Relearning that sharing feelings is healthy
Reprinted from "Men" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(5), pp. 22-23
Guys are supposed to know stuff! When I kissed my very first date goodnight, I got a nasty shock. She made an “ugh” sound in the way that only young girls can, wiped her lips and said, “Who taught you how to kiss?” And this after I paid for her to see an Elvis movie and bought her peanuts! But I was learning what it takes to be a man.
When I fell down and scraped my knee, I learned not to cry and to “be a tough soldier for Mummy.” When my twin sisters, who were 10 years my junior, fell and skinned their knees, they were encouraged to cry. “Oh! Poor darling! Come to Mummy.” If my dad told me off and I started to cry, he would say in a rather disdainful way, “Oh, the taps are turning on.”
When I was 16 and got slapped on the face at school in front of the whole class, my eyes brimmed, but no tears ran down my face—victory!
When I was 18, my father died. My mother and 10-year-old sisters cried, but by that time I had learned not to cry. I helped make the funeral arrangements and brought the urn to the church afterwards.
We all learn how to behave from the culture around us. There were different, gender-specific ways of handling a crisis: I was trained to ignore it; my sisters were trained to embrace it.
At about age 45, I started getting into difficulty in my marriage. My wife and I visited a marriage counsellor, and my wife told her all about our problems. The counsellor then looked me in the eye, meaningfully, and said, “How do your feel about all this?” I had no idea what to say. One feeling I could identify, however, was uneasiness. Complain about my wife’s behaviour to a stranger? I had always tried to protect her!
About this same time, I went to a men’s weekend. It was described as an “initiation into manhood.” For the first time, I heard other men being honest about their problems. I took part in a grieving circle, with 200 men sharing the pain of their losses. After the men’s weekend, it took a year of once-a-week meetings until I felt safe enough to share some of what I felt.
I learned the value of identifying and sharing my own emotions. This was so amazing that I decided to learn more about healing, relationships, and psychology in general.
I sold my boat building business, trained as a counsellor and began the second half of my life as a psychotherapist working in the mental health field.
I did a lot of couples counselling and helped a lot of men begin to identify their feelings. Until feelings are identified, they can’t be expressed, and partners will not know who their men really are. While the men found it hard to share how they felt, some wives found it difficult to embrace the new “job” of giving consideration to their husband’s feelings.
Emotions are survival signals, provided by evolution to warn us when something is wrong. This is why it is important not to ignore them. Ignoring physical pain would be considered stupid: if we burn our hand on a stove, the pain warns us not to touch a hot stove again.
We treat emotional pain warnings quite differently and do things that ‘burn’ us over and over again—often from societal expectations that that we “should” be doing them. This is the stuff that nervous breakdowns, depression and anxiety are made of. If we are feeling depressed or anxious, it is a warning that we need to change our behaviours, not to just take pills that numb our feelings so we can keep doing negative behaviours longer. Pills can certainly help in the case of anxiety or depression, but medication should always be accompanied by psychotherapy. It is imperative to change the behaviours that are causing or maintaining the problems.
Recently I gave a presentation on men’s health to a Canadian Union of Postal Workers group. I first asked, “So, guys, how are we doing around men’s health issues? Who thinks we are doing okay?” About 75% put up their hands. “Who thinks men are not doing okay?” Only a few people put up their hands.
I then put an overhead up with Stats Canada research findings1 showing how men were doing compared to women, and the faces in the room changed. Men are:
- 40% more likely to die from diabetes
- 55% more likely to die from cancer
- 64% more likely to die from pneumonia or flu
- 78% more likely to die from heart disease
- 80% more likely to die from disorders of the kidney
- 84% more likely to die from arterial diseases
- 92% more likely to die from mental disorders
- twice as likely to die from lung disease
- twice as likely to die from unintentional injuries
- four to six times more likely to die from suicide
Since men and women are made from the same basic materials, it appears that nurture rather than nature is responsible for these statistics.
I then asked what was different about being a man, and what kind of gender-specific messages they had received growing up. There was a spontaneous outpouring of responses, which I wrote on a flip chart: “Suck it up,” “Be a man,” “Don’t whine,” “Just get on with it,” “Real men don’t cry,” etc., etc.
While these messages about how to behave may have been useful in simple pre-industrial times, statistics reflect that they appear to be killing us in the more complex society of today. Neglecting warning signals may work to win individual skirmishes, but as ‘soldiers,’ we are losing the battle to maintain our health.
Perhaps the saddest and most telling statistic related to men’s mental health is the horrific rate at which men commit suicide. Most suicides result from emotional pain becoming unbearable. If you are programmed not to complain, and you are supposed to know how to cope, there can be no relief from sharing pain, because there is no sharing.
Where do men go for help? Good question! If you look in the Red Book, there are literally dozens of organizations to help women and only two to help men.That men are not receiving help may simply be a result of not asking for help. Luckily, a new generation of men may be on the way. Recently, I’ve had a few young adult males, 19 years of age, come to my counselling practice for help. This is a first—only 10% of my clients are men, and most tend to be in their 30s and 40s—and is a promising sign.
Let’s encourage men to talk about their problems, for it may be a big factor in helping our sons, fathers, uncles and brothers to survive.
About the author
Rodney is a Certified Psychiatric Rehabilitation Practitioner, Executive Director of the Simon Fraser branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, and a counsellor in private practice. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org