“Man up.” “Get over it.” “Grow up.” “Don’t cry.”
How often do we tell young and adult men to “man up” and that they shouldn’t be bothered by this or that? This has been our culture. And with so much debate in the media about what a man is supposed to be like (and what he is like, but isn’t supposed to be), this is a period of great ordeal for men.
We need to sustain balance between what has traditionally been considered a man’s role in our culture, while also being connected to others and finding ways to let our sensitive side shine through. All the while, we are also to live our lives and thrive and maintain our sanity. The real “man up” is when you show integrity to your soft and strong sides.
Telling a Man to “Man Up” Hurts Their Human Integrity
Every society has its own, often implicit, set of rules of how people should behave in different situations. It also has a set of very specific rules for what a man ought to be like to meet the standards set by others. While women are also expected to be a certain way, the requirements put in front of men are much more rigid and, often, much more noxious. In our Western society, a man is still expected to be reliable, completely self-sufficient, never weak, and never visibly emotional (the only exception to this rule is a public display of anger).
These norms are so entrenched into our worldview they may seem completely natural. Evolutionary science suggests that men were once brave hunters of mammoths, and a modern man is, implicitly, expected to behave as if he were chasing a prehistoric mammal for food. Yet, this isn’t the case anymore, and modern men do get to be different today than they were when they had to struggle to survive each day.
What Is Masculine Gender Role Stress (MGRS)
What’s so harmful about these demands put on men is the fact that the image of a sturdy, composed, unemotional and tough man defies our natural response to stress. Men are told that their natural response to stress is a sign of weakness. But stress is a reality for all humans. And still, men are told to “man up” and take it, suppressing all our natural reactions apart from wrath.
Men also experience another type of stress related to gender. The stress that comes with wanting to comply with the requirements of rigid masculinity is called masculine gender role stress (MGRS), and it presents an increasingly pressing issue for modern men. Research shows that suffering from MGRS is associated with a range of physical and psychological problems, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and outbursts of anger. Sometimes it can even contribute to the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And what makes things even more problematic is the fact that MGRS usually stops us from seeking professional help when we need it.
How Masculine Gender Role Stress Prevents Us From Seeking Help
Adding to the above problems, MGRS seriously jeopardizes a man’s coping skills. Due to fear of failing society’s expectations on how we should behave, what suffers the most is our willingness to seek help. Whether it’s reaching out to people close to us or contacting a professional to assist us with accumulated stress and other issues we’re dealing with, if we’re prone to MGRS, we probably won’t do it.
This is because men are expected to be emotionally strong and maintain composure under all circumstances. So asking for any sort of help is really admitting we’re not capable of dealing with our own emotions. We’re not in control. Expressing anxiety in front of others is unimaginable to some men. Even admitting it to ourselves, when we strongly incorporated the society’s expectations into our self-image, is hard. This is why we will avoid seeking professional help for as long as possible.
Instead, as research shows, we begin to get worse and worse at coping. MGRS both causes stress and dysfunction when dealing with it. Instead of getting help and learning the healthy ways of tackling this problem, we rest on a range of maladaptive reactions. We become even more emotionally inexpressive, we start to rely on aggression, power, and control to get us through, and we become obsessed with achievement and success. All of which is only a contributor to further stress and ordeal.
How a Psychotherapist Can Help
First of all, a man needs to know that approaching a psychotherapist doesn’t mean he’s weak. On the contrary, it means he knows how to utilize all the means available to him to be the best version of himself. When you have a toothache, you don’t go about and fix your own tooth. And it doesn’t make you less of a man to seek help from a dentist. See, it’s just a matter of perspective. And it truly is a sign of being aware of the age we’re living in and not allowing rigid misperceptions to run our life.
Furthermore, you don’t have to be afraid of the psychotherapist making you spill your soul and break into tears. Not at all. A skillful psychotherapist will use a range of techniques and skills to help you work through your issues without disrespecting your barriers to being emotional. For example, if you find it difficult or feel embarrassed to talk about your emotions, you will use metaphors with your psychotherapist to address everything that’s bothering you without causing further distress. Once you get a hold on this, you may eventually start to approach all of your emotions with ease and learn to cope with them.
Men are under a lot of pressure, and it can be detrimental for their health, physical and psychological. It can hinder our success and self-development. It can affect every aspect of our lives. But if we just liberate ourselves from the conviction that we would be considered weak and incompetent if we were to seek professional help, we would be able to unlock all our potential to limitless expansion of our abilities. With the right psychotherapist, the success is around the corner.
by Stephen Rodgers, LCSW
Counseling for Young & Adult Men
About the Author
My practice focuses exclusively on men’s mental health and uses Dialectical Behavior Therapy (think: zen therapy) and EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing therapy) to help men cope with trauma, anxiety, grief, depression, perceived failure, work stress, relationships, men’s health issues and the many other challenges that affect men uniquely. I always tell men, if they just open the door and give counseling a try, they are almost always going to find it a good experience and a healthy complement to their fitness or coaching plans if they are seeking overall health.