Mark Greene explores how men’s wide ranging fears remain hidden behind a facade of false confidence.
We have all heard it said, over and over. That many men do not share their feelings. That these men can be good friends, husbands and lovers but that they remain, on some level, hidden. If this is so, it’s for a damn good reason. Men are taught early in life that hiding their emotions is a matter of practical survival. Men are taught that revealing feelings, especially feelings like grief, loneliness or uncertainty is not safe. It is dangerous. It will cost them. Male emotional withdrawal is the direct result of dominant cultural traditions which value toughness and stoicism over communication and emotional connection.
Millions of men are exploring ways to move beyond old ideas of what it is to be a man. This is a good thing. Because it means men will have more options, both new and old, of how they can choose to live in the world. But millions of others still see no alternative but to keep their emotions hidden. They feel trapped in archaic gender roles that are often brutally enforced by other men, women and sometimes, their own families and spouses. On some level, we are all impacted by these generations old rules of manhood which say: hide your fears or pay the price.
One result of the continuing emotional suppression of men, is an increasing level of anger in our public dialogues (that of both men and women). We see these angry public discourses everywhere, in the media, on Facebook and at the local bar. This is because the expression of anger as a mode of emphasizing one’s point of view is somehow considered socially acceptable while revealing “weaker” emotions is not. But ask anyone who knows. Anger is just fear talking. Fears unspoken and unexplored. Below is a list of some fears that men face. This list is by no means complete. But men’s fears, whatever they may be, must be acknowledged. Because when they are deeply rooted and well hidden, these isolating fears can determine the course of an entire lifetime. Hidden though they may be, they should never be taken lightly.
So what are men afraid of? Here are a few examples. (Please note, I am not suggesting that these fears are exclusive to men but I would suggest that they play out very differently in women’s lives.)
1) What I Want Sexually is Wrong (In One Way or Another)
Men carry the deep seated fear that their sexual needs are, in some way, just not right. Whether it’s something as complex as a fetish, or as simple as frequency, men carry the deep-seated fear that sexual love in relationships isn’t sustainable because what they want and need sexually is too much, is too selfish, is wrong.
This shame about their needs is compounded by a lack of emotional connectivity in their relationships; connectivity that can create a vibrant holding space for sexual exploration and generosity. For many men, this central fear that sexual love doesn’t last, can lead to a preemptive callousness about sex and relationships. “I want what I want and to hell with you.” Sexual expression can become intertwined with anger. This, coupled with underlying shame about their sexual appetites, creates a self-fulfilling fatalism, contributing to the collapse of their relationships, time and time again.
2) I’m Never Going to Earn Enough
Being the financial provider is the central role that many men assign themselves in relationships. Although self-assigned, this role is also encouraged by our culture and sometimes by women. This emphasis on providing money is often taken on by men in lieu of the more challenging task of developing crucial interpersonal capacities like emotional connectivity, empathy, and child-raising skills, (emotional skill sets which can validate men in ways other than financially.)
Initially, being the breadwinner may seem like an easy way out for men. The implication is, “if you bring the money you can take a pass on the messy emotional side of your family relationships.” But this breadwinner mode tempts some men to compound their self induced isolation by leveraging the authority associated with economic control over other family members.
Some other relationship killing parts of this equation? When judged solely on their earning capacities, men can end up being relentlessly tested by a spiral of accelerating consumerism. And, when unemployment or retirement strikes, men have no alternative emotional resources or sources of validation to draw on. Game over.
3) Other Men Will Find Out I’m Weak
Men fear their worries and sadness are a sign of weakness; and that if they are found out, they will be rejected and condemned by their friends, family members and spouses.
Men are taught to hide their fears, collectively creating a cultural myth of male toughness. This culture of toughness is deeply isolating. When men have no way to share their stories of uncertainty, grief or fear, those fears can become overwhelming. The suppression of wider ranges of male emotional expression becomes a source of intense internal stress for men, which in turn is expressed as anger or authoritarianism. Although we don’t allow men to cry, we do allow them to express anger. It is this one-note anger mode of expression that can eventually result in alcoholism, addiction, depression and early death for many men. All in the effort to avoid appearing…human.
4) I’m Getting Old
Men are often judged solely on their economic and physical vitality. Typically, men are not valued for their “feminine” soft skills, like diplomacy or emotional availability. This sets men up for an inevitable decline in value, tied directly to aging. Meanwhile, because society does not typically encourage the development of soft skills in men, some must face old age without the emotional connectivity that will cushion the impact of aging. And that makes aging terrifying.
5) I Don’t Know Who I Am
Often men spend their lives battling an uncertain world in order to provide for their families financially. Preoccupied with this struggle, men resist committing time for self examination or emotional growth. Eventually, men come to fear the person in the mirror looking back at them. After a lifetime of putting up a false front of confidence and authority, many men feel they are barely keeping a lid on their emotions. Absent the parallel journey of growing emotional connection with their families and friends, our fathers, brothers and sons are condemned to live lives of isolated desperation, ultimately unsure of who they are and what they might become.
Being strong and being confident are important parts of being healthy human beings, but strength and confidence comes from the rich and rewarding relationships we create with the people in our lives, not from the economic or physical power we wield, regardless of our gender. Only a rich network of relationships holds the power and flexibility to carry any of us through life’s challenges.
For men, openly sharing emotions like uncertainty or grief should be a socially acceptable way of being, just as keeping these things private is socially accepted. Some men (and women) will always prefer to keep their own counsel. This is perfectly fine. But no man should be forced to live alone with his fears because it is considered weak to admit them. We need a new cultural baseline for men that says sharing our fears is an act of courage; something to be admired and respected. Because doing so in a safe and supportive community can transform these fears into sources of strength, mutual support and ultimately, love. And that is an option that should be open to all of us, men and women alike.
This article was written in conversation with Dr. Saliha Bava.
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The Man Box: Why Men Police and Punish
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The Paradox of Male Honesty by Tom Matlack