On Masculinity and Vulnerable Honesty

masculinity and vulnerable honesty

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.

Since men find it particularly difficult to open up (so much so, that they will jeopardise their mental health), it’s important to make it easier for men to express themselves. Fortunately, there are many effective methods and strategies for achieving this aim.

Charity Campaigns

Many mental health charities are raising awareness about masculine stereotypes and the major problems that result from them. The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – a charity that aims to tackle the male suicide epidemic – highlights that bottling up emotions is causing serious harm to men’s mental health. This led the charity to launch its #DontBottleItUp campaign, backed by men’s clothing brand Topman.

Huffington Post UK similarly promoted more openness with the hashtag #BoysDoCry. The media outlet released a video released as part of the campaign, featuring an array of male celebrities, athletes, comedians, musicians, politicians, and actors who opened up about the last time they cried.

Boys often grow up with the idea that crying is something girls do, whether in response to being physically hurt or getting upset about something. Crying for a boy, however, is seen as ‘girly’, weak, and soft. This attitude then spills over into adulthood, where the natural inclination to cry is restricted. Over time, this can make emotional pain quite hard to manage, since crying is a form of release. It helps to soothe our pain.

Another campaign in the UK, #ItsOkayToTalk, was started by Luke Ambler, a rugby player who lost his brother-in-law to suicide. Various high-profile people, like comedian Ricky Gervais, joined the campaign, encouraging men to overcome their resistance to expressing their emotions.

It is important, though, to question the effectiveness of these hashtag campaigns. In the UK, suicide is still the leading cause of death for men under 50 – although, the male suicide rate has been decreasing. This may be due, in part, to increasing awareness about men’s mental health, influenced – no doubt – by charity campaigns. But is sharing hashtags and heartfelt social media posts the best way to drive change? How many more men actually open up as a result of seeing a hashtag? Jack Urwin, the author of Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity, states: “My only real fear about something like this is we sit back and become complacent after doing our bit for the hashtag rather than actively reaching out to those most in need.”

Nonetheless, Urwin adds that “anything that gets any man talking is good.” One man may reach out for help and support after becoming aware of a campaign. Which, in a sense, means it has been a success. We should, however, ensure that these campaigns reach those who need the help most, that men supporting the campaign take the lead and open up, and that these messages lead to more real, face-to-face conversations. It’s also important to remember that social media can worsen mental health. So we should be wary about relying on social media to promote positive mental health.

The Impact of Influencers

Many influencers join mental health campaigns that encourage more emotional openness among men. Ricky Gervais has already been mentioned. Other notable male influencers raising awareness about mental health have included Prince William and Harry (who both started a campaign called Heads Together), actors Ryan Reynolds and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps.

When highly influential men talk honestly about their mental health struggles, it can inspire other men to do the same. If you’re a man and you see someone you admire and look up to talking about difficult times, you may come to see that you can still be respectable and loved by others while having poor mental health. It is especially crucial for influencers who we think of as successful, macho, and strong to be open, as they are the ones who are dismantling stereotypes about what a man should be like. There’s nothing unmanly about having both a rugged and a vulnerable side.

In the UK, famous rappers like Stormzy and Professor Green have opened up about their mental health. This has been seen as a game-changer in many ways since grime and rap culture is all about men appearing ‘hard’ and hyper-masculine. Admitting that you have depression or anxiety would be unthinkable; an embarrassing sign of weakness. Moreover, black men are especially resistant to seeking mental health treatment. This is why Stormzy’s breaking the mould is so important. It could, after all, help other men like him – or his fans – to tell their story as well.

Men’s Mental Health in the Media

We have been able to learn more about men’s mental health thanks to increased coverage about it in the media. Mainstream media outlets are paying more attention to key issues, such as the male suicide epidemic. Reading about real men’s mental health stories in the media can also help other men to know that they’re not alone and that these issues can affect men of all ages, for all sorts of reasons.

Like with various charity campaigns, we may question whether news stories and opinion pieces lead to more talking, and how much. Would reading about a stranger’s mental health story really make a man feel more comfortable opening up to a male friend? It’s hard to tell.

Regardless, the more we understand about the men’s mental health crisis, the more likely we are to challenge it. With the mainstream media focusing on campaigns and stories that emphasise emotional openness, we may start to see a shifting culture. Indeed, we are seeing more ordinary men open up about their mental health in the media (including social media) than ever before. This level of vulnerable honesty was simply not present a generation ago.

