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Over the last few decades, the psychological needs of men have been receiving greater attention by researchers, psychologists and mental health professionals. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately six million American men suffer from depression every year but they are less likely than women to seek help.
And the face of depression for men may look different than it does for women (see Men: A Different Depression). Men’s depression may manifest as impatience, agitation and anger (rather than the sad or blue mood typically associated with depression).
Despite our no-nonsense, I’ll-get-the-job-done exteriors; despite the masculine ideals that prevent us from dealing with our emotional struggles; despite the pressures to “man up” and avoid showing that we are vulnerable….
…men aren’t immune to feeling overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, or weighed down by the stresses of life.
Too many of us are very good at covering up our struggles through a host of emotional/mind numbing (and self-destructive) behaviors:
⇒ Repeatedly zoning out in front of the TV (or iPads, iPhones, video games) for hours on end;
⇒ Over-relying on alcohol to relax and “take the edge off”;
⇒ Using drugs to tune out the pressures of life;
⇒ Using pornography or sex as an escape;
⇒ Pushing ourselves (e.g., over-working) and never slowing down (so we don’t have to face the feelings that come with being still)…
These are just some ways the men I’ve worked with in therapy cope with their struggles.
Prior to coming to see me, many of the men I work with didn’t realize there was an underlying issue that was being covered over. At some point their unhealthy behaviors (behaviors that were initially designed to help them cope with feeling overwhelmed) went on automatic pilot; in these instances a mindless norm set in, one that prevented them from seeking healthier alternatives, one that prevented them from acknowledging the self-destructive damage being done.
For some men their underlying emotional struggles took a toll on their physical health. I’ve received many calls over the years from men seeking counseling at the urging of their medical doctor. The deleterious impact of psychological stress on physical well-being is well-documented.
Are men emotionally challenged?
When writing about the emotional challenges of men, it’s all too easy to create a biased portrait of the unfeeling, self-destructive, angry guy. To counter this bias it’s important to note that there are many men who are attuned to their emotional life, men who are able to access and express their feelings in healthy ways.
The Western ideals of masculinity shackle some men into rigid ways-of-being that can do more harm than good.
According to Joseph Pleck (1995), men are boxed into an emotional corner when they are pressured to live up to certain gender norms proscribed by society/culture (for instance, you should win at all costs, be competitive, not show vulnerability, maintain self-control, lead rather than follow).
Psychological problems occur when you try to live up to particular gender norms that inherently do not work for you—this mismatch creates what Pleck calls a Gender Role Strain. We sacrifice our authentic self in order to live the prescribed role—the pressures to do so are considerable.
We may not realize these internal emotional battles are occurring since these masculine norms are so deeply threaded into the fabric of our identity. And even if we know something isn’t working for us, to admit this and seek help violates the ideals of manhood.
This sets the stage for complacency. To feel angry, emotionally numb, overly stressed, or disconnected from ourselves and others is so commonplace that it remains unquestioned.
As a client once said,
“I needed someone to tell me that it’s not okay to be so shut down emotionally and never feel happy. I didn’t realize there were alternatives to feeling this way. ”
“How can I share my feelings if I don’t know what I’m feeling?”
The emotional struggles of men pose particular problems for their relationships. Marriage and intimate relationships require emotional sharing and connection. Emotional intimacy is a two-way street. It requires a back and forth tuning into each other’s feelings.
To be cut off emotionally from ourselves is to be cut off from our spouse/partner.
If men do not have the feeling-language to express themselves (since we’ve been socialized to avoid certain feelings), how can we talk about our feelings even when asked to do so?
Certain communication skills are needed for this type of sharing.
The need to be in control
Certain emotions (sadness, shame, rejection, uncertainty, doubt) can make men feel vulnerable (a clear violation of the masculine ideal of stoicism). And when we’re uneasy about what we’re feeling, it usually means we don’t feel in control—remember the masculine ideal of self-control mentioned earlier? These emotions conflict with our masculine self-image–colliding with the foundation of what it means to be a man.
When this occurs, we’re likely to pull away from others, closing ourselves off in an effort to regain a solid footing of control.
Some men experience their spouse’s/partner’s request for greater emotional sharing as a threat to their stoic (need-to-be-in-control) foundation of masculinity. In order to openly communicate “softer” emotions (which for many women equates to deeper intimacy), men would first have to acknowledge and accept that they are indeed having these feelings (“I feel hurt that you didn’t call when you said you would”; “I’d like us to be closer than we are”).
These become blocks to intimacy. Many of the men I’ve worked with have been described by loved ones as having a “fear of intimacy.” But the more accurate description would have been a “fear of being unmanly” or a “fear of losing emotional control.”
Expanding Your Psychological Toolbox
It should be no surprise that many men are ambivalent about entering into therapy.
You may not see the utility in talking with someone (or you might think that talking your problems out may make them bigger), or you might worry that therapy will transform you into some feminized version of your current self.
While these concerns might be common, I want to stress that these fears are unfounded and are not the reality of therapy for the men I work with.
Rather, therapy is a way to expand your psychological toolbox by:
✓ Creating alternative ways of coping with stress and responsibilities that weigh you down;
✓ Helping you clearly express what you are needing (if you choose to);
✓ Enlarging your psychological focus to see how anger or feeling emotionally numb (or not having a clue about what you are feeling) are smokescreens that rob you of having a more fulfilling relationship and a more fulfilling life.
Services for Men
Please feel free to contact me if you’d like more information about the work I do with men or to set up an initial consultation appointment for individual therapy.
In addition to individual counseling, I am starting up groups for men.
Sex Addiction Group for Men
For more information about this upcoming group, click Sex Addiction Group.
Space is limited for the group. Feel free to contact me to set up an initial appointment to see if this group is right for you.
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Pleck, J. H. (1995). The Gender Role Strain Paradigm. In R. F. Levant & W. S. Pollack (Eds.), A New Psychology of Men (pp. 11-32). New York: Basic Books.