"I’m not crying. It’s something I try to avoid at all costs. Whenever I feel a tear brewing, I start chewing the inside of my cheek. Small stings. The tears abate. I move closer to the bedside to stroke his hair and chew my cheek." – Alexander Thomas, author of Man in Motion
The last time Mohammed Belhaj, a father of two from Tunisia, cried, it was six years ago when his wife passed away. "It feels very good when someone cries and it feels like a relief, but the emotion is something I’m still struggling with to be honest."
Ahmed Ragab, a social media specialist from Egypt says, "I don’t like to cry; it is my personality that I don’t like to cry."
Alaa Badawi, a PG student from Lebanon, does not remember the last time he cried. "I think since I was a kid, I was holding my feelings back, that’s how I am."
Men, according to research, are more prone to resort to substance abuse, and the least likely gender to seek external support. Most of them share one thing in common: they struggle with an inability to cry, say experts. Perhaps it was recognising this that Michael Leonard set up the Anyman Movement – a support group and safe place for men to speak about and give vent to their emotions. An executive coach who specialises in men’s mental well-being, he has an MSc in coaching and a Graduate Diploma in Counselling and is the Director of Human Elements, a coaching therapy practice in Dubai that helps men live more meaningful and purposeful lives.
"There is certainly a stigma around men and crying and that’s from a young age," says Michael, listing two main reasons for its reinforcement – the ‘Dinosaur’ method of parenting, and negative peer group reactions.
"I suppose the ‘Dinosaur’ way of parenting – telling a young boy that boys don’t cry – teaches them from a very young age that it’s wrong for boys to cry, which I think is very wrong."
This belief only gets further reinforced in school when his peers might laugh at him and tease him for being a ‘sissy’ or being weak’ if he is seen crying.
One way to tackle this is to begin the de-stigmatizing from a very young age as it has a lasting impact on the way men lead their lives, says the life coach. "I come back to boys because more often than not what happens to the boys often dictates how a man will be in later life."
He draws the picture of how the inability to express oneself leads to various other behavioural difficulties. More often than not if a boy or a man doesn’t express sadness in a healthy way, it could morph into anger, and he might end up using his fists to vent his feelings. Violence (verbal or physical), destroying property or substance abuse are some ways men react when they bottle up tears for too long. "So it’s all related. This non-expression of emotional states can affect choices in life," he says.
Mohammed is one of the men who is determined to not carry over this stigma to future generations. He has made a conscious effort to encourage these discussions in his household. "I have a 10-year-old son. It’s something I’m encouraging him to do. Not particularly crying but expressing himself in a healthy way rather than screaming or being angry."
Mohammed takes the time out to arrive at the root cause of surface emotions like anger. "All of that basically comes from another emotion like fear or sadness. When he was seven or eight years old, we started playing games of emotions where I show him a card and he expresses how he feels, and I encourage him."
The results are showing, he says. "I think he’s very open now, more than before. Whenever he has a problem with the teacher or he’s being treated bad, he can express himself and I [also] encourage him to make his friends do that [too] rather than hitting."
Why should we cry?
The cheek chewing that Alexander talks about in his book Man in Motion is a common phenomenon amongst men due to the stigma associated with crying. Scientifically, however, emotional tears come with their own health benefits. They release oxytocin and endorphins into your body, making you feel comforted after, both physically and mentally. Emotionally speaking, it also alerts loved ones regarding your mental health, allowing for some much-needed love and care.
Not crying on the other hand, or holding back tears, is also known as repressive coping. "Studies have linked repressive coping with a less resilient immune system, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension, as well as with mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety, and depression," writes senior social worker in Neurology Leo Newhouse in a Harvard Health School blog.
Michael mentions American psychologist Peter Levine’s Trauma Theory to stress the importance of a healthy release of emotions. Levine talks about how our body reacts to the build-up of unresolved trauma within.
"What we tend to do is freeze and we store [the trauma], and it just keeps on building up and one day we go bang! and stuff will happen, probably stuff that we don’t want to happen. So by allowing the body and the emotional state to process that trauma or that emotional blockage, it minimizes the impact for us in our day to day living as life throws its curve balls at us," says Michael.
What should we do?
Some men tend to resort to activities like going for a drive, hitting the gym, or signing up for boxing or marital arts classes for an emotional release. But what is important is that men pause to check with themselves and try to understand why they are resorting to these activities. They must figure out if they are attempting to avoid the issue through activity, or whether the physical activity is simply a medium to channel frustration. "By avoiding the issue, it is going to come back and blow up in your face one day, because it compounds. Keep on avoiding, avoiding, avoiding...one day it’s all going to fall apart. Address it while you’re young," warns Michael.
"There are positive behavioural addictions. Exercise is a positive behavioural addiction. For example, if you’re angry or whatever and you punch people, going to the gym and taking that frustration out in the gym is a positive behavioural addiction, until it gets too much. It’s everything in moderation."
But one must beware as such behaviour also runs a risk of developing into a serious addiction that can have an adverse impact on daily functioning. It can also negatively affect how we perceive ourselves.
So, what other options can one explore to have a healthy release of emotions? Many experts advocate the power of therapy.
What does a typical group therapy session look like? "There are about ten men at most, we want to keep it quite intimate and generally a regular bunch of guys," says Michael, while also highlighting the importance of committing to the process and putting effort into showing up regularly.
