“What I found was the attitude that it’s okay for women to talk about feelings and cry for help, but men can’t.”

This is a comment by Cy Young and Bonnie on the post “6 Ways to talk to Your Son About Male Violence and Healthy Masculinity”.

What messages have you been bombarded with about violence as a man? Were you taught how to punch so you could defend yourself on the playground? Were you told that man who expressed their emotions were “pussies”? Cy Young and Bonnie tell what messages they have heard told to them and other men.

Cy Young said:

As a 29 year old man I can personally attest to having heard every single one of these “manly” man messages in my life. For the men who are older saying they’ve never picked up on these messages it’s probably cause you weren’t bombarded with them in the media growing up, my generation was.

Bonnie said:

Well, I have no experience of being a man, but I’ve suffered from depression for a number of years, and in that time I’ve seen a very small number of men in the support and therapy groups I attend. What I pick up on most strongly is that while it’s OK for me to cry and talk about how I feel and what my problems are and ask (beg, scream) for help, they can’t. I think it’s probably linked very strongly to the high number of men who successfully complete suicide that they’re just plain not allowed (by society’s perceptions) to show weakness, to need help.

I have a friend who is obviously going through something very painful right now. He can’t talk about it. It was obviously really hard for him to even admit there was something wrong.

From these things, I feel that the first three points at least are well targeted. We learn our gender roles very early in childhood because we mimic what we see around us, and certainly the most common depictions I see of men are all about strength manifested in duty, responsibility and the absence of emotion. So I think making feelings and pain admissible for men will be an important step towards improving mental health for men in general.

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  1. Alastair… I agree with you to a point. Men and women define each other based upon whatever expectations they might have of what they want in the other. This part, what the other sex wants is important, and speaks to your point about women telling men that if they were more like women, problem solved. Messages, like that one, are constantly being expressed in culture by men and women and are forced on the other sex. Are there other influences, of course, but none with the power or verve of the expectations of the opposite sex.

    The power of our institutions, the church and state modify and enhance whatever nature and nurturing components are available and reconstitute them into one single viewpoint that holds sway over culture. Does everyone fall in line, no. But the mainstream views on what a man or what a woman is serve as the guide that is default definition of men and women. To walk outside of that box is to take risks that few will take and is to play with being an deemed an outsider.

  2. The idea that men just need to be able to express their feelings more and that traditional notions of masculinity are all to blame, while very common around here, is frustratingly simplistic. People deal with their problems in different ways. People also articulate their identities differently. With these differences come strengths, weaknesses, and particular needs. These differences also often tend to be heavily gendered. I don’t believe that this gendering is entirely or even primarily attributable to society’s notions of masculinity, although those certainly play a part.

    All too often, what I hear from various articles and comments on this site is the notion that men should become more like women, that this is the way to solve all of men’s problems. If men don’t express their feelings when they have problems, that is presumed to be self-evidently a problem with men. The possibility that there is nothing wrong with men in this regard and that the explanation might lie elsewhere seldom seems to be considered.

    Here is an alternative take. Different people locate the primary source of their identity in different areas. For some people, the primary source of identity is found in their agency, in being people who act within the world and have some measure of power over themselves and their situations. For others, their primary source of identity is found in their belonging, in being people who are accepted and affirmed as full and equal members of the group by those around them. While all of us have a need for both agency and belonging, for most of us one of these things is much more important than the other. For all of us, our primary source of identity names a deep existential need that must be met. In the context of this discussion, it needs to be recognized that as a general pattern men are far more likely to find their primary sense of identity in their agency, while women are more likely to lean more towards the belonging end of the identity spectrum.

    For those who find their identity primarily in their belonging, having their emotions hurt, feeling attacked, marginalized, pushed around, or not receiving equal treatment can be incredibly hurtful and represent a deep wound to their sense of self. For those who find their identity primarily in their agency, feeling dependent, powerless, overprotected or coddled, unchallenged, disempowered, dominated over by another, not being pushed, or unmotivated is far more existentially threatening. The existential needs that these different people have do not match up. The very thing that one party needs can be an existential threat to the other. For instance, I hate constantly being tolerated and affirmed. I want people to try to push back at me, to draw my strengths in combative but friendly interactions and let me draw out theirs. However, other people find such combative or direct interactions threatening and want to be treated far more gently.

