I remember the first—and only—time I saw my father cry: I was sixteen and in the backseat of my parents’ car, driving to my paternal grandfather’s funeral. I had awoken to my mother quietly reading the poem I had written for the service, and it was my words that had made him cry. That brief moment still stands out in my mind nearly fifteen years later because it was such a shock—my father is a pretty stoic guy and not one for big emotional displays. The only time I’d ever even heard of him crying was from my mother, who lovingly described his tears of joy at my birth. In that way, my father is no different than a lot of men who were raised in a world that perpetuates the false notion that men shouldn’t express emotions.
In New York Times bestselling author Lewis Howes’ latest book, The Mask of Masculinity, he explores the nine kinds of masks that men can wear, including the Stoic Mask that men adopt out of fear of vulnerability. This idea that men shouldn’t allow themselves to be vulnerable is incredibly toxic. When we tell our boys to “be a man” or to “man up” in tough or painful situations, we reinforce the myth that “real” men don’t have feelings, that they must sacrifice their own emotional wellbeing to be strong for others, and that emotions are a sign of weakness. As a result, many boys grow up trapped behind a mask of indifference that not only harms their physical and emotional health, but prevents them from forming deep and meaningful relationships.
According to Howes, the benefits of dropping the Stoic Mask include:
- Emotional freedom
- A weight off your shoulders
- Deeper relationships with men and women
- A healthy heart
- The permission to feel
- Acceptance and belonging
Many women will recognize these benefits as things we are typically taught to embrace, and many of us wish for the men in our lives to enjoy the benefits of open communication and emotional acceptance, too. So how does Howes recommend we help them? “Take the initiative,” he says. “Ask them to communicate their feelings to you. They most likely won’t do it on their own.” In addition to being proactive, Howes asks you to be patient, and to lead the way by example, dropping your own Stoic Mask. “Let them know you’ll be there to catch them when they start to open up.”
And what if you’re the man himself? When you’re ready, Howes recommends journaling. You can begin by detailing the five most painful experiences of your life and how you felt in each. Afterwards, give yourself permission to feel or to cry as you read each experience back to yourself. When you have allowed yourself to feel and have accepted the truth of these feelings, Howes asks that you share them with a person you love and trust. Skipping this step, he warns, allows these negative experiences to fester and will prevent you from healing. Finally, Howes suggests hiring a therapist or coach to help you work through your emotional trauma. This can be an extraordinarily difficult process for men who really struggle with the Stoic Mask and will take time and work, but the healing can start “right now, with a piece of paper and a pencil.”
Parents of young sons can also be proactive by being mindful of the language they use to talk about masculinity. Though toxic ideas about masculinity pervade our culture, encouraging our sons to talk, as well as express emotional and physical pain (much like we do with our daughters), will go a long way in reversing dangerous stereotypes about what men are supposed to be. Now, more than ever, it is imperative we challenge long-held beliefs about masculinity. In doing so, we’ll be working towards a happier, more fulfilled generation of boys that know they don’t have to hide behind indifference or aggression to be respected, confident men.
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