According to Merriam-Webster, dehumanization means “to deprive of positive human qualities.” Another definition is “to make someone fundamentally less human.” I’d like to go further and say that our culture often dehumanizes boys by depriving them of natural human expression.
Every time we tell a boy that crying is weak, we take a piece of his humanity away. Every time a boy gets teased for showing softness and tenderness, he learns that an essential part of his natural experience is unwelcome and unwanted. And every time we tell mothers that they are wrong for showing love and care to her boy past a certain age, we deprive him of his need for emotional support and consolation.
From all of these experiences and more, boys lose degrees of freedom. From limiting their ability to express desires, needs, and emotions to artificially narrowing their choices of careers, hobbies, and activities, this funneling process strips boys down and confines them into a box, “The Man Box.” And by defining empathy, compassion, sweetness, and softness as “feminine” traits, our boys downplay those natural, human qualities in themselves to be in accordance with our distorted and restrictive definitions of masculinity.
The Masks of Masculinity
Have you noticed the shell-like or hardened faces of many of our American teenage boys? The young men who appear withdrawn, unreachable, guarded, or lifeless? Often these expressions are the visible manifestations of the thick emotional “masks” that young men necessarily create to protect themselves from the bullying, teasing, and violence done to boys who don’t learn to expertly demonstrate emotional control.
These “masks” are well suited to the task of projecting a sense of control, inscrutability, and immovability that protects these young men from external threats to their masculinity and physical/emotional well being. And they are also deadening. Numbing. Disconnecting. Isolating.
Trapped behind a facade of composure, young men suffer silently with unseen emotions and pain that have no socially acceptable outlet. And when anger is often the only approved-of male emotion, many other feelings get expressed through that narrow channel in often-destructive ways.
We all Bear the Cost
If a young man is taught to be invulnerable, unemotional, and unempathetic while also being told that the only acceptable male emotion is anger, it’s no surprise that we have an epidemic of violence committed by young men. And when young men are disallowed from seeking help because it’s considered weak, disallowed from expressing emotional pain because it’s unmanly, and disallowed from receiving care and support, is it a surprise we have soaring rates of teen male depression and suicide?
It’s not shocking to find that young men turn to drugs and alcohol in droves to numb their hidden emotional pains, needs, and disconnection. They are finding the solutions to the problems posed by the phrase, “man up.”
Rehumanizing Boys and Young men
Many of our young men are swimming in the fishbowl of “Man Box” conditioning. They can’t see it because they’re trapped inside— it’s the only reality they know. But they feel it. They know the rules, implicitly. A giant first step for these young men is to provide them with an experience of seeing the fishbowl…from the outside.
We need to educate our young men on the “Man Box,” how it’s maintained, and the ways it harms them. I recommend that every young man and his family watch “The Mask You Live In,” a documentary available online. It’s the most condensed, clear, and rich resource for becoming aware of the “Man Box.” Crucially, it presents many stories of boys and teens that will resonate very deeply.
After education and awareness comes action. What can we do to support the young men in our lives to live more freely, outside of the “Man Box”?
To start, we need to model other ways of being. Boys and teens are experts at spotting discrepancies between what we preach and what we model. Our journeys into vulnerability and emotional expressiveness are crucial trailblazing processes for the young men that look up to us. Whether you’re a man or woman, father or mother, advocate, or coach, being willing to find and express your emotional vulnerability is key.
Clueless how to start? Here’s a game you can play by yourself or with a boy or young man to reconnect with real-time emotional experiences. It’s called the “Noticing Game,” and is a mindfulness activity that also promotes connection. Here are the rules:
Set a timer, start small (2-4 minutes) and work your way up.
- Eyes closed, begin to shine the “flashlight” of your attention and focus it inside your body, particularly in the areas of your abdomen, chest, and head.
- Let your attention rest on the most prominent sensations or emotions you find there, and simply share by saying “I notice ____” (e.g., “I notice a feeling of anxiety in my chest,” or “I notice warm sensations in my forehead,” or “I notice a sinking sadness in my belly,” etc.). If you’re playing with a partner, alternate.
- Take your time and go slowly, the purpose is to become aware and present with sensations, emotions, and other internal experiences that you may typically ignore. Continue to share what you notice until the timer runs out.
- Alternatively, keep eye contact throughout the activity with your partner. This tends to intensify the connection and is a great chance to lean into the feeling of vulnerability.
Journaling is another great way to access emotions. Having a family “journaling time” can create quiet connection and model the importance of taking time and space to process the day’s events, thoughts, and feelings. Just sit down and write without censorship about what’s going on for you. Try to find emotional words. Search your body for what’s going on at the level of sensation (remember, feelings/emotions are experienced as internal physical sensations, they don’t happen in your head!)
Finding Wholeness in Brotherhood
Most of the damage of unhelpful conditioning is done by males to other males. That’s why it’s powerful to create groups for young men where they can rehumanize together with each other’s support.
These groups can include elements of confidentiality, team-building and ice-breaker exercises, education on emotions, mindfulness, and gradual invitations to vulnerability and deeper sharing. If you’re curious about these types of programs, check out Ever Forward Club and the XY-Zone Program with Communities in Schools.
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