You’re a straight cis white man. You have nothing to complain about. Right?
Hypothetical Scenario 1: A young boy and a young girl are in two different fifth-grade classrooms. When the teacher asks a question, each gives the wrong answer, causing their peers to respond with laughter. Both start to cry. Probable outcome: The sight of the crying girl deflates the laughter in the room, while the sight of the crying boy escalates the ridicule, perhaps to comments like “crybaby.”
Hypothetical Scenario 2: In a club, a young man leaves his buddies and walks up to a young woman to ask her to dance. She looks him up and down before rejecting him, either politely or with a disparaging remark. Probable outcome: The man returns to his friends, where he proceeds to demean the woman as a “bitch” or “ho” to minimize his dejection. The party goes on.
Hypothetical Scenario 3: A husband and father loses a major business account, which threatens not only his family’s financial health but also his professional status. Probable outcome: The man withholds the truth from his wife, deciding that it’s his burden to bear; he’ll fix the issue and not “bother her” with the reality of the situation.
Three common situations in which a man has been trained to suppress his emotions and get on with it.
In the 45 years since the Equal Rights Amendment was passed, male-female dynamics have gone through some major shifts. We’ve made headway on closing of the wage gap—from 59 percent in 1963 to 81 percent in 2012, with millennial women under 25 earning about 94 percent as much as men. The male role as breadwinner is quickly slipping into just one form setting up a household. In terms of sexuality and relationship, women are marrying later, having more children on their own, and by all accounts, less in need of a male partner than ever before.
An inordinate amount of research speaks to the social change. As someone who coaches men for a living, the main effect I’ve witnessed is vast confusion over what it now means to “be a man.” The rules and role models we grew up with no longer apply. That alone is a major hurdle. What makes it harder is that, despite how much women have grown and changed, men are still encouraged, for the most part, to hide their feelings. We tell men it’s time to abandon traditional masculine roles, make room for women, see themselves as equals. But there’s one traditional masculine rule we still, for the most part, cling to. Don’t feel. Don’t complain. Grin and bear it.
I encourage everyone reading this to take three minutes to watch the trailer for the documentary The Mask You Live In, which starts with images of men’s faces from childhood through middle age against a soundscape of the societal messages that run through our minds constantly:
“Stop with the tears”
“Pick yourself up”
“Don’t be a pussy”
“Don’t let anyone disrespect you”
“Be cool, be kind of a dick”
“No one likes a tattletale”
“Bros before hos”
“Don’t let your woman rule your life”
“You’re a bitch”
“What a fag”
“Grow some balls”
“Be a man”
The three most destructive words hammered into every young boy are: BE A MAN. What does it even mean? Be strong, solid, tough, emotionless, dependable, captain of your own ship—and for God’s sake, do not let anyone see you cry.
The societal pressure to disconnect from our emotions is intense. We learn very quickly how to shut down feelings. We are taught to think and not to feel. While I won’t be joining any men’s rights groups anytime soon, some of these groups do outline actual challenges facing boys and men, such as:
- male genital mutilation (i.e. circumcision)
- men’s disposability (mandatory military service and “Women and children first!”)
- minimizing of domestic violence against men
- unnecessary medication of boys
- bias against fathers’ custodial rights
- men’s historically higher rates of suicide
These are real issues, but since men—especially white straight men—are the “privileged class,” they have no right to have their struggles heard. About anything. “You’re a straight, cis white man,” the cultural script goes. “You have nothing to complain about.”
I can understand that perspective. But the fact remains, men are indeed suffering, and more stoicity isn’t the answer. Continually changing gender roles are leaving men confused and without an outlet to express their feelings. So they turn to men’s groups—or other male-dominated social or political groups—in the hope of finding solace. But there are two problems with these groups:
- They tend to fuel a sense of privilege and righteous anger, when what these men really need is understanding, compassion, and to learn how to communicate.
- They are full of other men. If we’re to heal the divide between the sexes, men are going to have to also learn to trust women with their feelings.
Otherwise, it’s just going to be more of the same power struggle, misunderstanding between the sexes, and alienated men.
I was recently coaching a young man who talked about several weeks he spent after a breakup suffering from low-grade depression. He described those weeks as “negative” and “a waste of time.”
I pressed him on the issue and asked whose voice it was that told him his feelings of sorrow and loss were a waste of time. He responded instantly, “My mother.” He’d been trained since birth with the dictum, “Don’t be a crybaby.” I offered him an alternative viewpoint: His depression was an opportunity for him to be with his sadness. I encouraged him to lift away the “negative” label and start to view these feelings as precious.
At first, he looked shocked. Then slowly, his expression softened into one of curiosity. Finally, he agreed to try on this new attitude toward his feelings.
It is not that men have fewer feelings than women. It’s just that they have less permission to express them, or even pay attention to them. Give a man a chance to dive in and explore his feelings, and he’ll become a richer, and ultimately more compassionate, person. Give him a gift that’s so rarely presented in today’s world: the right to feel.
Robert Kandell is a teacher, coach, and lecturer at work on Living Unhidden: A Book for Men. He brings his enthusiasm and acumen to his weekly podcast, Tuff Love, on subjects around relationships, intimacy, communication, and gender dynamics. Visit him on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
Recommended reading and viewing:
Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks