As a kid who experienced bullying in school, I learned quickly that vulnerability = weakness. Like so many teenage boys, I was bombarded with messages like “stop crying,” “man up,” and “don’t be such a pussy.” I was told that I was too sensitive and that I had to learn to be a man. I didn’t know what it meant to be a man, so I absorbed ideas of masculinity from movies, music, and my peers.
Honestly, I still crack up watching that clip. It’s funny! But the reality is that it also contributes to the subtle but pervasive cultural shaming of male emotional expression. And hearing this kind of message over and over is how I learned that crying was something that strong men never did. The way real men expressed their emotions was through anger, violence and rage. This allowed them to maintain their sense of power and control, rather than breaking down and crying like a girl.
It seemed that men proved their manhood by belittling and harassing those who they deemed were not man enough. Most of the time, however, the men I looked up to never even showed signs of feeling much at all. I hated being bullied. So I tried being like them. And it worked: The less I showed my feelings, the less I was bullied. The more I kept it all inside, the less anyone could do to hurt me. But I never realized the harm I was causing within myself; I never realised the huge sacrifice I was making.“Something missing within” was a self-description I heard from many men…[a]gain and again a man would tell me about early childhood feelings of emotional exuberance, of unrepressed joy, of feeling connected to life and to other people, and then a rupture happened, a disconnect, and that feeling of being loved, of being embraced, was gone. Somehow the test of manhood, men told me, was the willingness to accept this loss, to not speak it even in private grief. (p.15, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, by Bell Hooks)
The Fear of Letting Go
Over the years, I cried less and less. And I began noticing that I was more and more numb to my feelings and to my physical body in general. My mind took over, because it was the only ‘safe’ place for me to be. My body became nothing more than a machine to accomplish my mind’s bidding, rather than the incredible source of power and wisdom that I now know it to be. The only tears that I remember shedding in the past 15 years were associated with painful moments in my life: moments of shame, disappointment, and loss. I didn’t want to feel that pain anymore. And I didn’t feel safe expressing it. So I stored away all of the anger, sadness, and fear in my body.
This seemed like a great strategy until this mass of unreleased energy reached a boiling point and overwhelmed my system with tension and anxiety. It got to a point where I felt like I was going to explode. I just wanted to scream and punch something. I was angry and frustrated, but I didn’t know why. I was a long way from causing any violence, but I could see how the feelings I was experiencing – when left unchecked – can eventually spiral out of control to cause the kinds of stories we’ve been hearing on the news.
But the feeling I was most aware of was sadness. I could sense a deep sadness, like an ocean flowing just beneath the surface – waiting to pull me under, where I would be crushed and lost forever in tides of uncontrollable emotion. I was literally scared to death of what might happen if I ever actually allowed myself to ‘let go.’ To sit with my sorrow. To really feel what was within me.
This fear and frustration continued to build for many years. As I got older, I started to hear about the healing power of tears and how crying can release pent-up emotion and create a feeling of freedom. This sounded like exactly what I needed. And I was desperate.
For the past 4 years or so, I’ve actually been trying to cry. And finding myself unable to do so. I understand this may sound totally ridiculous to folks who find themselves in tears quite often, but it’s real. And it’s not just men who are stuck in this emotional deadzone. It feel like I’ve actually ‘forgotten’ how to cry. I just can’t seem to go there, even though I’ve tried many times.
My defense mechanisms are too damn capable and well-trained. Here are a few of the ways that my defenses have ‘guarded’ my heart from the vulnerability of emotional expression:
- Close my eyes when I felt myself tearing up
- Cross my arms to protect my heart
- Avoid eye contact with people in order to stay a safe distance away
- Lose sensation in my neck and jaw and become unable to talk
These protective defenses have impacted my everyday behavior in many ways as well:
- Work long hours to distract myself from my feelings
- Isolate myself in order to avoid the vulnerability of intimacy
- Under-commit and over-perform in order to avoid disappointing anyone
- Compete with and compare myself to others in order to prove my worth
- Beat myself up in order to preempt potential criticism from others
- And try to control everything in my life in order to avoid feeling pain
I still engage in many of these behaviors today. They are a constant nagging voice in my head that tells me to play it safe and live small by avoiding intimacy and emotional expression. They are part of an old story that I have unconsciously allowed to define my life. But now that I can see this clearly, I have the opportunity to write a different story than the one I’ve always believed was inevitable. So what will it look like?
Writing A New Story
The first step in writing this new story is to reconnect with my tears, to re-learn how to express my feelings. I know I need to release all of this buried emotion in order to free my body of the enormous tension and anxiety that has found a home there for far too long. I know I can’t bottle it up any longer. It’s killing me. And it’s negatively impacting every part of my life. But how do I do it?
These are uncharted waters. I have no idea what will happen next. And it’s bringing up a lot of fear within me. But I know that I am ready to take the leap..
Men: We need each other. We can’t do this alone. We need to talk to about our feelings. We need to stand up and share our fears, our failures, and our dreams. I don’t care how vulnerable that feels at first. It will get easier with time. And fuck what society tells us about “being a real man” and how we can’t cry. It’s time we grow up and stop letting our fears and insecurities define us. I don’t know about you, but I am done with feeling numb and disconnected. That is not the man I want to be in the world. That is not the man I truly am.
So my invitation to you is this: Let’s lean into our fears and find the courage to try something different. To explore new expressions of masculinity that no longer keep us boxed in, silent, and ashamed. We are meant for so much more than this numbed-out, defensive bullshit. We have the potential to be whole, integrated, emotionally-connected men: Clear, conscious, strong, and compassionate. We are those things already. We just have to drop the facade of who we think we’re supposed to be and allow our true selves to be seen. It’s time we rise together as wholehearted men. Will you take the leap?
With fierce loving compassion,
(Read Next: Part 2: Unlocking the Power of Tears …)