When the topic of men’s emotional and mental health is brought up, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Do you notice any expectations or unfair standards? Or do you fully embrace and encourage the expression of male emotion?
Historically, people have been conditioned to believe that men should be the strong protector and provider for the family. Growing up, males are often not encouraged to express their feelings as much as females and are taught the idea that it’s not masculine to discuss insecurities and especially cry in front of others! They are told things like “man up” and expected to push aside any issues to maintain the macho image. Most of the time, the accusers are men themselves which has created a culture in which men expect other men to appear tough and ultimately promotes fear of judgement amongst men. As a result, they learn that showing any kind of vulnerability and transparency is a sign of personal weakness. Because of this stigma they can find it harder to accept if they are struggling with a physical or psychological condition and can be reluctant to open up out of fear of being viewed as weak.
In recent years, studies have shown that suffering from a mental health condition is widely common, with around 45% of Australians (both men and women) experiencing these difficulties at least once in their lifetime, with 20% are affected every year. Research also tells us that men are less likely than women to seek help when they’re suffering from a psychological problem like depression or anxiety. And shockingly, men are three to four times more likely to commit suicide which is perhaps directly linked to the reluctance to seek help because they may feel completely alone in their struggles. In my clinical practice, I have witnessed the effects of this stigma all too often with males of every age (even young boys) resisting their true feelings in order to conform to societies pressures. This can create secondary psychological disorders in the attempt to avoid or fight against their difficulties. I have seen this have destructive effects on mental health, relationships, families and work etc.
Thankfully, the increase of mental health awareness is beginning to challenge the societal rules placed on men. Modern culture is becoming more accepting towards men being open about their emotional struggles as it is increasingly normalized through the media. There is currently a strong push for gender equality in the wider community which focuses more on women’s rights. However, the standards we place on men should also be equalized because we wouldn’t apply the same rules to women.
Those who still feel pressured to uphold this stoic image, actively block and suppress their feelings which is unhealthy not just for themselves but also in their relationships. Experiencing a wide range of emotions is a normal part of the human experience and tells us valuable information; that we are alive (not just robotic machines) and there are things that we care about. Buried and unresolved feelings tend to manifest into things like aggressiveness, stress, burn out, depression, anxiety and find alternative ways to be released through dysfunctional coping behaviours like drug and alcohol use, self-harm, abusiveness etc which are all higher among males.
So then……How can men manage their emotions in a healthy way?
It’s easy to see that societies views towards men are outdated and are having a negative effect on men’s overall quality of life. If you ask me, there hasn’t been a better time to drop the facade and catch up to the progressive perspectives that have been emerging from the scientific research in recent decades. Embracing vulnerability and emotional agility are two evidence based concepts that have gained an abundance of attention because when they are applied, people report significant results in their lives. I will incorporate some of the principles taught by these concepts in the following suggestions.
Embrace what makes you feel vulnerable
First and foremost, becoming familiarised and comfortable with emotions is essential for self-growth and being able to navigate challenging situations in a constructive way. Discomfort with vulnerability stops us from understanding ourselves and others and leads to all sorts of psychological issues. In the attempt to avoid and detach from hurtful experiences, our brain perceives it as a threat so works hard to keep those emotions at bay, causing us to struggle in the background. Through research on vulnerability, we have learned that taking emotional risks by being honest about who we are and how we feel, is actually the greatest measure we have of courage. We also have learned that we can’t selectively numb out the difficult stuff such as heartbreak, rejection, fear and still experience the positive things in life such as joy, peace, gratefulness etc.
Men must come to accept that painful raw emotions does not reflect weakness, but instead is totally normal and expressing them in a healthy way is a sign of maturity and better still, courage! The scientific research has redefined vulnerability or what society calls “weakness” as courage, an idea worth adopting! Basically, men need to have a little self-compassion and give themselves permission to not be ok at times. Embracing vulnerabilities and accepting imperfections is the prerequisite to managing emotional health. Everyone has their battles and once you are willing to confront your struggles, then you will be on the way to taking better care of yourself in every area of life.
Grow in self awareness
When you begin allowing yourself to feel, this will spark further self-reflection. Dig a little deeper and ask yourself what triggers your insecurities and fears. Seek to understand what rules and beliefs you are operating by, which mindsets hold you back and what blocks you from experiencing more peace and happiness in your life. Identify what values are most important to you and the goals you’d like to achieve. As you grow in understanding of yourself, you will find it easier to let go of the unhelpful rules and expectations that inhibit you and replace them with more balanced ideas. This will also increase your ability to empathize and relate to others, hence developing your emotional intelligence, which is key to fulfilling relationships and improved well-being.
It’s often helpful to find someone you feel safe to debrief and process with. Whether it’s a mate, spouse, sibling or therapist, verbalising your feelings and gaining an outside perspective can be incredibly valuable. Social support is known to be the single most effective strategy in overcoming mental health issues according to research because humans flourish when they experience meaningful connections in their relationships.
Challenge yourself to share the deeper stuff and test the outcome of it, you may be surprised with how it is received. Sometimes just talk therapy just doesn’t cut it for some men and they find great benefit in chatting to mates whilst engaging in activities such as fishing, working out, playing sports etc. Being a part of a group and feeling a sense of belonging and acceptance can be extremely rewarding. We were never meant to survive in solidarity so it makes sense that we can find benefit in comradery.
Be proactive about emotional health. All this thinking and feeling and talking is no good unless you act on it. Find out what outlets you need to maintain balance in your life and be sure to schedule them into your day, week, month etc in the same way you would schedule an appointment. Take a close look at each area of your life e.g. physical, social, psychological, work, spiritual, creative and think about what would improve these areas. Planning ahead is so important otherwise life will just take over and you will neglect the things that keep you the most sane! It can be things like having uninterrupted downtime even for 10 minutes, implementing an exercise regime, taking the time to reflect or discuss your day with your spouse, watching a movie, picking up your guitar etc. Don’t forget to plan activities that are fun too! And don’t underestimate the power of being around people that make you laugh and remind you not to take life too seriously.
Make compassion your forte
Last but not least, in order to really change how men approach emotional health, the culture amongst men needs to embrace compassion. Being compassionate towards yourself is just the beginning, but if you extend that to others by role modelling your willingness to be yourself, this will encourage other men to be real also. Attending community events that focus on men’s mental health awareness and inviting the men in your life can be a good way to reduce the stigma and encourage expressiveness. Also, start conversations about the real challenges and ask questions about how the men around you cope with life’s challenges. Take the time to really listen and acknowledge how they feel as this will encourage deeper discussion.
So guys, are you willing to let go of who you think you should be and face your true feelings? Remember, you’re not alone in dealing with the stresses and pains of life, so stop wasting energy trying to live up to standards that aren’t always achievable and just be real with yourself and others. This will empower you to approach your emotional and mental health in a new and effective way and in doing so, you will empower others to do the same.
Clinical Psychologist and Writer for Be That