The inspiration for writing this post came after an old Tweet from Piers Morgan in 2017 re-surfaced. For those who aren’t aware, Piers Morgan is a British journalist/television host/general-fly-in-the-ointment.
In his Tweet, Piers was responding to a statistic which stated that an estimated 34 million British adults have experienced mental health difficulties. Piers’ response was “…man up, Britain and focus on those who REALLY need help”.
Whilst I don’t want to get into a debate about Piers Morgan – there are plenty of those going on – his response really highlights the ongoing stigma faced by people with mental health problems.
It also emphasises that the language people use often perpetuates the expectations placed on men when it comes to discussing mental health.
My experience as a male dealing with difficult emotions
Prior to training as a Counsellor, I had real trouble talking about my feelings. I’d grown up with messages like “boys don’t cry”. I’d never seen my father talk about his emotions and I was worried that people would think I was “weak”.
As a male, I believed that showing my emotions would mean I couldn’t cope. On top of this, none of my friends talked about how they felt either. Conversations were limited to what had been on the television the night before, our hobbies, or the daft things one of us might have done.
Dealing with my emotions
The way that I dealt with situations was with anger. I didn’t understand other feelings and I certainly didn’t do sadness or crying.
Anger was a tool I’d learnt as a child. I was bullied at school and anger enabled me to keep people at a distance. It was a defence mechanism to stop me feeling hurt. I’d observed other people’s ways of dealing with problems and came to believe that showing anger made problems go away and “won” arguments.
I carried this strategy with me into adulthood; however, I also came to learn that my way of coping pushed people away and affected the quality of my relationships.
The turning point
When I was in my 30s, a friend of mine passed away. He was one of the few males I’d been able to talk to about my problems. He was helpful and supportive, but I’d had no idea that he had been struggling with his own difficulties.
As well as the sadness of losing a good friend, his death also brought up feelings around my father’s death 12 years’ earlier. For the first time in years I cried, and began to realise that the way I’d been coping with my problems wasn’t working any more.
It was at this point that I decided to go for counselling.
How counselling helped me
I was able to explore my childhood experiences, the beliefs I’d developed and how I’d coped. I talked about who I wanted to be as a person and that I no longer wanted to hide behind my anger. However, this came with its own fears of becoming more open; how would people react to me, as a male, expressing my emotions?
Counselling gave me a place to talk to someone who wasn’t involved in my day-to-day life. I could be upset and cry without being judged, and I no longer had to hide behind the mask of anger that I’d been wearing for so long.
It taught me that it was okay to be a male and show my emotions, and that this made me no less of a person.
The experiences of my male clients
From my experience of working with males, many who come to see me don’t feel able to talk to other people. Some may talk to their partners, but even then they still have fears around opening up completely for fear of how they’ll be perceived.
A lot of my clients have had difficulties expressing themselves. They may have been told as young boys that it wasn’t right for them to do this. Some believe that they’ll be perceived as “weak”. I’ve heard many phrases along the lines of “I’m a man, I should be able to cope”. They believe that, as men, they “should” be strong.
Like myself, many males I’ve worked with have developed defence mechanisms as children and have carried these through into adulthood. They’ve not been able to allow themselves to be vulnerable or open, because they fear what other people will think of them.
My experience as a male Counsellor
When I first started my counselling training, some of my male work colleagues laughed and made comments like “Why are you doing a woman’s job?”. However, as time went on, more of them would come to me to talk about their problems.
Conversations no longer revolved around what had been on television the night before. They started focusing more on life issues such as relationship problems. It was as though they felt they had permission to do this, because they saw that a fellow male would listen to them without judgment.
As a Counsellor, I feel that part of my job is to be a role model to my clients of how it is possible to be a male who can express their emotions. It’s about changing the message from “men should be strong” to “men should be able to talk about how they feel”.
Talking about emotions does not equal weakness. In fact, it takes great courage for someone to open up to others and allow themselves to risk being vulnerable.
A message for males who are finding things difficult
Although there are ongoing efforts to tackle the stereotypes of males and mental health, the sticking point is society’s expectations of how men deal with their emotions.
It’s also worth remembering that these are just expectations and opinions; they are not laws. We as males can make a choice to move away from what society expects and express ourselves when we’re finding things difficult.
Whilst this might be scary, it can definitely be beneficial for us in the long run.
How counselling can help you
I’ve been on both sides of the line. I’ve been the male seeking help for his problems and am now in the privileged position of being able to provide support to others.
If, like me, you’ve been wearing a mask in your everyday life for fear of opening up, the counselling room is a place where you can remove that mask. Counselling is a safe environment where you can be honest and vulnerable without being judged.
If you choose to put the mask back on when you leave then that’s your choice, but I try to encourage clients to rely on the mask less and less as time goes on. Opening up is scary, but it’s also very liberating.
If you want things to change then counselling can support you to become the person you want to be, as opposed to the person you think you “should be”. It made a great impact on how I deal with my emotions and I’m forever grateful for it.
Please do contact me if you’d like to access counselling.