    As a highly agency-focused person, for instance, I am not as existentially invested in my feelings and sense of belonging. When it comes to relating to groups, I am more concerned about my social confidence than I am about whether other people accept me. In fact, being a contrarian, I prefer not to fit in comfortably and don’t care that much whether people like me. While I have feelings and can and do express them, they aren’t anywhere near as important to me as they are to others. It rather irritates me when people always try to be sensitive to me and tiptoe around my feelings, as I most flourish in situations where people push and challenge me. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy and benefit from more sensitive environments on occasions. However, I do not find my identity in such environments to the same degree as others.

    When I have a serious problem and want help, nine times out of ten, I do not really want sympathy. I find sympathy and empathy driven approaches, contexts where I just have to express my feelings, share my weaknesses, be dependent, recognize myself as a victim, and have someone join me in self-pity to be profoundly unsuitable to the primary existential need that I have in such situations. Such situations are typically about my having lost my agency and feeling powerless in a situation. What I really need is not primarily to express my feelings (because it is not hurt feelings that are the root issue) and to feel loved and accepted, but to be empowered to confront and overcome my problem and to get back on my feet again.

    When I need help, the people that I most appreciate and gravitate towards are people who understand my difficulty, but don’t offer me love, empathy, and pity: rather they provide me with an external source of resolve, strength, vision, motivation, accountability, confidence, and practicality, to help me to solve my problem and get back on my own feet. However, I have learned from experience that, when people come to me with their problems, the sort of help that most addresses my primary existential need, won’t address many of theirs. Most of the people that come to me with their problems want to know that I care about them and that I am there when they need me. The sort of things that cause them existential problems would cause no problems for me and vice versa. Also, and this is a really crucial point, the sort of help that they most desire would make my problems worse, by encouraging a sense of weakness, dependency, victimhood, etc., things directly contrary to robust agency.

    None of the above means that I don’t ever need help or ask for help, nor that I am disconnected from my feelings or that I repress them. Growing up, I always knew that there was support for me if I wanted to cry and express my feelings. However, my feelings were more likely to be a secondary symptom, rather than the real crisis that I faced. Love, acceptance, pity, and empathy weren’t adequate solutions, but could often make things worse.

    We need to recognize that people are built differently and have different needs. Rather than blaming men or traditional notions of masculinity for many men not expressing their feelings or asking for help, perhaps we could first ask whether society provides the sort of help that most men feel that they need. Perhaps most men aren’t helped by the sorts of things that help most women. Perhaps most men aren’t as invested in their feelings and in a certain form of belonging as most women are. Perhaps men are most likely to have different sorts of existential crises, existential crises for which empathy might not be the best or the primary solution (although it may often play a part).

    There are definitely weaknesses in identities built primarily on agency when it comes to asking for help. People can be too proud, independent, or afraid of appearing weak to reach out to others. However, such problems can be overcome, primarily through the creation of contexts of help that focus on drawing out, supporting, and empowering of strengths, rather than primarily on the airing of weakness and victimhood, the giving of empathy and non-judgment, and enabling of self-acceptance. I don’t want absolute condemnation, but I want people to hold my wrongs up to clear moral standards and judgments, to acknowledge the appropriateness of guilt, to hold me accountable, to help me to become a better person, and to take more, not less, responsibility for my actions. Holding our actions up to judgment and changing our moral character is a very important part of being an agent and self-acceptance falls short of providing for this. What the agentic person really wants is not self-acceptance but justified self-respect.

    Unfortunately, because too many take women as the healthy norm, we fail to see the particular strengths of many more ‘masculine’ approaches to dealing with problems, approaches that can be especially effective at helping people to surmount and overcome difficulties and become much stronger people through the process. Such approaches locate and play to people’s strengths and provide external sources of strength to draw upon, enabling people to recover and develop their agency and an identity that is worth of honour and respect, not merely of love and acceptance. If help was marketed more strongly along these lines, I suspect that men would be considerably more likely to avail themselves of it.

    Also, because we take the approaches that are more common among women as the healthy norm, we also fail to see their weaknesses. People who too quickly ask for and receive empathy, acceptance, and reassurance can fail to develop independence and strong and responsible agency. The more that they are rewarded for being victims and dependent, the more that they will think and act as victims, as those who aren’t in control of their situations and become overly dependent upon others, steadily losing rather than developing the actual strengths that they have. Easy reassurance of love, acceptance, and belonging can be a drug for some people, leading them to pursue weakness and victimhood. For others, it can hold them back in various other ways.

