To Be Young and Male

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America’s mass murder problem has a common characteristic other than guns. They’re all committed by men. Larry Jin Lee says we fail to support the emotional life of boys and young men.

My fear growing up -- particularly as a Chinese American boy -- was of being targeted because I was emotional and sensitive. This was seen as weakness and could situate you on every bully's hit list. A young man-child has to learn quite early on to narrow his emotional bandwidth, limiting him to anger, intimidation, and detachment. You got cred if you could stand toe-to-toe or be unfazed by another male's threat. "I'd rather be angry than be a victim" is usually the pervasive sentiment from most of the young men I've treated in psychotherapy. Evoking fear was mistakenly seen as getting respect.

I learned to hide my true emotions and insecurities. I grew up feeling a pervasive sense of powerlessness. To over-compensate I would wear the mask of anger and hostility, mean mugging so to speak. This served to protect me from any targeting, but sadly it also distanced me from everyone and cut me off from my authentic self. My parents, concerned about my emotionality, sent me to the usual "man-up" venues -- Boy Scouts, martial arts -- which tended to be arenas that reinforced typical male socialization and hierarchy.

Staying silent and holding these emotions in or denying that you even have feelings is a lonely place because it’s not sanctioned for males to openly express their insecurities and vulnerabilities. There are so few safe venues for young men to safely expose their pain without fear of humiliation.

I wonder with the epidemic of school shootings so far this year, if something is seriously wrong with how males are socialized in this society. How much of this unbridled and misguided rage is the result of so much hurt and fear over years of suffering in silence alone? Although a very small percentage of males become mass murderers, all mass murderers are men. Recent events around sexual abuse and shootings should be a clarion call to look deeper at manhood. Young boys should be taught to respect themselves and to be given permission to ask for nurturing, to not be limited to experience power or define one’s self worth through expressing aggression or abuse through bullying, or by intimidating others sexually or violently.


With a Perspective, I’m Larry Jin Lee.

Larry Jin Lee is a psychotherapist and father of two.