Masculinity and the Dark Side of Mental Toughness

“Stop crying you pussy!”

The older boys taunted me while I untangled my scraped and dusty limbs from the frame of my new bicycle. 

Pedaling as fast as I could, I had launched from the shaky ramp we constructed from bricks and an old board. I didn’t stick the landing, and instead had wiped out hard

The pain was sudden and shocking, and I let out a shriek between gasps for air.

But it was their words that left a deeper mark on me.

Were those kids cruel? Yes.

But they were simply passing on what they learned from their fathers, brothers, and friends: That we were men—or at least trying to be—and men need to be mentally tough. You don’t cry or whine or show that you’re afraid. And you definitely don’t let others see your pain.

I took those lessons to heart and became increasingly better at hiding or ignoring my feelings—meeting future trauma and tragedy with a clenched jaw and tightened abdomen. Learning how to suppress tears and act brave, even when I was scared. 

Life can be harsh, and the skill came in handy.

And as mean as they were, the neighborhood kids weren’t wrong—there is strength in being able to rise above our immediate feelings. To get up and keep going when things are hard or painful.

We’re going to need to do that and much more as we endure the second and third-order effects of the pandemic in the coming months and years. We’ll have to persist and persevere beyond our current limits. Calling on our resolve and focused determination to make it through.

We all want to be that strong, steady guy. To have the situation handled. 

Unfortunately, lately we’re seeing quite the opposite—too many men are coming unraveled, stressed and struggling with overwhelm, in spite of their best attempts at mental toughness.

Why? 

Where are they going wrong?

A Self-Defeating Paradox

Many of the men I work with have an uneasy relationship with their emotions. 

It’s not that these guys are caricatures of cavemen and can only grunt to describe their feelings. But they do see emotions as a kind of mysterious force, one that can disrupt and destabilize their lives.

Who hasn’t had things go sideways because their emotions got the best of them? 

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, when we’re under stress, our amygdala can “hijack” the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that is responsible for complex decision making (among other important executive functions). 

This survival mechanism can save your bacon when you’re in a life and death situation, but it’s a kind of blunt tool that can cause an overreaction in situations that require finesse. 

If it comes down to a choice between expressing your emotions (and creating a mess) or keeping them under wraps, it’s usually better to err toward the latter option. 

Knowing this, we put on a brave face and try to quietly keep everything under control, carrying our burden alone.

Besides, the last thing we want is to saddle others with our problems. It’s better to just pretend we’ve got it handled and carry on.

But that’s not what happens, is it?

On the surface, we try to play it cool, but the people close to us aren’t fooled. 

Those feelings we’re trying to get distance from show up in how we carry ourselves and how we treat others. We can become tense, curt, argumentative, sometimes even blowing up. Or we withdraw into distractions and vice, becoming inaccessible. 

Not only does this create friction and distance with the people around us, it can also destroy our health and suck all the joy out of life.

Unfortunately, if you’re approaching mental toughness the way I just described—the way many men are—then you’re trapped in a self-defeating paradox. 

Why a paradox? 

Because the way you’re approaching mental toughness—resisting, denying, and avoiding your feelings—is actually undermining your mental resilience. 

What’s the deal? Why are men getting this wrong?

Following Our Fathers

When I was a young boy, we weren’t shown how to manage our emotional energy constructively. At least that was the case for me and my friends growing up in the 80’s. 

And, because of that, my feelings remained an unpredictable and mysterious force that threatened to overwhelm and undermine my endeavors whenever shit got difficult. 

In addition to lacking emotional intelligence, most of us don’t feel like we can talk about our problems with our buddies. 

We’ve learned that sharing is risky. Past experiences demonstrated that we could be dismissed, teased, or stigmatized in some way for showing or sharing the wrong emotions.

This leaves us cut off from a valuable source of support, especially if we don’t want to burden our loved ones.

And there are other dynamics beyond the emotional realm that inform our current approach to mental toughness.

We learn through stories and films that men sacrifice their safety and health for the tribe. While this isn’t necessarily wrong, what isn’t necessary is to implode from trying to suppress and deny what we’re feeling.

Ultimately, our hearts are in the right place: trying to shoulder the burden for the ones we love; to shield them from pain and difficulties; and to do it all without complaining. But we’re actually setting ourselves up for failure.

So what is the answer then?

Turns out, there’s a better way to approach emotions that actually supports mental toughness.

It takes learning some new skills and a little courage. Two things I know you’re capable of.

Resistance Is Futile

There are times when we have to swallow our emotional pain and soldier on. Sometimes it’s too distracting or unsafe to manage, so we shut it all down. 

