By Robin Silver
Who says men can’t cry? In cultures across the world, the expectations of men and women are very different, and feeling bound to stereotypes can be harmful in different ways.
While women are making strides in the public sphere—getting into politics and professions traditionally thought of as masculine, men still have a long way to go in the private domain.
Fear of appearing weak, being judged, or seeming “feminine” may prevent men from expressing their genuine emotions, especially when it comes to crying. But the truth is, femininity and masculinity have nothing to do with natural biological processes.
Changing Definitions of Masculinity
“Toxic masculinity” has become a commonplace phrase, but what does it mean? It’s about the limiting beliefs that have been passed down through culture for generations about what a man is and should be—to be the “strong, silent” type, and to fight instead of cry. But as people become more aware of the importance of mental health, we have learned that masking our feelings of sadness with anger ends up harming, not just men as individuals, but society as a whole, since everyone is forced to deal with the ramifications.
The idea of strength is in a state of change, too. Being strong means supporting those around you. When people talk about strength in terms of masculinity, they often first think about financial status and making household decisions, but what about emotional support? Traditionally minded people may think of providing emotional support as a woman’s purview, but all humans have emotions. And in the 21st century, as gender roles become less prescriptive, and mental health becomes less of a taboo—we have to confront these limiting stereotypes.
All People Feel All Feelings
These cultural norms put immense psychological pressure on men, limiting the emotions they are allowed to express, even though they still feel them underneath whatever stoic face and coping mechanisms they may adopt.
The negative effects of bottling up emotions are well known and can manifest more harmful expressions of feelings that begin as sadness. In men and boys, this may typically be expressed by fighting or another externalised violence instead of simply being allowed to feel and process the so-called weaker feelings of sadness, grief, loss, etc.
Health Benefits Of Crying
Dr William H Frey, a biochemist who wrote the book on crying, told The New York Times in 1982 that understanding why we cry is important because ”in our society men in particular are discouraged from crying. If crying reduced the effect of stress, by suppressing tears we may be increasing our susceptibility to stress-related disorders.” His research showed women cry on average about five times more than men do.
Crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system; therefore, crying can ease stress-related symptoms of ill health, such as tightened muscles, stomach issues, and an overactive sympathetic nervous system. The simple act of crying when we are upset can improve a person’s health, and help combat chronic physical and mental issues long term.
Studies have shown that when a person cries emotional tears, (as opposed to the tears elicited by a biological function, such as chopping onions) ‘crying it out’ releases stress hormones. Crying for longer than five minutes also releases endorphins such as oxytocin, which delivers feelings of peace and calmness.
Real Men Are True To Themselves
While not crying may be a point of pride for macho men, in reality, they are missing out on a crucial part of the human experience. Many researchers have pointed out that humans are the only species on earth that cry for emotional release. It has a cathartic effect with added social benefits.
One study showed that people responded with more empathy and desire to comfort upon viewing images of crying faces than those same images with the tears edited out. Without the tears as an indicator, people had difficulty discerning which emotions were being expressed. A facial expression may show sadness, but could also display frustration, concentration, or any number of other emotions less likely to elicit a helping hand.
Crying demonstrates real strength, self-awareness, and the confidence to not care about other people’s potential judgements. The benefits of crying—catharsis and healing, signalling for help and comfort, and fostering intimacy—are profound and hopefully will continue to overshadow any potential embarrassment or shame as modern society continues to develop and become more accepting.
Regardless of gender, honesty is strength—even in the face of uncomfortable emotions. Imagine a world where strength and crying are synonymous; where living your truth even when faced with societal pressures is the ultimate act of bravery.