How I'm Breaking the Cycle of Toxic Masculinity for My Sons and Mental Health
Men everywhere are killing themselves while they are still alive. They are zombies, walking around dead inside. They have put up a wall in their minds and around their hearts because they have been brainwashed to do so. This all no fault of theirs. For decades, society has hammered into the brains of men that “boys don’t cry” and “real men keep their emotions bottled up.” We see it everywhere: Music, movies, TV and even in video games. Men are to be tough and macho and never show a crack in their armor. “No woman wants a crybaby,” they say. If you are a man who is willing to cry and be emotional, then you must be a homosexual, as if being a “sissy” or “wimp” is synonymous with homosexuality. ( I have met some very masculine gay men in my life. Men who would surprise anyone with their orientation.)
We are fed it as children. Too many parents love using the phrases “toughen up” or “man up,” and refer to their young men as “crybabies” if they begin to cry. There have been times I have told my sons not to cry. Usually, it’s when they are overreacting, but I try very hard not to belittle them about it. I am human and sometimes it comes through. That’s how deep the brainwashing goes. I know better and still it happens. They cry on the playground and they are told to “walk it off,” as if that were the cure-all. When a child is being bullied or abused by peers, “walking it off” or “sucking it up” is not the answer. As they grow up, boys see the men in their life as examples of how to behave and deal with things. Sometimes, this is OK. Not everyone is bullied. Not everyone deals with mental illness. Everyone, at some point in their life, will deal with pain — the death of a loved one, divorce, job loss or worse. How we are taught to handle these things has a major effect on what we become after them.
I remember, as a child, when I would have what I now know as panic attacks or breakdown crying because I didn’t understand everything going on in my brain, I would be mocked. I was called a “sissy” and a “crybaby.” Sometimes, I could handle groups, especially if I was with friends. As a teenager, I loved going to concerts. I could lose myself in the music and forget I was in a crowd. If I was alone, this was next to impossible. One particular instance stands out. I was young, maybe approaching middle school age. There a was mixer of sorts to get the younger kids used to the kind of atmosphere the older (15 or 16-year-old) kids were in. It was loud, there was music and people I didn’t know and I found myself under a table, in tears, having a panic attack. This is the first time I remember feeling social anxiety this strong. I wanted to run, to leave, but my body would not allow it. I felt weak and vulnerable. It was referenced by my peers several times after that. I was seen as a wimp: an antisocial nerd. So I pushed it down. I learned to keep my emotions in. No crying; no breakdowns.
I saw boys and men around me being tough and never having emotions other than being happy, and I felt less-than. Weak. My father wasn’t the overbearing kind of man. He didn’t belittle me because of how I felt. I don’t think he really understood what I was going through, because I never let anyone in, but I don’t remember him ever going macho-man on me. We just didn’t talk a lot about emotions. It was a subject that stayed on the backburner most of the time. Other males in my life, however, were all about that “men don’t cry” life so I made extra sure not to show it around them. That’s how things stayed well into my adult life. I didn’t open up to many people and I did everything I could not to be emotional. This meant bottling up my feelings. Those feelings of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts… they all got pushed down inside. Inside, I was screaming. I was still terrified of being in public alone but I did it anyway so no one would know. I used alcohol to numb myself and what came out usually came out as anger.
When I became a father, I did my best to be strong for them. I didn’t want them to see their dad as a weak man. It had come full circle; I had become a man who shoved his feelings down deep and didn’t let them out. I did everything I could not to project that onto my sons. I did not want them to have the “boys don’t cry” mindset. I was walking that line… the “do as I say, not as I do” line. When I was admitted to the hospital, I had to decide if I wanted the boys to see me. I knew they would see me differently. I knew the first time I saw them, I would cry. I knew they needed to have an explanation as to why their dad was in that place. So I told them. They had a little understanding already, because their mom had been in there before as well. I wanted them to be aware this was dad admitting he needed help — that dad was in a bad place mentally and emotionally and this needed to change. We have had several conversations about mental health and acceptance. They know what I now know…
They know that having a mental illness is not weakness. That expressing emotions and crying is not weakness. It is OK to not be OK sometimes. There is a negative stigma attached to emotions when it comes to men. All our TV and movie “heroes” are men who either are emotionally unavailable or all-together bad dads, from Homer Simpson to Frank Gallagher. Men who try to tough it out. Thankfully, we have actual men like Terry Crews, Michael Landsberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who are willing to stand up and say: “It’s OK to not be OK. It is OK to have to cry, to be depressed and yes, even suicidal. It is OK to seek help for these things. You are not less of a man for it. Rather, you are a stronger man for admitting it.” To say you can be sick without being weak.
We need to break this cycle of macho-masculinity poisoning our boys and men: the pseudo-macho attitude that makes them think men don’t care about emotions. Hunting, chasing women, driving sports cars, shooting shit; the things that make them think makes them men. The macho stuff. The attitude that culls emotions from their minds and sends them into a world that will chew them up and spit them out without a care and then tells them they cannot be affected by it.
As men, we need to stand up and end this cycle once and for all. We need to talk about how we feel and admit when we are hurting. It is OK, I promise. You won’t be less of a man for it. Remember, I’m here for you. We are all in this together.
Photo by Aiony Haust on Unsplash