Just Rub Some Dirt on It

When it comes to seeking emotional support, society often tells boys to bottle up their feelings. When they get hurt on the playground, they are told “just rub some dirt on it”, or if they cry, “stop being so dramatic”.

As young boys, we learn that “feeling our feelings” is not masculine. Instead, we stuff them down deep where no one can see them, including ourselves. After many years of practice avoiding our emotions, it’s no wonder we often have difficulty understanding or talking about them. So when things get worse, we stuff them down even deeper, rather than addressing them.

According to Addis & Mahalik (2003), “it’s been suggested that many men do not seek psychological help because services are not in alignment with masculine cultural norms that equate asking for assistance for psychological and emotional concerns with shame and weakness”. In other words, asking for help is the feminine thing to do. Real men and boys don’t need help from someone else, they can do it on their own if they just try harder. This irrational line of thinking only compounds the problem, as the pressure to resolve our issues alone can lead to anger outbursts, isolation, depression, and further worsening of symptoms. Additionally, recent societal events have highlighted the concept of toxic masculinity, where men are expected to lack any emotion other than anger, sexual aggression, or violence. It’s not difficult to see how our society creates specific gender role expectations, and how these norms can become amplified when we are told it’s ok to only acknowledge certain aspects of ourselves.

How to Succeed in Therapy

Despite the odds being stacked against them to ever see a therapist, some men eventually find their way to the therapist’s couch. But how can they succeed in therapy when they haven’t been given the tools or communication skills to do so? According to the American Psychological Association Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men (2018), it’s important for clinicians to understand traditional gender roles and the stigma that’s often associated with help-seeking behaviors by males. By challenging societal norms and educating our male clients that it’s ok, normal, and healthy to express their feelings and ask for help, we can begin the process of healing and growth.

Now that we know it’s actually ok and normal for a male to see a counselor and talk about his feelings, where do we go next? The APA encourages the creation of clear goals and interventions to promote engagement in the therapeutic relationship. In other words, men often prefer a more directive approach in counseling. Less focus on feelings and more focus on action.

On the Therapist’s Couch

One of the approaches I often use with my male clients is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which focuses on taking committed action toward one’s values. For instance, in working with a male client experiencing depression, the focus would be less on reducing feelings of sadness and hopelessness and instead on reducing avoidance and insight, accepting where they are at, and taking behavioral steps to achieve their goals.

In addition to taking action, I teach my male clients that it’s normal and healthy to have feelings. We explore their childhood to see if any learned behaviors contribute to their avoidance of emotion. Next, we practice becoming more mindful and noticing feelings as they bubble to the surface. And finally, I provide my clients with strategies to manage their distressing feelings. My clients learn that having feelings doesn’t make them weak, they more clearly understand their struggle to process emotion, they improve their ability to notice their feelings in the moment, and they enact their new skills to acknowledge how they feel and do something to make themselves feel better.

Asking for Help

Now that we know it’s ok to have feelings and express them, it’s just as critical to know that it’s also ok to ask for help when we need it. Asking for help does not make us weak or feminine, and it’s a proactive step that must be taken in order to create the change we wish to see for ourselves.

If you are or identify as male and want to set up an appointment for individual or couples counseling contact me to get started!  Anthony