Male Psychology Counselling
As the song goes, “Boys don’t cry” and, it seems, that regardless of the pain, sorrow, loss, misjudgements, or plain stupidity, the best thing to do is to conceal the hurt with laughter. Super!
Now, whether or not you agree with the approach of The Cure’s Robert Smith, who says he will do pretty much anything to get his lover back—apart from say sorry, remain truthful, explain the errors of his ways, beg forgiveness, or declare his love—he is hindered by trying to conceal his pain; avoiding showing his tears. But I reckon his point is typical of many of us because when was the last time you saw a man cry?
We're Told not to Cry
Picture the scene: a little boy of four or five years is running along and falls over, a minor scrape, nothing life threatening but he is hurt and a bit frightened. What will the adult caregiver say when he or she goes over to the boy? Would the adult response be different for a little girl? What would other boys say?
Traditionally, many men today would have been told when they were children to conceal the tears: “be a big boy”, “don’t be a softy”, “don’t be a girl”, “be strong”, etc. From a young age, we have learnt that our painful emotions are open to condemnation, are invalidated, and “ought” to be hidden. We’re accused of being weak, charged with being feminine, or publicly prosecuted for not being man enough—even boys must be manly it would seem. So we learn fast to suppress our feelings whilst ensuring that our facial expressions never give us away.
Ultimately, we quickly find that expressing vulnerability or caring is discouraged and is seen as the domain of the girls; and to do otherwise, runs the risk of being demoted in the eyes of our brethren and ourselves. Moreover, because we have had limited exposure to such things, we get awfully awkward when other men break convention and express vulnerability or caring: often, we’ll abort the conversation, we’ll mock or criticise, we’ll look down at our feet, or we’ll change the subject. After all, how do you know how to respond when you’ve had limited experience in talking about emotions? Indeed, how do you know how to feel if you’re not allowed to have emotions?
Despite it being a social construct whereby each of us gets a version of gender training, many of us think of masculinity as a natural thing. Naturally, there are differences in male and females but young boys and girls don’t differ much: many differences accrue when they meet with societies attitudes and values, e.g., we get gender specific names to be called, colours to wear, toys and games to play, and we get denied or granted the right to express our feelings: the divisive list is endless.
Men are discouraged in expressing their emotions and instead are told to keep schtum; they are encouraged to sacrifice their emotions by diverting their energies into wholesome and not so wholesome pursuits and to merely remain another cog in the wheel; they even get spun a load of codswallop in the glory that can be had in sacrificing (their) lives as a duty for a Cause, Country, God, Monarch, whatever. The message is clear; men’s lives and emotions are dispensable—and many of us struggle to find our way to be and to understand.
Hypermasculine and Hypomasculine
It’s a confusing, bewildering, map-less road to becoming a man. We each need a suitable male role model to lead a way (not to lead us away). Not that there is one definitive way that suits all; rather, a way that suits each man being true to himself. Without a father figure, we’ll falter, we’ll flounder, we’ll fade, we’ll fail.
For instance, many men overcompensate as they are unsure what being male is. Such men tend to become hypermasculine, exaggerating their masculinity. Oh you know these guys; the frantically uber-male who’s crass and cocky when he measures up and cripplingly cranky when he doesn’t. He’s a high achieving, ultra-competitive, non-relaxed, top dog who doesn’t respond well to simple demands. Down boy!
Such men are unfamiliar with non-competitive friendships or any real friendships at all perhaps; sadly, they have a limited ability to be vulnerable or to co-operate with other people and cannot cope with others being equal to them.
Then there are those who abdicate: they (partly) abandon their masculinity, preferring to remain as an adolescent and to avoid responsibility, growing-up, and stress and challenges of any kind—despite the fact that such avoidance is hugely stressful and challenging in itself; perpetual Xbox playing is their Call of Duty.
And of course there are those amongst us who were/still are a bit of both hypermasculine and hypomasculine, even if we’re not aware of it. For example, the Don Juan who demands his mammy washes and irons his clothes.
For years, children were raised primarily by women in a culture that said females were best/primary care givers. Maybe they are—I aint touching that one! Nevertheless, mainly, and for various reasons (whether they be personal, political, societal, vocational, etc.), men had limited to no contact with their children. Obviously, this minimised fathers being close enough to teach boys how to be men and reduced the amount of domestic male role models to show men the way to care for themselves and others.
Furthermore, children with limited access to suitable role models at home (or nearby) may have had few opportunities to see the interplay within relationships, thus curtailing their repertoire of how best to be in relationships: e.g., supporting, encouraging, listening, accepting, trusting, respecting, and negotiating. Worse for those without a suitable male role model who would most likely see adolescent machismo as a way of being and not a rite of passage; they neither know how to treat a lady nor how to be a man.
Overall, identifying how to be good and caring to oneself and others is fundamental for us and our relationships with others.
Seeking or Avoiding
In my counselling work, I see many men who come to me for different reasons. Some men recognise that by addressing their own psychological needs they also improve the needs of others in their family—such, they say, is their responsibility as a father, husband, son, etc., i.e., we need to care for ourselves to be our best for others. Other men, it seems, need a bit more persuasion to come to therapy and often, after a few resentful sessions, are glad they stuck with it as their well-being, relationships, and lives improved.
Whilst it’s fair to say that the stigma of men attending counselling is reducing it’s not gone entirely. Other barriers includes (non) coping style, not recognising there is a problem, being unable to talk about problems, and the perception that being “strong, silent, and unemotional” is incompatible with therapy, and the belief that one loses control and manliness over entering a “female” arena—it aint a female only place lads!
More and more men are entering therapy as they realise that society has stacked the deck against them by giving impossible rules to achieve and maintain their masculinity. We are starting to realise that masculinity is not solely measured by fighting, winning, providing, and/or protecting and that we are more than mere competitors and suppliers: we are more than our jobs or money or amount of stuff; we are not limited by our prowess, strength or any stereotype. Instead, we are realising that maintaining and/or acquiring mastery and control in our lives can be achieved by personal and in-depth explorations of who or what we are with a professional consultant. Many of us are exploring such things with our friends and/or family too—because we’re allowed.
So can we create modern rules of masculinity whilst truly honouring our own real manliness? I reckon we can but it needs to be unique to each man whilst recognising the strengths of others. Let’s not re-invent the wheel here. We got to be willing to safely talk about how we feel and to accept it when others do likewise. Let’s not chastise, criticise, or correct, and let’s take the responsibility for our own self-care.
Let how we feel about ourselves be dependent on who we truly are and less about how well we believe we conform to masculine norms. Let’s be able to pass on the wisdom of how to be a man to those who feel we are role models. After all, wouldn’t it be awfully sad if you had nothing to share? Ooops, I’m perilously close to showing some sadness here. I’m welling up. I might even cry.
Ivan Kennedy Counselling Carlow & Kilkenny