Have you watched the 2016 documentary series called Man Up with Gus Worland? It’s worth watching as a study into modern masculinity and men’s psychological health and wellbeing. It was interesting and insightful and, to be honest, I felt sad at times when I watched it yet also hopeful.
It highlighted how difficult some men find it to speak up and share their feelings when they are troubled or going through something tough in their life. I am grateful that, given all that Nick has been through in recent years (he has shared some of that in his articles), he is able to talk about what happened. He is able to share his feelings and show his emotions without embarrassment or fear of judgment, even though I know that was challenging for him at times and took a while for him to process each event. However, that isn’t true for everyone, and many of the men in our life struggle to speak up and it isn’t really their fault – but what’s caused it?
So much of what guides our thinking, our behaviour and our general view of life was established when we were very young. Research indicates that our brain develops most quickly within our first 1,000 days from the time we are conceived (ie until we are nearly 3 years old or so) and it is those who surround us during the early part of childhood that are key influencers and start the process as we observe and absorb what is happening in our world.
Although we don’t understand the impact of it at the time, the way we are expected to behave and fit in to the family group continues to be demonstrated in myriad ways as we develop and mature. As you can imagine, if we were surrounded with positive role models who encourage us to recognise our emotions and talk openly about what we were feeling, whatever our gender, that would be a great start. Unfortunately, that is not always the case; we copy our primary role model whether positive or negative and take that to be ‘the way we do things around here’; we don’t know any different. It’s not about blame, everyone is doing the best they can with what they know.
Regrettably, social and cultural pressures often discourage boys and men to express their feelings and we’ve worked with many who were told ‘big boys don’t cry’ or to ‘harden up’, ‘suck it up’ or ‘man up’, had affection withheld when they were young or were treated harshly. They now struggle to connect with how they are feeling let alone being able to express it because it’s been suppressed for so long.
Every child, whatever their gender is gentle and tender and so are adult males but many have learned to project that and shut it down by adopting a façade that takes on the stereotypical masculine traits which are deemed more ‘acceptable’. Those traits that were established by events early in life and perpetuated with what they have learned or been conditioned to since then.
In an article in Psychology Today, 8 Jan 2018, Darcia F Narvaez Ph.D wrote that all babies rely on tender, responsive care to grow well and learn self-control, social skills and concern for others and, contrary to what many may assume boys, particularly baby boys, need more loving and nurturing than girls and for longer. The key reasons are that they respond less well to environmental stress because of different stress circuitry in the brain and they develop physically, socially and linguistically more slowly.
I take this to mean that nurturing, loving and emotionally supporting boys for as long as possible is the foundation for growing stable, confident and emotionally intelligent men who are able to display all of their masculine traits while still being gentle and tender and not needing to be overly macho or pretend that they don’t experience hurt and pain at times. The ability to be vulnerable is also important, Brene Brown describes it as facing ‘uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure’ and I imagine that may have some male readers cringing or rolling their eyes at this point! It takes courage to be vulnerable in a society which has long seen it as weakness.
We’re not suddenly going to find the men in our lives able to express themselves and speaking up openly about what’s troubling them just because it’s good for them; it requires a different approach that will take time. To me it could start with educating and encouraging all parents/carers to stay connected and supportive of young boys in particular. It would also be valuable to help the significant men in the child’s life to recognise and model what effective adult male behaviour looks like and for the women to help them understand what’s required in a loving adult relationship.
And remember, it’s never too late to change.