One of my earliest memories, when I was maybe three or four years old, is standing near the front door of the house we lived in, wearing a belt with a gun holster and gun, a red bandana around my neck, and my mother trying to put a little cowboy hat on my head. I may also have been wearing cowboy boots.
And I was crying.
I have flashed on this memory many times in the last 20 or 30 years, but I just now realized, as I began writing this, that the reason I was crying was because my mother wanted me to go outside and be photographed sitting on a horse that was in our suburban grass yard. The photographer took his horse house to house taking pictures of boys and girls as cowboys and cowgirls. I have a picture of my father at about the same age I was, taken around 1930 or 1931.
But I had never in my life seen a real live horse. It was huge, and a little cranky after being around kids all day. I was terrified of it, and as much as I liked cowboys then, I did not want to sit on that enormous animal - no way, no how. My mother would not take "No, I don't want to," for an answer. So I was crying.
And I will always remember her words, the first time I can recall hearing them, but certainly not the last. "Big boys don't cry. Now, stop your crying." Somehow, and I don't remember how, I ended up on that horse and the picture was taken.
Why is it so hard for men to cry? Because we hear this message that "big boys/men don't cry" from our parents, our peers, our teachers, our coaches, and the culture at large, from the beginning of our lives forward.
When I say the beginning, I mean that literally. When infants are born, boys cry more and appear to need more comforting than girls. By the end of the first year, this is no longer the case - boys cry less and seek less frequent attention and comforting. As Daniel Stern has outlined his research, infants learn a lot from non-verbal, intersubjective communication.
These messages are re-enforced repeatedly, with the correlated accusation that crying is "girlie," and being girlie means we are not masculine.
In the end, this changes with parents first and foremost - as is shown in this quote from an article posted last year at the Good Men Project, Real Men Do Cry:
I raised four boys. The culture told me and them that it wasn’t okay to cry. I said to the boys ” f*ck the culture, it’s okay for you to cry.” How could I have possibly raised four healthy boys into men if they couldn’t cry? What is it about our culture that says “it’s sissy for men to cry or they need to cry privately?” Relationships are hard enough, but to tell men to shutdown, that crying is for sissies, or to be vulnerable is unacceptable does not make for a happy life.
I’ve been with my boys when they had to cry and it was OK. They felt safe enough to do it, it opened their heart up, and they were able to express to me what was going on.
Although science insists that crying is natural, culture still sends messages that strong men don’t cry.
Many parents raise their sons to cry privately, if at all. It is ingrained in many men that masculine identity means holding back the tears except during times of extreme grief. Although women have also accepted this view, more women are voicing their belief that men and boys should be encouraged to express sensitive emotions.
One thing seems certain, though: History and biology side with tears.
Tears of ChampionsUntil recently, many cultures believed that tears were a sign of manliness. World history and literature are filled with male leaders who cried publicly. Tears meant that a man lived by a code of values and cared enough to show emotion when things went wrong. Medieval warriors and Japanese samurai cried during times of epic tragedy. In Western culture, a man’s capacity to cry indicated his honesty and integrity. Abraham Lincoln used strategic tears during his speeches, and modern presidents have followed suit. Despite all this, until recently, men shedding tears have been viewed as less than masculine.
After decades of berating men for their tears, culture seems to be returning to the idea that crying is a male strength. A recent Penn State study found that participants considered a man’s tears to be a sign of honesty while a woman’s tears showed emotional weakness. In both sexes, a delicate misting of the eye was more acceptable than crying.
Tears and HealthHealth research has found many benefits to crying. When people suppress the urge to cry, emotions that would have been expressed through tears are bottled up instead. The underlying biochemistry affects the body differently than if the feelings had found a physical release. Over time, repressed emotions can trigger physiological changes that manifest in clinical symptoms such as high blood pressure.
Social scientists have found correlations between men’s crying and their mental health. A study published in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity found that football players who cried about game outcomes reported higher levels of self-esteem. They felt secure enough to shed tears in front of their teammates and seemed less concerned about peer pressure.
When to Hold the TearsWith so much feel-good press about embracing feelings, it’s easy to forget that sometimes stoicism is the better course. Emergencies usually mean postponing tears in order to accomplish vital tasks. Combat soldiers can’t stop in the middle of battle to have a good cry. In fact, since most combat soldiers have been men, warfare throughout the centuries may have contributed to the cultural rise of the tough, tearless hero.
Crisis personnel need to maintain calm in the field just as soldiers d. Men dominate law enforcement, the military and most public safety fields. These men have a professional mandate to keep emotionally steady, which sets a model for overall behavior.
Even in daily life, feelings alone rarely solve problems. Men may be healthier for allowing themselves to cry, but they often have personal reasons for keeping cool. Family hardships, for example, often require postponing tears in order to be strong for others who are in more pain. A calm demeanor doesn’t mean a man is in denial any more than tears mean he is emotionally unstable.
As cultural winds shift back toward acceptance of the emotional man, men and women will continue to adjust their personal lives around the idea. Some men maintain that raising a strong boy means discouraging tears. Others feel that the women in their lives only want to see male vulnerability when it’s convenient. As with most behaviors, crying is more appropriate in some situations than others. The real task is not only to show good judgment, but to refrain from judging men simply for shedding tears like any other human being.
~ Derek Whitney is an active blogger for the website Aligned Signs, an astrology matching website, he blogs regularly about modern psychology, astrology, and self-awareness.