Traditional masculinity doesn’t exactly invite introspection, talking about feelings, or even feeling those feelings. But the concept is evolving. With this guide to being a happy man, we are not trying to solve all the psychological issues facing men in the 21st century, but to start an honest conversation about mental health.
When I was a boy I had an experience (one that almost every boy has) that explains very well the problem men have in understanding and talking about their feelings.
Many years ago a boy in my class (let’s call him Timmy) made it very clear that it didn’t matter what our progressive teachers said, and that the schoolyard was ruled by the guy code: a law so fundamental that it defined not only the social hierarchy, but the fabric of the universe. To explain these rules, all Timmy needed was a simple comment after taking the ball away from me: “What, are you going to cry?
Forget that I was a much better football player than Timmy. Forget that he is now a useful member of society. None of that matters. The message that registers directly in your gut and stays there, infringing on all sorts of chaos, is that men’s emotions, especially those perceived as weakness, are not welcome in public.
Is this why 75% of suicides are committed by men, or why men overdose twice as much on opiates as women? Not directly, of course. There are other factors that influence these statistics, and we would have to go backwards to analyse this mess of contradictions that we call masculinity. But it helps to explain why men find it so hard to realise that mental health is something to worry about. Something that needs to be taken care of.
Masculinity (a harsh and unhelpful term) doesn’t exactly encourage introspection, talking about feelings, or even feeling those feelings. At least not in its traditional form.
But masculinity, whatever it is, seems to be evolving. Across our culture we find men talking about their own experiences, dealing with mental health issues.
Kid Cudi has talked about going to therapy. Rob Delaney has blogged about depression. Ryan Reynolds opened up about anxiety. And now even athletes, our highest models of masculinity, have begun to open up too, proving that even if your body is at its peak potential, you still need to pay attention to what’s going on in your head.
Kevin Love wrote about a panic attack he suffered in the middle of a game. Michael Phelps became the face of Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy platform. Metta World Peace has been an outspoken advocate for athletes and others to focus on their mental health.
It makes sense. We all know the basics of keeping our bodies intact, how come we have no idea how to take care of our brains?
We wanted better answers; not grand theories but real advice from experts on how to improve the condition of our minds on a daily basis. It turns out there is a lot we can do.
What we’ve put together here is a small first step: a real conversation guide for men who are just beginning to understand their mental health. It covers the broad spectrum of experience. We ask what level of anxiety is “normal” (and find an answer). We try to understand why we are so angry, and how we can better manage this anger. We learn how to avoid the winter blues from the guy who discovered seasonal affective disorder. We try to quiet that negative voice in our heads (well, and we make some progress at that).
This project, by its very nature, will never be complete. We did not touch on every single point. Far from it. The different ways in which we humans experience suffering seem to be infinite.
But naming that suffering is the first step in confronting it. And even if you don’t find yourself in this mix of advice and exploration, the fact is that you are doing something to start taking care of your mental health, and that’s important. That first step is a big one.
Because I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter that I feel very accomplished. I’m tied to things I learned from other kids in school and from my culture, to conceptions that I may not even remember how I learned them. To self-protective mechanisms designed to survive high school that ended up staying. To a welded armour of masculinity, which is great for defending against playground taunts, but not very useful for an adult trying to take relationships to a more physical contact level, or work on his own mental health.
There’s no quick way to get out of that armour – I’ve tried! But there are always ways to dismantle it piece by piece and build a new and potentially stronger definition of what it means to be “a man”. We have qualities beyond being able to not cry in front of our friends.