In our society we think there is something seriously wrong when people are sad and they cry.
Even at the brief mention of an issue that might create sadness during the TV news, viewers are provided with the phone number of a depression helpline to receive mental health support. In line with this, people often rush to the GP to receive anti-depressant medication to ‘remove’ their sadness.
The trouble with this approach is that it teaches people that if they are sad, then there must be something wrong with them and they require professional help. It also teaches people that they cannot stand on their own two feet and be resilient.
While there is nothing wrong with reaching out for help per se, it is also important for us to experience sadness and learn how to resolve it for ourselves.
In my 25+ years of clinical work having seen thousands of people, I can tell you that mental health problems are far more common when people ‘deflect’ (usually into anger) which prevents them from feeling their own sadness. These are the people who are much less likely to be resilient – not the reverse.
Take for example, the prevalence of men committing suicide compared with women. Men complete suicide twice as often as women and older men complete suicide up to four times as often as women.
This is a disastrous societal failing, largely brought about because we have taught our men not to cry and denied them the basic human right to be sad and emotionally insightful about their sadness.
Unable to be vulnerable, many men then dangerously lash out, ‘deflecting’ their unexamined and unexpressed sadness into anger, hostility, misogyny, sex-dependency and alcohol.
Some women also ‘deflect’ into anger, but it is especially common among men, because they are consistently socialised not to cry and express vulnerability.
When men ‘deflect’ their sadness into anger it takes their attentional focus outwards onto an external target, preventing them from reflecting inwards and gaining important insights, such as their own contribution to the situation.
These men are also inclined to mistakenly regard women (or other men who display more vulnerable behaviour) as ‘weak’ and somehow inferior.
I say ‘mistakenly’ because, these invulnerable men are usually highly dependent upon women for their emotional sustenance, and they find it almost impossible to regulate their own emotional state and stand on their own feet without it.
When these men cannot leverage women to provide this nurturance (maybe because the woman is leaving the relationship), and he lacks the skills to provide it for himself, then it can create the blinding rage that is so often the impetus for male suicide, domestic violence, homicide or femicide.
As a society, if we are to effectively combat this dire situation, we need to urgently change our socialisation of children and our social expectations.
In my view, that solution does not lie with making it even less acceptable to be sad or by implying that people lack the resilience to stand on their own feet.
Instead, we need to actively encourage boys and men to cry and be appropriately sad. We also need to ensure they learn to cooperate more with others and therefore develop and express more empathy, softness and vulnerability – which facilitates others to respond in kind. But men cannot learn these important emotions unless they are permitted to feel them towards themselves without being labelled ‘weak’.
Equally importantly, we must teach our young boys and our men how to be emotionally independent, emotionally insightful and verbally literate. Much of this is learnt from being allowed to be legitimately sad and then talking and examining why our sadness happened (so insight can be gained), and then learning about which nuanced actions we can take to self-regulate.
There is nothing weak about this. On the contrary, emotional independence is a huge part of resilience.
In terms of our early socialisation practices, we need to stop emphasising physical strength and hyper-masculinity in our boys (since physical strength is largely irrelevant in human history because humans have dominated the planet so comprehensively via our mental capacity not our physical capacity).
Instead, it would be far more useful to encourage boys to become emotionally independent, so they no longer need to rely on women to nurture, sustain and regulate them. This way men can build solid and permanent resilience where they stand squarely on their own feet while being less fraught by normal yet unexamined sadness.