Male Psychology Counselling
As the song goes, “This is a man’s world” and, it seems, if it weren’t for men and our list of burly, brawny, brainy achievements we’d still be stagnating in some rank and wretched pool of backwardness of our own (non) making. Thanks lads!
Now, whether or not you accept the enlightened words of James Brown, AKA, the Godfather of Soul (or Sexism, or whatever you’ll have yourself), he does end his homily with an interesting point: despite the achievements, man is lost. I think Jimmy may have had a point because it can be tough being male.
Consider the following sad sobering stats: when compared with females, males are more likely to have severe problems with their behaviour, learning, or mental health, and more likely to be an addict, a convict, or a target of multiple nasties. Furthermore, whether by the hands of fate, oneself, or another person, men die younger too. Such doom and gloom in such a brief snapshot: as I said, it can be tough being male. If only we’d share our thoughts more on the important things: the stuff that gets us down or wears us down or is hard to shake, as well as the things that help us cope, gives us hope, and makes us better, happier men. If only!
But do we often share how we truly feel? To me, it seems, we are more likely to talk football than feelings or hurling than hurting and more likely to talk politics than say what makes us tick. Overall, we’re probably more likely to go to court than go to counselling.
Naturally, talking politics, news, sports, what have you, can provide a great sense of catharsis and understanding of the world. It helps us bond too. Similarly, attending big sporting, music, and social events can give a sense of belonging, purpose, and an avenue to express our emotions. But can we go further within and outside these arena? Can we really talk?
For generations we’ve been socialised to follow Gender Roles which said that a “Real Man” is strong, silent, unemotional, and immovable; you know, like a statue on Easter Island. A “Real Man” is competent: A hero who gets the job done; a no fuss, no wuss, kick-ass bad-ass with a shaken martini and steady nerve. Think Bond, Eastwood, Cooper, Wayne, the Marlboro Man. Simply put, a “Real Man” is a mythical creature who relentlessly wins when he fights, continuously protects and provides, and constantly retains mastery and control. Naturally, he never asks for help or direction, he never loses, and he never, ever cries (that’s for girls or when Ireland beat England in football, rugby, well, anything really).
So, to avoid negative evaluations or condemnation from others, a “Real Man” must always internalise his hurt. He keeps it all in until his immense stress, anger, or pain culminates in a peptic ulcer, a heart attack, severe depression, a drink problem, you name it; he withdraws, he becomes socially and emotionally isolated, he’s weighed down, he angrily erupts and verbally or physically damages his relationship with himself, family, and/or his community. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, lurking in the back of his mind are various indelible wonderings of life and his place in it, e.g., “what it’s all about?”, “Is this it?”, “If only I could...”
This glorified masculinity confuses men and women and gives impossible goals and exaggerated views of what masculinity ought to be. (Personally, for example, I could never master being a brave, tough, philander, who was also sensible, kind, and monogamous.) We therefore struggle throughout life with the contradictory ridiculous demands of masculinity, comparing ourselves to the myths of other men and pretending to be what we are “supposed” to be. Ultimately, we become embarrassed or disappointed with our own “limitations” and reduce our chances to become truly close to women and to other men and to be the best role model we can be to our children and other men.
For many of us, we adopt personae, we pretend, we become a stereotype whilst trying to become a society accepted “Success Object”. We focus more on gaining stuff and winning games than on how we feel. Done for long enough, this becomes our way of being and we limit/lose the ability to express how we feel—the fancy word for this is alexithymic; but I wonder if this really exists.
Rather, do we men just go a different way about things? Just because we don’t say it doesn’t mean we don’t know it or do anything about it (and please, we are a lot more complex than the oft ascribed 7 Dwarfed Developmental States of dopey, grumpy, happy, horny, hungry, sleepy, and solitarily withdrawn).
Sometimes, we take action, we overcome, we work side by side with other men, we take the scenic route to expressing how we feel. Sometimes! However, I reckon we do need to open up more, share, seek and accept support before, or when, the proverbial hits the fan because the stats for us don’t look healthy.
Cracks Appear: Barriers Fall
In my counselling work, many men tell me that they feel boxed in and lost; they’ve been socialised to believe that they must be a “Success Object” and/or a certain kind of man. Whether symbolic, social, or financial, they are trapped, they say, and it’s hard [not impossible] to escape to live a preferred way. Although the pretence is constant and hard, early signs that something is wrong with life appear when one is vulnerable, real, awestruck, or happy, e.g., during an endurance test, with a lover, alone on a long walk or a mountain top, or playing with children or pets. Often it’s lovely and fleeting and forgotten too soon.
Other times, one gets winded, dumbfounded as reality delivers a sucker-punch (e.g., a relationship split, death, kids in trouble, etc.) and the realisation that “I haven’t being living true to myself” is as profound as it is overwhelming. Whatever the calamity or malady life flings at us, one is left reeling in the aftermath and adaptation to the inevitable change is necessary. Easier said than done: Easier done with support.
Importantly, the main factor in accepting, beating, coping, developing, overcoming, or understanding the challenges we face and how we face them is social support.
Support from our family, partner, and/or friends is second to none. Not only does it help us to belong it also helps us to be real as it allows us to live a life of our own truth. What gifts to be able to genuinely express ourselves without shame or contradiction, to safely explore, to follow our hearts, and to be understood. Without these gifts, some say, illnesses are just the final blow as one was dying already. So, if you’ve got social support cherish it, if you haven’t, cultivate it and seek the help wherever you can get it.
We men need to be more comfortable with sharing our vulnerabilities whilst retaining our masculinity. Therefore it’s important to readjust what our concepts of masculinity are and to challenge any nonsense we see and hear. We don’t have to follow the “proper” behaviour scripts; scripts change because people change them, e.g., Irish identity, Anglo Irish relations, hugging a male friend in public, or celebrating with exuberance—thank God, Allah, Charlton, or whichever deity you prefer for Italia ’90.
And what is masculinity anyway? Well, it’s hard to define yet it’s variously defined. For example, masculinity is defined as qualities and activities (mostly implying strength or force) that distinguish men from women. It’s influenced by society, biology, motives, abilities, learning, conditioning, strivings, situational pressures, luck, and random events. (Naturally, these vary across societies, cultures, families, towns, etc., yet men must sing off the same hymn sheet.) Simply, it’s what is expected—not so simply, it’s a fluid, intangible concept that is impossible to completely fulfil.
So create your own, ahem, Him Sheet or Hymn Sheet if you prefer. A few tips:
Ivan Kennedy Counselling Carlow & Kilkenny