From 15th May 2020 till 15th June 2020, EMPOWER Malaysia organised an essay competition for aspiring writers aged 13 to 23 with the theme “The Freedom to Express Myself without Fear”. Jonathan Leng, aged 20 talks about society’s expectations towards men and how he deals with stereotypes that have been imposed upon him throughout his life.

“If you are a man, you shed blood, not tears”, this is unfortunately the sad reality social construct has imposed on men. Men are expected to be tough, vigilant, rational and less emotional in today’s world and sadly, this extends to freedom of expression.

Growing up, whenever I felt depressed or helpless, I was often told to “Suck it up” and move on rather than telling others how I actually felt. I was stripped from the privilege of expressing myself due to this toxic masculinity that only does more harm than good.

This is evident from a research conducted by the American Centres of Disease Control and Prevention, showing that men are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than woman due to the bottled up emotions that was indubitably overwhelming for one to handle. Hence, this begs the discourse on the vitality of changing the perception and expectation of men, normalising the need to share and communicate one’s emotions, especially when we are gearing towards a more equal and inclusive society.

As the eldest son in my family, I have always set notoriously ambitious goals for myself because I wanted to make my parents proud. That being said, I took on every single leadership responsibility that I could possibly get, I studied exceptionally hard to make it to the top academic institutions in the world, I applied for countless internships as a means of gaining real work-life insights and I tried to be the best supporter for my family members.

These kinds of self-imposed expectations and a role for multitaskers were at times difficult to manage, however what shocked me the most was my inability to voice out my feelings and my hardships to the few closest people I have in this world. I begin to ask myself “Why?” and I realised this fear I have towards voicing out, stemming from the potential notion of me being looked as “weak” and how much of a “disappointment” I would be to my parents for whining over what they would have perceived as a “small matter”.

I was so scared of being judged, being perceived as unsuccessful, being called “too emotional” that I shield myself away from expressing my true feelings, from communicating their expectations and comparing it with mine that I usually hide and retreat to a corner to cry. There were multiple times where I broke down in the middle of the night from feelings of loneliness and despair. This strong facade was never healthy for anyone and I, unfortunately, was a victim of the toxic stereotype that was imposed upon me.

Acknowledging the impact of my toxic masculinity and the unhealthy traits of such social construct, I recently tried sitting my parents down and as challenging as it was, I tried to convey my emotions to them. I uttered my frustrations word by word, illustrating all the adversities that I have faced along the way to achieve what they have expected of me. Although there were moments of them being slightly condescending and not understanding, but ultimately they understood how uneasy it was for me to be in those stressful positions. It felt like a huge rock was lifted off my chest when I opened up and finally, I felt like I was able to breathe and live again.

My hope for the future is to abolish this misguided toxic masculinity and social construct that prohibits men from truly expressing their feelings and needs like what I have once experienced. It comes from a place of privilege and luck to be able to find solace and comfort when trying to express yourself but we have to try, be it with our family, partners, friends or even in therapy. Men should not always be deemed as tough but rather they should not be ashamed to admit that they are also human too, that although they are used to keep their feelings bottled up, they should realise that it is okay to be expressive with their emotions too.

The need to engender a society that accepts expressive men is imperative for the progress of the gender equality movement from all around the world. Only then, will we truly embrace the freedom to express ourselves, fearlessly.

The views, opinions and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EMPOWER Malaysia.

Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels

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