What Does it Mean to “Be a Man”?

In the popular imagination it still is considered unmanly to feel. Emotions too often are defined along gendered lines: women feel, men act. When we are bombarded with sayings like “man up,” “cowboy up,” or “grow a pair” it’s easy to see that “being a man” can be simplistic – restrict emotion, be self-sufficient, never ask for help – and sometimes deadly: 79% of suicides, after all, are men.[i]

A 2005 study found that men are less likely to seek help and hold negative views of therapy.[ii]  Asking for help is admitting failure. To “be a man” is to be impervious.   

Anger is Acceptable

Anger, however, is a masculine virtue. It is the male emotion. Healthy anger can be a motivating force for change. Yet all too often anger for men is an unhealthy outlet. We get angry when we feel misunderstood or hurt. We hope someone will see our point if we only raise our voices loud enough. When no one responds to our rage, however, we have further proof that no one understands us. Self-reliance and stifled emotion are our only solution.

Unhealthy anger often masks serious health issues like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress. It’s ok for a man to feel anger, but it’s not ok for a man to feel other primary emotions such as loneliness, confusion, fear, or sadness.

Change and Growth Require All of Our Emotions

Rather than view emotion as a gendered concept in which “real” men don’t share their feelings, it's important to accept that sharing one’s emotional life is more fundamental to change than masculine self-reliance. Consider:  

  • Emotion theory teaches us that emotion is a biologically driven adaptation that tells us what’s important for survival.
  • Neuroscience reveals that change occurs most efficiently within the context of secure relationships.
  • The Boston Change Process Study Group has found that change occurs precisely as a result of the therapeutic relationship.

From “Being a Man” to “Becoming a Man”

Considering the importance of emotion to behavioral change, therapy’s focus on offering a corrective emotional experience can be useful to men.

For many of us, the concept of knowing who we are and what needs to be done is paramount to self-identity. Interestingly, emotion could be the most fundamental path to self-understanding. Perhaps it’s important to shift away from the same old “manly” positions of self-reliance and denial of emotion.

To progress from simply “being a man” to an ongoing and creative process of “becoming a man” would be to rely on familiar “masculine” (really, humanistic) ideals like courage, strength, endurance, and honor. It’s just these qualities that are required in any therapeutic relationship. To focus instead on “becoming a man” would be to redefine what’s important and what needs to be done by experiencing and exploring emotion, not denying it.   

Unchanging, unyielding “truths” about men and women are appealing. They offer security. Unfortunately, such “truths” also deform and degrade, usually unknowingly. It might be time to consider that none of us can fit the mold of “being a man” without tossing aside vital parts of ourselves.

Ironically, feeling might be one of the bravest things any of us ever do.

[i] https://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/facts-and-figures

[ii] Gonzalez, J. M., Alegria, M. and Prihoda, T. J. (2005), How do attitudes toward mental health treatment vary by age, gender, and ethnicity/race in young adults?. J. Community Psychol., 33: 611–629. doi: 10.1002/jcop.20071.