The British are famously adept at bottling things up. But while much has been publicised in recent years about how our ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality is negatively affecting men’s mental health (75% of all suicides in England are male and it’s the biggest killer of men under 50), women are feeling the pressure to hold back their emotions too – and not just in male-dominated workplaces.
As Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services at AXA PPP healthcare explains, the myth that ‘boys don’t cry’ is one of the world’s most pervasive gender stereotypes, and one that’s affecting all genders. “From a young age, boys are taught to be ‘brave’,” he said. “Evolutionarily speaking, this is because men were protectors, but it has now translated into a general modern belief that showing emotion is a sign of weakness.”
But it’s a belief with no basis in science. Research shows women are bigger criers than men (it’s estimated we cry five times more per year and are over four times as likely to cry in public spaces, like the office), yet we’re categorically the ‘stronger’ sex. “Pretty much at every age, women seem to survive better,” says Steven Austad, an international expert on ageing and chair of the biology department at the University of Alabama, who has found women across the world to be more “robust” than men, and that they have been since records began.
So why is welling up seen as weak? Humans cry for myriad reasons – studies suggest it played an evolutionary role: a means of displaying vulnerability or submission to an ensuing attacker; some psychologists believe it’s a complex primal call-out, a form of non-verbal communication to elicit help from those around you, others theorise it’s a form of self-soothing (crying releases a natural painkiller, raises mood-boosting endorphin levels and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps people relax) – but, essentially, it’s a physical response to an emotional stimulus. And with our patriarchal system long placing undue importance on traditionally ‘masculine’ traits – order, structure and action over sensitive, passive reception – it’s no wonder the ‘feminine’ act of crying has been labelled as feeble.
It’s also down to the way emotions are classed in our culture: some good, some bad. On one hand, the positive psychology movement is soaring; passionate leaders – from politicians to today’s greatest minds and entrepreneurs – are lauded; emotional intelligence (EI) – a term that first surged in popularity during the 1990s, encompassing everything from the way we listen, communicate and resolve conflict – is once again garnering significant attention (studies have even suggested EI plays a greater role than IQ when it comes to career success). Emotions, when managed and harnessed, are seen to play a key role in the quest for achievement and order.
On the other, they’re a source of chaos, or ‘yang’ in Taoist terms: it’s taboo to cry in the office; uncouth to grieve in public; embarrassing; dating suicide amongst Gen Y-ers to ‘catch feelings’ early on in relationships, should their fondness be unrequited. We often act as if ‘negative’ or ‘inconvenient’ emotions are setbacks to be pushed down or avoided instead of – as traditional Taoist flow and Buddhist mindfulness both teach – sensations to simply experience.
But as the world is discovering, when the pursuit of happiness is pushed as a life goal, failure is inevitable – and the ensuing lack of purpose is dangerous. Clinical psychologist and academic Jordan Peterson has linked the trend of adopting an ironic, hipsterish nihilism; a ‘who cares the least wins’ attitude, (see: the majority of millennial memes) not only to rising suicide rates in young people, but to a worrying rise in voter apathy and even violent extremism.
“It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy?” he asks. “Happiness is a great side effect. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”
As for what we should all be striving for? Peterson, a major subscriber to Nietzschean theory, believes we should instead embrace tragedy – having courage to shoulder the burden of it, looking after your family and community in the face of it, and aiming to find meaning within it.
Agree or not, it's certainly something to consider next time you find yourself holding back tears during a difficult moment (and as good excuse as any for letting yourself feel all the feels when this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert comes on).
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