What keeps men from sharing their feelings—until it’s too late? Psychotherapist Stephanie Morgan explores the Boy Code through Rick Belden’s poetry.
This was previously published at Stephanie P. Morgan, MFT.
Many men come to therapy when they are at rock bottom, completely out of options, desperate for something to change. I notice that my female clients are more likely to get help before everything completely implodes—why is that?
I think the short answer is shame. Men and boys have been systematically shamed over their lifetimes for showing basic human emotions such as: sadness, fear, longing, disappointment or even excitement over the “wrong” things. From a young age, boys get the message either overtly or covertly that showing emotional vulnerability isn’t only unacceptable it’s down right dangerous.
How does this happen? I think it happens with the best intentions, which is why it has been such a persistent and pervasive problem. Not only are loving parents worried about making their boys too “dependent” or “soft”, coaches, teachers and other well-meaning mentors unwittingly reinforce these ideas that expressing emotions (other than anger) is weak. Boys learn quickly that they need to “Shake it off” or “Get it under control” otherwise risk crushing criticism and rejection by peers and beloved adults alike. Even therapists can miss the mark, using a more “problem solving” approach with men rather than the “emotional inquiry” the might use with female clients.
What options are men left with but to try to disconnect from strong feelings and live behind the safety of a “mask”? The mask may be one of toughness, grandiosity, or invisibility. Of course, the larger culture is all too eager to reinforce these stereotypes for men as well starting with invincible, needless superheros, moving on to every flavor of violent sociopath (any mobster flick) or narcissistic jerk (think Don Draper in Mad Men), and multiple emotionally clueless “dumb husband” characters (i.e. Homer Simpson).
The messages are clear:
1.) Your needs don’t count so get rid of them.
2.) Anger is the only acceptably “masculine” feeling and violence is an acceptable form of self-expression.
3.) Women think you’re an idiot because you don’t know how to talk about your feelings (even though we contribute to shaming you as much as the men in your life)
Men are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Tough crowd.
Rick Belden’s poem, “Little Iron Man” speaks to the “mask” that many men are forced to create and wear (often for a lifetime) as they conform to the demands of the Boy Code.
My hope is that more men will begin realize that the mask isn’t needed anymore. As a child, you had no power and no choice. You did what you needed to do to be loved and accepted. As an adult, you choose who you want to be and how you want to live.
little iron man
angry eyes burn behind cold metal mask
muscles tensed for fight in flight
repulsor rays boot jets armor
he is iron man.
all-powerful controller master of his fate
vengeful righteous realist almighty godlike hero
protector judge destroyer martyr
invincible impervious inhuman.
mechanical masculinity lover of the machine
better safe than sorry greedy me-first hoarder
dark doomy death dealer
self-satisfying soul stealer
childhood’s chosen champion.
once glistening once wonderful
now binds and holds in place
battle-scarred time-tarnished too small
pitted scorched outdated in the way
barrier to growth and love and life.
I tried to forget him
but he came to me in dreams
I tried to kill him
but he was stronger than I am
I tried to banish him
but he wouldn’t leave me
so I pulled off his grim metal mask.
a child’s face my face revealed at last
frustrated frightened familiar hopeful
little boy with wounded heart
scared of the body he can’t control
afraid to come outside it hurts to be with people
a quarter century in an armor shell
waiting for mommy and daddy to make it right.
Excerpted from Iron Man Family Outing: Poems about Transition into a More Conscious Manhood by Rick Belden. Copyright © 1990, 2008 by Rick Belden. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Image of couple having a discussion courtesy of Shutterstock