Why Do Men Struggle to Express Their Feelings?
Media images and social expectations mean that boys and men often find it harder to express their emotions
Therapist Joshua Miles explores these ideas and how therapy can help
We have therapists and counsellors available who specialise in working with men and male mental health - find yours here
Due to the way young boys are socialised in education and in society, their ability to deal with emotions has been systematically undermined from a young age. Men are taught that certain aspects of their personality are not acceptable, they are taught not to cry or express in words, how they are feeling. In school, they’re shown there are certain games they should play, activities they should take part in, and rarely are they encouraged to engage in their feelings.
Television and advertising are a large part of the issue, due to the picture they paint of what a ‘real man’ looks like. Men are bombarded by images and perceptions of masculinity, muscles and bravado, and slowly over time, they are made to believe that being a man entails specific criteria. If they do not tick certain boxes, they are not ‘man enough’.
These perceptions of masculinity can lead to a deep sense of shame permeating throughout male culture. The perceived definition of what it means to be a man is not only outdated and ridiculous, but harmful, not only for the men of today, but those of the future, who see this as the only way of being. The idea that men are to remain strong, silent and capable is a total myth.
Why don't men discuss their feelings or emotions?
Over three million men in the UK have a mental health difficulty, and the charity Mind previously found that 37% of men in the UK feel worried or low. The top three issues playing on their minds were job security, work and money.
So, what is the cause of such high numbers of men experiencing mental health difficulties, and why do they find it so difficult to discuss? Here are some common reasons that men may find it difficult to speak about their issues.
- Men often stigmatise themselves, leading to a deep sense of shame about having a mental health difficulty
- Men are often embarrassed to admit to others that they struggle, even if their troubles are considerable, and struggle to seek help
- Men often ‘put up’ with relatively minor difficulties, meaning these can become larger difficulties
- Men often don’t display traditional symptoms of mental health difficulties, and may instead ‘act out’, through drug use, alcohol or aggression
- All of these factors can lead to mental health difficulties being undiagnosed or overlooked
Men and suicide
According to the office of national statistics, the ratio of male to female suicides has shown a sustained rise over the last 30 years. In 1981, 62% of suicides in the UK were male, and in 2014 this figure had risen to 76%. Suicide is the single biggest cause of death in men under the age of 45 in the UK.
So, why are the statistics for male suicide so high? Men have been conditioned to be less in touch with their emotions, or to feel shame or weakness in accessing support, and often feel they have an image to uphold, or fear someone (another man) may find out their weakness.
As such, men do not often feel comfortable in expressing how they feel even if they are having a bad time, because of the expectations of manliness, meaning they feel they should be strong at all times. Not doing so, essentially equates to them feeling as if they have failed as a man.
Masculinity and feelings
Masculinity, and what it means to be a man, has been implanted, grown and developed in the minds of men since their childhood. Men witness to the stereotypes of masculine heroes, who are self-sufficient, strong and capable. Often the role of offering emotional support is not one associated with being manly, and is therefore dismissed.
It is crucial men are able to have conversations with other men about their mental health and feelings, because it is only when the idea of ‘what it means to be a man’ begins to change, that men will be able to open up, or reveal about themselves, those feelings or difficulties they are experiencing.
How therapy can help
It would be wrong to say that men do not ever seek help, or that all men are strong, silent and dismissive of feelings. However, often it is not until a point of crisis that men seek help, leaving things until they are unable to manage them anymore. It is in these points where many men find themselves in therapy, brought about through a relationship difficulty, an issue with stress or an incident at work. It is crucial to recognise, given the past conditioning and perceptions of being a man, this has been an incredibly hard thing to do and accepting they need support is a huge step.
Therapy can offer men the chance to be seen without judgement as they are. They can be seen as vulnerable, stressed, and anxious as well as strong, confident and capable. They will not be told to ‘man up’. In therapy, men can learn to understand more of themselves, their difficulties and their thoughts, and explore the rich and diverse nature of masculinity, and see that it is not a one sided image so frequently painted by the media. Therapy offers men the chance to explore their pain and difficulty, and to ultimately, be more enriched, and enhanced, and to understand more what it means to be a man.
The importance of dispelling the myths surrounding mental health is crucial for society as a whole, as it allows for a more open and honest conversation to take place and lessen stigma and discrimination. The reality is, mental health operates on a scale, and we all struggle at points.
Gender does not discriminate when it comes to mental health difficulties, and being a man makes no difference to whether you should feel able to discuss, think about or engage with your feelings.