Do men still believe they have to be tough? Yes, most of them do, and because of that belief they have a tough time asking for help. Sound familiar? More often than not, when men find themselves in a therapist’s office it is because their girlfriends or wives bring them in. As we all know, it is usually the women in relationships who say “We need to talk.” But why not men?
In the story of our human history, men have had to fight to survive – to feed and protect themselves and their families. A man in danger, with his life at stake, couldn’t afford to be vulnerable and let down his guard. But in most of the modern world today toughness is not required on a 24/7 basis. Nevertheless, that out-of-date definition of vulnerability as “weakness” still persists.
Did you grow up learning to suppress feelings of fear, sadness and shame? Did you hear “Move on!” “Man Up!” “Don’t cry!” “Get a grip!” If you did, you are definitely not alone. Men are typically discouraged from expressing feelings that are considered “negative”. Anger is the exception. For many men the emotion of anger is the only one allowed – and in fact it is often encouraged.
However, men are allowed to acknowledge pain in the realm of the body. Injuries, especially when linked to sports, or to other events requiring great physical effort, are often talked about by other men in a spirit of understanding and empathy. On the other hand, acknowledgement of physical pain by the injured party himself is usually minimized. “I’m O.K.” is a typical answer men give when questioned after being physically hurt, even if they are not sure yet how hurt they really are. The acceptable language of the physical body translates into metaphors like “It’s a pain in the neck.” Using these metaphors gives men an indirect and “lightened-up” way to say how they feel while still not dipping into the emotions themselves.
If you have learned that it is wrong to express certain feelings directly, you have also developed ways to suppress them, deny them, or compartmentalize them. After a while you might have lost contact with them altogether. Feelings and memories get buried deep under layers of protection, and are difficult to uncover even when you want to.
As a therapist, it is part of my job to help men and women recover feelings that have been suppressed or denied, and to help them develop the ability to access emotions at will. The process of therapy can feel embarrassing and uncomfortable at first, especially to men. If you, for all of your life, have defined strength as the ability to control situations and emotions, and to weather adversity without giving in to fear or pain, then therapy will – at first – make you feel like you are headed in the wrong direction.
Paradoxically, therapy values vulnerability and the embracing of all emotions. Why? Because when any feelings are inaccessible, you are cut off from a part of yourself, from a part of life. Life presents a whole range of feelings, not just happy ones. Do you sometimes feel depressed, unmotivated, drained of energy and don’t know why? Suppressed emotion is suppressed energy. Depression and anxiety are often signals that something outside of your awareness needs attention.
If you venture into therapy, your therapist will guide you to all of the inner places that you instinctively have hidden from. You will find the whole range of human emotion, and no longer be limited by the defensive strategies you have used in the past. This may sound threatening to your identity, your sense of self. But what you will learn is that the ability to be emotionally vulnerable is now actually a greater strength than toughness. It takes more courage to face emotional pain than to deny it.
Once you have become comfortable in the world of emotions, you will no longer be threatened by the idea of appearing “weak,” because you will know a deeper strength. You will be able to understand yourself and other people better, have greater empathy, and handle conflicts and disagreements with more ease and flexibility.
The women in your life will appreciate your ability to be emotional, and your ability to communicate feelings. Your relationships will improve.
This may sound like a lot of upside potential, and it is. You might still be doubtful that it is true, or that it will work for you. But there is only one way for you to find out. Try therapy, and see for yourself.