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?). Obviously none of this should be taken as gospel. These are just patterns I’ve seen in the last decade of working with men, so please take what helps and leave what doesn’t!
What Are Not Men’s Issues (But Are ‘Everybody’ Issues)
During my graduate training, I heard the words ‘men’ and ‘women’ constantly. 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 men 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 brains have literally shut off parts to cope with overwhelm. My point here is that we all have bodies that get anxious or shutdown in the face of rejection, abandonment and betrayal.
OK, Then Surely These Are Men’s Issues (Kind of 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. What I wish to share next, however, are the common patterns I’ve observed through my work with men. I also want to encourage everyone to resist using this as a comparison to the lives of women. This isn’t a competition, but just a series of observations of mens’ injuries and steps forward in recovery.
1. 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 (after all, emotions are the skeleton of identity). The empty pop-cultural message of being a strong provider, paired with discouragement in recognizing 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 these same feelings in shame spiral automated as efficiently as a 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 (as mentioned earlier: an extension of the reptile’s freeze or play dead response). The men being told that 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 (see alexithymia). 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. This gets dangerously over simplified by the guys I see that come in saying, “The problem is that I’m an asshole.” I always tell them that shame doesn’t cure pain, but curiosity can.
Speaking of shame…
2. Shame can fuel your motivation, 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 fear and 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 demand and expectation with a lack of warmth and 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, which is slower work.
“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 low-key shame of being emotionally unavailable. Self-love might be a cliche, but it’s the only one I know that lowers blood pressure.
3. Men confuse numbness for security.
“It bugs me when my partner gets involved with other guys, but this is just me being insecure. I want to not give a fuck instead of being overly sensitive.”
I’ve heard this one a bunch of times. Often it’s guys who value monogamy and yet have found someone who is poly-involved with others, keeps close contact with their exes or is otherwise on a very different page in terms of values. These men want to “give less fucks,” but there’s a paradox here. They consider it a sign of security to deny their own values or to become numb to healthy signals telling them, “DANGER!” Alienation from our feelings drives every time we ignore the massive red flags we noticed on a new lover interest’s nightstand. We wouldn’t consider keeping our hands on a burning stove a sign of security, yet we often adopt this stance to our ‘early alert’ signals telling us someone might not be a great romantic prospect.
Is being secure becoming shutdown and distant from feelings? Or is it trusting feelings and living from one’s truth?
Pursuing numbness is something we don’t have much control over in childhood. The very sad process by which children reach for love from parents, but have their emotions devalued, denied and invalidated eventually prunes off a health need and dependency on others. They call it avoidant attachment, something very frustrating to partners who constantly say, “You’re so distant. Tell me how you feel.” The thing is, we all did this naturally as children, and when it didn’t go so well, we can become “avoidant,” or as Janina Fisher describes it, phobic of attachment. The icy, cold shutdown may be felt as a type of security but is really overwhelm in disguise.
Seeing a pattern yet?
4. 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.
This is all pretty heady stuff. My style of working with men comes from a simpler place: Having sat with them, from young to old, from sensitive to (literally) war-scarred. Trends appear of how we can talk and make this all normal. Ground the work in neuroscience before getting into the deeper waters.
PS – Who the hell am I to have these opinions anyways? Here is a mini-CV of some of the work I’ve done in men’s health over the last decade or so:
- Undergraduate thesis investigating how male socialization gets in the way of therapy (Received Department Head Award)
- Master’s thesis investigating how to best help men in therapy (Received Honours with Distinction)
- Published author in American Journal of Men’s Health
- Project manager for Movember Canada funded Men’s Transition Program
- Ethics consultant, musical scorer, performer and on-site support counsellor for UBC’s Man Art Action Project, Contact! Unload
- Producer of educational video documentary on helping men in groups with action-based therapy
- Conscious Living Radio guest sharing my vision of men’s health
- Regular trainer of UBC’s Alma Mater Society Speakeasy frontline support staff in supporting male students
- Co-founder of Thrive Men’s, the original centre that became Thrive Downtown Counselling Clinic
- Trained UK clinicians on use of action-based therapy as part of the National Health Service
- 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