The tide has turned on the stigma of therapy, leading more men to seek out mental health support and counseling. Join Peter Craig, MA, LPC to learn how to move through masculine barriers to open up a valuable path to healing.
“It’s my first time in therapy” is something I hear increasingly often in my office. By men. All kinds of men, young and old. Men struggling with relationships, out of control behaviors, anxiety, or depression.
The tide has turned. The stigma of therapy implying weakness or major mental illness is no longer strong enough to impede many men who want to talk with someone and get support in taking action. What great news! As more athletes, celebrities, and musicians speak up about mental health and the challenges they face, men seem to find it increasingly socially acceptable to reach out to someone. That’s significant progress, because men tend to reach out to counselors when depressed much less often than women (and let symptoms worsen- sometimes to the point of no return). I am writing this article in hopes of continuing to inspire men (and everyone!) to seek counseling when they need it. Having the courage to admit that you need support is the opposite of weakness. Therapy also allows you to explore how you can improve your situation with work, home life, or friends, which can make your life feel much better!
Outdated masculine archetypes paint the ‘superhero’ man as invulnerable, stoic, rageful, or unemotional. Generation after generation have raised men not to explore their emotions- feelings of sadness, loneliness, or hurt, out in the open. Instead men have been conditioned to often suppress these feelings, unless they are socially condoned ones – anger (“Hit him harder!”), numbness (“I don’t care”), or sometimes sexuality (“I scored!”). The result is hurt people hurting people. Violence, physical and emotional abuse, a lack of empathy- these problems continue to be reproduced in homes and in society at large.
When our emotions are consistently diminished or undervalued growing up, we learn to form defenses around feelings, whether on the high end (i.e. ‘I guess I won’t feel exuberance any more if I keep getting yelled at for being so excited’), or on the low end (‘It’s so painful to hear “Stop crying!” so many times I guess I have to harden myself somehow against this sadness’). These defenses protect us from ‘unbearable states of aloneness,’ but they come at a cost. We may not get to the root at why we have a hard time connecting with our partner. For example, unconscious emotions of disappointment or resentment may not be felt and therefore not recognized to be processed together. Repressed emotions can also keep us from our sense of confidence and vibrancy and impact how successful and effective we can be at work.
Our defenses against certain emotions help us survive, but can limit our ability to thrive. If we were shamed or invalidated as a child for emotions outside the ‘normal range’ in our family, we may have learned to tuck those emotions away or not feel them at all after a while. Such lack of emotional support and validation may have made us feel alone in our emotions, even scared and confused by what to do with them. Such family patterns around emotion are then easy to replicate, causing us to handle emotions in similar ways to how our parents did with us growing up. Those patterns can perpetuate inter-generational trauma, however. With more awareness and training, we can break those cycles and give the next generation more emotional range and tools.
How do we stop the cycle? We can begin to cultivate more kindness toward ourselves, which necessitates the ability to be curious from a place of non-judgment with how we’re feeling instead of immediately recoiling or dissociating from our emotions. Men can see emotions as valuable parts of their experience that are connecting and stress-reducing to share. Rather than thinking of emotional sharing as ‘something women do,’ men can understand how helpful it is to share sadness with a friend, for example. We can learn to tolerate previously unbearable emotions, and train to notice emotions that cause irritability under the surface of our conscious experience. As we continue to allow ourselves to feel difficult or uncomfortable sentiments of grief, disappointment, or longing, we welcome previously dissociated parts back into our self. The ‘adaptive energy’ from these emotions brings vitality and new possibilities, potentially even rewiring outdated beliefs like we’re ‘not good enough.’ This is the stuff of healing–of good therapy.
As more emotions are welcomed and explored, we integrate previously unresolved emotional pain in a way that leaves more open space inside of ourselves. This translates into a greater ability to feel the full range of human emotions without becoming dysregulated–scientific speak for not flipping our lid and breaking down to more primitive behaviors that often sabotage important relationships. Such sabotage can include shutting down in conversations or getting overbearing or aggressive. We can learn to feel frustration with our partner and others and still talk about our challenges reasonably. We can learn to interact assertively with others without seeming arrogant or enforcing our opinion in a rigid way. Increasing our emotional intelligence allows us to reach more of our life goals by making sure the people in our life are happy with us and that we have the skill to navigate stress and challenges.
There is a cultural history of men repressing their emotions in order to appear ‘strong,’ yet even the military and special forces have acknowledged how important it is to share and have support to remaining a high-performer and continuing to function. Feelings consume energy, and many men have a tendency to drink heavily, withdraw emotionally, or self-medicate to deal with the stress. However, many men are prepared to learn how to deal with their emotions more productively. They may know that they tend to drink more when they feel criticized, alone, or experience grief and loss. Rather than consuming alcohol excessively, or shutting down, it is good practice to breathe and witness a sense of loss or pain and seek emotional support from others. Such practice builds important internal ‘muscles’ that help us be more resilient to stress and life’s ups and downs. Such a practice might also open a deeper willingness to see a professional therapist and discuss mental health issues in greater depth.
As we learn to notice, value, and express more of our inner experience, our authentic self emerges in a way that invites deeper connection, greater creativity, and more fulfillment in our lives. No wonder more men are seeking out therapy! And, it’s about time.