Sad man holding head with hand

“Boys Don’t Cry” – The Stigma Associated with Men’s Emotions

 When we hear the word emotion, things like happiness, love, fear, sadness pops into our heads. But when it comes to expressing our emotions, well that is not really a comfortable zone to enter for everyone, especially for men. With men, it has always been a particularly difficult area because that is how society has built it up for them. Society has a fixed set of attitudes towards men and their emotions which has proven to be toxic as they never get to learn to express their emotions and that they have all the right to express their emotions. Men should know that expressing emotions won’t make them any less of a man. When emotion is equated with gender that is where all the problems ignite and spiral. Here is a glimpse to show how since childhood to adulthood, men are stuck with bottling up their emotions and not finding a way to let go:

When the little boy came crying to his mother after injuring his knee while playing, his mother said “Boys don’t cry”

When he failed for the first time in his English exam, he couldn’t control his tears but he remembered his father saying “Boys don’t cry”

When he experienced his first heartbreak, he wanted to wail his heart out, but his friends said, “Boys don’t cry”

When he lost his grandmother to cancer, he controlled his tears because she always said, “Boys don’t cry”.

The above situations contribute to developing toxic masculinity traits in men. Toxic masculinity is a set of attitudes and behaviours stereotypically associated with or expected of men, which are usually regarded to have a negative impact on men and on society as a whole. It thus discourages men from expressing emotions other than “anger” which of course is considered to be a signature masculine emotion. It also encourages expressions that would make the man feel dominant in a given situation. Well, all of these have underpinnings in the fabric of our patriarchal society woven intricately. As a child who musters the courage to express his feelings, we find how their emotions are invalidated by others which over time make them realize that their emotions do not deserve to be expressed. Similarly, their inner thought process makes them develop schemas like “If I express my feelings, my masculinity will be questioned”. They develop a biased schema of “I shouldn’t cry” or “I shouldn’t be emotional”, “I should be strong even if I am hurt emotionally”, thanks to the patriarchal system of thoughts which is crowned especially in a country like ours. Patriarchy intricately trespasses our psyche in a manner that getting away with it is a difficult task. So, when these males grow up into adolescents and later adults, it becomes difficult for them to get rid of this schema and hence they take forward these toxic traits.

From the time a boy grows up gradually, he is bombarded with comments like “Boys are strong”, “Boys don’t get hurt”, “If boys cry, they are behaving like a girl” and likewise. The major reason behind such comments is the forever ingrained stereotyping associated with males manifesting their emotions overtly. We often fail to understand that emotion doesn’t sense gender. The stigma associated with the expression of emotion especially among men is something that we are all fellow victims of. When an individual experiences a personally moving experience, his/her feelings need an outlet but unfortunately don’t find a space at all times. Providing an opportunity for venting out one’s feelings is considered a healthy practice by mental health professionals. When appropriate outlets for emotions and feelings are not located, one’s psychological well being is compromised and it leads to many mental health issues.

Our family is our first social world. It is them with whom we interact as an infant and it is there itself that the seed is sown for our psychological growth. Hence, parenting plays a crucial role in helping us identify our emotions, acknowledging them and encouraging their expression rather than suppression. Media also tends to portray the age-old stereotyping of the same and hence movies come with dialogues like “Mard ko dard nahi hota” even though “dard sabko hota hai”. The right away denial of any pain being experienced by males is popularized and therefore has dangerous repercussions. One of the major ones is being a victim of bullying- males receiving taunts from others including males as “don’t be a crybaby” and “don’t cry like a girl”. This has a deeply negative impact on the psyche of the victim and often becomes the reason for low self-esteem, poor peer interaction and social isolation.

If we as a collectivist society do not understand the difficulty, how do we expect men to come forward seeking help when they undergo conditions like depression, anxiety, having suicidal thoughts or just feel lighter by venting out? Emotional issues can be faced by anyone; there are no hard and fast rules that only certain genders are going to experience. When men are brought up in a way that doesn’t acknowledge their emotions, they also turn out to be raising their children in the same way. This way a vicious cycle is created which proves to be the major crux for emotional issues in men. They usually tend to suppress their emotion and cope with it through some means like overwork, by channelizing their feelings of sadness into irritability and anger toward others and likewise.

 Let us learn to give emotions their due importance. So next time, prevent yourself from using phrases like “Man up” when someone expresses their feelings in front of you. Remember, if they are doing so, they have gathered a lot of courage to take this step. We as a society can help by allowing and encouraging young boys to express their feelings, validating them instead of trivializing them. In fact, teaching them ways to express their emotions without overthinking about it. Being able to express emotions has a certain sense of liberation associated with it and I wish that everyone, especially men, are allowed to experience this wonderful feeling. We should understand that emotions are inevitable. So, let it flow its natural course. Learn to validate the emotions of yourself and others. 

Sarah Hussain

Clinical Psychologist (RCI Registered)

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