I am positive that never has anyone taken a look at me and said to themselves “Now that’s a man”. I am 5’8’’ (on a good day) with a thin stature, light features, and a babyface that, without a beard, would cause people to mistaken me for someone just graduating high school. So I’ve never felt masculine, at least in the traditional sense of the word. Even mentally, it was never something I identified with all that much. I have always been a very sensitive and emotional person, and growing up, the way that manifested itself was largely in an identity struggle: trying to figure out who I was and where I fit into the world, and never feeling like I fit in anywhere all that well. Another way that being sensitive and emotional manifested itself was with girls.
In middle school, when boys started talking about girls, I’d sit in quietly on these conversations and feel off-put by them. They would say things that didn’t feel right to me, and I’d wonder if people said the same things about my sister. Even relatively mild conversations about celebrity crushes, I didn’t feel comfortable with. It wasn’t that I didn’t have celebrity crushes; I did, but I felt that I didn’t know any of these celebrities personally or what they were like as people, so what was there to talk about? This led to an aversion for anything beyond platonic relationships with girls, in part due to upbringing, but in large part also due to hearing boys talk about girls they were attracted to in ways that didn’t sit right with me. For teenage me, it seemed that the qualities needed to attract girls were qualities that I didn’t have, and on some level, qualities that I didn’t want either. So I didn’t really try. Even so, I found myself emotionally intimate with a number of my female friends, because I felt like I could open up to them and be vulnerable about whatever it was I was feeling, in ways that I couldn’t with my male friends. On multiple occasions, I remember trying to open up to my best friend, and every single time, he would immediately shut down. I knew we shared some of the same struggles, and he still refused to talk about any of it, even with his best friend.
When I look back on high school, besides the forever-ongoing identity crisis and the fact that I didn’t know how to flirt (not sure I know how to now tbh), what stands out to me is that dichotomy between the type of conversations I was able to have with guys vs. with girls. And 8 years out of high school, I can’t say that things have drastically changed. Even now into adulthood, I can count on one hand the number of men I’ve had intimate conversations with. It isn’t that men don’t have emotional struggles – I’ll catch a flinch or eyes widen when I say something that hits differently, but that’s almost always immediately followed by a response to try to lighten the mood or change the subject – it’s that men aren’t taught how to be vulnerable and express their emotions in a productive way. A lot of men don’t even know how. From childhood, boys are told not to cry, or they’ll be seen as weak. If a guy is sensitive, he’s soft and made fun of, while men are praised for being emotionless and considered tough. Look around, and you’ll notice that these expectations for masculinity are everywhere in society. It’s toxic, and frankly, it’s bullshit. And everyone is worse off for it.
There are all sorts of ways toxic masculinity does harm, but I think the root cause of so much of that harm is a lack of empathy. Because masculinity is everywhere in society, there’s no incentive for men to learn empathy, and once you’re taught to dismiss your own emotions, it’s a simple step to dismiss the emotions of others. On top of that, from a young age, pretty much anything guys do can be written off as “boys will be boys”, so in many cases, there are no consequences for doing something wrong. Left unchecked, it’s how men can go through life never thinking that they’re wrong, or never having to see things from anyone else’s perspective. It’s how men can catcall women. It’s how men can harm others and then feel like the victim when called out for it. It’s how someone like Donald Trump can become the person that he is. It’s how someone like Donald Trump can have so many supporters and become president.
But even for men who aren’t awful, the expectations of masculinity can make them and the people around them worse off in a lot of ways. We all have demons that we carry. We all have issues that we struggle with. That’s normal; it’s a part of being human. Women are generally better able to deal with these struggles by talking about them with their friends, their family, or a therapist. Men on the other hand simply don’t talk about these things. So what typically ends up happening, if nothing is done about it, is those feelings are suppressed in unhealthy ways, and that pressure builds and builds and builds until it bursts, or men become emotional gold diggers, where they are dependent on a significant other for all their emotional support, since they aren’t willing or able to talk to anyone else about it. Women end up having to carry all the emotional baggage of the men in their life.
There are subtler ways that masculinity affects men too. One example of that is compliments and attention. Men don’t get complimented; it simply doesn’t happen. Because of that, men have so little external information and feedback to base their self-image on; it’s almost pure chance whether a guy decides that he sees himself as an amazing person, or someone who is useless with nothing to offer. So when a man does get a real sincere compliment, that compliment can literally change how he sees himself as a person. Even seemingly small compliments, the high of that compliment can last forever. In high school, I had a friend who randomly told me that she thought I smelled nice, and for weeks afterward, whenever I felt like crap, I would come back to that compliment and tell myself that at least I smelled nice. In college, I had an acquaintance that I didn’t see all that often, but always enjoyed talking to whenever I did. She once made an offhand comment about how I was one of the easiest people to open up to and feel comfortable around, and to this day, that might be the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to me. We live in a society where mens’ worth is so tied up to their accomplishments and what they are able to provide that when someone actually sees us as human and shows us that we matter as a person, it can mean the world.
(Side note: I also believe this is why men so often mistaken a woman being nice or complimenting them as the woman being interested.)
Ultimately, it’s on us men to change these expectations around masculinity, and there's no doubt it’s hard. So much of it is subconscious, a result of the expectations and pressures put on us by the society surrounding us. Just being aware of it isn’t enough either. Even though I am very emotional and very comfortable talking about my vulnerabilities, I am not an emotionally expressive person. I learned to internalize my emotions growing up, and as a result, I don’t show them very much. Now in a lot of ways, this is useful, as it’s important to be able to regulate your emotions; I don’t want to be crying at work or in an inappropriate setting. On the other hand, suppressing negative emotions has caused me to not even be able to express positive emotion very well. I’ll feel incredibly happy, and I won’t know how to express that happiness. It sucks, but I’m working on it. And we all have things we need to work on, so let's talk about them. There’s nothing wrong with being sensitive; sensitivity literally means being able to detect subtle changes or signals. There’s nothing wrong with crying; crying is one of the most therapeutic emotional releases there is. There’s nothing wrong with being vulnerable and intimate, and there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Reach out to me; I’m happy to talk. We can skip the small talk and get right to it. If you have a lot of things you’re dealing with, seriously consider talking to a therapist; I can’t recommend it enough. It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself, and I promise you won’t regret it. Always happy to offer any guidance I can on how to go about finding a therapist and what going to therapy actually looks like too.
I have been doing some soul-searching recently, and I came across this idea that I found incredibly insightful: we don’t care for someone because we love them; we love them because we care for them.
Tied to that is the concept of being a burden, and not wanting to feel like a burden to others, which is why many of us don’t ask for help or care. It’s something that is always on my mind, and it is why I tend to be guarded about sharing personal details with others unless I get the sense they’re sincerely interested. It’s not because I don’t want to talk about what’s on my mind; I always do actually, but I don’t want to burden or bore anyone with whatever’s going on inside my head. Ironically enough, you will be more loved if you’re more willing to be a burden, because letting someone care for you is how love and relationships deepen.
It seems counterintuitive, but I highly recommend listening to this, from 43:57 to about 45:15. I legit had to rewind and replay it 4 or 5 times because it so completely blew my mind, and it has made me reconsider how I go about things in my own life.