Why can’t men “man up” about their feelings?

Christine has just broken up from her five-year long relationship. She’s crying in the park, and her friend Jane is giving her a comfort hug. Now suppose that the story is not about Christine and Jane, but Christian and James, and it might begin to sound weird. It’s just awkward. It’s just not right. Or is it?

Our modern society tends to discourage intimate platonic friendship among straight male friends. Giving hugs, talking through problems, and showing emotions are out of question for men, even though they are seen as normal for female friends.

Why is it so hard for men to be honest about their feelings, you may ask. Since childhood, boys have always been told to ‘man up’, to ‘act tough’ and ‘be a man’. But what exactly does it mean to be a man?

“The old stereotypical masculine persona was that you didn’t show your weakness – by opening up you were giving yourself a perceived weakness,” says Allison Keating, a psychologist at the BWell Clinic, in an interview with the Independent.

“[But] when men don’t open up and don’t show normal vulnerabilities with anxieties or feelings of depression […] they begin to feel isolated and get caught in a spiral of hopelessness and helplessness.”

As boys grow up into men, they keep the habit of hiding their struggles and vulnerability. That’s when they start losing touch with their feelings. Anxiety, insecurity, depression, and all other types of negative feelings are turned into anger. It’s okay, even normal, for a man to be aggressive, but unacceptable for him to acknowledge his pain or sorrow.

This toxic masculinity also holds men back from being emotionally vulnerable towards other males but male friendships have not always been this way.

Back in ancient times, men could freely express their intimate feelings towards each other. Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Virgil’s Nisus and Euryalus; their close friendships were rooted in virtue and seen as “superior to marriage and at least equal in value to sexual love” (The Chronicle Review, 2009).

As human beings, we all have problems. Someone gets sacked from a job. A loved one passes away. A tragic accident takes place. But as women choose to open up their problems with their female friends, men choose to lick their own wounds with pride. But the problems don’t go away regardless, no matter how they choose to hide their pain. 

And as men continue to avoid opening up about their true feelings so do the aggressive behaviours often associated with our masculine members of the society — the swearing, spitting and hitting. These aggressive attributes are manifestations of the oppressed and neglected emotions men fear to exhibit; the tears that were never shown for fear of being perceived as weak. But true bravery bears no linkage to the cold-faced, hot-headed bloke who denies deeper levels of the human connection.

A true man of bravery should embrace emotions and be willing to show whenever he is sad, upset or moody. Sometimes a man needs a shoulder to cry on.

Supported by the City of Melbourne through a community grant, this story is part of a year-long PEER Project which aims to help international students build healthy community, explore and find peer-support on issues around identity and gender, discuss common struggles and stereotypes, and gain the confidence to navigate current and future relationships.

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