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Boys don't cry

[This article was initially posted on Counselling Directory.]

Is it tough to be a man? Or should men be tough?

Over the last few centuries, women have fought, and rightly so, to break off the chains society has imposed on them for millennia. The women’s rights movement is still a work in progress and many would argue that women are far from reaching the equality they deserve. This argument is even more relevant if we move away from the reassuring certainties of Western societies and so-called developed countries. Many places in the world see women’s basic rights still ignored; women themselves don’t even contemplate they have rights in the first place.

Nevertheless, women have done a great job, individually and collectively, in rethinking the narratives concerning their gender; they have questioned the meaning of femininity, the implicit and explicit rules and expectations pressing on female identity. 

Where are men when it comes to gender awareness? It seems that men, who may have had an easier life over the centuries and across the globe, have found it difficult to keep up with the same level of awareness. Narratives on the meaning of masculinity are slowly changing; yet, more often than not, society and media seem to assume that being a man is a well-defined, obvious job. 


What does it mean to be a man in 2020?

When it comes to defining masculinity, the dictionary’s definition isn’t particularly enlightening: “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men”. If we acknowledge that genders are built on characteristics and behaviours that society and culture attribute to males and females, it would be artificial to separate an understanding of masculinity from the society in which this is expressed. Let’s look at how media and advertisements portray men: often silent, solitary, physically built and strong, with chiselled abs in good view.

Just like the chicken and egg dilemma, are these stereotypical representations built on the essence of masculinity or the latter is ultimately affected by how it is portrayed? No need to solve the dilemma. The mainstream images of men influence social discourse, how men are expected to behave, in addition to their ideas of success and well-being. Women’s beliefs and expectations of men are equally, and perhaps more subtly, influenced by the same discourse.

Dr Kimmel, an American sociologist and founder of the Center for the Studies of Men and Masculinities, promotes an interesting reflection when he invites students to list what identifies a good man. Adjectives such as “caring” or “honest” are mentioned; yet, if a real man is to be defined, “authoritative”, “daring”, “strong” are the qualities brought up.

Many men will easily remember that they have been raised with messages such as “boys don’t cry” or “guys have to be strong”. A common message was, and is, to “hit back on the playground, defend yourself”. Today’s adults may be unaware that parents use a different language and play for sons than for daughters; both mothers and fathers are more prone to name and discuss feelings when interacting with daughters rather than with sons. This gender socialisation continues well into adult life, with countless stimuli and messages; from the innocent choices of toys and games, to what success means in life, at work, and in relationships. 

What are the costs of this societal bias? There are quite a few, and not only for men.

A narrow and repressed view of manhood is imposed on men; manliness is defined by strength, where anything emotional becomes feminine and, therefore a threatening characteristic.

Men are not taught to identify how they feel, to ask for help, to display empathy or seek forgiveness.

The ideal man appears self-sufficient, disconnected by how he feels, and on auto-pilot in the pursuit of his life goals. Are these actually his? How many men question the authenticity of their lives? Whether they want a certain career, a family, or a six-pack? Women have recognised the gap between their desires and societal expectations: they have made a point in being free to choose. Often a challenging process, but they ask themselves whether they want children, what career they want to pursue, how to reconcile this with a family, whether they want to conform to mainstream requirements, even in terms of looks and weight.

Toxic masculinity
What does it mean to be a man?

The whole concept of mental health is still ignored by a large portion of the male population. If we look at statistics (Office for National Statistics, 2019), it confirms a higher proportion of women, compared to men, is reported to have mental health issues and to reach out for help. Men, however, are three times as likely to die by suicide than women. And sadly, suicide is one of the leading causes of death for men under 50.

Many readers might shrug off this data, as suicide may appear as a remote or unrealistic risk. Nonetheless, a broad spectrum of insecurities and worries– concerning dating, relationships, sexual performance, professional performance, finances and success are downplayed and normalised, as we should just resign to and co-exist with those internal self-critical voices. Yes, those voices that remind us that we are not doing (well) enough and that everybody else seems more successful or happier than us. Those relentless voices, and the distress they cause, are taken for granted; as if this weren’t sufficient, men find themselves disoriented, guilty and frustrated, when they are asked by their partners to be different: “you are not in touch with your feelings”, “you are not able to cry”, “you are autistic”.

Remarks often conveyed with good intentions, yet puzzling, as men are suddenly expected to speak a language they haven’t heard, studied or practised. As a clinical psychologist, I have worked with quite a few men isolated and stuck within their relationships, as they can neither make sense of, nor live up to, their partners’ expectations.

Our society is changing rapidly; humans are wholly adaptive and they can effortlessly adjust to using new gadgets and new forms of communication. Paradoxically, we are less inclined to reflect on the meaning of these changes and their implications. Many men have not had the opportunity to acknowledge that, where the ideals and stereotypes of masculinity have not changed much, they no longer fit the current society and the relationships they want. Creating awareness and new responses of these issues is a societal responsibility, from media to school to families. 

As much as we might find it uncomfortable to contemplate the difficulties we experience, that is the very first step to change. It is important to note that the same self-imposed rules and expectations that fuel our distress might get in the way of seeking help. Shame, embarrassment, and self-criticism stem from the belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness or an admission of failure. Many venues can offer support and introduce change to the status quo. Yes, change may be uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking. Thinking of ourselves, putting the brakes on the auto-pilot might seem effortful. However, avoiding it might have a higher cost. 

My advice is to slow down and ask yourself how you are doing. Are you satisfied with your choices, your relationships, yourself? What comments do you make to motivate your actions and in response to your perceived failures? Who do you compare yourself to? Are you resigning to poor sleep, worries or arguments with your partner as unavoidable collateral effects of your life? Psychological therapy/counselling can offer that space to safely pursue those changes. It is a process where the client leads the pace and the approach. The goals are chosen by the client, not imposed by the therapist. The aim is not to “cry”, or become emotional, or give up ambition - whether spiritual or materialistic. The ultimate goal is to find ways to maintain one’s well-being, introduce choice, meaning and satisfaction in our lives and our relationships.


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