“It’s hardwired for men to not cry.”
Flying from Montreal to Toronto, I was fresh from co-delivering a training to counselors and therapists on issues related to gender identity and gender expression. As I was sitting next to a new mother holding her 5-month baby I overheard her speaking with her 8-year-old son:
Son: Mom, girls cry about <inaudible> and boys cry too, but not as much.
Mom: Anyone can cry; boys and girls. But as boys grow older it’s hardwired for men to not cry. I don’t know why, it just is.
Son: It’s because they have to keep it together.
I paused then looked over to an eye-closed mom either in the midst of napping or meditation as the plane began its ascent.
For a few moments I debated with myself if and how I would interrupt. On one hand, I was glad to hear mom validating the capacity that anyone can cry. Her soft and loving tone set a foundation that invited permission for her son to express his thoughts, questions and curiosities. On the other hand, the conversation and uninterrupted closing comment reinforces a cultural imprint that weaves through the language and belief systems of the many men whom I see in my office.
“I need to be strong for everyone.”“I’m not a pansy. I not a swiveling mess.”“My father was very stoic and didn’t show a lot of emotion.”“I’m not sure how to be empathetic.”“I’m here to find ways to fix it.”
I often talk about the “myth of masculinity”. By not unpacking what it means to be masculine or feminine and examining their implications on culturally scripted gender roles and expectations, aren’t we then continuing to perpetuate the notion that men must turn off an integral part of the human experience at all cost? That “keeping it together” is what men must strive for even if it means compromising their own individual identities, their intimate partner relationships, and their interpersonal social relationships.
By not discussing and critiquing why many male-identified folks feel that they can’t cry, are we further entrenching overarching messages that only certain emotions like excitement and joy are acceptable and are worth celebrating, while feelings of loss, sadness and hurt are to be suppressed and to be experienced in isolation? “Give him space.”, “He needs to be alone.”, or “Time will heal his heartache.” are metaphors that reinforce that men have to “keep it together.” In other words, we dismiss his experience, we intellectualize away his feelings, and we banish him until he calms down (and for who’s comfort I may add).
What if boys and men were taught to be more present and attuned with their feelings? What if they were better able to express feelings of loss and grief without judgement? What if we teach males that expressions of sympathy, compassion, and empathy strengthens their character and in turn their relationships?
Is not crying hardwired? How one behaves when faced with certain feelings can be hardwired through repetition over time (ex. He’s crying. Give him space = He will literally and emotionally go away). The human feelings of sadness and hurt are not hardwired away. On the contrary, if not given the opportunity to be expressed authentically, it can manifest into toxic masculine expressions such as unhealthy expressions of anger, entitlement, rage and grandiosity with a permissiveness and dismissiveness from others ie. culture that “boys will be boys.”
Whether men come to my office seeking help to explore an existential crisis, I don’t know who I am anymore, why they can’t maintain an intimate relationship or whether their partners, often female, send them to my office, my approach is fairly consistent. It includes building men’s knowledge and awareness on gender expression and exploring their historical relationship with their own gender and masculinity. This then opens up space for men to be deeply reflective on how gender scripts have shaped their behaviour, how the legacies of sexism continue to reinforce their own shame, and how shame has many manifestations including the harsh inner critic.
They begin to speak less intellectually, and more reflectively and thoughtfully. They slow themselves down and become more present. They learn to hold intimate moments of silence. They become better at sharing their fears and worries and are better able to express concerns.
They also give themselves permission to cry in front of me.
“I appreciate this part of you; this guy who’s sitting across from me being so articulate and so thoughtful. Where is this guy in your relationship and how can we allow this guy to step forward?”
There are emotional growth moments that happen in the therapy room. This includes an emotional pivoting toward the undoing of deeply held self-protective beliefs and behaviors typically aligned with male strength. Together, we very slowly unravel this self-protective “men don’t cry” part to unveil whatever emotional parts that he’d like to explore.
At some point of our work together, men often say, “Why didn’t anyone tell or teach me this?” and “My life would’ve been different for the better, in all my relationships and at work.”
When mom opened her eyes, she immediately apologized to me for hogging the arm rest. It was no trouble on my end as she really needed it to support holding her newborn.
“By the way, I love the pink bunnies on your little one’s outfit.” I remarked.
“Ya, everyone thinks he’s a girl but they need to get over it.”
We continued chatting about benign topics including that I was a sexuality educator. As deeply torn on whether or not to say anything about the previous conversation between her and her son, my instincts told me to stay in my lane and not say anything about the comment. Until…
“By the way you’re an educator on this stuff, are men hardwired not to cry?”
“Coincidentally I just presented at a conference on this topic. May I show you one chart that I use when I talk about it? Of course it’s totally okay for you to say no and I won’t be insulted whatsoever.” Without any hesitation she replied, “That is a flippin’ coincidence! I guess this is fate, so sure.”
Out pops the laptop, and I start talking about childhood development. Passengers seated in front of us also tuned in, and her male partner sitting a row ahead turned around to listen.
“This gentleman beside me taught mom some new things,” she says to her son.
“Remember earlier when I said men are hardwired not to cry? Some men do cry so when you grow up, it’s totally healthy to express these feelings.” The male partner added, “You know you don’t have to keep it together if you feel sad. Keeping it together is overrated.”