The closer I get to the males in my life, both friends and family, I find that my understanding of what I call “male personality,” the constricted and restricted ways that males engage and fail to engage in our society, has been the most detrimental force in our society for ages.
Since the 19th century, males have been pressured by what author William Pollack calls the “boy code,” the outdated assumptions, models, and rules about boys and men that society has developed.
This concrete ideology of manliness affects males’ perceptions of themselves, how to cope with challenges, and how to be true men, fathers, sons and brothers.
Even females have perpetuated this idea by buying into media propaganda, encouraging boys to be “rough and tough,” rejecting (either intentionally or unintentionally) the emotional display of inner feelings, and requiring that boys only respond a certain way to problems. For example, a 12-year-old boy who is constantly being bullied is told by his father to “stop crying and stand up!” This statement implies that this male child is not permitted to display his innermost feelings, but to deny them and fight back, which encourages aggression.
Society influences men and young boys to believe in the social model of maleness, that is, the social construct that says males should be strong, stoic, aggressive, assertive, controlling, unfeeling, and capable of handling their problems alone. In fact, many men fear social marginalization if they reveal their deepest feelings. This can lead to feelings of aloneness, isolation, depression, and even suicidal ideation in severe cases of isolation.
It is extremely important that we share our feelings, receive feedback and support, and gain love and human closeness from those we love and from those who love us. Men are no different. A showing of affection and vulnerability is not a display of human weakness, but of human necessity. I tend to liken the male social model to that of a prison. It is easy to get into, but difficult to get out of. Marginalization and stigma keep our male children, family members, and spouses stuck in a false, preconceived notion of maleness.
Men are taught very early to fit into the social construct of the male gender role. Their nurseries are blue; their clothes are blue or white or black; some parents tend to “baby” boys less; and extended family surround boys with sports, rough and tumble play, and tough male talk. I by no means am against such social tradition; however, it is important that we become aware of how we are influencing our children to view themselves and to view their place in the world.
We must be careful not to send the subliminal message that men are to be uncaring, emotionally distant, and stoic at all times. We must model for our children that men are human beings with feelings, needs, and desires to be loved and cared for. Yes, men can be strong and powerful in our society. But they are also feeling beings who should tap into their emotional side. A man who can utilize both their strong and emotional traits can be very attractive to various areas of life.
Men and boys tend to meet challenges with multiple facades that only perpetuate the emotional pain. They tend to hide their genuine self by behaving nonchalantly, withdrawing, acting cheerfully, or displaying high levels of self-confidence and assurance. However, a man’s true emotions may entail feelings of shame, guilt, loneliness, vulnerability, confusion, uncertainty, depression, and fear. We must learn the “language” of men and become aware of the effects our society has had on the development of the male persona.
Here are a few general principles to apply to our relationships with the men in our lives:
- Listen intently. We appreciate being listened to, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed by life’s turbulences. Once an individual feels listened to and understood they are more capable of opening up to us in the future and feeling that they can share their deepest hurts, fears, and uncertainties without being judged.
- Be compassionate. It is important that while we are listening we also show compassion. Compassion can be defined in multiple ways; however, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines compassion quite well as the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” We must be compassionate and willing to experience the distress of the man who is probably very detached from his own emotions. We can use our compassion to mirror appropriate responses to pain and distress.
- Do not suffocate him. Most men are very much like natural-born claustrophobics. They do not like to be suffocated or to feel trapped. Once they feel this way, they shut down and isolate. We want to encourage them to open up and feel safe when they share what bothers them. We want to express genuine concern, authenticity, and support.
If they want to talk about what bothers them, great. If not, that should be fine too. Give them time to open up, help them feel that you are available, and avoid pressuring them into talking about feelings right away. Men tend to express themselves in behavioral terms. In other words, they may talk about what they did or didn’t do as opposed to how they feel. Keep in mind that you may have to act as a catalyst for change on multiple occasions until that man or boy becomes comfortable with sharing their feelings.
The most important thing to consider is how we are approaching the men and boys in our lives and how they perceive their role(s) in the world. We should also aim to eradicate false ideologies of maleness and help construct a more appropriate and mentally healthy way that men and boys could view themselves in the world. I encourage you to do just that.