As I was gathering information for my first blog entry on Emotions, I came across the recent drama surrounding the Miami Heat and what is now being dubbed ‘Crygate.’
I thought this would be a nice example on this very topic. For those of you not familiar with basketball, the Miami Heat are a team in the National Basketball Association who created a lot of headlines this past off season when they signed the most popular player and reigning Most Valuable Player LeBron James, and all-star Chris Bosh to play alongside with their good friend and superstar Dwayne Wade. The Miami Heat were automatically dubbed shoe-ins by most NBA experts to win the NBA Championship while dominating the league for years to come. So far, this has not happened. They have not played up to expectations. On Sunday March 7, the Miami Heat lost their fourth consecutive game. After the game, the Heat head coach, Eric Spolestra was quoted as saying that, “there are a couple guys crying in the locker room right now.”
His comments created a national stir. All major newspapers and sports stations picked the story up and it led to much debate and discussion. NBA players crying after a loss? Really? People were making a big fuss about the fact that grown men-professional athletes no less- were crying after a game. Reactions varied from shock, dismay, sarcasm, and mockery, to total disbelief. To be fair, there were some players who supported it. For example, Ron Artest, a Los Angeles Lakers player, who was famously quoted as thanking his psychiatrist after his team won the NBA Championship last season, indicated that it was good for men to express their emotions. It was refreshing to hear a professional athlete speak honestly and tolerably about men’s emotional expression, unfortunately though, he is in the minority. The next day, coach Spolestra had to diffuse the fire and indicated that his comments were taken out of context or misrepresented. The players denied that there was any crying in the locker room.
Gender role socialization
This particular story has garnered so much attention because it is assumed that it is not appropriate for men to cry. This is not part of the script that society has traditionally written for men. The fact is that men crying violates the traditional gender role script. Men are not supposed to show emotions such as sadness, or express emotions in the form of tears, especially so publicly. These scripts are provided to us through gender role socialization (GRS). GRS is defined as the implicit and explicit behaviour norms that guides the ways men and women are expected to function in the world. GRS occurs across the lifespan and is influenced by multiple sources, including parents, friends, education, and the media. None of us can escape gender role socialization; it impacts all of us in many ways.
It comes as no surprise then that the reactions of the sports media, and other NBA players reinforced the age-old adage that most boys hear growing up:
“Big boys don’t cry.”
Consequences of emotional expression and suppression
Who can remember back to their childhood when they were told, “big boys don’t cry” or if tears did inevitably trickle down their face, others around them remarked, “don’t cry, suck it up and be strong?”
Either option sets up a difficult predicament. If you express your emotions, those around you will shame you. Shaming is a powerful constricting force that causes men to restrict certain behaviours and has been associated with negative psychological problems. Conversely, if you find yourself feeling emotional, you must suck it up and keep it buried…deep inside. This too has ramifications for your psychological, social, and physical well-being.
Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.
Inability to appropriately experience and express one’s emotions adaptively can lead to anxiety, depression, substance abuse and dependence, anger, and violence, all of which negatively impact on the individual’s life. Working with men in clinical settings, more often than not, I have noticed that most of their problems revolve around their fear and inability to express their feelings, thoughts, and preferences (e.g. experiencing of sadness and expression of crying) because they fear the consequences and ramifications. They carry this burden with them, desperately seeking to absolve themselves of it. Therefore, once they are able to face their emotions safely and adaptively, they experience great relief. For example, men will tell me after many months of counselling that, “I was finally able to feel sadness and cry in here, and it feels like a heavy weight has been lifted off of my chest.”
What causes us problems is not having feelings, but rather our problems are caused by our fears of those very feelings.
These fears can be overcome but it can be difficult and challenging, especially when you may have grown up your entire life with the same messages.
So we can continue believing that, “big boys don’t cry” but at what cost and to what end?
I hope that moving forward the messages around emotions will change. It can and must.