Monday, July 13, 2015

Men and Emotional Expression: How We Screw It Up

"Big boys don't cry."

It's a refrain all of us have heard, right? Growing up, I heard this from all kinds of people. The implicit message was clear - you need to harden the fuck up.

I've always questioned the logic of this idea. As a male, I have always experienced plenty of emotion. Why was  I being told to suppress it? That doesn't seem all that healthy.

Over time, it has become somewhat taboo to express that "Big boys don't cry" stoic mentality. In fact, we now encourage men to freely and openly express emotion. That's almost always the sentiment behind the idea of "redefining masculinity." Dudes, at some point in their lives, were punished for their expression of emotion. And that tends to leave scars. If we don't have an emotional outlet, that shit festers. Eventually it spills out in very, very unpleasant ways. It's safe to say stomping those emotions deeper and deeper within is a really bad idea.

So what's the problem?

The people promoting the idea of the free and open expression of emotion don't quite get one critically important detail: Sharing emotion makes us look weak. 

If we're sharing emotion with our significant other, this lowers our perceived value in her eyes. That's especially true if we're sharing inadequacies and insecurities, even more if those revolve around our ability as a provider. 

This sharing is also problematic if it's done among males in a situation where we're figuratively (or literally) going to war. In that situation, the men on our "team" need to know we are capable of protecting their back. That's why guys have such a strong tendency to tease and haze each other. It's a shit test designed to assess your resiliency.

So when IS it okay to share emotion?

Back in the day, men had a lot more options for male-only spaces. Women were not allowed. This provided a group of self-selected men to develop close relationships with other men in a safe place ("safe" meaning "not the battlefield where shit testing is necessary.") Men could be free to share any and all emotions in this group with other people that can empathize with their experiences. The mutual self-disclosure creates a vicious cycle (the good kind) where the members of the group get more and more comfortable with sharing. It doesn't take long for an environment of great therapeutic value to develop. 

Unfortunately, all-male spaces are quickly dying. Well-meaning women (and a lot of men) don't understand that critically-important function of male-only spaces. Instead, they see it as an institution of oppression because they assume the guys are merely plotting ways to help each other advance to the upper echelons of society ("good 'ole boy's club" idea.) The old axiom of "Big boys don't cry" really should be more specific: 

"Big boys don't cry around people that need them to appear strong."

In all-male spaces, men have the freedom to drop that wall of emotional strength. In the absence of those all-male spaces, men are given two really, really bad choices: Bottle emotions up with no release at all, or release those emotions on the people that rely on you being strong. Men are forced to either go batshit crazy by suppressing emotions (could this be the reason so many otherwise docile men "snap" and go on mass shootings?) or become a complete beta turd in the eyes of their love interests. 

But Why Do Women Say They Want a Man That's "In Touch With Their Feelings?"

I've heard some version of this countless times from countless women. I always took it to mean "women want a man that's not afraid to cry in her presence." Women want men that are sensitive and vulnerable, right? Seems about right. Hell, that was my relationship MO until fairly recently

It took me a long time to realize that's NOT what women want when they say they want a man in touch with his feelings. Women want a man that has the emotional resiliency to do a few things, including:
  • Not getting emotional when she shares her emotions, which requires empathy and compassion. 
  • Having the emotional resiliency to keep going when the shit hits the fan. 
  • Having the emotional resiliency to be willing to do anything necessary to protect her and your kids.
As I stated earlier, men ALSO don't like men that are overly emotional because we like to surround ourselves with other men that are capable of having our backs. It's not the sharing of emotion that makes us weak in the eyes of other men. What makes us look weak in the eyes of other men is the inability to control emotions when required

We lose sight of that today because our male-only spaces have been destroyed. This entire Man Camp project, including our first-stage Facebook group, is designed around this very idea. We don't exclude women because we do dumbass stereotypical "man cave" stuff like fart, visit strip clubs, and make sexist jokes. We exclude women because we recognize men need a safe emotional outlet. All of us feel shame, guild, insecurities, and doubt our abilities to handle our professional and personal responsibilities. I want to give us that safe space to share. 


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