Lately, I find myself thinking about the ways socialization drives our perceived available behaviors. When you look back across your life, I am sure you can imagine numerous times you found yourself reacting in a less than desirable way, but were possibly left feeling as though that was the only option available. Behavioral impulses begin to be programmed from early childhood and become codified for “desirability” based on the external feedback we receive as we move through the world. Interpersonal relationships, romantic partnerships in particular, become a vivid backdrop against which those available behaviors are played out. In some cases, those behaviors can deeply damage relationships we cherish; and yet trying a new, more vulnerable behavior might feel so terrifying you’d rather metaphorically burn everything else to the ground.
Despite historically having had the lion’s share of money, power, and influence, men have held the short end of the stick when it comes to available emotional behaviors. The documentary, The Mask You Live In (2015), poignantly explores the topic of U.S. masculinity and how we socialize boys into men with potentially “toxic” traits. The film investigates the many cultural elements that conspire to offer men a singular identity that strips them of space to emote, seek support, and maintain deep and fulfilling relationships. I understand how this, for many people in our current climate, could be accompanied by an exasperated eye roll and sigh. If we are going to heal as a species however, and bring more empathic, inclusive, and thoughtful generations into the world, we must provide men with the space to heal as well.
Stop for a moment to consider certain language systems that many employ that lock-in and perpetuate limited masculine identity. Phrases like, “be a man,” or “man up,” are shorthand for “you’re acting weak. Stop.” When rearing young boys, it is not uncommon to hear caretakers employ this negotiation: “you’re acting like a baby. Don’t you want to be a big boy?” The implicit messaging there is that grown men do not show emotion. I too have been guilty of using these well-worn phrases without considering the implicit and powerful messages they carry.
Perhaps the question becomes, what is it about emotion, sadness in particular, that makes our fellow humans so uncomfortable? This is not an issue unique to men. Why is it that true expressions of pain, fear, or sadness can make us turn away rather than toward?
We all need a space to examine the social scripts that are handed to us based on gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural context, etc. Therapy is an incredible way to interrogate the social constructs around these components of Self and forge a new, more spacious individual narrative. Men may hesitate at the notion of shredding the social fabric that has historically kept them safe, but also alienated. There is a richer experience available however, when the power and the violence that has preserved male identity is shed for more honesty, a wider range of emotion, and social support. In the same way that women were fleeced by traditional gender roles, men were too and it’s time to talk about it.
Written by Siena deLisser, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern
Siena uses a Solution Focused Brief Therapy perspective, which seeks to uncover overlooked strengths and amplifies what is working for you. She believes that each client is rich in their own resources and ability to problem solve. Sometimes one simply needs the assistance of an additional perspective to solve a problem. Siena blends in elements of Narrative therapy, which seeks to interrogate how your society, culture, and family of origin have shaped your identity. Together she can rewrite the story you want, not the one you have inherited.