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The (Stifling) Culture of Men

"(When) we tell our children 'don't express emotions' what we're basically doing is limiting their ability to form relationships." - Mark Greene, author/filmmaker, Remaking Manhood

A theme that has shown up in my work over the past few years is one that I think has not only gone on long enough, but also one related to the current state of things in the US, with the recent outbreaks of violence. Specifically, it's related to working with men and their ability to express their emotions. And more specifically, we (as men) are terrible at doing this - but it's because we're taught to.

Men being unable to express emotions isn't a new concept; in fact, it's pretty much become a cliche. In his film Remaking Manhood, author and filmmaker Mark Greene examines the culture of masculinity in the US, and how it stifles the natural expression of emotion, particularly in young boys. Here's the perfect example: this video making the social media rounds right now is of a boy in kindergarten who already knows that he's not supposed to be sad, even though he obviously feels sad. A girl he likes is hanging out with someone else, and you can see and hear the heartbreak, but he's clearly embarrassed and doesn't want to cry about it. And he's in kindergarten! At age 5 or 6, he's already been socialized to choke down his emotions and not to show them. In his film, Greene pulls together a panel of experts that talk about what it means to "be a man" in American culture: not to cry, not to be vulnerable, to "be tough" and to "fix" other people's problems, and not to have any of your own. And how, ultimately, this is doing significant damage to the emotional health of our communities, and our country.

A study done by the AARP shows that between 1999 and 2010, suicide among men aged 50 and over rose by nearly 50% - think about that: fifty percent MORE middle-aged men, over the course of 11 years, took their own lives than previously. Our culture says that men at that age should be well-established in their careers, have a spouse and family, perhaps children/step-children of their own, be thinking about retirement, even have a close cadre of friends with whom they do things outside the home. They should be stable and happy and fulfilled. The reality? So many men are not. They've divorced several times over, and many live alone or without a spouse; they've moved or changed careers several times and have peaked in their careers, not attaining what they hoped to attain; they've abandoned their friendships because of the pressures of raising children or for the sake of their marriage; some are even questioning their sexuality. They feel like failures, they are in mourning for their youth, they're in debt, they're lonely - and in spite of all this, they're only supposed to be able to show happiness or anger. They're not allowed to hurt or be sad. It's not "manly" to for them to say they're lonely or isolated. Hence the ol' "double-bind": they're damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

This is a lot of what I see in my work; men who are in that bind, who have spent their lives not being able to express themselves fully, unable to be vulnerable and connect with others, all to the detriment of themselves, their relationships, and their families. And I am ONE therapist. There are hundreds of thousands of mental health professionals in the US, and I can safely extrapolate that their experiences must be similar. So what does that mean? That there are probably tens of MILLIONS of men out there who feel this way. Vulnerability is how we connect with others, and if we can't connect, we feel isolated. Isolation leads to depression, suicide, drug use, and, you guessed it - violence.

This is why I believe the "culture of men" in the US is related to the violence and the "unhooding" of racism as of late. The significant hatred and racism we're seeing is related to men's inability to express emotions. Too much of a leap for you? Here's the logic: when we encounter something that we don't know about, that is unfamiliar or perceived as new, our brains engage our "fear" response. Fight or flight, you've heard that before, I'm sure. The same thing happens when we've been told, or conditioned to believe, that someone or something is dangerous and we are presented with that. Fear of something often engenders hate, because hate feels like a powerful weapon to use against fear. Hate is also easy to access for most men, because we are conditioned to express anger before fear. So instead of saying "I'm afraid" or something like it, the most "acceptable" male response to something unfamiliar is "I hate that". So from that perspective, racism and hatred is born (at least in part) out of ignorance, out of fear of the "other," out of an inability to safely express a difference of opinion, and it's erupting into violence.

So many of the men I know, myself included, grew up in a culture that didn't allow for tears, for uncertainty, for vulnerability - but being vulnerable with someone is exactly how we connect. It's where friendships and love starts. When we can show someone that we hurt, that we can love, that we can be real, our natural response is empathy and a desire for kinship with them. Connection is our deepest need as humans - it's what we're built for! So that begs the question: how can we expect the atmosphere of violence to subside if we don't allow ourselves the space enough to feel and express those more vulnerable emotions?. I typically don't deal in absolutes, but this is one that I lean on frequently: we all desire love, and we all desire connection. The "culture of men" needs to change so that we are not so emotionally stifled. From that stifling comes anger and habitual disconnection, and it is helping create a culture of violence in our communities. We've got to allow our young men to be free to be themselves, for the sake of our families, our communities, and our country.


Jason LeCompte