BY MPHO KUHLMANN
“Big boys don’t cry”, “suck it up”, “Act like a man”, “Don’t act like a girl”. All of us has either heard one of these phrases or uttered them.
This pretty much sums up the extent to which the Botswana traditional society puts pressure on men to bottle up their emotions and suffer in silence.
Kgomotso Jongman of Jongman Psychosocial Service Clinic says boys are taught from a young age to toughen up and not show any emotion which isn’t good. “Stereotypically, masculinity doesn’t value vulnerability. It doesn’t value emotionality, except for anger. Men can be angry and that’s okay, but men can’t be really anything else. I think that masculinity wouldn’t value things like self-disclosure, revealing yourself to other people, telling about yourself to others, different constricts of intimacy, men are supposed to be independent. It is damaging to men who may require mental health treatment at any point in their lives. Men who buy into traditional gender norms are less likely to seek out mental health support when they need it. They are more likely to have poor outcomes from treatment when they do seek help because the mental road blocks about what a real man should be doing prevents them from fully engaging in treatment, men who buy into these gender norms are usually and sadly lonely, hostile and depressed.”
One of the most firmly entrenched ideas of masculinity in the Setswana traditional society is that a real man doesn’t cry, although he might shed a discreet tear at a funeral, he is expected to quickly regain control as sobbing openly is for girls. Boys learn from an early age that shedding even one tear in public will make them look weak. There’s this belief that crying is expressing emotions and feelings. To emote is to be weak. To be weak is to be feminine.
Dr Sethunya Mosime, senior Sociology lecturer at the University of Botswana says boys should be encouraged to cry and embrace their emotions. “Crying is an emotional let out which I think is very necessary. An inability to express yourself fully can be painful; it can prevent a person form forming strong emotional bonds with others preventing the formation of strong intimate bonds. This may be evident when it comes to men’s friendships with other men; they may feel limited in their ability to open up to other men who may perceive them as weak if they express their emotions. I think when men cry it could go both ways, it could be seen as weak or it could say that they have reached a certain threshold of tolerance which may mean that things are about to be bad.”
Language is perhaps the biggest tool that has been used to bludgeon men into not expressing their vulnerability. Phrases such as ‘take it like a man’, or even ‘don’t be a sissy’ are often used as a way to get boys to stop being upset about something. A lot of people may claim they are harmless or that they teach boys how to be tough but in reality they are actually telling boys and young men to suppress their genuine emotions which can both be limiting and damaging. By the time a boy enters young adulthood they are skilled at pushing down their feelings, often limited to a narrow range of acceptable emotions such as anger, because they have been taught from a very young age that it is unacceptable to express emotions such as fear, hurt or sadness, many men spend their lives hiding their full range of feelings.
Society expects men to be strong, immune to pain and emotion, if a man cries, he must hide it. This is because emotions are associated with weakness and femininity. Young boys are taught that they should adhere to masculine ideals and this leads to an emotional vacuum in their later years. So terrible are the consequences that they grow up to be men who are afraid to appear caring. It makes it ‘cool’ for them to be ‘bad boys’ and ‘heartbreakers’. This suppression of emotions leads to aggression and the inability to form healthy relationships in the long run. In fact, the worst insult you can throw at a boy is to question his masculinity. This insult is often paid back with violence ÔÇô young men are encouraged to fight and prove their machismo. And this isn’t just restrained to brawls on school grounds ÔÇô they lead to far worse incidents like rape and murder. Restraining men from showing emotions leads to depression and in some circumstances, even suicide. These men refuse to seek help for the fear of appearing like ‘sissies’. Women wonder why it is so hard for men to get emotionally involved in relationships or to show intimacy and feelings. This is because from a young age they have been conditioned to believe that emotional acts belong to women, and are feminine. Years of this type of conditioning to fit into this “masculine illusion” has helped to create the average man we see today; strong, aggressive, and emotionless. Many people think that men do not experience the pressures that women do, which is not true. It is important to realize that men are under pressure to live up to societal expectations. The main difference between the two struggles is that men tend to suffer in silence.
Lemogang Gabaake from Thuso Psychotherapy in Gaborone says, “It starts at a very young age, almost before children can even form their first words. A boy is given a toy, usually a car or a truck and perhaps, a superhero figurine. Any male child who shows interest in a toy which is seen to be reserved for the female gender (say, a Barbie doll) is instantly rebuked – “boys don’t play with that”. Boys are taught that men must be strong, domineering and warrior-like, hence, the cars and trucks. Any boy that shows an interest in the ‘softer’ things is considered to be a problem. It is imperative that we discuss how men are discouraged from crying and feeling. Toxic masculinity affects people from across the spectrum and hence, we should encourage men to come forth with their problems and empathize with the same. It’s OK to feel sad. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to have loved your mum and dad growing up. It’s OK to have missed them or wanted more affection. It’s OK to take a moment when you’re reminded of these truths. When you allow your brain to access these emotions, it knows exactly what to do. So nurture yourself. Talk honestly to the people around you”
Bonang Keboneilwe, who works at Apex Properties in Gaborone, told Sunday Standard Lifestyle that “Monna ga lle,” is a phrase I have heard my entire life from the media, peers and even family members. Old and young black males continue to hear this, to this day. I remember growing up and watching most of the men around me hide their emotions and refrain from expressing them even when you knew that something or someone hurt them. It was a coping mechanism I was so curious about, but could not keep from using myself. I adapted far too quickly and realized that if I wanted to continue to keep up this persona, I had to make sure I played the part. This persona was one that portrayed a tough, non emotional black male. I couldn’t show any type of vulnerable emotion, and I definitely couldn’t cry.”
Dimpho Setlhabi an accountant at Sky Net Worldwide Express, says “Traditionally, to be masculine means to be physically strong, the provider, the one in control and unemotional. However men do have feelings and emotions, they are just taught to suppress them. Commonly men and younger boys are told ‘boys don’t cry’ or ‘take it like a man’, these statements have become second nature in society that men and women do not realize the true power these statements hold. All men are influenced by their upbringing, experience and social environment which play a big role in determining one’s view of masculinity. Taboos against male expressiveness mean that men are less likely than women to get help when they’re suffering from depression. This means high suicide rates as well as higher rates of alcoholism and drug addiction.”