Boys in our culture are taught that ‘real’ men are strong in the face of any challenge, that they remain stoic and emotionally conservative, so as to not appear vulnerable. That ‘STATUS’ as represented by material worth, physical image and perceived strength should dictate a man’s self-worth. Even if attained, this external performance-based esteem remains at high risk of being knocked over at any moment. It’s no wonder many men feel an internal sense of inadequacy, as these ‘ideals’ posed by society are perfectionistic, unrealistic and almost nobody sufficiently measures up.
Boys are pushed away from fully exercising their emotional expression and experiencing deep connection, having to resort to other means of defining self-worth such as striving for the perfect body or workaholism as a means of gaining societal acceptance - something that is actively rewarded in our society.
The consequences of the pressures we are placing on men remain hidden and unnoticed, but have their impact on men’s mental health. The male stigma around not being ‘man enough’ in this modern world, is often placed at a lower rank of priority to the needs so loudly expressed for women’s rights. Where are we leaving our men? We are leaving them feeling unsupported, and the result is a higher suicide rate, unrecognised mental struggles, an emotional repression that risks being passed on from fathers to sons, a sense of shame in the face of hardship and a pandemic of loneliness.
It’s a source for deep pain and difficulty that lies at the heart of many men. Hidden depression underlies many conditions we see as ‘typically male’ like alcohol or drug abuse, failures in intimacy, physical illness, violence and self-sabotaging workaholism. We don’t ‘diagnose’ depression in men as much as women, because the disorder itself is seen as unmanly - that this emotionality is somehow ‘feminine’ in nature. And so society colludes with men to hide their vulnerability, and it goes unrecognised and underrepresented as an issue when compared to females.
Feelings of inadequacy and comparison are built from the ground up, starting from a young age. It is indeed a part of human nature and cognition, to compare ourselves to others and to see how we differ from society. The societal expectations we hold onto now, how we ‘should’ be, is held as a belief system that we developed as a kid. The messages implied in the schoolyard, at home, with our friends, teachers, parents and the media. And the messages that get reinforced along the way, even now.
Therefore we must ask the question, are we sending the right message to our boys? When boys are met with adversity, instead of acknowledging the pain and providing a platform where emotional vulnerability is accepted and encouraged - our society shows them how to be good enough, or how to avoid not being good enough.
Well how did Superman do it? Or Batman or the Hulk? There is nothing wrong with being strong. But my question is this… Do we offer unconditional regard and warmth towards our boys, when met with their emotional expression? We may as parents or individuals or teachers, but we most certainly do not as a society. We offer conditional performance-based esteem, not an essential sense of self worth from within.
Men have just as much need for emotional expression and nurture, so the research implies. The human emotional palette is vast. Men don’t have fewer relational needs than women, they’ve just been encouraged- to varying degrees, to filter this out through a screen of achievement. How to be good enough. How to be a man.
To understand depression in men, we must come to terms with the conditions that create it, the ways in which the ideals of masculinity betray them in our society. Instead, we can celebrate the positive aspects of masculinity? Whilst still saving a space for them to open up, talk without shame or the heavy burden of the male stigma around vulnerability.
Author: Dr Kassi Klein from BLOKES IN MIND
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