Be a man!

“Be a man” – when are men told that? Pretty much every time they’re upset or sad or worked up about some issue. So what does it mean then, to be a man about these things?

It means that you’re supposed to work on logic and practical thought. It means that you see a problem and move to the solution or goal rather than waste time moaning about your ‘feelings’. It means you don’t have, shouldn’t have, time for being ‘soft’: you may love your parents/spouse/child/dog… But for heaven’s sake don’t SHOW it! You may have felt 110 metres tall the first time your baby lisped ‘papa’ or you may stay up nights trying to work out an easier retirement for your parents but you would never, ever talk about such stuff, because that’s just not what men do.

As early as at three years of age, a boy who has lost his toy is told to “stop crying like a girl”. He is pushed to DO something – look for it, go find another toy to play with, go outside… anything, really, rather than sit there and make his feelings heard. All life long, this lesson is repeated: “women cry, men act.” The good boy follows this rule, thinking “there’s nothing to talk about in that”, whether that is a lost job or a failed relationship or the loss of a loved one. He tries to find a solution, one that can be acted upon. If that happens, fine; if it doesn’t, he ignores or avoids the issue in whichever way he’s comfortable with – by dismissing it as minor, by getting angry whenever it is brought up, by getting drunk, by withdrawing into a hard silence.

Just as the transition from a girl to woman is tough, so also the change from a boy to a man is difficult. The only difference is that men don’t talk about it; indeed “not talking about it” itself becomes a test of manhood of sorts. Only the sissies and the mama’s boys talk about how tough things are/ have been/ will be. There is an implied value in silently absorbing the blows of life. There are no rites of passage for a male member of today’s Indian society, and no celebration of that change that passes down from one generation to the next.

A child – boy or girl – learns to make sense of the world through words. This is the same for intellectual and emotional development. The more words we have and are encouraged to use, the more we are able to comprehend and compress unwieldy blocks of experience into bite-sized chunks of wisdom. And yet we leave our male children bereft of this very powerful, extremely necessary tool for emotional growth. We on the contrary teach them to neglect their emotions, make a virtue out of it. Is it any wonder then that these boys and men have nothing to say and no one to say it to?

A lot of men are close to their mothers while growing up, and then transfer this to their partner/spouse beyond a certain age. In romantic relationships especially, men tend to initially do a lot of talking, till they feel the relationship is secure. Once they feel secure they tend to lapse back into their monosyllabic existence. The extent to which they share and the kind of benefits they receive from it is not to be denied; but because they only always share with one person, they are extra-vulnerable should anything happen to that relationship.

This is complicated when their secure silence is misinterpreted as indifference by their partners. So men’s ‘sudden’ change more often than not leaves them in a vacuum of doubt and insecurity. Thus many men end up tragically losing or being estranged from the ones they love the most, without even knowing when it happened or how.

Men are just not given the time or emotional space to come to terms with that in any real way, and this is what puts them at greater risk for depression, suicide, hypertension, coronary heart disease, and strokes. The cycle of not talking, not grieving, not dealing with the pain or the regrets goes around once more, and the man is left staring into his drink while his friends heartily back-slap him into a better frame of mind.

Most women have at least one stress-buster: they share the small stuff and the big stuff and the in-between stuff with at least one other female – be it friend, relative or colleague. Letting off steam in this way is half the battle against stress and worry. Call it girl talk or female bonding or bitching sessions, but there’s no denying that women walk away from it refreshed and with some perspective on their problems.

Male bonding, on the other hand, mostly consists of shared activities – getting drunk together, going on an adventure trip, playing a game. With men, the emphasis is on the activity rather than the company; so while these may also relieve stress in the short term, it is more because of the escape value than a chance to really size up the situation and air out different views.

Just like women are a woman’s worst critics, a man is bound to this oath of male silence by other men. There are many subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which this operates between men:

  • Through shaming – “is that all that’s bothering you?”
  • Through mocking – “going all metrosexual about your feelings, are you?”
  • Teasing – “don’t say anything to him, he’ll probably burst into tears”
  • Scolding – “stand up straight and take it like a man should, for heaven’s sake!”
  • Snide remarks – “of course he gets along with women, he’s the talking type”

The bottom line being, real men don’t share their feelings with anyone.
All men (and women) have emotions; what women have additionally is the space and the means to show and share them in ways that build warmth and increase the chances of rewarding relationships. A woman can express joy through words, a smile, a hug, an impromptu celebration, an extra-special meal, to name only a few ways. She may show that she is sad by crying for an hour or a day, by talking to a friend or a relative, by introspecting, or by discussing it with her partner. While for men, happiness is something to be quietly content about and sadness is hidden under anger or a cloud of alcohol or both. This song says it all:

“It may sound absurd, but don’t be naive
Even heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed, but won’t you concede
Even heroes have the right to dream
It’s not easy to be me”
– ‘Superman’, by Five for Fighting

Every man is Superman, or is trying to be. In doing so, he hurts himself on the edge of his own and others’ expectations and has no one to share his burden of feelings with.

TalkItOver provides professional counselling services for individuals, couples and families. If you or someone you know has experienced something similar to what has been described in this article, you can contact us for more information and help.

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About Gayatri Swaminathan

Gayatri Swaminathan is a clinical psychologist with 7 years of practical experience in the field. She has worked as a trauma counsellor, a qualitative market researcher, lecturer and private practioner. She has an M. Phil in Clinical Psychology and M.A. in Applied Psychology from Delhi University and B.A. (Psychology, Sociology, English Literature) from Bangalore University. She is trained primarily in the cognitive-behavioural approach, but also incorporates other schools of therapy and techniques as and when needed. She works with individual adults, couples, children and adolescents and their families.