As I’ve mentioned before, I have a four year old son who is just starting preschool and also just starting to discover that the world is a whole lot bigger than he previously realised. He is a very boyish boy, his favourite colour is blue and his favourite things at the moment are dinosaurs. We watched the trailer for Frozen part 2 on TV the other day and he declared that he didn’t like it because it looked like a girls movie, which is something he doesn’t like. I asked him why and he said it was because it didn’t have enough super heroes or lions in it.
My son will fall down and hurt himself sometimes but for some reason he won’t cry. It’s not because he isn’t hurt, it’s because somehow, somewhere he has gotten the idea (not from me) that boys don’t cry.
Somehow that idea has gained traction in someone as young as a pre-schooler. These are the kinds of lessons that are being learned at school, not from teachers, but at least through socialisation and expectations that are picked up from some of the adults that children see.
Nowadays of course it has become anathema that men don’t share their feelings and open up to others about what they’re going through. Even that though is a learned response that men tend to “grow into” as they get older and only because they don’t get teased for it as much. These kinds of perceptions at school become habits and patterns of behaviour that can lay the foundations for the rest of our lives.
One of the issues with gender today is that it isn’t just a biological issue, it’s become a communal one. There’s a whole truckload of societal expectations that go with it. These are expectations that are not determined by the person themselves but by the particular group/collection/tribe that they belong to and also certain ideals that are fashionable at the time.
Why don’t boys and men open up and share feelings? Why don’t they want to be vulnerable? If I think there are a few reasons, and it’s not because men are toxic or want to make their own and everyone else’s lives more miserable.
If I’m vulnerable and collapse at the first sign of trouble then I can’t be the leader my family needs me to be. I have to be strong. I have to keep it together through the storm and out the other side. If I spend all my time being introspective then I can’t focus on what’s happening around me and do my job, to protect and provide. I can’t be all things to all people at all times.
The other reason is more a result of the experiences I’ve had in doing it. Often when I have talked to people about any problems that I’m facing or issues that I’m going through there are often two types of replies. People either say: “Well why don’t you do this…” Or, “You should… (Move out, lose weight, eat healthy, see a doctor, pull yourself together, take up yoga, etc.)”
Then after they say this I will say thank you very much and ignore the advice. Not necessarily because the advice is bad (although sometimes it is) but because often they are telling me what they would do in my situation. They are saying, “If I were you…”
This bothers me because, although it might seem obvious in hindsight, they’re not me. And if they were they wouldn’t be in this situation because they would obviously have made different choices than me before now.
The other response that people often make is to say, “I had a situation like that last year” (or last month, or last week, or my sister did, or I also have problems don’t you know). To which my reply is usually: “Um,… okay… Did you… Want to talk about it?”
To a certain extent I know why they say this. It’s because they are trying to let me know that they know what I’m going through, that they can relate and have faced something similar. It’s an effort to express some kind of solidarity in sharing problems and to reassure me that they have also faced similar situations and they understand what I’m going through.
The problem is that it comes across especially to someone who is going through a personal issue that the other person isn’t really that interested in listening and are more interested in talking about their own problems. While I know that’s not true, it does sometimes make you feel that way.
One of the issues I have found with being male, at least in western society is that if you show some kind of strong emotion that is outside the norm, such as crying or being upset over something, then the majority of people seem to have no idea about how to handle it or what to do. How do you behave around a man who starts crying or gets angry? People are usually scared of him, feel awkward and embarrassed and either leave him alone or try to get him to stop and go back to being calmly polite as soon as possible.
It’s expected as a man that you don’t do a lot of emoting especially in public. The only emotions that you should display are calm politeness and righteous anger at the appropriate times and at the appropriate things. This gives you an easy to understand set of social cues to know how to behave in any situation. Not easy to follow, but easy to understand.
Being the strong silent type is something that is hammered into young boys and men growing up because sharing your feelings makes you ostracised from the rest of the group. You can’t show pain because showing pain makes you less productive, both academically and on the sporting field.
This means that my main value comes from the response I get from others. If I don’t get any response, then I’m invisible. If I don’t have an appropriate way of expressing my feelings then I have to find a way to be noticed that will matter to the people I care about. So if I do something totally stupid and it goes viral online then everyone will notice me. Mission accomplished. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. What matters is I’m finally not invisible anymore. I matter and so do my feelings.
What I learn at school is that it really doesn’t matter who I am or what kind of character I have, what really matters is how others see me, either academically or on the sporting field. That’s the lesson that I will learn, even as young as a pre-schooler.
Unless I can learn appropriate ways and methods for expressing my feelings then they will always keep determining my actions. Forever.
That’s something I wish I was taught at school.