That’s fine in the short term.

Our feelings are like alerts on the dashboard. They provide information, but you don’t want to get overwhelmed by them and crash the car. 

There are times when we must endure hardships for longer periods of time (like when there’s a pandemic that isn’t going away any time soon). In that case, you need to take a more sustainable approach.

It all comes down to a vital skill that all men should have, but most don’t: Knowing how to transform emotional energy. 

This is the key to sustainably achieving mental toughness without sacrificing your health, relationships, and sanity.

The thing is that feelings and emotions can be a useful source of energy, information, and strength when you make them into your allies. But that requires you to lay down your weapons and stop the resistance.

That means no longer fighting or denying what you’re feeling. 

Strangely enough, the more we resist anger, sadness, and fear, the more these feelings continue to haunt us. 

Why? 

Because our emotions carry a message.

And even though the meaning you put on them isn’t always true, they do point to beliefs and assumptions that are being activated by your current situation. 

I’m not suggesting that you surrender to your emotions and let them take over. We’re talking about an internal process here, not externally acting out your every fear and frustration. 

Ultimately, a new relationship must be established with these internal forces. Trust needs to be built, because right now there’s a part of yourself that you view with suspicion and fear, and that creates an ongoing inner struggle that exhausts your energy and cuts you off from valuable self-knowledge.

It begins with acknowledging, without judgement, what you’re feeling.

I know it sounds basic, but the first thing you need to do is recognize when you’re angry, sad, scared, jealous, excited, worried, etc. 

Be ready for this to be difficult at first. You’re exercising an atrophied muscle.

Notice I wrote, “acknowledging, without judgement.” That means accepting what you’re feeling. This could be the most difficult part for you, but it is also the most powerful.

It can be as simple as sitting quietly for a minute, and asking, “What am I feeling?”

No need to embellish, add meaning, or make a value judgment about the answer. Simply say, “Oh, okay, there’s anger. What else? Oh, interesting, that’s sadness and fear.”

When you become more comfortable with acknowledging your feelings, you may decide it’s time to share what you’re going through with a friend. 

Sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone who isn’t in your immediate social circle. That could mean a therapist, coach, or someone in a men’s group. 

It helps to do some thinking on your own first to get clarity around what you’re experiencing. Sometimes, when we first let our feelings out into the light of day, they come with a lot of energy. Once we’ve released some of that energy, it becomes much easier to have a constructive conversation with others. 

This all gets easier with practice, and the benefits far outweigh the initial discomfort or awkwardness. 

Why bother? Why go there? Why not just keep doing it the old way?

Let’s talk about the benefits…

Powerful, Light, and Free

When we stop trying to be mentally tough by denying our feelings, we actually become more resilient—improving our ability to handle life’s ups and downs.

Accepting what you’re feeling will free your energy, allowing you to become more energized, focused, and productive. 

You will literally feel lighter. 

Instead of being all twisted up inside, you’ll become more integrated and aligned. People will trust you more because they’ll sense that you’re not at war with yourself.

Confidence increases as you improve your ability to manage this previously misunderstood and ignored side of your inner world of emotional energy. 

All of this leads to a decrease in chronic stress (not all stress is bad), which means better overall wellbeing. That includes better sleep, digestion, and immune function. 

Being less stressed, having more energy, and enjoying a better mood all make you easier to be around, making you more open and accessible to loved ones.

That leads to better connections and more intimacy.

Ultimately, you get to be the strong, centered, and productive man that you want to be.

It’s Your Choice

Mental toughness is a huge asset, especially during challenging times. 

But some men are approaching it the wrong way, mainly out of assumptions and misunderstandings about how to manage emotional energy—the force that has the most power to derail resilience. 

Now you know that resisting your feelings is not a sustainable or healthy way to approach this vital skill. 

If you’re going through a hard time, I want you to do yourself (and the people around you) a favor.

Go somewhere quiet (a walk in nature is great) and take a few deep breaths. Then listen to your heart openly and without judgement. Your emotions are trying to tell you something (something I’ll write about in a future article).

It’s okay to feel. It’s okay to be angry, sad, scared, lonely, or jealous. Just hang out with your feelings. 

They’re only temporary. You don’t have to act on them. They’re just information. Sometimes they are based on assumptions and problematic beliefs. But you’ll never know until you’ve heard them out.

From there you can make a rational decision about how to move forward.

This won’t magically make your problems go away, but it will make you feel a lot better and free up your energy and focus to persevere.

And, guys, it’s okay to feel afraid or awkward about asking for help. I know you’re capable of the courage to do it anyway.

We’re stronger together.