I grew up as a younger brother among four boys who liked to fight. Like many before me, I received clear messages from society about what emotions a man should and shouldn't feel. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, it was common for boys to be punished and called names for displays of emotional "weakness" such as crying. We were often told to "be a man" and called "a pussy" or "a girl" if seen to show any sign of fear or distress.
As an adolescent, I thought there was something wrong with me when I found myself feeling scared, vulnerable, or powerless. This lead me to repress and disconnect from such emotions, which became converted into apparently manlier emotions like anger. And when I couldn't fight my way out of my emotional pain I turned to drugs to dull my senses, to feel OK.
It was within this context that as an 18-year-old I was convicted of killing my drug dealer. The irony is that this same emotional repression and disconnection that steered me towards the violent offending that would land me in prison, was also exactly the lack of emotionality that would see me survive over a decade in prison relatively unscathed. Or so I thought.
Prison is a place where people who display any kind of emotional distress other than aggression are told by other inmates to hang themselves. It's not a place for more sensitive souls and plenty of people take the advice and choose suicide as release. Prison just further reinforced all the emotionally repressive messages I had already taken on board. Being disconnected from my emotional experiences was functional. It helped me survive the multiple attacks, privations and daily indignities I experienced. It also helped me be unaffected or damaged by the level of mean spirited bullying and depravity I witnessed inflicted on others.
The adversities I experienced resulted in a steeling effect that left me more resilient to life's challenges. My happiness wasn't dependent on others and people's actions didn't have a big emotional impact on me. I thought this made me strong. Yet once I was released it made me a boyfriend and eventually a husband who was emotionally disconnected and had no experience of intimacy. Like many men, the messages I'd received throughout my life about what it meant to be a man made me think the ultimate achievement was to be completely emotionally independent and self-contained. Yet all this meant was that any woman I was in a relationship with was lonely even when I was physically present. This is not what I want from my son.
Thanks to a very supportive wife I have put a lot of effort into reconnecting with my emotions and now have some idea of what it means to be open to love, but I'm still a work in progress with a long road ahead of me. When I watch my toddler son dance spontaneously and cry when hurt, I know that I want him to grow up knowing that all his emotional experiences are normal. That there's nothing wrong with him if he feels scared, sad, vulnerable, or hurt. I want to raise a son who knows what love is and doesn't have to fight against his upbringing to be an emotionally present partner, father, and human being. Rather than raising a son who is prepared for prison, I want to raise a son who is prepared for love and life.
Three take away messages:
1. As individuals and a society, we must be thoughtful and deliberate about the beliefs we want our boys to have about their emotions
2. We need to make sure our boys understand that all the emotions they experience are normal
3. We need to role model for our boys by working on connecting with our own emotions - asking ourselves what we are actually feeling when get angry and upset, what more vulnerable emotion might be sitting beneath?
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
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