July 28, 2020
“Be a man.” These are the three words that every young boy will hear on their path towards self-discovery, narrowing their perception on who they can and will become, and in some cases, igniting an internal war. What “be a man” means and how these words are used vary, but the roots are the same as they place heavy expectations on young boys to hide their emotions and act in ways that the men before them have; hiding their vulnerabilities behind a stoic and impenetrable facade that suppresses their emotions. Personally, I have heard this phrase in both Punjabi and English. Regardless of the language, this problematic phrase left scars in my psyche that I am still healing from today. As an emotionally sensitive child, I sought connection with the world around me. I wanted to take things in through my senses, let them live inside me so that I might understand them better, and release them back out into the world, feeling changed through the process. Unfortunately, emotions and sensitivity are feminized in our patriarchal society and from a young age, I learned that masculinity is about numbing these innate empathic drives while replacing them with masculine posturing to signal to others that I am not weak. This combative relationship between sociocultural conditioning and my own intuition ignited an internal war, one that I still find myself in the midst of today. When I look back at my life, I’ve learned to find beauty in the struggle between nature and nurture as I approach my redemptive narrative with tenderness, to understand that oftentimes we must embrace all aspects of our story in order to heal, especially the parts where the pain is rooted.
In patriarchal society, one commandment is that both boys and girls cannot act on their emotions in a way that feels authentic, but rather must follow a predetermined and rigid social script according to the gender that they were assigned at birth. This binary understanding of gender has limited the ways in which we are able to express ourselves and can have long-term effects on mental health and wellness that are rooted in our earliest emotional experiences and branch deep into adolescence and beyond. Early research on mental health disorders identifies these gender differences, which are societally predetermined and subsequently reinforced, along two dimensions, internalizing and externalizing. Externalizing disorders are characterized by “acting out” and often involve impulse control, aggression, substance abuse, and hyperactivity, and are much more prevalent in young boys than in girls. Such research can clue us into the emotional lives of all young boys, whether they have disorders or not, in that when we exhibit traits that are labeled as “feminine”, such as being soft spoken, emotional, sensitive, caring, empathetic, and expressive, we are told to act the part, to “be a man”. These early years of conditioning have deeply profound implications on the men we will become and it’s here where masculine posturing becomes second nature. When our society feminizes emotions and the intelligence required to navigate them, we create generations of men that struggle deeply with understanding themselves and others, because they are taught that real men do not value emotions, and that to be a man you must protect your vulnerabilities at all cost. Instead of looking inward to try and make sense of our emotions, we hide behind our posturing to protect our vulnerabilities and often overcompensate to further solidify that we are the men that our society is grooming us to become.
In reality, the emotions we feel as human beings are not gendered at all, they do not spring from within us to be suppressed based on our gender, but rather help us better understand ourselves as the deeply complex individuals that we are. Each emotion we feel gives us a glimpse into our inner psyche, and especially when we are younger, those emotions help us understand the variety of situations that we find ourselves in. Emotions are our way of interacting with the world and clue us into the depth of the human experience and the unique personality that we have been adorned with. Cultivating an authentic relationship with emotions and understanding what our emotions reveal to us is what psychologists have coined as emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (also known as emotional quotient or EQ) is the ability to not only understand our emotions, but also use our emotions in ways that facilitate communication, alleviate stress, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict. This intelligence is not valued the same way as traditional forms of intelligence, and in young boys we do not take the time to cultivate these crucial skills because the expectation is that men do not “give in” to their emotions the same way that girls do. This assumption is not only false, but it is also one of the reasons why we see that men, regardless of age, struggle with being able to talk about how they feel even with the people they are closest to. One of my favorite documentaries titled “The Mask You Live In” discusses researched gender differences in emotional intelligence and one of the most striking findings they discuss is that at the exact age that we see emotional language leave the vocabulary of boys, their suicide rates increase five times more than their female counterparts. Ultimately, emotional intelligence is a key predictor for improved mental health and well-being in young boys and can be the difference between life and death.
In hindsight, I’ve come to understand that what happened to me is what boys experience all over the world, at every moment. We are taught to sacrifice our connection to emotions for a world that doesn’t want us to be emotionally intelligent and we begin to act in ways that only display our masculine presentation to others. This process begins at different stages for some but it all masks the truth that we cannot bring ourselves to say, that at the end of it all, we just want to be understood for who we truly are and be able to express ourselves authentically. This yearning is in all human beings, regardless of gender and sex, but for young boys and men alike, we cannot speak to this yearning because it would mean breaking the one expectation that patriarchy demands of us. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, something that has sadly become the antithesis of masculinity in our eyes. So far removed from when these seeds of pain were sown, it may seem impossible to undo the damage that years of conditioning has done unto us, but there is always hope. The conditioning that we underwent can be unlearned and it’s this process of unlearning toxic masculinity that can lead to living an authentic, fulfilling, an empathetic life. Despite our circumstances, no matter how hard the world tries to bury us underneath it’s expectations, we can learn to bloom where we are planted. We can accept that we cannot change the ways that we were harmed by our upbringing and from that can learn to blossom in a world that wants us to hide our hard-earned petals. We can be flowers that rise from the concrete, choosing to find beauty in the struggle that has made us the men that we are and the men we chose to become. This choice to embrace ourselves wholly, beyond binary understandings of what it means to be masculine or feminine, allows us to bloom in the face of adversity and stand with those of us who need our solidarity the most.
Rosenfield, S. (2000). Gender and dimensions of the self: Implications for internalizing and externalizing behavior. In E. Frank (Ed.), American Psychopathological Association series. Gender and its effects on psychopathology (p. 23–36). American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc..
Salovey, P. & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185-211
The Mask You Live In - Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom
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