What kind of progress have we, as a nation, made in the realm of long-standing gender stereotypes? Well, we know they exist. Unfortunately, as much as we like to believe that we have begun to adequately eradicate the pigeonholing process, we generally still raise our boys to believe that emoting is negative. Showing emotion equates to showing weakness.
“Stop your crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
In 2011, Dan Griffin (author and mental health professional) wrote an article titled, “How Trauma Informs Men’s Identity, Addiction, and Recovery”. In this article, he notes that the majority of men he spoke to over the course of his life could identify a time when they recognized that expressing emotional vulnerability was unacceptable. The men who spoke to (men who had undergone significant trauma), also noted that the only acceptable way to express things like sadness, hurt, or fear was through physical violence, anger, and aggression.
“Boys Don’t Cry”
By teaching men that it is not okay to cry, be sad, or express what could be perceived as weakness, we are inadvertently teaching them that it is not okay to heal. Most men who experience trauma are not encouraged to openly speak of their experiences. Core beliefs pertaining to masculinity prevent many men from stepping forward at all, especially when it comes to physical or sexual abuse. Despite how progressive we may feel we have become, there is a lasting stigma surrounding sexual assault and male victims. Men are supposed to be strong, capable, and not easily overpowered. When men are sexually assaulted, they will almost instantaneously adopt a silencing sheath of shame – one that prevents them from opening up for fear of societal backlash. “Men can’t be raped, that’s impossible. Men are bigger than women – stronger. A man could never be raped by a woman. Even if a woman forced herself upon him, some part of him would want it.” Men stifle their emotional pain for fear of being judged, and their pain is internalized, where it festers and grows and transforms into unmanageable rage, or substance abuse, or severe depression, or suicide.
Men and Emotional Denial
While men may be aware that their experience was damaging, they may also be conditioned to believe that the trauma they underwent would produce no negative effects – that their current symptoms are unrelated to past emotional harms. Whatever the case, men will either stifle the effects of their traumatic experiences, pretending as if nothing ever happened, or they will fail to seek help and support for fear of societal scrutiny. Males are actually biologically wired to be more expressive than their female counterparts – they cry more during infancy, and generally become distressed more easily. Boys learn from an early age, however, that emotional vulnerability is grounds for shame and self-disgust. They learn what masculinity means by interacting with other boys on the schoolyard, by watching movies and television shows, and by carefully observing the behaviors and instruction of their fathers. Men are truly trained to be inexpressive and emotionally anesthetized.
Trauma Recovery for Men
Of course, this makes trauma recovery far more difficult for men. Even men that are aware of their traumatic experiences have likely separated themselves so much from painful memories that drawing any correlation between past harms and present symptoms will prove unfeasible (without professional help, that is). Men are capable of becoming aware and of dealing with their feelings in a way that heals and sets the stage for a life of fulfillment and emotional health. They are capable of accepting their vulnerability – their humanity – and learning to regulate emotions in a functional way. However, unlearning ‘masculine ideals’ will take time. Society conditions men to stifle feelings, rather than acknowledge them, bring them to light, and work through them. Society conditions men to stifle feelings rather than master them. But any man can master his feelings; it will just take a bit of time and nonjudgmental dedication. Therapeutic recovery and reconditioning. It can be done.
This is not to say that in order for men to heal from trauma, they must break down and cry and cry and cry. This is simply to say that disallowing oneself from healthy emotional expression can prevent ultimate fulfillment. Many men are stuck in a vicious cycle of anger and self-denial, not leading the lives they both crave and deserve. What many fail to realize is that masculinity is not measured by a lack of vulnerability. Masculinity has to do with gaining emotional strength – expressing vulnerability when appropriate, and taking responsibility for personal healing. We at Next Chapter teach men to express themselves in a healthy and productive way. Our program of trauma recovery for men focuses on reconditioning, and on breaking long-standing stigmas that may be preventing comprehensive recovery. For more information, please contact us today.