Many men are haunted by the societal expectations of being male. It’s the reason many guys refuse therapy, letting their emotional struggles bubble beneath the surface until they inevitably boil over, sometimes in the form of abusive behavior. The idea that men must be exemplars of bravery, strength, resolve, and must never express hurt or vulnerability, sounds old-fashioned, but it is still very much in evidence, built upon centuries of social conditioning—and you can think of all of these toxic norms as existing within a figurative box.
What is the ‘man box’?
The ‘man box’ is an illustration of the idea that men are forced to conform to rigid social norms that define who they are and what they can be—or as the University of Richmond noted in summarizing several studies, it is a “set of expectations, perceptions, and behaviors of what is ‘manly’ behavior.” Millions of men live inside the man box unaware, and it’s a lonely place in which to exist.
The man box theory encapsulates the notion of masculinity as a prison of sorts, trapping men in a suffocating pattern of denying their emotions in order to create a perception of control. Though the organization A Call To Men coined the term, the general concept has been studied and probed by scholars for decades.
The man box concept summarizes in elegant metaphor the pressures that “attempt to control, manipulate, and shame men into being a certain way,” the psychologist Heather Stevenson tells Lifehacker. “Anything that falls outside of the man box, [such as] being emotional, vulnerable, or showing compassion, is not only not allowed, but will strip men of their masculinity card or reject them from the tribe.”
Social conditioning can start at a young age. Parents often use more emotional language and express a greater willingness to broach emotional topics with girls than with boys. For many boys, anger is the only emotion they’re allowed to display—a concerning notion, given research that indicates young boys may be innately more emotional than girls.
“Any time we force people to deny parts of themselves, this creates feelings of shame,” says Stevenson. “A lot of men have bought into this concept so much they believe they actually don’t have the same inborn capacity for emotional range and expression that women have, and that is completely false.”
This dynamic can have a catastrophic effect on men’s relationships with others. “Being able to feel and express more emotions than anger or happiness is incredibly freeing,” says Justin Lioi, a licensed clinical social worker. “[It] allows us to better show up for our partners, friends, children and ourselves.” On the other hand, men who live their lives within the man box pose a much higher risk of committing acts of violence toward women.
Thinking about traditional ideas of masculinity from within this framework—as a confining prison from which one can break free—can help men understand this mindset as a choice, if an unconscious one, rather than an inevitability.
How to break free of the man box and traditional ideas of masculinity
Expanding your understanding of masculinity beyond the confines of the man box starts with accepting the fact that emotional responses are not indicative of weakness, and that feelings of sadness and anxiety are simply a part of being human. Much like the broader construct of gender and everything associated with it, the man box is a fictive set of standards created by broad social pressures and expectations.
Such understanding is a vital step in dismantling the man box, says Stevenson. “When men can start to view the box simply as a social construct meant to control and oppress, it can become easier to shed the limiting ideas and notions about who they are allowed to be.”
She offers a metaphor to help men visualize how they might overcome these limitations, telling Lifehacker:
I like to think of the man box as a mask that men are forced to wear, that only allows a small portion of their humanness to be displayed. If men can start taking off that mask, let their fullness emerge and learn to be comfortable with all the parts of themselves, not only will they feel better, but they’ll be able to have better connections and relationships with others.
Much of this work can start with therapy; giving voice to previously concealed or unrealized thoughts in a safe, confidential manner is an important part of healing. But the simple knowledge that much of the social pressures heaped upon men are artificially constructed rather than innate and unchangeable is the true first step in dismantling the man box.