    None of this is to say that the more typically male way of dealing with problems is better than the more typically female way or vice versa. It is just to point out that there are different approaches to identity, approaches to identity that both have great benefits and genuine weaknesses. These different approaches to identity come with different sorts of existential crises, which require different sorts of solutions. We all need help sometimes. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping people and we need to be aware of and deeply attentive to people’s primary existential and situational needs when trying to help them.

    The notion that there is something wrong with many men or models of masculinity simply because they do not use forms of help designed for types of existential crises that they don’t primarily experience is an abdication of our social responsibility to help people with the sort of needs that they actually have, rather than with the ones that we think that they should have. It also takes the onus off our duty to create a society designed to empower all sorts of identities, not just the more sensitive, dependent, vulnerable, and empathetic identities that accord with many people’s prejudices of how everyone should be. Men need help too, but for many of us, talking about feelings really isn’t such an important part of this.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Excellent piece of writing here. I’m going to read this multiple times. You’re rightly pointing out one extremely common case where people assume one size fits all, when it really doesn’t.

      Unfortunately, a lot of well-meaning people (and not so well-meaning people) will simply say that you are in denial. You must be so emotionally repressed that you think you are not a very emotion-centered person. How terribly the patriarchy has brainwashed you…. : – )

  3. As an African American man who’s life has spanned many generations and has studied these issues, I can say with confidence that messages of uber masculinity have been present in the African American community since slavery. Rap music didn’t invent them, nor did the mass media.Blaming rap music exclusively is one big political cop out. To my knowledge, this country has never stopped to weigh the effects of 100’s of years slavery, during which horrific violence was normal, on it’s victims. However, we have no problem understanding that if one white woman is raped, she will need love and the empathic support of her community and counseling if she is to recover. And we should not forget that blackmen were raped also during this time period. Understanding the mental cost of slavery on it’s victims has never been a priority, so we just assume that the effects just went away. Neither the slaves or did their ancestors got the care or consideration they needed to be whole human beings. In fact, what they got after slavery and was more modified slavery called the black codes; and the death squads called the KKK.

    The vast majority of blacks owe their foundation of cultural expression to the South, which was an honor bound society. Blacks didn’t move out of the south in big numbers until post WW2. The south was and is a violent culture. It should also be noted that in general, from a black perspective, America as a country was always violent.

    To believe otherwise is simply folly or is just a reflection of our inability to come to grips with our own history with what slavery meant. No, I am not saying that all of the violence today can be attributed to slavery, but one cannot deny the implications of the past on behaviors of today. I have raised two boy’s in the heart of a often violent culture in Oakland, CA, I did not and would not teach them that there is a such a thing as male violence or black male violence-I think that is ridiculous.I told them to distrust these political messages from people-like feminists- who pretended to be nonviolent and wanted instead to use blackmen for their political agenda:Scapegoating them.
    My son’s listened to rap music I didn’t always like and played violent video games—they are not violent, at all.

    In many ways they are less aggressive than their sister. Society, including black women teach boy’s to be violent. I was told by my mother, who grew up in the south, that in our family we don’t start fights,we finish them. If the opponent was bigger, then we had better find a brick or a stick or a weapon of some kind with which to beat them up with. If you lost a fight and didn’t go down swinging, you were going to have to fight her. And as she was want say, “You won’t win that fight.”This is southern culture at it’s best. It seems to me that if we really want to solve this problem, we must expand our view and move beyond the feminists worldview on the nature of violence in American culture. Lastly, if one examines the colonial history of crime and punishment, one will find a truly bizarre understanding of punishment that has strong sadistic elements.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Excellent point in that last paragraph especially. Men learn these values from women as well as from other men. It’s not just dads teaching violence out there.

  4. As a mother of boys, it makes me sad that this is still the standard. I really hope that my boys can grow up in a world that honors their feelings as well as the capabilities of women. I want both my sons (and the second one isn’t even born yet) to feel that they are free to express themselves in whatever way is necessary. This might end up being hard for them as my husband is somewhat reserved emotionally. I have noticed that he is very comfortable showing affection to our son and hopefully that translates in our son being comfortable showing his own emotions.

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