'Big Boys Don't Cry'... Or Do They?
It’s a generalisation, yes, but men tend to find it more difficult to express their emotions than women do. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.
There’s been a great deal of research into whether men and women experience their emotions differently; and the consensus seems to be that whilst we all have the same emotional range, men tend to turn more quickly to their cognitive or problem-fixing strategies for dealing with emotional pain, while women will spend more time expressing their feelings openly and empathising with others.
Problem-fixing may not be the method of choice for everyone, but for some people - and in some situations - it’s a very helpful strategy. Where it can fall short is in situations where there is nothing that can be fixed in a practical way, for example when someone is experiencing a profound loss such as a bereavement or the irrevocable end of a close relationship.
But is it nature or nurture that influences this choice of coping strategy?
In our culture there is still a strong element of treating boys and girls differently when it comes to expressing their feelings. Just think of some of the things we say to boys:
- ‘Big boys don’t cry’
- ‘Man up!’
- ‘Be a big strong boy for me/for your mummy’
- ‘You’re just a big girl!’
Or that nursery rhyme:
‘What are little boys made of?
Slugs and snails
And puppy-dogs' tails,
That's what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice,
That's what little girls are made of’.
You may say, oh that’s just a nursery rhyme; it doesn’t mean anything. But actually, it demonstrates how we start thinking differently about what boys are like and what girls are like very early on in their lives.
In other words we have different expectations of boys and girls, which lead us to expect different behaviours from them as they grow up.
It’s still more socially acceptable for a girl or a woman to be openly emotional than it is for a man. In men, it can often be seen as a sign of weakness or as an overtly feminine trait that takes away from a man’s masculinity.
This can be hugely damaging to men; in the throes of emotional pain or torment, we often still expect men to ‘pull themselves together and get on with it’, when actually they may need to express their feelings just as much as women do.
It’s important to remember that we all experience emotional pain - sadness, anger, shame, rejection, loss, disappointment, regret etc. How and whether we express it is partly socially conditioned and partly down to our individual (and family) preferences.
It isn’t helpful to expect someone to behave in a particular way simply on the basis of their gender.
What counselling can do is help each individual find their own way of dealing with their painful emotions, whether that’s providing a private space where the tears can fall without judgement, or helping someone come up with practical ways of dealing with how they’re feeling.