A note on male compassion; or why we need to stop repressing our emotions

For the sake of clarity and writing from my own personal experience, I am writing regarding traditional binary gender roles, though I know gender is a spectrum. The terms “masculinity” and “feminity” further imply this binary, when it’s far more complicated than that simple reductive notion.

To me, one of the most important parts of life is human connection. We can have the best job, excellent health, plenty of money, or whatever else you can think of, but without having vibrant, loving human relationships, I believe it’s impossible to feel the highest levels of joy.

Developing these relationships with other people requires both participants to be vulnerable and compassionate, however. This isn’t necessarily true for everybody, but for most cis-gendered, heterosexual men, we’re socialized to associate vulnerability and compassion – especially with other cis-gendered, heterosexual men – to be effeminate, to be not masculine, to be unmanly, to be homosexual (“no homo bro”). On top of this toxic masculinity, we’re socialized to believe that just being open about our emotions, our hurt feelings, our weaknesses, is also not masculine. For adult men, unlearning this deeply embedded conditioning is extremely difficult and requires willingness to go against what you’ve believed for years or decades. 

Not only are these notions harmful for our mental health, toxic masculinity also robs men of the types of human connections with others, especially men, that we need to be the best that we can be for ourselves and for the people that we love. 

I have made the choice to be vulnerable about my life and my emotions. I think it makes me a better writer if I’m more honest about my emotions and I’ve been humbled by some pretty amazing comments about my openness meaning a lot to people, which only encourages me to continue being open. Writing about my emotions has helped me thoroughly develop my communication skills. I recognize this isn’t true for all men; because of our life-long conditioning, if we don’t hone the language required to talk about our emotions, it’s obviously difficult to communicate these emotions.

For many men, I’d argue it’s not as hard to have vulnerable, platonic relationships with women – edit: on reviewing this, I think this may be incorrect or slightly misleading. I’ve legitimately heard men say there is no point in having friendships with women if sex isn’t likely. I think that’s because the traditional (becoming obsolete, which I think is good) parental roles are that the father is the (usually) not very emotional breadwinner whereas the mom is the emotional caretaker. The role of being the burden for male emotion has long been on the spouse, mother, or female friends of the man. Learning how to deal with our own emotions, as well as communicating with the men in our lives, is the right thing to do for ourselves, our friends and loved ones, and the women that have been there for us.

I’ve had some wins lately, but 2018 will forever be regarded as a shit year to me. It’s hard not to view it as such. I will always remember it as the year we got Alyssa’s terminal diagnosis, then lost her, then grieved her for the rest of the year (and our lives). Everything that has happened this year has had the grim reality that is my sister’s fate running in the background. Throughout my life with CF and my sister’s health, I have had resounding support by many, many people. I’ve needed every ounce of that support through it all, too. 

Something I worried about when I wondered what life would be like without my sister was suddenly becoming an only child. The truth is, though, blood isn’t the only thing that can make people as close as siblings. The friendships I’ve developed with my guys feel like brotherhoods. The love I have for them is fundamentally part of who I am. I would not be here without having their support, whether it was a shoulder to cry on, a beer or coffee late at night just to listen to me vent, or to be there for me in moments when I needed to get my mind off of life and just laugh and live life. I’ve never been afraid to express my love for them to them and I hope I say it enough because I never want to live life having not said it enough to the people that meant the world to me. 

Being open about my life with CF means that vulnerability is part of it – I’ve discussed, joking, casually, and seriously, my life expectancy with friends, a discussion that inevitably brings people closer. I’ve noticed that my ability – eh, tendency is probably the better word – to discuss heavy topics opens up the ability for both of us to talk about our emotions, fears, and concerns. I don’t think it’s possible for a relationship to ever be more than an acquaintanceship if you can never get near heavy topics. I don’t mean to imply it’s all me that is doing the heavy lifting in broaching these topics because it certainly isn’t, but I’ve noticed that if I’m willing to talk about my emotions regarding CF, other people are more inclined to talk about the heavy stuff. These relationships with my male friends have allowed me to thoroughly process the emotions that come with having CF and losing a sibling. 

Everybody processes emotions differently, and that’s okay. What isn’t okay is repressing emotions and preventing ourselves from feeling the emotions that are part of being human. I also want to make something clear: considering vulnerability as homosexual is expressly homophobic. Viewing effeminacy as homosexual is a tired trope; just as it’s also exhausting to view vulnerable men as effeminate or homosexual.

The blunt reality is that emotions are neither masculine nor feminine; emotions are human. Men, you don’t have to feel compelled to share your emotions with everybody. There are relationships we all have where discussing our feelings just isn’t that big of a part of it. That’s fine. But repressing emotions, or alienating those that are honest about their emotions, or labeling emotions in a way that discourages people from sharing them – for the record, labeling having emotions as being “gay” says more about the person labeling the emotions than labeling them as “gay” could ever be – is unacceptable. 

We are better people when we are honest about our feelings: it helps to empathize with others; it nurtures relationships; it brings us more vibrancy and joy in life; and lastly, it makes the world a better place for all of us.

Men, it’s time we take responsibility and get better about how we handle our emotions.