SUPPRESSING our emotions, acting tough, and using aggression as a form of expression means that men, in particular, are completely ill-equipped to cope with all of the obstacles and challenges that life throws their way.
We might think it is the “safe” way to be as our masculinity defines us, but the truth is, if we remain in this emotionless state, we can expect knock-on negative consequences on all aspects of our lives, including our relationships, as lack of communication, empathy, and emotions are a sure fire route to conflict. I have had to learn this the hard way.
For many years, I inhabited three states of mind: passivity, rage, plus joy, in my love of Jesus. Those were my go-to, my comfort zones, and I thought that I was pretty enlightened, someone with my head screwed on the right way.
I believed that I was fulfilled by where I was in my life, and even though I was not following a traditional path when it came to a profession, I was achieving in the way that my parents expected me to achieve — earning a living and being true to my purpose.
My parents brought me up to be the way they believed boys should be and by this, I mean to be proud, strong, robust enough to hold myself together, and manly enough never to cry — essential character traits that were further reinforced by the environment I grew up in.
Any sign of weakness on my behalf would make my mum anxious and cause my friends to tease me, and any opportunity my dad and I had to open up and go a layer deeper, we laughed off, favouring silence over honesty.
That’s just how life was, and it seemed to work, and would have continued working just fine had it not been for me losing my dad quite out of the blue, with everything I had come to accept as ‘normal’ crashing down as a result.
IN THE years since, my brain has undergone a comprehensive re-wiring. At first, it wasn’t easy to reveal parts of me I had never revealed before. In fact, I am pretty certain that if I had not been in the depths of grief, I would almost certainly never have dared to do so much soul-searching or be truthful about the output.
Now, I can honestly say that not a day goes by without me giving thanks to God for showing me that there is another way to live. It took many months of me staggering around in the dark before I located the light switch; months in which I turned to drink as a release, where complete inertia compromised my marriage and my friendships, and my depression led me to seriously contemplate taking my own life. It did not need to be so extreme.
Grief, as I like to remind people, is the natural human response to trauma and to loss — and that of many other species. Work with it and it is a healing remedy; fight against it and it is the equivalent of continuously picking at a scab.
I had a loving family and good friends who stood by me, but I chose to deal with my grief on my own. I believed I was being strong by holding it in, but the reality is, anyone can keep stuff bottled up, whereas strength lies in being able to call out for help.
Why? Because men are human too: not super-human, not semi-human but fully human, meaning we have been wired with the same catalogue of emotions as women, it’s just that, due to our conditioning, our emotions have been starved of food and sunlight, and so have become stunted, gnarled, misshapen; and they impede our full growth.
Men are three times more likely to die as the result of suicide than women because men don’t:
- Think to ask for help;
- Want to ask for help;
- Know how to ask for help;
- Dare to ask for help; and
- All of the above.
Equally, boys are far more likely to be permanently excluded from school due to all of the above and to end up in prison, as — yes, you got it — young men are far more likely to commit violent crimes than young women.
COMMUNICATING how we feel does not come naturally to many men. I told you, when my dad was dying in hospital, my mum cried, Emma soothed her, but me and my brother were shut off and silent, pacing the corridors, holding it in.
What is more, compared to women, seeking advice for mental health issues or support from a counsellor, is pretty low on many men’s list of survival tactics.
I used to be ashamed about being open and honest and so hid my authenticity even from the people who loved me. The problem is, the more I kept locked up, the bigger my problems became, and the less able I was to handle them. If I had only learnt to be true to myself earlier in my life, I would have saved myself a whole load of pain and bad decisions.
This is why I am intent on telling young people to go and get help with the puddles before they turn into floods. I would love all young people out there, who are battling with their demons, too fearful, shy, embarrassed, worried to let them out, to turn to someone — anyone — and share.
It is hard at first, but when you’ve done it once and you’ve seen the positive way the world responds, it spurs you on to do it again and again.
I have a genuine belief that by unfastening the chains and wearing your heart on your sleeve, you will find so much joy in the way the world reacts, and a whole load more meaning in how you react to the world. That has certainly been the case for me.
It was weeks after my dad died before I felt comfortable crying on my own, and months before I dared release that cry out into the open for all the world to see. In fact, it was my cousin who showed me it was okay to dare.
This particular cousin is younger than me but he inspires me. I was standing across from him at his mum’s burial. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, he started crying, real crying that took a hold of the head, the shoulders, and heart.
Seeing him open up like that released something in me, and before I knew it, I was crying too; the same all-encompassing cry. My cry was partially for my deceased aunt, of course, but mostly, it was for my cousin, because I knew what it must have taken for that strong, proud man to cry out in the open like that.
A few months ago, I cried again. No stopping me now! I was sitting with some of my other cousins talking about our aunt who had passed away (Don’t worry; there is nothing sinister to read into this: I just have a lot of ageing aunties) and we were all talking and remembering her.
The tears were there, rolling down all of our cheeks, but then one of my cousins said something funny, and we all just burst out laughing. Laughing and crying at the same time . . . See? I’ve come a long way.
This is an edited extract from Unspoken: Toxic Masculinity and How I Faced the Man Within the Man by Guvna B, published by Harper Inspire.