I grew up in a culture where men aren’t supposed to show their emotions. You know: The typical Asian male. He’s supposed to stoically go to a good university, do something related to science or math, go out to society, get a “stable job” and a wife, raise a couple of kids, and define himself through his career.
A man is supposed to achieve these pursuits stoically. Any expression of emotion, vulnerability along the way is seen as weak. These are traditional gender roles.
A gender role is a set of societal norms dictating the type of behaviors that are considered acceptable for people based on their gender.
In both traditional and modern societies, masculinity is often referred to as the more dominant sex and the females as the ones that are more nurturing. Men should be assertive, tough, and focused on material success, to respect whatever is big strong and fast. Women, meanwhile, should be modest, tender and concerned with the quality of life.
Because of these traditional gender roles, we have a generation of men disconnected from their emotions, unaware of their emotional realities, and blinded by the pursuit of material success and wealth as an assertion of their “masculinity.”
Historically, men have always derived their self worth from their careers and professions. However, in recent decades, women have equal opportunities as men and are even outperforming men in these areas. Hence, you get a generation of men stuck in jobs they don’t like, for money they don’t need, just to give it to a woman who probably doesn’t need it.
Here’s the verdict: The traditional route and gender role isn’t enough for the modern man to help him assert his masculinity.
You see typical stereotypes portrayed as main characters in movies: A man slinging guns, saving the world, doing acts of heroism as though they are figures of infallibility. Our culture further reinforces these unachievable ideals into the mind of the modern man. His life is defined by the pursuit of material wealth, with acts of heroism and infallibility. However, life rarely works out this way.
This is largely evident in Asian cultures. The Asian male is still largely defined by his ability to amass material wealth. Through the pursuit of this, he’s supposed to be stoic and expressionless without developing non-traditional traits such as introspection and vulnerability.
In the book The Way of the Superior Man, David Deida talks about the evolved man as someone who has both heart and spine. The man with all spine and no heart is the macho jerk. On the other hand, the man with all heart and no spine can be a sensitive wimp.
Financial success was a huge pain point in my life. My family was once bankrupted, and from a young age I set my eyes on financial success and security. Singapore also happens to be one of the costliest cities in the world, part of a patriarchal society.
Through the years, my family eventually recovered and financial pursuit became less of a priority. I also started researching into unconventional masculinity: masculinity that isn’t just defined by traditional traits such as assertion and dominance, but also introspection and vulnerability.
Don’t get me wrong. The need for assertion, dominance, and material success is still a huge determinant of “success” in my life and culture I grew up in. However, I also have a side of introspection and vulnerability, an expression of masculinity that isn’t defined by social roles or expectations.
While the majority of men, much less the typical Asian male, are afraid to express any emotion, I attempt to consciously express my thoughts and desires. Instead of avoiding “feminine” traits such as emotion and expression, something defined by gender roles, why not incorporate them in with traditional masculine traits and pursuits?
I don’t mean self-help movements that are rife with “Mom didn’t hug me enough” pity or forced rituals that are painfully ineffective. I’m referring to giving up the idea of traditional stoicism.
How to Deal with Emotions
Men aren’t known to freely expression their emotions. We’re ill-equipped with this area of our life. However, if you make a conscious practice to look inwards, introspecting with a willingness to fail, you’ll no longer be held back by traditional gender roles.
Simply making a ton of money isn’t enough anymore; traditional achievements and conquests by themselves aren’t enough. Having money and nice things are nice, but it doesn’t make you feel like a “man” anymore. There’s no longer a socially universal norm for masculine achievement: You have to create your own.
This can mean being more free with your praise, being more comfortable with expressing emotions, publishing a novel, volunteering for the needy, or starting off a music or dance project, ultimately defining a version of yourself that’s not held back traditional societal gender roles.
However, this isn’t easy. Conventional masculine traits such as courage, ambition, and technical skill isn’t enough. It also takes introspection, vulnerability, and a willingness to fail.
You’re free to define yourself in a new way. Blaze your own trails.
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