“Be a man”, “Toughen up”, “You want something to cry about?”, “Man up”, “Don’t be a *%#@!”
We have all heard these things at some point in our lives. What do all of these messages have in common? Ask any man (or teenage boy) and he will recognize these directives aimed at males, some starting before they even know how to ride a bike. These damaging messages create a reluctance for men to admit when they are struggling and directly stand in the way of their willingness to seek help, trying instead to hide their emotions, stuff them (you know, “suck it up”) or numb them through substances or other destructive behaviors.
When people are afraid/resistant/unwilling to take care of their health, emotional or otherwise, there can be serious consequences for them, as well as for their family members, friends, and co-workers. Men are implicitly (or explicitly at times) taught to hide their emotions extremely well. With the exception of anger, which fits with stereotypical “manhood”, many men are not encouraged or supported in expressing their feelings. Feeling sad, hurt, betrayed, disappointed? “Man up!” Suicide rates, domestic violence perpetration, and rates of addiction to substances, are all higher for men. In terms of physical health, it is extremely common for men to avoid seeing a Doctor for both preventive and diagnostic measures, again, avoiding or dealing with symptoms on their own, often waiting until it is unavoidable and sometimes by then, life-threatening.
On a regular basis, I get a call, or more likely an email, from a man saying something like “This is long overdue… a long time in the making…. I never thought I’d be sending an email like this…I’m struggling…I guess I need to talk to someone… I need help.”
I need help. It may be these 3 words (not “I love you” as is the joke), that may be the hardest for a man to say. It is unfortunate that many men are taught that their manhood, their identity as a man, their “man card” is directly tied to how others perceive their strength, their self-reliance, and their emotional self control. The reality is that we all come into the world naked, crying, dependent, and full of emotions. As human beings, we are vulnerable. Biologically, men are not born without feelings nor are they born more resistant to help, rather they learn this through a lifetime of socialization. Brené Brown, renowned author, public speaker and respected research professor has spent the last 13 years of her career interviewing men and women and analyzing over 11,000 pieces of data for her research on the topics of vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. She notes that the biggest shame trigger for men is being perceived as weak. Vulnerability is not weakness, quite the opposite in fact; it's courage. It takes nothing but courage and strength to be in touch with our intense, confusing, conflicting emotions. It takes courage to say, “I don’t know” or “I need help” or “I need”, period. It takes courage to be authentic in relationships with friends, co-workers, and our partners. It takes courage to face pain and uncertainty and fear without numbing out. All of this is vulnerability. So I don’t buy the idea that vulnerability is weakness.
For men, what would it mean “to take off the mask”, “to stop pretending I have it all figured out”, “to just be myself”? Some are already doing it. For others, it would mean rejecting the harmful stereotypes and considering a new message about what it means to “be a man”: be real.