When you’re a man dealing with emotional pain, you know the rules: Keep it to yourself, don’t bother anyone with it, and ride it out. The “it” I’m talking about is stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, fear of rejection, or a deep sense of emptiness. If you were raised to “be a man” in western culture, you are very familiar with the message: Don’t talk about it.
The “Don’t talk about it” message might be the clearest for most men struggling with emotional pain but there are a few other messages underlying this one. For example, many men believe expressions of stoicism (which is really just lack of emotional expression), anger, frustration, and irritation are signs of a strong and powerful man, whereas expressions of sadness, loneliness, fear, anxiety, or any other painful emotion is a sign of weakness.
Another underlying message that might sit in the dark corners of a man’s mind include, “If I am weak, I will not be seen as good enough.” The kicker is, even acknowledging these messages can be viewed as a sign of weakness. So, they get buried but not forgotten. They tunnel so deep within the inner workings of men’s minds that they become entangled around his sense of identity.
However, the tiring attempts to suppress “weak” emotions come at a high cost. Men who are reluctant to express a wider range of emotions tend to have higher rates of behavioral health problems compared to men who are more expressive. This means men who do their best to not feel painful emotions are at higher risk of feeling painful emotions. This ironic twist can (and often does) turn into a vicious cycle, eventually leading to substance use, depression, and suicide. One study found that adolescents who restricted their emotions were eleven times more likely to show symptoms of depression, three times more likely to have serious suicidal thoughts, and twice as likely to attempt suicide.
So, if you are a man, I challenge you to take a moment to explore the worth of emotional restriction. When you don’t talk about the things that bother you, notice if it brings you closer or further away from the people you care about. If you shove away the inner voice begging for warmth and compassion, does it make you feel better or worse? The message to be a strong and capable man is enticing and ever-present. It promises you will be worthy, accepted, and adored. But what if this narrative isn’t working the way it’s supposed to, and your very attempts at being strong is breaking you down? In those moments, can you find strength in the willingness to be weak?