Why I Find It Hard to Cry

Where my emotional "training" went wrong

The Mandate Letter, by Jason Rogers, focuses on the evolving state of men and masculinities. Thanks for being here. If you were forwarded this email, get your own:

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As I stood in an empty, trash-strewn hallway, tears cascaded from my lids. It was my first Olympics in Athens, Greece, and my expectations had been positively Himilayan. But, in the blink of an eye, a single, soul-crushing defeat had laid waste to my dreams. 

My mom was the only person I permitted to witness my unraveling. As I convulsed, she clutched me with an urgent tenderness that felt both foreign and familiar. Perhaps that’s because she hadn’t seen me like this since I was a boy after some bump or thump sent me into a meltdown.

Before that event, it had been a year since I cried. The setting was a spartan hotel room in Havana the night before the 2003 World Championships. Suddenly, as if struck by lightning, I realized that, although the Olympics were within my grasp, there was a meaningful possibility that I might fail. 

Like Athens, it was explosive — a snotty, messy affair — pointing to the fact that, during my fencing career, my overall relationship with negative emotions could be best described as “nuclear.” It was only when my world felt like it might end that tears rushed in to release the pressure and save the day. 

Arriving at that state of affairs was a long ascent into aloofness. I wasn’t an unemotional kid. In fact, my interior life was so energetic that a scene in Homeward Bound — when Sassy the cat goes over a waterfall — brought me to the point of such juvenile heartbreak that I couldn’t sleep for days. 

At many of my early fencing competitions, my emotions sat at skin level. Depending on the day, I’d buzz with excitement, jump for joy, or dump my equipment in my bag and openly weep.

However, as my athletic career began to take off and I marched into the early stages of manhood, I developed resistance to sharing my emotions. Modeling the other male athletes around me, I became increasingly stoic, increasingly tame. 

That is, tame outside of the moments when I would flash hot. All too often, I found myself slamming my saber against inanimate objects — benches, columns, chairs — when performance eluded me. After particularly devastating losses in competitions, I’d fling my fencing mask across the room in a half-witted attempt to release my pain. 

I eventually learned that this kind of behavior was gauche, unsportsmanlike. So I tried to control these outbursts. Rather than allow the steam to blow my top, I forced it back down, often to the point where the hair on my arms rose like cornstalks, and my body quivered with rage.

You are okay, I often thought. You. Are. Okay.

After Athens, I began studying psychology. Although it would take me another decade to interrogate my actual issues (namely, anxiety in the bedroom), this new undertaking helped me feel that I was marshaling a productive response to my distress. It even gave me a newfound sense of hope. 

Eventually, my reading led me to a concept that, I thought, would be the key to my success. In 1908, two psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, developed the inverted U-shaped curve in an effort to map out the mental dynamics of performance. 

I relished its simplicity because the schematic gave me a target at which to aim. Soon after, all of my conditioning, journaling, meditation, breathwork, yoga, pilates, biofeedback training, and sleep studies became tools to course correct my “unhelpful” feelings back into the “optimal” zone.

Functionally, this shifted the language of my interior life. “Emotions” became “stress.” “Anxiety” became “arousal.” Attending a Tony Robbins seminar only further reinforced this way of thinking. The gargantuan guru stretched out his mitt-sized hands and bellowed, “Bruce Springsteen doesn’t get nervous; he gets excited.”

In my athletic life, this was a godsend. It gave me the power to reframe negative emotions into “fuel” for better outcomes. However, in my personal life, it was yet another way I’d learned to strongarm my feelings. If they aren’t useful to my performance, I thought, then I don’t want them in my head. 

This idea still influences my thinking today. And, when I talk to young athletes, I often reference the Yerkes-Dodson law as a tool to help develop psychological self-awareness. But I often wonder, might this have long-term consequences? Isn’t the implicit message of the model that distancing yourself from your emotions is okay?

Consequently, it should be no surprise to hear that I still have much work to do in this arena. I still interpret my emotions through some kind of filtration system. And when raw feelings float to the surface — say, during a sad film — I have to fight the powerful urge to shove them back down into the abyss.

And, frankly, it’s embarrassing. Here I am, frequently writing about men and masculinities, eagerly sharing “Boys do cry” memes. And yet, it’s probably been four or maybe even five years since I went there. Like, really, truly lost it. The last time was in London, at home in bed with my wife. And I was very, very high. 

Thankfully, I’m not alone. Many men like me want more access to their emotions1; however, many new tools and teachers still nudge guys toward the instinct to alter or fix. We “optimize.” We “train.” But we don’t simply feel. That would be too passive, too feminine, too weak. 

The question often posed is: “how do we fix toxic masculinity?” However, this framing often sends men back to their bunkers shouting, “not all of us are toxic!” A better one that each man should ask himself is. How do I reconnect with my emotional self? How do I relearn how to feel? 

Department of Links

  • Stop Expecting Things from Sex — I loved this post from LMHC, Todd Baratz about how our expectations interfere with the experience of sex. For years, I was too busy juggling dozens of thoughts at once to actually be in my body. Sex is always imperfect; we’d be wise to recognize it as such — Instagram

  • Domination Based Masculinity — Author and speaker Mark Greene, recently shared this excellent animation that explains “man box” culture — Twitter

  • Modern Manhood Podcast — The folks at Next Gen Men are back with the third season of their excellent podcast “Modern Manhood.” Highly suggest you check it out! — Modern Manhood

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It’s important to point out that crying isn’t the emotion many men suppress. They also throttle excitement, joy, surprise, and many more in between.