As Movember comes to an end, we’d like to wrap up this important month with one last issue: the stigma surrounding how men should (or should not) express their emotions.

Last week, we addressed men’s mental health, revealing that suicide is three times as common in males than in females. And according to much of our research, this is due to social stigmas and “toxic masculinity.” Basically, boys are taught to never show their emotions. They’re taught to “be a man.”

Why do boys feel this pressure?

The Good Men Project published an article entitled, “Toxic Masculinity: The Dark Side of Patriarchy,” where author Joe Kort, Ph.D, listed these “assumed requirements” of patriarchy (a society where men are in charge):

  • Men must be strong (for instance, excel in sports).
  • They must dress like other “real” men.
  • They must be self-reliant, not relational.
  • They must be devoted to work and good providers.
  • Men are only allowed to express their feelings in four ways: sex, violence, sports, and work.

Coming from a patriarchal society myself (Egypt), I personally grew up watching my brother hold back tears when he was in real pain. He looked up to my father, who says he hasn’t cried in nine years–having been trained not to show his emotions. Like many countries in the Middle East, men are expected to be strong, and are raised to expect that they will one day be the “man of the household.”

Raising Awareness

While this stigma surrounding male emotions is nothing new, it has been getting more attention lately (as it should). Celebrities like “Jane the Virgin” actor, Justin Baldoni, are speaking out about the male standard they were raised to fit into. Baldoni gave a talk at the TEDWomen conference in 2017 about why he is done trying to be “man enough.” Watch it below.

A line from the talk that really stuck with me was, “I’d been pretending to be a man I am not my whole life. I’d been pretending to be strong when I felt weak. Confident, when I felt insecure. And tough when really I was hurting.”

Why we should help boys embrace their feelings

Research shows that we, as a society, are not encouraging emotional diversity from a young age. This means properly identifying feelings, accepting them, and knowing how to deal with them correctly–not suppressing them.

Psychologists have found that children who avoid their feelings are more likely to have substance abuse problems, stress-related health issues, and often resort to physical violence when they’re older. A recent Scientifc American article cited research from Harvard Medical School, showing that boys are actually more emotionally expressive than girls. The problem is that many parents encourage their boys not to act on these emotions–thereby creating “toxic masculinity” when they’re older.

What can we do to allow boys to feel comfortable expressing themselves?

As stated earlier, this stigma is mainly brought on by the parents or guardians of boys. There is also the standard that the media sets, but most of it is due to how they were raised. If parents want their sons to feel more accepted and to be able to express their emotions without being judged for being too sensitive and emotional, there are ways to do that.

The simplest solution is to have a talk with them. Let them know that it’s okay for them to express their emotions. Treat them the way you would treat your daughter. Allow them to cry. Praise them for being confident enough in their own masculinity to express their feelings and embrace their emotions.

If you are struggling to express your emotions

According to a 2010 study, as boys move into adolescence, they are more likely to embrace hyper-masculine stereotypes and become less emotionally available.” It’s important to focus on ways to counter these stereotypes in order to express emotions in healthy and authentic ways. 

AISB Counselor and Clinical Psychologist, Michaela Young, suggests that if you’re having trouble expressing emotions, here are some things you should do:

  • Firstly, it’s important to find someone you feel comfortable talking to. Naming feelings out loud can help in getting used to expressing feelings.
  • Expressing feelings by talking to friends, journaling, or having another creative outlet is important to prevent emotions from building up.
  • It’s a good idea not to try to avoid emotions or push them away. Accepting them and finding a healthy way to express them will help you to process them more effectively.
  • Taking care of yourself by exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, eating healthy food and having people to talk to will make it easier to manage your emotions as they come and go.
  • And finally, if you need help with expressing emotions, your counselors are a good place to start in talking to someone confidentially.”