Men’s Support Groups

It is much harder to open up about your mental health in person than it is online. Yet, the extra difficulty involved often translates to a greater result. When you actually speak to another person about your pain, and that pain is understood, the relief can be quite powerful. This is why men’s support groups can be so beneficial. Mental health support groups are a space in which you can speak honestly about what you’re going through, no matter how glum, overdramatic, or dark you may think your thoughts and emotions are. Everyone is there for the same reason – to open up in a safe, non-judgemental space.

Every man in that room has his own personal struggle or suffering to contend with. Nonetheless, when you listen to the stories of other men with mental health issues, you may begin to resonate with what they’re saying. You can relate to their experiences, thoughts, or mental states in some way. Expressing yourself in a support group can be hard, particularly if you’re shy or socially anxious. Nevertheless, when you really connect with someone else’s words, this may be all it takes to ease a bit of your pain.

Male support groups are also valuable because they help men to trust each other. During these meetings, you can show vulnerability and tender emotions and find out that you’re not going to be laughed at, mocked, ignored, undermined, or judged for doing so. Speaking up in these groups can be uncomfortable, yet once you do it, it can be an extremely liberating feeling. Male support groups present an opportunity for men who have been closed off for so long to finally reveal what they’re struggling with. Indeed, many men speak about issues in these groups that they’ve never told anyone before.

Creating and maintaining male support groups can, therefore, be a highly effective way to encourage men to open up. They can help men to break down barriers, feel comfortable expressing emotions, accept compassion from other men, and learn how to feel compassion for themselves and other men too. 

Mental Health Blogging

Support groups may act as the first stepping-stone in becoming more open as a man. But not every man is ready to take that leap. An alternative initial step could be blogging about mental health. Currently, there is a serious lack of male mental health bloggers or advocates. Most are female. This, of course, reflects the fact that women feel much more comfortable talking about mental health and well-being than men do.

But mental health blogging plays an important role in fostering a culture of emotional openness. Many mental health bloggers write with passion and raw honesty that can be incredibly insightful, inspiring, and motivating. Their words may help other people with mental health issues to open up, as well as the general population to better empathise with these struggles. The stories of mental health bloggers allow us to see that emotional suffering can wreak havoc on one’s life. This is crucial in challenging self-stigma and public stigma, both of which prevent people from opening up.

But if you’re a man and you only see female mental health bloggers, you may come to believe that this activity is reserved for women, that to do it yourself would be ‘effeminate’. However, the very fact that so few men write about their mental health is exactly why more men should do it. There’s nothing embarrassing or effeminate about it.

Writing something personal and honest about yourself and sharing it with the world is, undoubtedly, a bit nerve-wracking. You may genuinely believe you have something worth sharing, even if it just helps one other man relate to your story and want to get something off their chest. Yet biting the bullet and publicising your mental health issue can still lead to a slew of self-doubt and imagined judgement, such as worrying about the quality of your writing and the opinions others will form about you.

You’d be surprised, though, how much others appreciate pure honesty. Male mental health bloggers can help other men to view their pain in a different light and may encourage them to open up, in spite of worries about being emasculated. 

Understanding the Benefits of Vulnerable Honesty 

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 on his own. The problem, nevertheless, 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 experiencing emotional distress.

If men want to see a world in which they as individuals and men, in general, can show their emotions, then it’s something they have to practise. Being open 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 (e.g. depression, anxiety, a personal crisis, or failure), it’s important to take action. And often, the first action that will help you is having an honest conversation with someone and reaching out for help.

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 emotional 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 vulnerable honesty in a negative, dismissive, judgemental, or stigmatising manner. This can be a painful or even 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; being perceived as in need of help could feel like a threat to your masculine identity. 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 certainly not be ashamed about it.

While many men struggle to be vulnerably honest, 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 vulnerable. So don’t feel guilty or be hard on yourself if, as a man, you are not being completely open about your feelings.

Opening up can be a gradual process – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Do whatever works for you. Don’t try to live up to any expectations about how closed or open you should be. Moreover, it should be emphasised that talking is not always enough. Other strategies for protecting mental health should be considered. Furthermore, the people who love the men in their lives – boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons – should remember that listening to them without judgement is a key component of fostering a culture of openness.

Men all over the world can be more vulnerably honest once they realise a basic truth, that to struggle is ordinary and acceptable. And this holds true whatever your gender is.

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