Shifting Our Emotional Worlds: Men and Adult Emotional Development

Emotional Development and the Conditions We Place on Men’s Tears

Linda Lee wrote an article for the New York Times (2002), in which she describes a brief moment on CNN, where well-known TV anchor Wolf Blitzer was reporting on news of a Senator dying in a plane crash. What is off-putting yet all too familiar about Lee’s description of Blitzer is not the death of the Senator’s friend in a plane crash but the widely viewed newscaster’s viewer warning that the male senator “gets very emotional” and that some “may not want to watch this”  (Lee, 2002). As Lee describes it, “It was as if the sight of men’s tears threatened viewers’ own composure, implying that the social order itself was in danger” (Lee, 2002).

I have always found it difficult to cry or show weakness. Not because I don’t have significant emotions, and certainly not because I don’t have weakness. More because demonstrating these intense emotions publicly always felt incredibly risky. Some might applaud this kind of vulnerability, I’ve always felt I would be attacked for it. Or worse – dismissed for it.

Until my divorce a few years ago, I could count the number of times I had cried during my adult years on one hand. As I have gotten older and experienced the loneliness that comes with profound loss, I no longer find it such a challenge, but there is always a moment’s hesitation. A block of some kind. I am not the only one who faces this type of block.

Be a Man; Don’t Cry

How many times have you heard comments like “boys don’t cry”, “suck it up”, “be a man”, “don’t let them see you cry” or “man up”?  Western society is riddled with these comments and statements for boys and young men, even older men.  Not only is the emotional expression of boys discouraged, there are also limits or restrictive conditions under which it is ok to cry as a boy or a man.  It might be ok if a loved one has died or something serious has happened.  But generally, the message “boys don’t cry” is pervasive and powerful.

The Impact of a Stifled Emotional Range of Boys

This stifling of emotional expression can create real problems for boys as they grow up to become men.   Low self esteem, difficulty identifying and expressing feelings and reluctance to reach out for help for emotional issues are just a few of the problems that emerge. All of these issues have the potential to develop into more serious issues that impact not only men, but their families and communities.

Emotional expression as a male is complex and challenging at a personal, social and community level.  There are unspoken and spoken rules about how much emotional expression is ok.  At what point will your social group start to victimize you for expressing the “softer” emotions?  Will you still have friends if you express what you are really feeling?

It may seem grim and hopeless as you work so hard to raise emotionally healthy boys amidst a society with such powerful messages to continue to stifle the tears.  Or you yourself may have grown up with those messages and have been passing them on to your own children.  How can you as a parent support your sons to develop robust, balanced and healthy internal emotional lives?  There are some very concrete things you can do as a parent, mentor, teacher, uncle, brother or grandfather.

Three Steps to Encouraging Healthy Emotional Development For Boys

  1. Modelling
  2. Encouragement
  3. Support of Others

Modelling

Expressing your own feelings appropriately in front of your children can be a very simple way of modelling that feelings are human and its ok to show them.  This doesn’t mean you turn on the firehose of expression but find ways to safely share intense feelings (in an age appropriate way) so that your children start to understand that it’s ok.  This does not include violence as an expression of feelings.  What it does mean is crying if there is something to cry about and to talk about how you are feeling so they understand what might be happening inside for you.  This requires some vulnerability and risk taking on your part.

Encouragement

Another strategy is to give your children encouraging messages when they do express their feelings. Rather than saying “don’t cry” or “suck it up”  If they are having trouble, take the time to help them find the words to express themselves. Reassure them that it is ok to cry, that everyone needs to cry sometimes and that you are right there with them.

Support of Others

And although society won’t change overnight, we can encourage our children to be great informal supporters for their friends, family and community.  This means helping them learn not to insult or hurt others who are expressing their feelings openly.  This is a powerful message and can have a significant ripple effect within groups of children and communities.

As a community we have made strides in the past few years toward accepting the emotional expression of boys and men.  However, there still are some conditions on when it’s ok but we can keep moving towards healthier emotional expression.  We may be a fair distance away from a more real and true emotional expression in the media but one thing is certain, it starts with us.

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