Illustration Courtesy of Alban Huber.

Men, Being a Better Human Means Re-Learning Self-Compassion

Men have long been forced to repress their emotions, leading to anger and projection of our traumas on women. Being a better human and a better ally, requires getting in touch with our emotions.

Mar 28, 2021

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my own tears. When I was in elementary school, I remember thinking that crying was my superpower. It was simple, if mom was winning a game of Monopoly, a few tears could magically buy me Park Place and put me on the top of the leaderboard. If a friend stole my specially packed pudding at lunch, a short wail and a few sniffles would see a new pudding appear suddenly before my eyes. Similarly, when I was feeling lonely and out of place in my new middle school, crying gave me a chance to fully sit with and forgive the place that I was in at that point in my life. I was growing through my pain, but soon those around me began to see things differently.
Almost as if they were dealing with a parasite, I remember my family and teachers working together to rid me of the emotionality that made me human, but according to them, not a man. When I was tormented and emotionally abused by my 5th grade baseball team, suddenly I was a problem that needed rewiring and self-reflection. Of course they bullied me, said my grandfather, because I took things too seriously and cried after striking out; all that made me an easy target, he felt. In his mind, my TaeKwonDo lessons would give me the tools to assert my dominance when questioned. Everyone around me felt that I should swallow my emotions and “man up” rather than risk being called weak. This would allow me to live life more successfully.
In actuality, these comments have only made me more callous, more unforgiving of myself and less understanding of those around me. The problem, not only within myself but with a lot of men, is that many of us have lost touch with the self-compassion we had as kids because we have serious difficulty accepting and forgiving ourselves for the trauma we have all experienced in “fulfilling” the expectations of our assigned gender role.
Every week my two best friends and I choose a night to go out into the city. Food is always on the agenda, but the focal point of the night is always our conversations. One night last week, we asked ourselves a critical question: “how often have we been shamed by others for our own emotionality” Almost automatically each of us was able to easily recount raw and vivid recollections of very uncomfortable moments in our lives. Even more striking was that for all of us, this was our first time speaking about these incidents and personally reflecting on them since they transpired. After years of suppressing these experiences, it was hard to even conceptualize that just a few words from teachers and friends brought us to demonize parts of ourselves that were vulnerable, confused and alone.
Recent research shows that these traits are common and slowly introduced to boys throughout their childhood development. In the eyes of Harvard Psychologist William S. Pollack, men first begin to experience severe developmental trauma surrounding their gender identity when they are forced into a premature separation from their mothers. In my case, this manifested itself in my male relatives criticizing my mother for showering me, dressing me, allowing me to bring my pacifier to kindergarten or introducing me to the kids at the playground. For others, the point of inflection can happen as early as 13 months, when fathers begin verbally roughhousing their sons while encouraging emotional expression in their daughters.
Associate Psychology Professor at George Mason University Tara Chaplin claims that the second wave of trauma occurs when society begins to teach boys to associate greater value to externalizing emotions like anger, contempt and disgust and a lesser value to tender emotions like sadness and anxiety. After all, anger and steadfastness help promote the patriarchal standard of men overcoming obstacles and achieving despite what stands in the way.
Furthermore, our unhealthy reliance on apathy has also resulted in generations of women unfairly bearing the brunt of men’s repressed emotional trauma as the designated “emotional ones”. As Melanie Hamlett from Harper's Bazaar puts it: “wives and girlfriends [continue] to play best friend, lover, career advisor … emotional cheerleader, mom — to him, their future kids, or both — and eventually, on-call therapist minus the $200/hour fee.”
Women are somehow expected to fit themselves into this patriarcal narrative, but when we place this onus on women and also tell men that sex is the only space for intimacy, we are also training men to rely on the female body for emotional release. Black Feminist author bell hooks grapples with this idea of men seeking to gain clarity through sex and believes that “most men think that sex will provide them with a sense of being alive, connected, that sex will offer closeness, intimacy, pleasure.”
But what happens when the women in our lives inevitably cannot cleanse us of the pain that they are ultimately not responsible for? Do we throw our trauma on to our next partner and subject them to the hostility and anger these experiences have manifested within us?
The answer is unequivocally no. Breaking the cycle of self-flagellation and harm means starting from within. It means relearning that our tears, our laugher and our disappointment aren’t signs of weakness and fragility. They are our superpowers. It means calling out the bros when they perpetuate toxic masculinity and checking in on female friends who may be playing the role of savior for their partners, or even ourselves. Most importantly it means men having more difficult conversations with other men and being real about what we have put ourselves through to adhere to others expectations of our own masculinity.
Dylan Palladino is Managing Editor. Email him at
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