not cry, and never, beyond measure, express emotion that would make you appear "soft". Soft, of course, equated to being gay, which was inherently bad.
As we grow up, our metaphorical little boys continue on existing inside our minds, and don't get validated for their feelings. We carry this into our adulthood as men who are fearful of feeling anything. So when life circumstances injure us psychologically, the response is commonly anger and lashing out - because we can't be angry and sad at the same time, so rage replaces sadness as a protective factor.
One UK study of over 2,000 men revealed that 67% of men report that they feel more than they express, with 40% of 18-24 year olds reporting that they cried in the past week and 64% of respondents expressing surprised at how much emotion they experienced with their first born child. A second UK study compared physiologically emotional reactions between a group of 15 fathers and 15 mothers and revealed that while men had a marginally higher emotional response to blissful, funny, and exciting content, the men responded twice as strongly as women when presented with heart-warming content.
So what does this have to do with toxic masculinity? First of all, I need to define toxic masculinity, which is not simply "boys being boys" or "men behaving badly". Toxic masculinity, or hypermasculinity, is a narrow view of masculinity defined by violence, sex, aggression, and status. In other words, men are defined by how violent they can be, how much sex they can have, how aggressive they pursue relationships and work, and the status they achieve. The concept of toxic masculinity is the embodiment of Western ideals that men are programmed to live up to, but fail, thus creating the current state of affairs in how society sees men.
So how do we fix this? Truthfully, as a counselor, I am not sure. I do know that nothing will be fixed unless there is a paradigm shift in our culture that gives men space to express emotions that they feel without fear of reprisal from their peers, partners, family, or society. In sessions, I encourage men to open up, express feelings, talk about them and sit with the feelings. But I also know that as soon as they walk out my office door they are re-entering a world in which they cannot do what I just instructed them to do. This is frustrating, and frankly infuriating, as a counselor. I put this out to a call for all men to be courageous and take one step toward expressing a feeling once in a while. The world will be a better place for it.
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