"We sometimes have themes or bring topics in around sadness and anger. Other times it’s like a free flow – what’s going on, sharing time. It gives guys a chance to share whatever is going on with them at the moment," he adds.
However, not all men in therapy. Ahmed is of the opinion that therapy is only for those who reach the worst point in their lives, "They wouldn’t be able to recover themselves, so they start to seek a therapist to talk to them to try to get over the feeling that they have," he says. The 31-year-old is convinced that doesn’t require therapy instead preferring ‘to keep to myself’ during the bad situations in his life.
However, Michael is keen to make it clear that therapy is not just a space for those who are sad or going through a tough patch in life. The sessions can help people become better in life and own their decisions, says the expert. "In some ways, they’re held accountable to the group... we start helping him get past the procrastination stage.
"I think the whole purpose is to create a safe place where one can talk about themselves, knowing that they’re supported, knowing that they’re not being judged and trusting that it’s okay just to talk about whatever is going on."
Mohammed Belhaj has been attending group sessions and personal sessions for almost five years now, "We have been taught that we go to a psychiatrist only when we have serious issues. But that doesn’t have to be so," he says.
The 42-year-old thinks that older men have been made to follow false masculinity ideals where crying is a sign of weakness. "Not all men are willing to accept that they need help. It takes a strong man to admit that and to be open about it." Mohammed himself is part of a support group and works with a therapist monthly. "I don’t have any shame sharing. It’s something I really encourage every man to do."
Alaa too has had positive experiences with therapy in his college, "It felt good. I have never done it before, I felt I needed to do it because I had trauma about something – a car accident when I almost died."
But the 22-year-old also stresses the importance of doing one’s own research before making a commitment, "Honestly, I think going to therapy is really good if you find the right counsellor. If you know what you want, you know what you’re looking for, you know what therapist you’re looking for. But if you go there clueless it might be more harmful to you."
Things are changing
John Paul is an 11-year-old boy currently studying in 5th grade. In his school, the approach to crying is very telling of the changing approach to men’s mental health. "Nobody is embarrassed because everyone knows that in our class they don’t cry for no reason, if someone is crying it is basically for a reason, so everyone takes it seriously. Crying is not a sign of weakness. We cry because we are mentally or physically hurt."
It is never too late to change. The author of ‘Man in Motion’, Alex, a father of three, talks about his transformation with his relation to crying at a much later stage in his life, and the impact it had on his personal life and those in it. "What happened when I was so angry, I would shut down, that’s when I broke up with Nancy. I couldn’t express anything. And when I was crying I felt like Pinnochio [when he turns into a boy] I felt so alive. Like I was so happy – I’m alive!"
For Alex who has reconnected with spirituality while growing into love and wisdom, emotional tears of joy are a regular occurrence. "I’m okay with being more tender. I still try to be, I’m more sensitive to beauty today. So if I see a touching moment between two people, [it] makes me a little bit emotional in a nice way. More grateful."
Both Alex and Michael strongly advocate for the need to be authentic to oneself as the truest form of masculinity, rather than false images of men who act emotionless. "When it comes to big things like masculinity and femininity, it’s like what kind of man are you and be authentic to that. I think it’s striving to be authentic to oneself- your truest nature," says Alex.
"It takes a courageous man to be vulnerable. And I honestly think the worst thing that one can do is hold that stuff inside. It’s okay to show that you’re not superman, to be weak. It’s okay to fail, it happens to all of us. It’s okay to mess up, it doesn’t define who you are. What defines who you are is how you present yourself in the world, how you treat yourself and treat others. So being authentic, and being courageous to be vulnerable," is Michael’s key message to the world.
Michael Leonard's tips on changing your relationship with your mental health
1. Change your relationship with your view of mental health. We all have mental health, it’s not a weakness, It’s okay to express whatever emotional state is happening, it’s okay to say "I am not okay."
2. Be Brave to reach out and say "I need help." It takes a really strong man to say "I’m suffering", "I’m sad", or "I’m stressed".
3. There’s a stigma around men getting professional help. Don’t be afraid to say hey I’ve got a coach – I’ve got a therapist that I speak to. When you are physically ill, you go and get treated, so why not when you are mentally ill?
4. Communication with friends and family. Just talking to people, just sitting down and saying "Hey I just wanna share something with you", "I’m worrying about this", or "I felt sad the other week about this", or "hey I love you". Just being able to express things. As men, we are role models for our children as well. To teach them it’s okay, actually, it’s more than okay, it’s healthy to express how one’s feeling.
How to help a friend
Hold space. Try not to fix or make them feel better. When someone’s crying, the natural reaction is to pass them a tissue, help them feel better, don’t do that. That makes them stop crying. Instead, help them stay with what it is. The man or the person just wants to share what’s going on. They don’t want solutions; they don’t want somebody to fix it for them.
The words we need to hear usually are, "I’m just here for you, what’s going on?" Use therapeutic techniques like paraphrasing or summarizing – "Wow that must be really tough," "I hear that you’re really sad", or "I hear that you’re distraught about something, would you like to tell me more?" to let the person express it.
In the end, "is there something else you want to tell me?" You can even say, "That was really brave, really courageous you went through that. Is there anything you want me to do?" "How can I help you?" "Do you want me to help you?"
Be there with the person, politely. Let them know that you care and you’re here for them whatever they want. Without advice and without judgement.