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Anxiety and Masculinity: Dispelling Unhelpful Social Myths

Personal Perspective: Tough-guy masculinity promotes emotional suppression.

Key points

  • Societal myths about masculinity impede healthy coping.
  • These myths cause many men to suffer in silence.
  • Gender norms and expectations can affect mens' willingness to process emotions in a healthy way.

In an episode of The Sopranos, tough guy Tony Soprano laments the lack of men like actor Gary Cooper, whom he describes as “the strong, silent type.” Cooper, in his multitude of roles portraying tough, no-nonsense old-west lawmen and gunslingers, symbolizes an outmoded though still prevalent depiction of masculinity: men shouldn’t emote, cry, complain, struggle, or ask for help. We should be hyper-independent caretakers of our own business, never burdening others with our issues. This is problematic on many levels, namely that these myths of masculinity can interfere with healthy coping.

The myth of toughness dictates that anything other than strength in the face of challenge is weakness. Life and its complexities, however, reveal the ridiculousness of this conclusion. Daily, we face uncertainty, worry, stress, fatigue, and transition. To think that we should always keep our feelings about these complexities inside is essentially promoting emotional suppression and repression. To say that this is an unhealthy response is an understatement. But I bought into it at one time in my life. Though I struggled mightily with anxiety and panic attacks, I resisted both psychotherapy and medication. I can figure this out myself was a common self-message, and one that was steeped in falsehoods about being a man.

The myth of manly men
If this mythology had worked, I might have overcome panic and anxiety by simply “being strong.” In retrospect, I was strong because I sought help, but the reasons it wasn’t easy are rooted in societal mythology and longstanding social narratives about masculinity. Growing up in the 1980s and nineties, I faced significant stigma surrounding sensitivity, “wimpiness,” and vulnerability. My generation had inherited an unhelpful narrative from the previous generation, which had inherited it from the one before. Men were meant to be tough and stoic, and women were meant to be emotional and sensitive.

But the reality was that I was sensitive. I always had been. I was emotional, pensive, and creative, and I felt deeply. As a boy in the eighties, this way of being was not typically rewarded. People would tell me with exasperation, “You’re too sensitive.” This naturally caused me to believe that it was wrong to be sensitive and that I should adopt a different way of being. What it ultimately amounted to was me suffering in silence, ashamed to struggle, and feeling that asking for help would be a mark of failure and a tarnish on my gender and its principles.

When I finally went to therapy, I had a wonderful, compassionate therapist who told me, “Your feelings are always right for you.” This was a sea change for me, someone was telling me for the first time that my feelings—no matter what they happened to be—were acceptable. This meant that I needn’t feel weak or pathetic for being anxious. It had nothing to do with gender and was more about being human. Humans—men and women—experience many emotions, and they cannot all be tamped down, suppressed, or experienced in “manly” isolation.

Now, two decades later, I see many males of all ages in my therapy practice and the work of deconstructing harmful and unhelpful narratives of masculinity is often paramount to our work. We are allowed to struggle, to cry, to ask for help, and to let go of stoicism and needing to be the “strong, silent type.” Much like the therapist who opened this door for me, I try to help my male clients allow themselves to experience their feelings without destructive, gender-based self-judgment. True coping and healing always begin with vulnerability. If we refuse to acknowledge and speak our feelings, they remain within us, waiting to burst out in unhealthy ways. Real strength lies in our willingness to put aside unrealistic gender expectations of ourselves, to see ourselves as human, and to recognize that Gary Cooper is merely a caricature that does not represent or reflect the realities or complexities of our lives.

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