"I get a little down," Adam confessed, "but I'm very good at hiding it. It's like I wear a mask. Even when the kids call me names or taunt me, I never show them how much it crushes me inside. I keep it all in."
"What do you do with the sadness?" I asked.
"I tend to let it boil inside until I can't hold it any longer, and then it explodes. It's like I have a breakdown, screaming and yelling. But I only do it inside my own room at home, where nobody can hear. Where nobody will know about it." He paused a moment. "I think I got this from my dad, unfortunately."
Adam was doing what I find so many boys do: he was hiding behind a mask, and using it to hide his deepest thoughts and feelings--his real self--from everyone, even the people closest to him. This mask of masculinity enabled Adam to make a bold (if inaccurate) statement to the world: "I can handle it. Everything's fine. I am invincible."
Adam, like other boys, wore this mask as an invisible shield, a persona to show the outside world a feigned self-confidence and bravado, and to hide the shame he felt at his feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness, and isolation. He couldn't handle the school situation alone--very few boys or girls of fourteen could--and he didn't know how to ask for help, even from people he knew loved him. As a result, Adam was unhappy and was falling behind in his academic performance.
Many of the boys I see today are like Adam, living behind a mask of masculine bravado that hides the genuine self to conform to our society's expectations; they feel it is necessary to cut themselves off from any feelings that society teaches them are unacceptable for men and boys--fear, uncertainty, feelings of loneliness and need.
Many boys, like Adam, also think it's necessary that they handle their problems alone. A boy is not expected to reach out--to his family, his friends, his counselors, or coaches--for help, comfort, understanding, and support. And so he is simply not as close as he could be to the people who love him and yearn to give him the human connections of love, caring, and affection every person needs.
The problem for those of us who want to help is that, on the outside, the boy who is having problems may seem cheerful and resilient while keeping inside the feelings that don't fit the male model--being troubled, lonely, afraid, desperate. Boys learn to wear the mask so skillfully--in fact, they don't even know they're doing it--that it can be difficult to detect what is really going on when they are suffering at school, when their friendships are not working out, when they are being bullied, becoming depressed, even dangerously so, to the point of feeling suicidal. The problems below the surface become obvious only when boys go "over the edge" and get into trouble at school, start to fight with friends, take drugs or abuse alcohol, are diagnosed with clinical depression or attention deficit disorder, erupt into physical violence, or come home with a black eye, as Adam did. Adam's mother, for example, did not know from her son that anything was wrong until Adam came home with an eye swollen shut; all she knew was that he had those perplexingly poor grades.
Copyright © 1998 William Pollack, Ph.D.
William Pollack, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, is the codirector of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, and a founding member and Fellow of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity of the American Psychological Association. He and his family live in Massachusetts.
Published by Owl Books/Henry Holt & Co.; 0-8050-6183-5; $13.95US; May 99. Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood is available for purchase at Amazon.com.