For The Men…. The intersection of masculinity and therapy
Updated: Jan 10
“Men have overruled their pain and soul’s delight, taught to think of themselves as ‘mechanisms.’ Such an estrangement wounds very deeply; it has gone on so long and is so taken for granted that healing individuals, let alone a whole gender, is a dubious undertaking. The wounding is institutionalized and sanctified, and men unwittingly collude in their own crucifixion.”
~ James Hollis, Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men
I identify as a man. I also am a spouse, a father, a therapist, a social worker, a musician, and other things. They all make up parts of my identity. And, before I am any of those things, I am just like you, regardless of who you are and how you identify; I am a human being. And with that comes all of the benefits and limitations that are a part of being human. I’d like to focus on a part of us that a great many of us who are men consider a limitation; our feelings. For some of us, “feelings” is the real “F-word”, isn’t it? Many of us learn from an early age that our feelings are limitations that make us weak when things are difficult. We learn to shut them down and ignore them. We learn not to express them so that we do not present to others as weak or “dramatic”. It is modeled for us and reinforced with behavior, and we go about perpetuating this model throughout our lives. We learn that we must be “strong” for others in order to be reliable and the messaging includes the idea that emotional expression is a signal that we are somehow not fulfilling our roles. That is, until we start to encounter various internal difficulties that may manifest in a myriad of ways. We may find ourselves depressed, anxious, unable to contain our anger or even understand why we are so angry all the time. We may lash out at and harm others that we love. We may have difficulties at work or in other areas of our lives. We may struggle managing our substance use when all we are trying to do is cope with emotions that are out of our control. Often, this is the result of having a conflictual relationship with one’s emotions – one’s TRUE self. We attempt to cleave off parts of ourselves that we believe make us weak or do not serve us, never realizing that these parts of us are critical to our being and cannot be removed. Our emotions are necessary equipment, men. They are there for a reason. And, they don’t have to be bad information – they can become valued parts of us if we learn to relate to them in an adaptive way.
A great many men struggle knowingly with their emotions and still do not seek adequate help due to social and cultural stigma. This problem runs so deep that it even skews the research data on mental health. Raw data on depression in men suggests that men are less depressed than women in western societies (Seidler, et.al., 2016), but that data relies on individuals to actually acknowledge and seek help in the first place. The socialization of men in those same western cultures would commonly see them resort to normative behaviors that steer them away from, not towards therapy or other help. Seidler, et.al. went on to write [“men's conformity to masculine norms such as stoicism, self-reliance and restrictive emotionality - is tied to the lower rates of depression diagnoses often seen in men”]. The suggestion here is that men want to appear unaffected by mental health, therefore, they allow their mental health to go untreated so as not to acknowledge it until they may no longer have a choice. What I’m getting at here is that I’ve seen, all too often, emotions ignored or “shoved down” in this way until they refuse to be ignored any longer. When there is no more option to bury them, and no skills to cope or even tolerate them, we enter problem territory in our relationships with others and with ourselves.
This post is about a different choice that is more empowering. Often, the tendency is to want to destroy or cleave off those parts of us that we consider a weakness, despite the fact that our emotions are standard equipment. We are MEANT to have them! As they are a necessary part of each of us as humans, not just males, they cannot be done away with. Instead, it is about learning to relate to those parts of yourself differently and no longer having to be at war with them, with ourselves, or with others. It is about choosing to be a whole-hearted being, in touch with emotions and free to express them while maintaining your relationship with masculinity and, furthermore, being experienced as masculine at the same time. It is about forging a new brand of masculine self expression and security for yourself without the need for stoic rigidity or the belief that anything else is weakness.
You may be asking: Isn’t this “being vulnerable” and outward expression of emotions the same as showing weakness? Hardly. Here is how I understand it: being vulnerable is not weakness in and of itself. Being vulnerable is its own kind of strength that requires its own kind of courage. It is acknowledging that you are not invincible and that you have weaknesses and can be hurt or communicate soft inner truths and express love. The truth is that all human beings are equipped as such. While this is true, it does NOT mean that you cannot also be a masculine being at the same time. Healthy vulnerability is not the act of never exposing one’s weaknesses. In doing so, we would not be open to receive the true gifts of this life – gifts that one must be vulnerable to receive, such as love and affirmation and, even criticism. Rather, healthy vulnerability is the act of acknowledging those weaknesses and being willing to mindfully expose them in order to allow those who are worthy a chance to experience our authentic selves and receive the gifts of us. It is being able to sit with and tolerate our emotions when they arise and seek to understand them with curiosity in order to better understand our inner and outer worlds. It is the allowing in of the deepest gifts that others have to offer and the ability to give the best parts of ourselves. In my own work, I have discovered this benefit for myself and I have worked with many others who have also redefined their relationship to their feelings and their masculinity in order to become more whole hearted. As a result, they realized they CAN have deeper, more meaningful and fulfilling relationships AND also have a relationship with their own masculine identity.
Some of us were wounded as children and some of us were taught that there is only one way to be masculine. These ideas were modeled for us, reinforced by others, and by our own behavior over time. It’s doesn’t mean that you cannot reorganize yourself differently in adulthood. It doesn’t mean that your way of being is a barrier to your best life – that’s only true if YOU believe that it is. If you feel misunderstood often, or if significant other are always asking for more of you and you’re not sure how to give it to them while maintaining your identity, this may be your work. If you feel like a pressure cooker that could blow at any moment, this may be your work. If you carry inner conflict around all the time and feel stuck between two parts of yourself, this may be your work. If you are a father and want to model something different for your daughters and pass on something different to your sons, this is your work. If you are someone who feels that there are barriers between you and your best self, let’s talk about how to clear them and forge a path forward towards your best self and your best life!
Seidler, Z. E., Dawes, A. J., Rice, S. M., Oliffe, J. L., & Dhillon, H. M. (2016). The role of masculinity in men's help-seeking for depression: A systematic review. Clinical psychology review, 49, 106–118. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2016.09.002