It’s June, the lockdown is finally (albeit slowly) lifting here in Ontario, the warm weather has arrived and I’m half-vaxxed. How are things in your world?
June, of course, is also Father’s Day and the perfect opportunity to talk about men and grief.
While the definition of masculinity might differ from man to man, society has some heavy opinions on acceptable ways for men to show their emotions.
Men are supposed to be the strong silent type. Stoic. Show no fear, take no prisoners and never, under any circumstances, appear weak.
“Boys who believe that men don’t cry will become men that rage. Boys who learn that pain is weakness will die before they ask for help.” Glennon Doyle – Untamed
Now, crying isn’t NECESSARY for grieving but I wonder how many of us don’t cry because of societal programming? For men especially, there’s an extra layer of judgement around crying.
Restricting boys and men to a limited emotional range creates barriers to healing, sets them up for problems in their relationships and doesn’t acknowledge their full humanity.
Last year, I coached a firefighter who wanted to challenge the stereotype of the stoic man and model for his daughters that it’s okay for men to express their emotions (which, can I just say, is frickin’ amazing). He struggled to access his emotional depths, to give himself permission to cry (Not surprising, given that his line of work forces him to compartmentalize everything he sees and experiences.). When we try so hard every day to feel in control of our lives, the mere thought of letting our emotions ‘run wild’ and allowing ourselves to cry can feel like we’re losing that control. It feels scary and vulnerable. I mean, what if we start crying and can’t stop?
It might seem counterintuitive but sometimes the more we lean into the emotions and allow them to be expressed the more quickly they move through us.
Crying is simply a way for our nervous system to release intense emotions and complete the stress response cycle. That’s why we cry when we’re moved, in pain, afraid, sad, joyful, or relieved.
“Anyone who says, “Crying doesn’t solve anything.” doesn’t know the difference between dealing with the stress and dealing with the situation that caused the stress…You may not have changed the situation that caused the stress but you completed the cycle.” Emily & Amelia Nagoski – Burnout
The same goes for grief. Crying doesn’t mean you’ve completed your grief. It relieves just enough stress so that you can begin to deal with it.
My firefighter isn’t alone. First responders witness some of the most traumatic events of our lives and they do it with a professional calm that helps to reassure us at the very moment it feels like our lives are falling apart. (much love to first responders) But they also need tools to deal with the emotional repercussions of their job and safe spaces to express those emotions.
I’ve been telling my Dad (a retired police officer) about the benefits of meditation for years (studies show it helps with PTSD among many other things) but it wasn’t until he saw a news story about how meditation was being introduced to the police force that he thought there might be something to it. Sometimes we need to see others go first before we can give ourselves permission to try something new, admit we need help or express our emotions (“People like us do things like this” – Seth Godin).
Even Navy Seals, the epitome of masculine badassery, use techniques like box breathing (inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4, repeat…a fave breathing technique among yogi’s too) to stay calm in stressful situations. The more practices like these are adopted in traditionally masculine spaces, the more models we have of “manly” men expressing grief and other emotions, the more it becomes okay for all men.
Not just men
Women also receive the “stay strong” and “suck it up buttercup” messages. And let’s not forget, “There’s no crying in baseball!”
Black women especially are often labelled as “strong”. It’s easier to believe that “strong black women” don’t need our help or our compassion (of course, nothing is further from the truth). And, just like men, we ask strong women to suppress their emotions, suffer in silence, and hide moments of vulnerability. Whenever and wherever we reduce our complex human-ness into 1-dimensional tropes we miss opportunities to truly connect and see one another.
Regardless of race or gender, we were all born capable of experiencing a whole wide range of human emotions. By narrowing our emotional range and only labeling some emotions as acceptable, we cut ourselves off from the message our emotions have for us. And our emotions are always trying to tell us something.
How we can help
Women buy into the masculine stereotypes just as much as men and it can sometimes be a little unsettling to see a man break down. It can be hard to witness someone else’s emotions and our discomfort may unintentionally signal to them that it’s not okay.
“Our boys are just as human as our girls. They need permission, opportunities and safe places to share their humanity. Let’s ask about their feelings, relationships, hopes and dreams so they don’t become middle-aged men who feel permitted to discuss only sports, sex, news and the weather. Let’s help our boys become adults who don’t have to carry life alone.” Glennon Doyle – Untamed
We need to be able to hold space for the men in our lives and allow them to have a safe place to express every emotion, free from judgement. One of the best things we can do is learn to regulate our own emotions and heal our own wounds so that we can be a loving container that allows them to process their emotions without triggering us.
Something to think about…
Are the men in your life comfortable expressing emotions like grief?
How does it make you feel when you see a man cry?
How can we encourage the boys in our lives to come up with their own definition of masculinity that allows them to be fully human?
p.s. I love this video from Soul Pancake. It’s a round table discussion of men on defining masculinity and I found myself wishing it was longer and the conversation kept going. Check it out and let me know what you think.