Men don’t cry … why not?

Growing up, I was raised to hide my emotions. Men don’t cry or talk about what they are feeling, I was taught. Men are supposed to be stoic; we are supposed to be protectors. We cannot and should not express our feelings verbally.

My parents were born in the 1940s, and this societal expectation remains. We react in ways we think we should, not in ways that make us feel good. We are supposed to behave in a certain way. We are supposed to feel masculine, and crying is not masculine, society tells us. Talking about our feelings forces us to think about our feelings, and men don’t want to do that and do not know how to do that. It makes us uncomfortable. Instead, we bottle up our emotions.

These generational norms are a major obstacle that is following us through life and through our relationships. They can have serious consequences and lead to physical and mental health problems.

In addition, men don’t have the same support network as women; if a man cries in front of another man, he probably will get laughed at or told to “suck it up.” His emotional outburst is unacceptable. Men are not comfortable discussing how they feel, and they especially do not want to be judged by their peers. They’ve been groomed to feel it is a sign of weakness and insecurity.

Instead, men may express emotions through shooting characters in video games or going to the gym and lifting heavy weights. Emotions are released physically.

Think about growing up. Boys repeatedly get in trouble for fist fighting, pushing or shoving, while girls talk about why they are upset or sad and cry freely with no backlash. If boys cry, they are called “sissies.” They are bullied and excluded from the “boys club.”

One study showed that boys, by the age of 2, typically are less verbally expressive compared to girls. As they get older, peers and other men reinforce the rules of masculinity. Men are expected to manage their emotions in a manner that is socially acceptable. They often grow up in an environment where the toxic rules of masculinity are dominant. They are taught from childhood the traditional gender role expectations. Suppress emotions, deny feelings. This mindset strips boys of the ability to recognize, label and express their emotions in a constructive way – a mindset that has become normalized through the years, making it even more challenging to change.

Some say that one of the 10 commandments of masculinity is “thou shall not feel.”

How does this affect relationships? Women tend to verbalize their feelings, while men will retreat mentally. These rigid gender role expectations – where one partner pushes for openness and the other partner suppresses his emotions – creates a communication barrier in the relationship. The man struggles to understand, process and describe his emotions, while his partner struggles to feel safe, validated, heard and seen. The relationship begins to crumble.

Emotional regulation is a term that must be added to everyone’s vocabulary starting now.

Emotional regulation is the ability to exert control over your own emotional state. Having these skills allows you to rethink a challenging situation, change your emotions and verbalize them correctly.

When we do not have emotional regulation skills, we often rely on unhealthy strategies that may make us feel good in the short-term, but worse in the long-term.

How do we begin building emotional regulation skills, especially when society still thinks it is taboo for men to express their feelings?

Here is a start:

  • Begin practicing self-awareness. We can’t express our emotions if we are not aware of them.
  • Begin practicing emotional acceptance. It is okay to verbalize our emotions without judging ourselves or worrying about being judged.
  • Begin building our emotional vocabulary. For kids, they hit each other and throw things. Instead, we should be teaching them to say the words they are feeling. Verbalizing alleviates frustration and anger. Start equipping kids with the verbal tools in their toolbelt for coping.

Parents, you can start working with your kids at any early age to build their emotional vocabulary. My wife and I operate a day care center and when we see kids hitting or biting, we intervene and remind them to use their words. What are they feeling? Say it. This is great training for a lifetime of developing the skills of emotional regulation.

Parents, allow your kids to verbalize their frustrations, their anger, their sadness. Allow them to get in touch with their emotions. We tend to raise our kids the way we were raised, but we have the power to change that. In fact, I am finding that many kids are educating their parents on emotional regulation. Just because we are parents, does not mean we always are right. Listen and learn from our kids.

Emotional regulation is an effective tool we all should add to our toolbelts. It will help us lead a stress-free life, feel good about ourselves, reduce depression and anxiety, and improve our overall mental health.

In addition, I am a proponent for counseling. The generational norm of masculinity needs to change, and therapy is a great start to begin chipping away at years of societal taboos. Shop around for the right therapist for you; sometimes your first choice may not be the best choice for you. Try again if the first time doesn’t work. A therapist is not one size fits all.

Remember, the demands of rigid masculinity make it difficult for men to express their needs and this can hamper relationships. Men deserve to have their emotions validated without their masculinity being questioned.

Building emotional regulation strategies can be learned at any point in our life. It is time for men to deconstruct their limiting self-expression and empower themselves to experience their emotions.