Boys Don’t Cry
I didn’t talk to my father or brother very much when I was a kid. I was, in a way, afraid of them, even though I idolized them at the same time. Perhaps “afraid,” isn’t the right word. I was intimidated by them, and by most other men. I spent my childhood watching them from a distance, learning about being a man by observing their actions, while never discussing with them what those actions meant.
I saw my father overcome pain and frustration by staying busy and concentrating on what was in front of him, channeling his feelings into his hobbies and hard work. I saw my brother face new challenges by running into them headfirst, until they gave way under his stubborn persistence. He picked up a guitar and didn’t put it down until his fingers bled. He worked out until he looked strong enough for the bullies to leave him alone. I saw my father and brother argue, frequently because my father’s concern and love was expressed through worry and criticism, and my brother’s fear and desire for approval was expressed through anger and rebellion.
I don’t blame them for having a hard time communicating. In my experience, men are taught that there are only a few acceptable emotions to display, and they tend to be the more volatile, dangerous ones. Men are taught that sadness equals weakness, that “boys don’t cry.” So when my brother’s depression intensified, and my father’s fear for him grew, they could only interact through shades of anger. One set of confused, worried emotions feeding off the other. Miscommunication was almost inevitable. We began to keep our lives to ourselves, rarely sharing information for fear it would spark a shouting match. We stopped talking to one another, and bottled things up.
I didn’t realize until recently that I had repeated this pattern in every romantic relationship I’ve ever had. I would stamp down on my frustrations, my worries, my little nagging insecurities. I would keep things to myself until it became too much to bear and I ended the relationship. My breakups were always horrible because they essentially came out of nowhere- I would appear fine up until the moment I snapped, and unloaded a year’s worth of pent-up anger onto my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. My fear of expressing my feelings and talking about things was my downfall every time.
Realizing this about myself helped me make huge strides in terms of my ability to communicate. A few years ago, if my wife said something that upset me I would absolutely not say anything. I would just seethe for hours, even days, and the silence would grow, and then I’d eventually explode in fits of rage which my wife couldn’t possibly see coming. It led to a number of arguments, often over things that wouldn’t have been an issue, had I said something in the moment.
Now, when I feel that familiar knot of knee-jerk rage begin to tighten in my chest, I try as hard as I can to step outside of it, and look underneath.
“Why am I angry? What, in what she said, caused that reaction?” Anger almost always masks another emotion, like fear or insecurity. Personally, I get angry when I’m embarrassed or feel criticized. If I make a mistake and my wife points it out, my immediate reaction is to want to snap at her, to say something mean or try to escape. But if I look underneath that anger, I realize that I’m mad because I know she’s right and I’m embarrassed that I fucked up. So I pause, take a breath, and apologize for the mistake. Then I talk about how embarrassed I feel, and ask for her support so I don’t make the mistake again. And then, always to my amazement, she doesn’t leave, or lash out, or do anything my terrified brain tells me she’s going to do. She accepts my apology. She tells me she loves me, and we move on.
I guess I’m talking about this because I see so many men letting their anger run the show, turning their fears outwards, converting insecurity into hate. Too many men are afraid to accept someone who’s different, so they tear them down rather than admit to being uncomfortable. I see men thinking that they have to be tough, and that being tough is the same as being angry, destructive robots incapable of feeling fear or sadness. They think that being a man means you can never talk, even if you’re in agony. We’ve turned our boys into a crowd of stoic, silent sufferers. It breaks my heart.
Please talk to your boys. Tell them it’s all right to be sad, or scared. It doesn’t make you weak to feel these things. It makes you human. Real men have feelings. Real men are allowed to cry.