By Will Atkins, MA, LAPC, CRC

From the moment we enter the world, we are inundated with messages and expectations regarding what is and is not acceptable behavior. For many of us, our caretakers and society view crying and outward displays of sadness, fear and hurt in a negative light. This is especially true for males, as gender norms, the media and society all convey the idea that these emotions are indicators of weakness. Consequently, we hear statements like “be a man,” “man up,” and “real men don’t cry.”

As we grow older, many of us live out our lives based on the rules of emotional expression and gender roles we were exposed to at an early age. Men typically have no issue expressing or acting out their anger, rage and frustration, but many genuinely struggle to identify or openly communicate other feelings. We often believe that expressing such ‘unacceptable’ emotions will lead to judgment from others, so we bottle them up or stuff them down by any means necessary. For some, this includes using anger as a means for covering up emotions that we perceive as being off limits. In individuals struggling with addiction, this issue may be more than a perceived fear. It often becomes a true survival mechanism as they engage in criminal activities, high-risk behaviors, drug dealing and buying street drugs.

For men who choose the path of recovery, a great deal of time and effort is required to overcome the messages of “acceptable” emotions and behavior, as well as replace the emotional tools for survival they developed in active addiction with healthy ones. The reason people drink and/or use drugs is to change the way they feel. In fact, they may not even be aware of the feelings they are trying to avoid. To begin the recovery journey, an individual must identify the true feelings he is experiencing, allow himself to experience them rather than avoid them, and risk sharing them with others. This level of intimacy, vulnerability and transparency goes against every fiber of an addicted male’s being.

As men see others in their therapeutic community at MARR share openly and honestly—and risk vulnerability—a safe environment is created in which newcomers realize they, too, may be able to risk sharing the feelings they are experiencing. They begin taking a chance at being authentic, and their therapeutic community connects with them without judgment or abandonment. With enough practice, individuals recognize that expressing their feelings takes courage. They can then redefine their own standards of strength instead of living out the messages they received from society, and decide what it truly means to “be a man.”