The term men’s issues appears on a lot of therapists’ (often very long) lists of specialties. It always confused me a bit. This is partly because there are so many ways to be a man these days that men’s issues sounds likes it’s trying to cover way too much at once. I think therapists use the term as code for, “I work with men and don’t worry, counselling isn’t as awful as you think it is” (and it mostly isn’t). If we look at the term as simply a giant bat-signal to draw men to our rooftops like the dedicated Commissioner Gordon, we’re probably good to just leave it as is… Yet I would like to go a bit deeper to explore what exactly are men’s issues (and what aren’t they?).
Before I’m labelled as the ultimate mansplainer for telling everyone which aspects of humanity fit into which gendered boxes, keep in mind that I’m just discussing general trends I’ve seen over the years. My bigger message is that patterns exist in society, within families, and ultimately within us as individuals. Patterns of rejection, shaming and devaluing of our most human parts. Nobody is above the shadows of our shared psyche and I wish to share some of my own roadmaps through the badlands. If you’re curious what helped me come to these conclusions, I’ve attached a mini-CV at the bottom of my involvement in mens’ health over the years.
What Are Not Men’s Issues (But Are ‘Everybody’ Issues)
During my graduate training, I worked in settings really going in on what helps men. Men like this. Men are like this. They’re different from women for this reason. A series of hard lines were drawn that, as well intentioned as they may have been in helping men, seemed to also really doom them to a certain fate of how masculinity should be expressed. The issue was that I felt like the odd duck in my lab because when I worked with men, these differences only seemed to matter for the first handful of sessions. Seeing hyper-masculine soldiers sort their shit out, repair injuries and then cry, express their feelings and show affection did me a solid: I saw that the underlying injuries to our emotions, nervous systems and stability are not men’s issues. They’re human issues. The notion that men are less emotional is turned on its head when you learn that chronic numbness is actual the reptilian freeze part of our brain in action. In other words, men feel so deeply that their last resort mechanism for complete overwhelm is often kicking in in the midst of being called robotic.
OK, Then These Are Men’s Issues (Mostly, But Not Always)
So we’ve established that everyone, male, female, neither and everyone in between all have heartbeats and emotions and are capable of the same highs and lows of existence as mammals. What I wish to share next, however, are the common patterns I’ve observed through my work with men. Please take this at face value rather than as a comparison to women’s issues. For instance, though the first describes the inherently traumatic nature of society for men, this is in no way to take away from the experiences of women who can vouch for inherent disadvantage wired into society.
Society traumatizes men.
We are all born as sensitive, fleshy emotional creatures that crave love and soothing like water on a hot day, yet men are socialized quickly to devalue their emotions to the point that they struggle to know who they even are. The empty pop-cultural message of being a strong provider, paired with a complete inability to recognize their own feelings (and thus their partners) is a devastating combo. This is not to mention the immense energy it takes to both feel things and then immediately reject them in shame automated with the efficient of Google Home switched to Make Life Suck Mode.
“To succeed as a man, I must both be stoic and disconnected, yet must also be open and available to my partner.”
Shit. This is as easy as looking left and right at the same time. This manifests most times in a shut-down numbness (an extension of the reptile’s freeze or play dead response). Men being told they are robotic or numb are actually in such a high state of overwhelm and distress that they can’t even put it into words. It’s an issue of feeling too much, not too little. When overwhelmed with a no win situation, the nervous system deploys its last resort: Prune off feelings altogether since they aren’t exactly helping. The guys I see most always come in saying, “The problem is that I’m an asshole.” They’ve internalized the outer messages.
Shame will fuel you forward, but it burns dirty.
Where are the humanized role models for men? I enjoyed all the Marvel movies, but they normalize an empty pursuit of strength and justice at the sake of relationship. When idolized, this promotes another dangerous mixed message: Pursue an impossible outside ideal from a place of harshness on ones self.
“I don’t do things because I enjoy them. I do them to escape the pain of shame. When I nail a presentation, I’m free for a little while, but the water is always rising.”
We parent ourselves in the same way that we were parented. If we had an abundance of expectation with a lack of affection, we’ll send ourselves the same message that we must work hard but “don’t stop to admire your kicks” like my therapist and rapper friend Josh always says. Like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up the hill, that gets pretty exhausting. This is why with clients I’ll often dig to find if there was ever a person in their lives who was unconditionally loving. If they felt it, even for five minutes during the brain’s critical development periods, we can get back to it. If it was never felt for a single second (and it often wasn’t), then we need to build it now in the present.
“But I’ll become lazy and demotivated.”
No. You’ll discover longevity instead of burning out before you’re 35. This is harder work with my clients over 50 who gave up their dreams for a bigger paycheque, sacrificed their health for their families, yet live in same of being emotionally unavailable. Self-love might be a cliche, but it’s the only one I know that lowers blood pressure,
Men Confuse Numbness For Security. Avoidant attachment they call it. People didn’t respond right, so needs from others get pruned off. Guys in couples work don’t know how to answer what they need. They say they re-ground through aloneness. This is actually a traumatic response, because we’re hardwired to de-stress with others.
Trading The Pursuit of Conquering for (Ugh) Intimacy and Commitment. I have worked with so many men who pursue success with little to no awareness of why they’re doing so. Maybe they took the job for money at the expense of their dreams, or got pulled into high-stress finance that is shattering their health, or they’re drinking away the pain of feeling they are failing their family with emotional absence. What is in common: They are say, “I had a perfect childhood. That’s not the issue,” before learning we aren’t typically traumatized by dramatic events, but rather are hurt by enduring low-key pain for years at a time. A distant or overly emotional parent or two, sibling dynamics, bullying, fights at home, too much unconditional affection without boundaries and structure… Scary how easily things can do wrong right?
I observe this creates an empty quest for success to feel good enough inside at the cost of a sincere relationship with oneself, and in turn, the inability to commit or be in deep intimacy with someone else. Makes sense doesn’t it? A developmental task of feeling valuable as a person gets a higher priority. I had a guy once say though, “Maybe if I loved myself I wouldn’t need to win an Oscar” before he laughed uncontrollably, both in relief and sadness of how many years he exhausted himself chasing worth. The quest often changes from, “How can I be the most successful” to “How can I truly be close to another human being and know what love really is.” Let’s not forget that the fancy cars and paycheques were supposed to be the peacock feathers to attract a mate, not by the love object in and of themselves.
Who Am I To Have These Opinions?
Far be it for me to humble-brag, but I do find that credentials go a long way with the male crowd. These are some of the experiences I’ve had that qualify me as an expert in men’s health:
- Award for undergraduate thesis investigating how male socialization gets in the way of therapy
- Honours with distinction for MA thesis investigating how to best help men in therapy
- Published author in American Journal of Men’s Health
- Project manager for Movember Canada funded Men’s Transition Program
- Ethics consultant for UBC’s Man Art Action Project
- Producer of educational documentary on helping men in groups with action-based therapy
- Regularly asked by UBC’s Alma Mater Society to train their frontline support staff on working with men
- Co-founder of Thrive Men’s, the original centre that became Thrive Downtown Counselling Clinic
- Trained international male clinicians on use of action-based therapy
- Member of the UK Male Psychology Network
- Trainer and facilitator for groups treating male military veterans
- Published author in book related to men’s military care
- Resident counsellor for upcoming Men’s Kayaking Retreat