Maneet Bhatia looks at crying in the NBA and wants our society to be more open to men expressing their emotions.
The Dallas Mavericks were about to pull off the biggest victory in their history by beating the star-studded favorites, the Miami Heat, and capture their first NBA Championship. Suddenly, with 1.2 seconds left on the clock, the Dallas Mavericks leader and best player, Dirk Nowitzki—the greatest international player the NBA has ever seen and NBA Finals MVP—ran off the court to the locker room missing most of the celebration. Why did he leave the court in the first place? As Dirk explained later, he became overwhelmed with emotions and began to cry. He did not want to cry in public and have the world see him in the state that he was in. His need to avoid the potential stigmas or negative press that comes with crying was so profound that he nearly missed the celebration of what he worked his entire life to achieve. In fact, Dirk had to be convinced by his teammates to come back out to the court for the trophy celebration.
I raise this issue because not so long ago—and ironically—the Miami Heat were involved in ‘Crygate’ where a big deal was made about reports that players were crying in the locker room after a tough loss. I have written elsewhere the reasons why this became a national story. Emotional expression, especially crying, is not an encouraged or accepted behavior for men. It does not fit the gender role script that has been written for men.
Mixed messages of emotional expression
Dirk’s reaction, and the media coverage of it are noteworthy because they highlight the mixed messages we receive from society and the media when it comes to men expressing their emotions. Why isn’t this being treated as ‘Crygate’ part two? Why is Dirk not being scolded for being less of a “man” because, as we learned with the Miami Heat, “big boys don’t cry” right? In the case of Dirk, his emotional reaction to winning was the same as it was for members of the Miami Heat during ‘Crygate’: both involved crying.
This is a wonderful example of the power of situation and how it determines our perceptions and opinions about men’s emotional expression. It appears that crying tears of joy is more tolerable than to cry tears in defeat (especially when that defeat is just another game during the regular season as was the case during ‘Crygate’). Crying because you are sad signifies weakness for a man. Tears of joy are a sign of happiness and success for completing a goal.
Moving away from “good” or “bad” labels of emotional expression
Societal, familial, and cultural messages play a powerful role in informing us about what we should feel and how we should express those feelings. This is unfortunate because far too often it is these pressures that dictate the appropriateness of our feelings, and ultimately how we behave. For some, the pressure is so great that it pushes them to repress their feelings, disconnect from their emotional life, and lose the ability to express and experience the wide array of emotions we all face; disconnecting from feelings is “better” than being ridiculed by others.
Now, I am not suggesting that all societal, familial or cultural messages should be ignored or discredited. These messages are important in shaping who we are and in many cases, tell us how to live in accordance with society’s rules. However, there are times when following these messages is in direct opposition to our own psychological health. For example, for many men bottling up positive feelings of love, care, and tenderness can push men away from compassionate feelings for themselves and push away those who they love.
Additionally, it is remarkable that from a societal perspective, the same act in different contexts yields such different reactions: one is an example of “good” crying and the other is of “bad” crying. The problem with these value-laden descriptions is that they are focused more on messages from others and not on what is in the best interest of the man’s psychological health. In both cases, these men were expressing how they felt given the situation they were in. Yet these different reactions perpetuate the stigma that men can only feel certain emotions in certain contexts. If this norm is violated, they will be shamed even if the action is the same.
Adaptive versus Maladaptive emotional expression
Adaptive emotional expression is being able to cry when sad, laugh when you are happy, set limits when you are angry, to love wholeheartedly, to feel acceptance and joy about living, and having compassion for oneself and others. Maladaptive emotional expression is mostly the opposite, in that instead of feeling normal levels of grief, your sad feelings spiral into depression, or you may act aggressively when angry, or are not able to laugh or feel happy when good things happen in your life. Adaptive expression of feelings makes you feel better whereas maladaptive expression of feelings makes you feel worse.
Research shows that individuals who are able to adaptively experience and express emotions report having better relationships with others, higher self-esteem, less physical problems, stronger coping abilities when faced with stressful situations, and overall better psychological health. They are able to live without the anxiety and shame that plagues so many men who are afraid to express themselves because of fear of negative reactions.
It is imperative that as men we do our best to be aware of the external pressures that surround expressing our emotions, and try to focus on the end goal of our emotional expression: whether or not it is adaptive or maladaptive. This should be the perspective from which we “judge” our feelings.
I believe it is OK for both the Miami Heat during ‘Crygate’ and Dirk Nowitzki at the end of the NBA Finals to cry. The reason isn’t about “where,” it’s about “why.” Therefore, the reason is simple: they are men who have the right to express their feelings (sadness and joy) in adaptive ways that honor how they feel in that very moment in time.
Now if only we could all do that more often, we’d all be better off.
Maneet Bhatia, M.A. is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. His specializations are in the areas of psychotherapy research, emotions, and male psychology. He is also a practicing psychotherapist and author of a psychology blog entitled Psych State of Mind.
—Photo AP/Mark Humphrey