Harden Up Princess
Harden up. Suck it up. Man up. Push through. We’ve been telling men this message for years when faced with life’s challenges, but is it healthy? And more importantly, does it work?
Before we get to that, it’s important to note that in Australia, suicide is now the leading cause of death for men aged 18 to 44. Not road accidents or cancer, or even heart disease. Suicide. Research suggests that some men when faced with the choice between reaching out, maybe seeking professional help, or taking their own life, they will choose the latter. This statistic points a huge arrow to the fact that a huge barrier to help-seeking particularly in men, is not only the stigma attached to mental health, but also that many men reach a point where they are unwilling to have a conversation with a friend or family member for fear of being judged or appearing vulnerable or weak. And even when men do admit to themselves that they’re struggling, they are often reluctant to seek help because they feel they should be able to solve their problems on their own. Instead of talking it out when they’re doing it tough, men might put on a brave face and try to handle things on their own.
So, to return to our original questions. Is telling men to harden up, healthy? No, it’s the opposite of healthy. And does pushing through anything inherently stressful in your life work? Maybe to a point, it does. Coping mechanisms like alcohol and drugs may offer a numbing distraction, but often lead to increased aggression and isolation and end up pushing men further down a dangerous path. But no, pushing through and sucking it up, doesn’t work.
Tell anyone who’s struggling to suppress their feelings about it is a huge empathy fail on the part of the person sending this message. And it shuts down further conversation around what the problem is and what would be useful to hear in response. Does that person actually want anything from you, other than a sympathetic, non-judgmental ear?
If we look to the professional help available to men, countless studies over the past several decades have shown that men of all ages and ethnicities are less likely than women to seek help for all sorts of problems - including depression, substance abuse and stressful life events - even though they encounter those problems at the same or greater rates as women. But the field of psychology and therapy hasn't done a particularly good job of creating a user-friendly environment for male clients. There's a definite mismatch between the relational style of many men and the touchy-feely atmosphere of most counselling and psychotherapy. Think of what we typically ask a man to do in therapy settings: recognise that something is wrong with him, admit that he needs help, openly discuss and express his emotions, get vulnerable, and depend on someone else for guidance and support - all can be extremely challenging tasks for some men.
As a professional, we are then faced with two choices: strongarm men into a process that's traditionally been more user-friendly for females, or reshape what we do and how we package it to better reach male clients. There’s a lot of research on how to go about doing this. At a very basic level, psychological therapy has evolved way past the point of "tell me how you feel about that?" into a range of experiential therapies (EMDR, Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy) that don't place the onus of the client to talk endlessly in circles about their feelings.
Even more fundamentally, I can tell you two things that intuitively work for men. Firstly, breaking down the inherent power differential between professional and client is a key. The way I think about it is that whoever shows up in my office has survived decades without my wisdom and knowledge, so they must be doing a lot right, rather than a lot wrong (which is often what they think) and I let them know that, from the outset. And secondly, in keeping with the theme of the first point, the interaction in the session is always a lively backwards and forwards. The worst thing you can probably do for most men is pretend you’re a blank slate and give them a few strategically placed “Hmmmmmms” and “Aaaahhhs”. My thinking is that my job is to offer (I always offer) clients a different narrative from the one they’re stuck in. And when you boil it down, this is the work of all psychological therapies, giving people a different narrative to be able to settle into, that’s based in what they’re already doing right, and how they’re survived all of those decades before they walked into my office.