“Boys, don't cry.”
I'm sure we've heard someone use one of those expressions or even had them used on us. Unfortunately, these gendered stereotypes end up preventing men from talking openly about their mental health and getting help.
Theoretically, talking to people about one's mental health should be equivalent to talking about a broken bone or any other physical disease, yet stigma often keeps many men silent. The notion that males are not expected to display sadness, grief, or pain and that doing so is the ultimate evidence of weakness or femininity means that many men put off getting professional care for their mental health.
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Movember, an occasion created to celebrate masculinity in all shapes and forms and focus on their physical and mental health, is all about letting men be themselves and showcase their true selves and emotions. Here are some ways men usually use to communicate their emotions, which friends and family can look out for.
- Through their body language: Most men, instead of a verbal display of feelings, use physical gestures (such as giving a high five) and body language to convey their emotions. They're more likely to grit their teeth than verbalize, "I'm so mad right now."
- Through their actions: Most men usually approach situations and issues with a problem-solving mode. Your partner/brother would be more likely to help you in your office/college presentation than say, "I care for you."
- By shifting their feelings into another arena: Many men express emotions in spaces where it's considered not only acceptable but also safe- such as a sports arena. Put them in another context, and you probably wouldn't see the same level of comfort and openness.
- By converting one feeling into another: Many men convert the feelings considered stereotypically feminine (such as sadness and vulnerability) into feelings more acceptable for them to experience (such as anger or pride). I encounter this every day in therapy, where a man may appear extremely angry but is actually feeling scared or hurt.
- Emotions transforming into physical feelings: Just as women can have psychosomatic symptoms due to suppressed emotions, so can men! Headaches and backaches are common physical expressions of inner turmoil.
- Being solution-oriented: Most fathers and men would rather find solutions to issues than discuss their sentiments; they would rather arrive at a solution first and discuss how they got there later. Men typically have more time to absorb their feelings after solving an issue, providing them the necessary time to consider before speaking.
- Through anger: On average, men take longer to understand their emotions and identify potential causes than women do. Men can identify their emotions more quickly when they are less complex than when they are complicated. Being angry that the trash wasn't taken out is a less complex feeling, whereas grieving the loss of a close friend or family member is a more difficult emotion. Men often convert stereotypically feminine emotions like sadness or vulnerability into more socially acceptable ones like anger or pride.
- Emotional withdrawal: Men don’t talk. From the very childhood, they are trained to be ‘strong’ and are not allowed to demonstrate their ‘weaknesses’. They are withdrawn and keep all their feelings to themselves. This leads to loneliness and other physical symptoms which affect the body.
- Avoidance & substance abuse: Men tend to get into their shells and keep themselves away from people, social gatherings and pleasurable events if they are under any stress, anxiety or sadness. Excessive intake of substance/substances is also one way in which men suppress their emotions. This may lead to increased tolerance and addiction eventually.
- Through denial: Disapproval at the office, an underachievement, or a financial constraint may lead to sadness. But most men, even after experiencing any such difficulties, dismiss their feelings.
Inputs from Dr Meghna Singhal, PhD Clinical Psychology, NIMHANS, Trauma-informed Psychotherapist + Parenting Educator; Tanya Nagpal, Therapist & Integrative Counsellor; Dr Sheba Singh, Founder & Psychologist, TalkSpace-A Mental Health Studio and Shiya Sagar, Co-Founder, HopeQure
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Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based therapist