REJECTION IN MEN
“My first day of school was one that I had looked forward to for some time however one of my lasting memories of this day was feeling rejected by the other children as I wasn’t made to feel welcome or encouraged to join in with what they were doing. This made me feel left out and different (because I was the ‘new boy’), even though this may not have been the intention of their actions”.
Feelings such as these are common when one experiences rejection and can occur as a result of an intentional act of another person or may be the result of one person misinterpreting the expression of the other, such as the subtle change in the tone of voice that may feel dismissive and unloving to another.
I’m sure we have all experienced some form of rejection during our life.
Rejection is experienced by both men and women but, as Suzanne Degress-White (1) writes, women react quite differently to it than men do. She describes how women “are likely to feel emotionally hurt by rejection and may assume there is something lacking in them that warranted the rejection or blame.” Men, however, “tend to take rejection as a challenge to their masculinity”.
So why do men react the way they do when they feel rejected, and why do many men struggle to deal with the emotions that rejection can cause?
When boys are growing up, they are influenced by society’s ideals of what it is to be a ‘real’ man. These include such things as competitiveness, confidence, independence, often overriding pain or discomfort felt in the body and projecting a persona of invulnerability. Boys, however, are innately tender, caring and sensitive and when young often express their feelings more freely than girls do.
Is it possible then, that the expectations placed on them by family and society as to how they should behave could be felt (unconsciously) by them as a rejection of the essence of who they naturally are?
The role models’ boys look up to tend to be well known sportsmen or businessmen who are identified and valued by society for what they do or for their achievements. While I don’t wish to minimise the accomplishments of these men, I feel that by placing emphasis on a person’s achievements, over the innate qualities of who they are as a person conveys a message to boys that their natural qualities are not valued or appreciated.
Our education system further encourages children to seek recognition through what they do by way of the many sporting and academic awards that schools offer.
An acquaintance of mine was one of the top scholars of my year, but I was surprised to learn in later years of the personal insecurities and struggles that affected him on a regular basis. I say that I was surprised because he always appeared confident and in control and never showed any signs of these personal struggles. From the outside he ticked the boxes – he was achieving well academically; he was well liked and he had a clear plan for his university studies and future career. But unfortunately, there was something that fostered an unsettlement he felt in himself.
Is it possible that even though the achievements of boys/men may bring them acceptance and recognition by others, they may still experience a level of inner discontent? I feel this comes from living in a way that enables them to fit in with friends and family, but which may at times be at odds with what they feel to be true in their body.
This situation is not uncommon, and most men can probably relate to experiencing similar feelings. For many years I had low self-esteem and struggled with not feeling as though I fitted in with those around me. The reason those feelings have subsided is because I now feel a settlement in my body that comes from living the qualities of who I truly am and not holding back from expressing these.
Could it be if a boy feels the rejection of his innate qualities when he is young, he then tends to focus on what he can do and achieve, as this gives him a sense of identity and self-worth and is a way to gain acceptance and recognition by others?
If so, this would explain why men (as suggested by Degress-White) take rejection to be a personal attack on their manliness.
Men often struggle to deal with the emotions that can come with being rejected because they have grown up in a society that has not sought to foster the expression of such feelings in boys.
Gruber and Borelli (2) found that when adults interact with children, they are more likely to be open with talking about vulnerable feelings with girls than they are with boys, where any discussion about feelings relates predominately to anger and frustration. By not giving boys the same space to voice emotions as we do girls, we not only deny them the opportunity of true expression of how they feel, we reinforce the mindset in them of the need to hold back such expression. This ultimately denies them the opportunity of learning to handle rejection.
It is reasonable to assume that when boys/men experience rejection and hold back from expressing their feelings, the frustration they experience will eventually manifest in a behavioural outplay. This is in fact the case with studies now showing the link between restricted emotional expression in boys and aggressive behaviour. By the time boys reach their teenage years it is not uncommon for some to have anger issues and be more likely to engage in higher risk behaviours such as alcohol and substance abuse. This pattern can continue into adulthood where a man’s undealt with anger and frustration can often be a causal factor in incidents of physical and verbal abuse and domestic violence.
In recent years a number of high-profile New Zealand men, including Sir John Kirwan and Mike King, have publicly shared their experience with recovering from such things as alcohol/drug abuse and mental health issues. I feel the true impact of these stories was not in how they overcame the challenges they faced or the affect their experience had on their family/whanau, but the transparency with which these men shared their feelings. To see such vulnerability in men is rare but at the same time very powerful, and their presentations have been the catalyst for other men and boys to be more open with reaching out to family or friends if they are struggling in some way.
In the past I found it difficult to reach out to others for support or to express my feelings to those around me. Instead I tended to internalise these feelings and I would often verbally withdraw from those close to me. Holding back my expression at these times may have given the appearance that I was unaffected by what had been said or done, but it was a way I avoided confronting the issues. This created yet more frustration as I was often left feeling unheard and, if there was an issue, nothing was resolved thereby creating a pattern that often occurred again.
It has only been in recent years that I have been more open with expressing the tender, caring qualities that are such an important part of me and realising there is no shame or weakness in showing one’s vulnerability. In fact, when I express in this way it's easier for me to resolve situations where I have felt rejection and for my relationship with the person involved to deepen as a result.
Is it possible that boys and men could better deal with rejection if their innate qualities as a person were appreciated and valued, and the true expression of their feelings was not only nurtured but normalised by society?
By Peter Campbell
1. Degress-White,Suzanne, (2018), ‘Rejection – When it Hurts Men More Than it Should’, from pschologytoday.com
2. Gruber, J and Borelli, J, (2018), ‘Why we Should Help Boys Embrace all Their Feelings,’ Greater Good Magazine