*This is a guest post by James Emry, author of the book, “Positive-ly Uncertain“
[Paul’s Note: This is a great article for the male listeners and readers of The Overwhelmed Brain. Though, it’s a worthwhile read for everyone!]
Imagine hearing over the phone that someone near and dear to you had just passed away. A family member you cherished deeply and one of the most loving people you had ever known. Understandably, you would be sad. You would be in mourning. You would cry.
I cried with my whole heart and thought nothing of the people around me. My sadness consumed me and I wept until it was hard to breathe. But when I lifted my head I could see my 8-year-old cousin Nick trembling and looking upward, blinking rapidly. He was dry faced but he looked ready to explode. Finally, when my uncle placed his hand on Nick’s shoulder and said, “it’s okay to cry now”, Nick did explode.
He burst into tears and hugged his father like it was the last time he would ever see him. Nick buried his face in his father’s shirt and grieved for minutes. Later we all sat around to talk, share, and just be there for each other. It was a powerful experience but I will always remember my cousin Nick’s reaction.
I’ll remember his reaction because at the time I thought it was very odd that he felt the need to hold back his tears. It was only years later that I came to learn that such reactions are quite common. You see, Nick went through the same thing every boy in America goes through growing up. We know that every toddler eventually wants to call themselves a “big boy” and every big boy eventually wants to call himself a man. In fact, we use the “big boy” promotional title as an incentive for children and say “that’s for babies” to stop certain behaviors. They can level up by getting potty trained, tying their own shoes, and so on but the next promotion up is where boys start to lose there way.
How do you turn a big boy into a young man? Better yet, what does it mean to be a man?
Well, Webster’s Dictionary defines the word masculine as, “having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man.” But the problem with the accepted idea of masculinity in today’s culture is that it doesn’t offer a lot of leeway in terms of emotion. We have taken the focus off of traditional masculine traits like honor and resilience and placed an emphasis on the absence of what are considered feminine traits like compassion, understanding, and caring.
So instead of hearing “that’s for babies”, you may have heard things like, “that’s what little girls do.” Parents often say these kinds of things because they want to motivate their young boys not to throw tantrums or cry when things don’t go their way. In reality, though, it just lays the foundation for a boy’s new home, the box.
A boy’s “box” is built over years of childhood experience, and the construction process involves everything from school yard insults to silver screen role models. Your walls are reinforced every time you hear someone being put down for “running like a girl.” And they are made thicker each time you watch your favorite hero act with swift aggression and win the girl’s heart.
It’s becomes obvious to you quickly that there are rewards for sticking close to the middle of the box. It’s much safer in the box for a young boy, too. When you stay in your box no one calls you a sissy or a pansy on the playground, and your parents are always proud of you after your baseball game, win or lose. But what happens when you do lose and you wanted to win so badly? It was a big game, after all. Your good friend was on the other team and the girl you like was even there when you struck out.
It’s the perfect storm for sadness and as a young boy you just wanted to cry and maybe get a hug but you know you can’t leave the box. So what emotions are available in the masculine box? Anger and hostility? Aggression? You throw your bat against the fence and storm off because, hey, it’s better than crying, right? You may get a stern talking to on the car ride home but at least you’re getting some attention and you didn’t embarrass your parents to the point of being ostracized by them.
Crush your box if you want to be a happier man.
There’s not a lot of room in the box for boys and some are granted even less than others. But a man who spends his whole life living in that box is no man at all. A life in the box is one that is stunted emotionally and intellectually. You must learn to not just escape the box, but to destroy it. The day you realize that all those little “expectations about manhood” are made up is the day you can free yourself from the false masculinity you see so many men still striving for today.
I invite you to recall two or three times you held back from crying, comforting another person, or talking about your emotions with someone because it “wasn’t the manly thing to do” and be hard on yourself about it. In fact, be very hard on yourself. I called myself out in a big way because I knew that the years of being called out by everyone else was all just macho bull-crap. I had to be even harder on myself for falling for it if I wanted to truly fix it.
In my psychology research and time as a life improvement coach I have seen just how devastating these left over boxes can be and I have to level with men every single day on their own growth out of it. It is a major barrier in finding true happiness and I challenge you as a man to crush what’s left.
If you want to try yoga and you are worried about what other people will think then you are definitely not there yet! So you must keep crushing it if you want to find more of your true self on the other side. Outstanding happiness and self-assurance is well worth the effort, trust me.
What do you think about the box? Are a lot of parents setting the box up or is more of it made on the playground? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.
James Emry is the founder of The Best Practice Life and author of the book Positive-ly Uncertain. He is an expert on life satisfaction and works with achievement-minded people like you to help you find outstanding happiness in the most effortless way you possibly can. In his graduate research at the University of South Carolina, James combined professional leadership science with the emerging field of positive psychology to build advanced individual development methods. He has since focused on sharing the best happiness optimizing practices and “hacks” with his one-on-one clients and with thoughtful readers like you. You can access exclusive insights when you opt-in to his weekly newsletter by simply clicking Get Your FREE Actionable Insights.