There are certain phrases that are used frequently in our society whenever a boy or young man expresses vulnerability, such as “boys don’t cry,” “take it like a man,” or even “don’t be such a girl.” These terms are incredibly common, often used as a way to get boys to stop being upset about something. Some might claim that they are harmless, or that they teach little boys how to be tough. But in reality, what they are actually doing is telling boys and young men to suppress their genuine emotions — which is both limiting and damaging.
These phrases are typically used whenever a boy expresses any feeling that could be interpreted as weakness, like crying after falling down, being scared, or being sad. As a result, by the time that many boys enter young adulthood, they are skilled at pushing down their feelings. They are generally limited to a narrow range of “acceptable” emotions — such as anger. Because they have been taught from a very young age that it is unacceptable to express emotions such as sadness, hurt or fear, many men spend their lives hiding their full range of feelings — which leaves them in a narrow box of emotions, operating at less than full capacity.
An inability to express yourself fully can be incredibly painful. In particular, it can prevent a person from forming strong emotional bonds with others, preventing the formation of strong intimate bonds. This is particularly true when it comes to men’s friendships and relationships with other men. While many may feel more comfortable opening up to a woman, particularly in a romantic partnership, they may feel limited in their ability to do so with another man, who may perceive them as “weak” if they express emotions. This can lead to a lack of supportive and fulfilling relationships. Rather than raising boys to be tough and strong, phrases like “man up” and “boys don’t cry” are actually isolating young men and teaching them to be emotionally stunted — an outcome that hurts them.
It is also damaging to men who may require mental health treatment at any point in their lives. According to the Journal of Counseling Psychology, men who buy into traditional gender norms are less likely to seek out mental health support when they need it. They are also more likely to have poor outcomes from treatment when they do seek help, because these mental roadblocks about what a “real man” should be doing often prevents them from fully engaging in treatment. Men who buy into these gender norms are also more likely to be lonely, hostile and depressed. Again, these gender norms are not teaching men to be strong — but limiting them and preventing them from living full and vibrant lives.
For men who have suffered trauma, including domestic or sexual violence, a lifetime of being told things like “men don’t cry” or “take it like a man” makes it even more challenging to obtain help. Obtaining treatment for any type of trauma generally means admitting to yourself that you were hurt in some way. Gender norms can make it difficult to do so, because many boys and men are conditioned to believe that “real men” aren’t weak and can’t be hurt in that way. They may not seek help as a result — which can prevent them from healing from their trauma. This is another way that gender norms harm men: by preventing them from obtaining treatment that they need for trauma that they may have suffered.
At Blackburn Center, we believe strongly that all people should be able to express a full range of emotions — and that gender norms hurt both men and women alike. We offer a range of services for women, children and men whose lives have been impacted by violence, along with community services, such as training and awareness programs for schools, organizations and businesses throughout Westmoreland County. We are committed to involving men in the process of ending gender-based violence in our community through our Fearless Advocacy for Male Engagement (FAME) group. Join us, and be a part of the solution!