Feeling rules and pitfalls of “be a man”

Certain social expectations and stereotypes surrounding masculinity can be damaging to the way boys and men connect with their emotions. Role models and mentors need to be critically conscious of these stereotypes and counter them.

In part two of this series, “Female leaders: Challenging the concept of being bossy,” a challenge that faces girls and women in leadership positions was briefly discussed: being bossy. Studies have shown girls are more likely to not take on leadership positions out of fear of being categorized as "bossy."  Furthermore, girls are more likely to be labeled as bossy in a work setting despite exhibiting the same leadership qualities as their unlabeled male counterparts. This double standard is an unfortunate consequence of the gender constructs supported by our society. That said, there are double standards facing boys and men as well.

“Be a man.” “Grow a pair.” One of the most obvious conundrums of a similar caliber that plague males in the United States is the idea of traditional masculinity and how that relates to sharing or expressing feelings and emotions. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild has coined the idea of feeling rules. Feeling rules are the social norms that dictate what is an appropriate feeling or gravity of feeling in a given situation, as well as when and for how long we can feel that way. Hochschild also recognizes a difference amongst feeling rules and different genders. Women's rules often tell them to tone down their anger or aggression responses. In men, these responses are considered to be representations of masculinity and are positive. On the flipside, males experience feeling rules that prevent them from expressing emotions such as sadness, happiness and fear.

Research from Psychology of Men shows boys and men are compelled by feeling rules and social norms to exhibit toughness, courage, strength, loyalty, agency and competitiveness. This often means the same group avoids behaviors that might indicate “emotional fragility,” submissiveness, lethargy and dependence. Males are still seen as the providers and protectors in families, which also makes them more likely to exhibit emotional detachment and hostility as evidence of their masculinity. 

The Representation Project is a non-profit organization that challenges individuals and communities to overcome limiting stereotypes. They have utilized films and educational curricula to heighten awareness of such stereotypes, inspire cultural change and help all people fulfill their "human potential." Their newest project, “The Mask You Live In,” explores these ideas of masculinity and how its narrow definition in the United States can be quite damaging to boys and men.

Can you recall an experience where a male was exhibiting evidence of disappointment or sadness through tears or crying? Responses from surrounding peers, mentors or guardians can vary, but have throughout recent history been clouded by the phrase, "Be a man." Of course, given the context, such an order implies crying is not an expression of emotion suitable for a male and to stop. Today, compared to girls, boys are four times more likely to be expelled from school for resolving conflicts with violence, and suicide being the third leading cause of death for boys.

Like The Representation Project, we need to be modeling behavior that discredits feeling rules and the limiting stereotypes of masculinity for the young people in our lives. Boys and girls need to understand it is normal, healthy and completely acceptable to express their full range of emotions. We need to show that we, as adults, can recognize our emotions and process them in healthy ways that are not harmful to others or ourselves.

Statements from The Representation Project's video, “Rewrite the Story,” include, “We need to redefine strength in men, not as the power over other people, but as forces for justice – and justice means equality and fairness, and working against poverty, working against inequality and violence. That's strength.’

Please visit the Michigan 4-H Youth Development website for more information on Michigan State University Extension’s resources for being a positive adult mentor and helping youth in your life maintain social-emotional well-being.  

Other articles in series:

Did you find this article useful?