Andrew Smiler discusses the importance of men asking for help, and why “going it alone” can only do harm.
Men don’t seek therapy as often as they probably should. That’s not exactly surprising: In stereotype and caricature, we make fun of men’s unwillingness to ask for directions, to read the manual, or to call for service instead of trying to fix it themselves. Why would therapy be any different?
Bob Smith, a Harvard Law graduate, told interviewers Betsy Bates Freed and David Freed that his prostate cancer caused him to wet himself and prevented him from ejaculating, but “some things…are what they are. The sooner you deal with them objectively, the better off you are.”
Public speaker Frank Ferrante told the interviewers he grew up with the idea that “A man is someone who can endure as much pain as possible without letting anyone know.” In her study of suicide—men are much more likely to “complete” a suicide attempt than women—researcher Anne Cleary concluded that men often “opted for suicide rather than disclose distress and seek help.” In their MSNBC interview, the Freeds said they believe men “don’t want to be perceived as weak.”
For men, it seems to be more important to be able to tolerate pain, “deal” with it, and look strong. In other words, guys think it’s about relying on yourself and “toughing it out,” and that relying on other people makes you look bad. This ideal of self-reliance comes from a romanticized notion of what life was like in the Old West, but it’s been adapted over the years.
In 1862, to pick an arbitrary year, a man could theoretically live on his own somewhere on the frontier and be almost completely self-supporting. He could grow his own food, maintain a small amount of livestock, and possibly even make his own clothing. He may have had some help building his cabin, but it’s also possible he didn’t. Then again, he still probably had some need for others, like the local smith, the leatherworker, the general store, the distillery, and the doctor. The odds that he had all of those skills, the resources necessary to maintain all those facilities, and the time to truly do it all—while still raising crops and animals—are stunningly slim. Even back then, guys were dependent on others for certain goods and services. Companionship, of any sort, inherently requires other people.
Back to 2012. You may know a guy who is “off the grid,” but even he relies on the people at the phone and electrical grids that maintain the Internet, as well as the infrastructure that maintains roadways by which food, clothing, and other consumer goods become readily accessible. Unless he’s independently wealthy, he relies on other people for his income, regardless of whether he’s an employee or consultant. Today, we are stunningly interdependent. In America we define self-reliance—or independence—as the ability to make decisions on our own, the ability to overlook that interdependence, and the ability to otherwise function “autonomously” within this interdependent network.
This American version of self-reliance runs contrary to some components of evolution. Given that we’re not the physically strongest or fastest predators on the planet, and that we never have been, some level of cooperation and reliance on others has been absolutely necessary over the time we’ve existed. Newborns have a clear, hardwired visual preference for faces, which suggests some level of sociality has been vital for the survival of our species.
Those who actively refused to deal with other people would have been less likely to pass their genes along to the next generation. And with whom would they have shared their genes anyway, given that level of independence? The archaeological and historical databases are full of evidence that humans have lived primarily in groups and adults rarely lived alone. In almost all pre-industrial cultures, children born to single parents are much less likely to survive to puberty than children born to two parents, so even if that guy was able to pass his genes to a second generation, the odds are against those genes making it to the third generation.
It’s time to reboot male self-reliance to reflect the realities of the 21st century. Here are some suggestions:
We need to teach and show boys and men that it’s OK to ask for assistance when they encounter a problem they can’t solve on their own. This is implicit on many DIY shows; those programs typically have a pair of hosts or a host with at least one assistant. On screen, “yourself” usually means “instead of paying a professional;” it rarely means alone.
Guys can often find assistance from people they already know. Research on friendship patterns routinely shows that males of all ages have larger networks than women, but fewer friends, on average. When we see a group or network as valuable, we’re much more willing to ask for help and we’re likely to receive it. Friends offer many types of support, from simple “favors” like providing a ride or helping hand, to offering a shoulder to cry on. Or at least some level of companionship while crying into a beer. Having a good friend also extends the lifespan; men who have someone to confide in—whether it’s their marital partner or someone else—live longer than men who don’t have that kind of support.
We’ll also need to get rid of ideas like “Bros before Hos.” In addition to its misogynistic implications, it presents a false dichotomy: You can have friends or a girlfriend, but not both. There’s no good reason why a guy can’t have both; most, in fact, do.
We also need to recognize that will power and hard work are not the only routes to success, nor do they guarantee success. In my house, we watch a broad variety of competitions, from food and fashion to football and hockey. It’s amazing how often the competitors and the announcers talk about “wanting it more than the competition.” I’m pretty clear that no matter how much I want to beat Charles Barkley in a game of HORSE and no matter how much I want to out-cook Marcus Samuelson, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. I’m not in their “league.” I can replace a faucet and I can replace an electrical outlet, and I know that I can’t bring water and electricity into contact, but that doesn’t make me either a plumber or an electrician. We need to teach boys and men that success also comes from ongoing effort, training, skill, and dedication. And that not everyone succeeds at every task.
Along these lines, we need to really make it OK to come in second, twelfth, or even to not compete. I understand applauding the winners, but when we say things like “winning isn’t the best thing, it’s the only thing” that sends a clear, strong message about who’s worthwhile and who’s not. In everyday life, competition is rare. It doesn’t really matter who’s better at changing diapers, preparing dinner, or getting little Johnny to art class, what matters is that the diapers get changed, dinner gets made, and Johnny arrives on time. Even though there’s no competition here, that doesn’t mean the activities are worthless or shouldn’t give us a feeling of accomplishment.
Part of the challenge is getting beyond the idea—held by many people in our culture—that psychological difficulties indicate some type of personal weakness, character flaw, or moral failing. Although people have some sympathy for individuals who’ve had the kind of traumatic experiences that lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), many people have difficulty understanding why those folks “can’t just get over it” and why PTSD can last for decades.
If that’s what a guy believes, or what his partner, parents, family, or co-workers think, it’s that much harder to ask for help. First, you need to step outside the so-called “man box” and acknowledge you can’t do it alone, then you need to step outside of some cultural beliefs about who gets therapy and why.
When we stop teaching boys and men that “going it alone” indicates how manly they are, and we start telling them it’s OK to get help, their lives will improve. And so will the lives the their coworkers and families.
Andrew Smiler, PhD is the author of “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of promiscuous young male sexuality” (Jossey-Bass, Fall, 2012). He is a visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, and past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity. His sexuality research focuses on normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. He also studies definitions of masculinity. Follow him @AndrewSmiler
Photo of an old log cabin courtesy of Shutterstock