Men are socialized to be tough, stoic, even impenetrable. Learn to release these emotions so you don’t burst from within.
The picture of the traditional male in our society is definitely changing, and that transition is, for the most part, a positive one. But there remains some solid resistance that prevents some men from expressing their emotional side most fully and effectively. Many men still have an aversion to asking for help when they need it, and therapy is still seen as negative or taboo. Why is this?
The traditional, prototypical male is the breadwinner who is in control. He is dominant and assertive. He is action oriented, neither passive nor overly emotional, and he sees a need for help as a weakness that he cannot tolerate in himself or other men. The stigma against this is pronounced. The question, then, is how this stigmatization takes place and how it can be changed.
The stigma arises from shame and surrounding feelings of inadequacy. A lot of men still believe they shame themselves and each other when they admit a need for help. Self-reliant males are deemed to be the norm. Inadequacy and a need for assistance are seen as overt weaknesses, to be avoided in oneself at all cost. A need for help is thought to be too unmanly to be permitted expression.
There is another aspect to many men’s refusal to accept or ask for help, and it relates to the mixed signals sent to them by women close to them. In therapeutic situations, I have seen women who have expressed a desire for their men to be more emotional, more intimate, more expressive. But some of those same women react to such expressions by their men with a negative response, displaying through their behaviour or overtly that they find fault with this.
Some women may think they want expressiveness, but their reactions to the reality can be quite different. Thus, men are sometimes punished for doing what is asked of them. I have seen couples where the man is opening up and being honest, and the woman becomes mad at him for “not being man enough.”
Especially in the face of contradictions such as this, getting men to open up is not an easy task. They are faced with a culturally shaped role that dictates stoic strength in the face of all adversity. Dealing with this sort of archetypal role definition is nothing new to adult men. They have seen it all of their lives.
Psychology professor Ronald Levant of the University of Akron has pointed out that research over several decades has shown that boys and girls display very few differences initially, and the roles we accept are conditioned over time. Male babies, it seems, may actually be more emotionally expressive than their female counterparts. But the conditioning they receive from role models, primarily parents, takes effect pretty quickly. Boys are quick to learn that they are expected to be strong and not complain. Talking about emotions and crying are discouraged, and by the end of their second year of life, boys are, indeed, less verbally expressive than girls.
As they mature, boys see the stoic male figure as the encouraged norm in everything from their everyday life experiences to the larger-than-life models in cinema. The strong, silent type is idealized. The emotive and “weak” among them are shunned. By the fourth grade, boys are far more hesitant to seek any help in conflict resolution among peers. By then the stage is set for a lifetime of stoic manliness defined by a resolute and purposeful individualism. “Ask for help? Why should I? I am stronger than that,” he thinks.
It is not just social pressures, however, as biology also plays a part. Around this same time, puberty begins and the boy will experience many changes as testosterone floods the system. This testosterone will produce many changes distinct from a woman’s experience. Coupled with the social messages of competition or increased need for self-reliance that are common in society, showing weakness becomes that much more forbidden.
It is not just the barrier of opening up that many men are faced with. It is the concept of who they might be opening up to. Therapy itself has gotten a fairly bad name in modern culture. Television and movies have portrayed it in a negative light more often than not. Men who have trouble opening up to friends and loved ones become doubly distrusting of opening up to a stranger in a therapeutic situation.
First of all, they may not even believe that any healing is possible. Therapy seems counter-productive rather than helpful. And in order to be beneficial, it might take months or even years of counseling. Some men see this as a long-term commitment, and when they don’t trust it to begin with, it is unlikely they will invest that time into it.
Self-esteem issues are not limited just to men, but males are often faced with internal contradictions about what image they must project to be acceptably “strong” males. With their inner feelings muted and ignored for years, men are vulnerable to low self-esteem when their feelings “get in the way” of their manliness. They refuse to allow themselves to be vulnerable.
The price is frequently a loss of self-respect and a lack of trust in others. A cycle of self-defeating beliefs can easily emerge, with men further isolating themselves from feelings and from expressing themselves. Feeling good about themselves becomes a faded memory. They may think,
“How can therapy help me when I don’t believe I have the capacity to feel good about myself? And why on earth should I talk to a total stranger about this?”
From recent government statistics, we see that men aged 40-49 are experiencing accelerated suicide rates.
It is probably no coincidence that in the recent economic recession, twice as many men as women became unemployed. Almost 20 percent of all men aged 25-54 lost their jobs. Depression is a serious condition that can result in the loss of one’s will to live. Employment can define our lives in many ways, and the loss of a long-held job can severely damage self-image and self-respect. Unfortunately, suicide becomes an option for far too many.
Couple these facts with some men’s distrust of therapy and unwillingness to open up even to trusted friends, and you have the formula for open rejection of therapy. The shame experienced by men who have lost their position as the primary breadwinner in their family can be devastating. This is frequently more than just a lost job—it can also define the purpose of a productive life. The loss of purpose experienced in job loss can cripple self-esteem and destroy one’s concept of self-worth. This shame can create a solid barrier to discussion, particularly discussion with a stranger in therapeutic situations.
In a poll sponsored by PacifiCare Behavioral Health and Psychology Today titled Therapy in America 2004, men responded with some discouraging feedback. They said they not only distrusted therapy and therapists, but they also would not even want to be associated with “the type of person” who typically receives therapy. That represents a level of contempt that makes a willingness to enter therapy a very difficult challenge, indeed.
The poll also clarified three reasons why people who have identified themselves as needing treatment have still not gotten it. They said they stayed away because of the high cost, because they felt their problems were not serious enough to warrant treatment, and because of skepticism about the treatment actually working to solve the problems. A full 32 percent doubted the treatment would work.
The image of the fully self-reliant man remains ingrained in the fabric of our social structure. Roughly 1,000 65-year-old males were the subjects of a 2011 study published by two Rutgers University sociologists, Kristen Springer and Dawne Mouzon. The “Macho Men” study reveals that avoidance of health care in general is the norm among macho-oriented males. These men were the most heavily invested in the belief that a “real man” is one who is strong to the point of virtual invulnerability.
This same assumed invulnerability is, no doubt, the rationale behind the avoidance of health care even in the face of overwhelming evidence for its need. If a man is going to deny himself a visit to a doctor for a physical condition, he is even more likely to deny himself a visit to a therapist for mental conditions—especially any such condition that implies any weakness.
Furthermore, the goals and benefits of therapy are frequently misunderstood. Therapists are not the only ones who hear things like “people can’t change” or “you can’t change the past.” But this is exactly what therapy is supposed to do. Therapy can change things for the better.
While it obviously can’t change the past, therapy changes our emotional and cognitive reactions to the past. It can give us a new sense of awareness for the past and an entirely new set of beliefs and behaviours. With effective therapy, the emotional response to past events can change, and old beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us can be changed from limiting and negative beliefs to more positive ones. We can change a point of view from a belief in one’s limitations to expressions such as “I can handle life” and “I am in control.”
Therapy can make a positive difference. The Therapy in America poll confirms that among those who have completed therapy, the vast majority of both men and women agree that it has helped. Getting a man through the door may present some serious challenges, but if he does manage to get there, the help is likely to be highly beneficial.
Photo: Flickr/Kelly B.