vulnerability in men: Why acknowledging it can lead to healthier masculinity?
Is vulnerability in men OK?
Is vulnerability in men OK? Is it OK for men to ask for help? Is it OK for men to show emotion? Are boys now allowed to cry.
Learning to be vulnerable
Part of this change seems to have occurred due to a shift in the social climate. In a society which is becoming much more sceptical of traditional masculine stereotypes, a space has emerged for men to be something other than rugged, unflappable, dominant breadwinners.
As a result, vulnerability in men has become much more acceptable. They do not always need to appear to be strong and in control.
The risk facing males
There is also a much greater awareness of the importance of promoting positive mental health. The need to encourage men to come forward when experiencing psychological issues is now clearer than ever.
The evidence shows that men are at particular risk. In fact, according to the Office for National Statistics, males account for three-quarters of all suicides in the UK. Part of the reason for this seems to be that men continue to be much more reluctant than women to seek help when experiencing severe anxiety or depression.
Take Darren Smith’s story, for example. While suffering a breakdown on the way to work, rather than his instinctive response being to seek help, he was immediately overwhelmed by feelings of embarrassment and shame. Where did these feelings come from? Then there’s Luke Scott’s podcast interview, who, while going through a particularly difficult period in his life, chose to plan his own suicide without revealing a word of what he was experiencing to his family or friends.
The extremes that men will go to to avoid showing vulnerability no doubt make recognising and treating severe mental health disorders in males particularly difficult. But, if we can see how important it is for men to be open about their feelings, why is it that they still so often seem reluctant to openly be vulnerable?
Well, the issue seems to be two-fold. Firstly, despite there being an apparent consensus on the importance of men being open about their feelings and reaching out for help when necessary, beneath the surface, there continues to be significant confusion.
This is partly because so much of what we are learning about mental health is only recently becoming popularly understood. The facts that mental health professionals have no doubt been aware of for decades have taken time to trickle through to the general populace. Yes, as a collective, we are beginning to appreciate the issues surrounding mental health conditions but there is still so much that we do not understand.
For example, many of us still don’t know the difference between “feeling blue” and having clinical depression. And many of us still don’t understand the ways in which biology, lifestyle and experience influence the brain and cause people to suffer from poor mental health.
Muddying the waters
This uncertainty is exacerbated by the fact that popular figures in the world of social media, such as Andrew Tate, still claim that depression and anxiety are not “real”. In case you’re tempted to write such people off as being marginal or extreme, let’s remember, he’s only making arguments which are similar to those made by Hollywood megastar Tom Cruise not all that long ago when he said “psychiatry is a pseudoscience”.
These influential men passionately and, for some, convincingly argue that there are quick fixes to mental health issues which the science and the vast majority of real life experiences do not support. But if such confusion continues to be sown, how can we be surprised that feelings of vulnerability in men are still viewed with suspicion?
Pervasive social stigmas
The second issue is the pervasive social expectations which continue to limit and stereotype both men and women. It’s easy for people to claim that vulnerability in men is natural, that it is not just OK, but vital that men reach out when experiencing psychological distress. But the social expectations that have permeated our society for centuries have not disappeared overnight.
There is still a social stigma attached to being a stay-at-home dad, for example. There is still something slightly embarrassing about a man earning less than his female partner. There is still an expectation that men exude confidence and control and that they “have it all together”. The concept of being a “real man” is still very much alive and it’s a concept many men instinctively aspire to.
Men’s greatest fear
What many men hear when people say “It’s OK to not be OK”, is that “It’s OK to be a failure”. And being a failure is the very thing that so many men fear most. “It’s OK for others to fail,” we think to ourselves, “but, please God, don’t let it be me.” Of course the true message that we should be trying to communicate is that “It’s OK not to be OK sometimes”.
The message here is that we’re all going to have serious challenges to go through in our lives and that we may not always be able to take those challenges in our stride. We may have to go further to meet them than we’d ever expected. And taking those steps to deal with the grief, suffering and pain that life can present is the truest sign of strength one could ever imagine.
The importance of being vulnerable
So often, when faced with a mental health struggle, the most difficult thing to do is to accept that we have a problem. To accept that we need help. It’s because it’s so difficult that it takes such bravery to do it. Getting therapy, opening up about grief, having the courage to speak about vulnerability, all of these things take courage. Doing these things are attempts to regain control, to make the journey back towards living a fulfilling life.
Being open and honest about your feelings
There are so many testimonies from men who have reached a point of extreme desperation that communicate the importance of talking about their challenges. Jed Irving, a former soldier who witnessed the horrors of war in Bosnia, discusses how vital it was to be able to speak about his experiences in a supportive environment. Darren Smith urges men who are suffering to pick up the phone and talk to anyone who will listen.
The urge men have to bottle up their feelings and to not tell anyone about their pain does not come from a place of strength; it comes from a place of resignation. For so many of us, mental health is something that we must actively pursue.
Just as it’s important to take the right measures to look after our bodies, we need to find the right diet and routine for the mind. The more suffering we have experienced, the more active and committed our routines must be.
Acknowledging vulnerability in men and encouraging them to speak about their feelings is the only way this can begin to be explored. It is only via this honesty that we can find a way forward to a healthier way of being and, thus, a healthier form of masculinity.