Resolving the crisis in men’s mental health is an incredibly difficult task. One key component of this effort, though, is encouraging men to practise vulnerable honesty. In fact, this is something that mental health charities are really starting to focus on.
Being stoic, having a stiff upper lip, not crying, hiding vulnerability, toughening up. These are all expectations placed on men. These expectations can be reinforced in all sorts of ways: fathers influencing sons, male peers influencing each other, partners expecting a ‘certain type of man’, and movies and TV shows portraying the ideal man as macho, aggressive, dominant, and being in control.
Combating these ingrained cultural attitudes is an uphill struggle. However, we don’t have to force or pressure men to open up about everything at all times in order to fix this problem. Being honest about your inner, emotional world is hard for anyone. It takes a certain amount of courage. That’s why preparing to open up can be so stressful. Yet, when we do get something off our chest, the catharsis is incredibly therapeutic.
As a man, one of the best ways to practise vulnerable honesty is to open up when you feel it will benefit you. This approach is rational and compassionate. Deep down, a man’s intuition may tell him that he has to tell a friend something that is eating him up inside. Maybe his mental health issue has been spiralling out of control and he no longer feels he can manage. The problem, however, is that after an intuitive thought and desire to be open, self-limiting thoughts can follow, thoughts about how awkward, embarrassing, inappropriate, or emasculating it will be to admit to your friend that you’re not ok.
If men want to see a world in which they as individuals and men – in general – can show their emotions, then it’s something calls for practice. Vulnerable honesty really does get easier over time. You will start to feel more confident the more you do it and will realise that your mental health massively improves as a result.
Whether you’re experiencing positive emotions you see as ‘unmanly’ (e.g. compassion, kindness, and care) or having a negative experience you see as weak (e.g. depression, anxiety, a personal crisis, or failure), the most meaningful response can be to express these experiences honestly. This is because vulnerable honesty helps you to get real with yourself and gives others a chance to see you in the same way, without pretence – and this can subsequently improve your relationship with yourself and others.
Opening up as a man in the modern world is not easy. However, each man who decides to do it can set off a domino effect he couldn’t have imagined he would influence. When you tell your friend about your mental health struggle, he may relay his own. This increases trust and solidifies friendships. Men, unfortunately, lack support networks or don’t have the same kind of support network that their female counterparts do. But by practising openness, men can let their friends and loved ones know that they’re struggling and build a support network as a result.
Now, it may be the case that a friend, partner, or family member may not understand you, and may even respond to your openness in a negative, dismissive, judgemental, or stigmatising manner. This can be a painful, humiliating experience. But honestly, this reaction is rare. And besides, the response you get from your openness will reveal to you who you can rely on and who you can’t.
It’s also critical for men with mental health issues to not be afraid about seeing a therapist, as this is something many men avoid doing. The level of openness you present during a therapy session can make a big difference to your mental health, so it’s crucial that men don’t undervalue or ignore the option of therapy. As a man, you may resist going to therapy for fear of how it might make you appear as a man in the eyes of your male friends or peers. You don’t want to be seen as struggling or in need of help. However, if your male friend were in a similar situation to you, you would understand that professional help might be what they need and that they should definitely not be ashamed about it.
While many men struggle to open up, we also shouldn’t judge men who have a hard time expressing themselves. Saying that these men are being secretive or emotionless, and judging them for their caginess, may not be helpful, especially for men who are experiencing mental health issues. There are many pressures on men not to be open. So don’t feel guilty or be hard on yourself if, as a man, you are not being completely open about your emotional life.
Opening up can be a gradual process – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t try to live up to any expectations about how closed or open you should be. Furthermore, the people who love the men in their lives – boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons – should keep in mind that listening to them without judgement is a key component of fostering a culture of openness.
Men all over the world can open up more once they realise a basic truth, that to struggle is ordinary and acceptable. And this holds true whatever your gender is.