Growing up, I was always with my older brother. There are times that I joke that I was his little brother because he didn’t care that I was a girl as he dragged me through “adventures”. In many ways, I am probably lucky to be alive, but I also still have an adventurous, somewhat fearless spirit thanks to him.
But, being so close to my brother, I witnessed when he was hurt how he was quickly quieted or hushed. He would be picked up, brushed off and told he was okay when he clearly wasn’t.
When I was hurt, I was allowed to cry. I was coddled and their voices softened until I was lulled into silence. I was acutely aware there were different rules to how his emotions were handled versus how mine were perceived.
Although it was acceptable when I was a young girl to show my emotions, as I got older and especially into my teenage years, it became less acceptable and even triggered intolerance.
I am sensitive person. I can cry at commercials. If a movie is really sad, I can dissolve into tears.
How many people know this? Maybe a handful.
Why? Because I won’t allow myself to cry unless I am with someone that I feel like I can be vulnerable with. Even, then I will feel self-conscious and I may stifle my cry. It feels like failure when I can’t control my emotions.
Boys and girls experience emotional suppression in different ways. But, make no mistake, boys are much more drastically emotionally suppressed.
Men have acceptable types of emotion and acceptable places of expressing those emotions. The most acceptable expression is anger, even rage. If a man is angry, people just write it off and never dig beneath the surface until it turns into violence.
Acceptable places for a man to express aggression are in sports, especially contact sports. If you knock the snot out of someone on a field, no one questions it. If you yell at the referee, it’s considered apart of the game. Anger on display is expected.
I am a football fan and I feel very comfortable yelling at the screen and berating either the players or the coach. It actually feels good to release that anxiety the game generates. But, on the flip side, this is where a woman finds herself suppressed.
Some people would view me as “unladylike” if I’m yelling and jumping up and down. Women are still expected to be subdued and to not respond with anger or rage even when a situation warrants it.
As a society, we have made emotions a gender thing with expression being sanctioned based on ideals. The reality is we all possess the same emotions. We all have masculine and feminine energy. We all have testosterone and estrogen. The separation between whether we express our emotions or withhold them is how we are conditioned from birth.
The most confusing idea to me is that parents continue to raise their children to suppress certain emotions despite the havoc it wreaks in their future relationships.
Once in an intimate relationship, suppressed emotions prevent transparency, vulnerability, intimacy and communication. As we interact, one is more emotional while the other is emotionally shut down. It becomes a barrier between both people preventing them from experiencing the love from the other.
I often hear women in relationships complain that their partner doesn’t express his emotions. I think what women really want is for their man to express “their” emotion in the same way their girlfriends do. They want to have a heart-to-heart and to walk away feeling refreshed having unburdened themselves. But, that’s not how men experience emotion.
Because men have been raised to suppress their emotion, displaying their emotion is an anxiety-ridden, uncertain and uncomfortable experience. It has to feel safe and they have to know there won’t be a backlash once they open themselves up to criticism. Masculinity is policed among men and when they sense weakness, they pounce and throw that man right back into the emotional jail. Women are socialized to also view men as unemotional. She can respond another emotional jailer when she starts to experience a man’s emotions as she may not have seen it displayed. Then, he feels like it was a waste of his attempt to reveal his true emotions and may never try it again.
There are also health reasons why men and women have to stop suppressing emotions. Suppressing emotions has physical health problems. It can manifest as high rates of heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders and gastrointestinal issues. Mental health can be affected showing up as depression and anxiety. It’s been found that emotional suppression can lead to substance abuse.
The expectation that men can handle all the challenges of life without emotions is outdated, dangerous and affecting their quality of life. One of my personal theories is that jails are filled with boys who weren’t allowed to cry. Maybe it’s time we open up emotions for everyone, especially men, and let everyone have the full access to their emotions. Our collective mental heath depends on it.
This post is republished on Medium.