How the "strong, silent" archetype is hurting men

Mar 20 2020, 1:10 am

Written for Daily Hive by Mo Amir, host and producer of the podcast This is VANCOLOUR, based in Vancouver. 

The longstanding reverence of the “strong, silent type” — those who hide their emotions behind a veil of stoic strength — may be contributing to a spiritual crisis amongst men. It may also, quite literally, be killing men.

The patriarchal expectation of masculinity (or toughness) to bottle up emotional turbulence, particularly sadness, has historically been viewed as strength. But, according to death doula Teresa Campbell, “The idea of strength being suppression is so far removed from our nature.”

“It’s being celebrated to suppress: Oh, they’re so strong, they’re not crying,” explains Campbell. “We can get sick actually if we’re not feeling.”

Teresa Campbell of La Lupa Via is a full-spectrum doula, celebrant, and ritual healing guide, with a network of trauma specialists and therapists for referral in cases outside of her scope. Her intensive work often involves breaking the silence, shame, and stereotypes around a range of trauma and mental wellness issues.

In examining the harmful effects of suppressing emotions, including those experienced in grief, Campbell impugns the traditional expectations placed upon men. “What was the story that those men have been taught about what is strength? That we’ve all been taught. Why is there high rates of self-harm or suicide with some men, young men and older men?”

Her question is underscored by suicide being the largest cause of death for Canadian men under the age of 44, as men account for 75% of all Canadian suicides. Men are also three to four times more likely to suffer from substance abuse disorders than women in this country — a reality highlighted by the opioids crisis where three-quarters of opioids poisoning deaths were suffered by men. The gender discrepancy is staggering considering that women have higher rates of depression and general anxiety disorders than men, as per Statistics Canada.

The idea of a spiritual crisis where the male psyche grapples with the cultural norms associated with masculinity has been explored for decades now through films and television shows such as American Beauty, Breaking Bad, The Wrestler, The Sopranos, and perhaps, most notably, Fight Club.

Campbell points to the vacancy of a spiritual space in addressing mental wellness issues amongst men and all genders alike: “There’s a big piece missing with our care model. We don’t have a lot of soul support. We’re missing spiritual, energetic, emotional, and soul support. From my perspective, it’s all those things that are really going to make a huge difference.”

The “strong, silent type” and other short-sighted tropes of masculinity (such as the phrase “man up!”) may not just stunt emotional development for men, but may also be harmful to others, too. “There can be ancestral grief passed down from this heroic suppression… It’s not only harming potentially that person who has been taught to suppress but potentially a lot of others [around them]. It’s harmful and toxic.”

In response, some elements of self-help and inspo culture have often advocated to always present emotions positively. But, ultimately, this is another form of harmful suppression and emotional silencing. “Toxic positivity and this kind of approach shames people to the corners.”

In contrast, Campbell advocates for breaking the silence and stigma on both cultural and personal planes in order to make meaningful change in mental wellness practices for all genders.

“The toxic positivity or the spiritual bypassing is so dangerous because it’s not acknowledging how powerful and how much strength and how much creativity and how people have had the insights of their life sometimes through the dark nights of the soul. It’s not acknowledging how powerful the totality of us is.”

Have a listen to the full This is VANCOLOUR podcast with Teresa Campbell:

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