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Men’s mental health: Building emotional awareness

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Men often receive the message that feeling and talking about emotions is “not okay”. As a result, many men deny their feelings or have difficulties accessing them. If you do not have the language or do not give yourself permission to express emotions, such as sadness, guilt, shame, or disappointment, these emotions can drive behavior in unhelpful ways. 

Children learn about the world and what is okay and not okay from the adults in their lives. For example, parents set the rules around the sorts of activities that their children can engage in. This makes sense and is protective when thinking about, for example, a kid putting their hand on a stove burner. But, what if that parent tells their son to “suck it up, get over it, crying is for wimps, you need to be strong,” or some variant of this when their son tries to express themselves? 

Often, what happens is that the child quickly learns that feeling and expressing their emotions is not okay. Unless an emotion is considered “tough” or “strong” (anger is often seen this way), boys are often taught that they should not express emotions at all. Regardless of whether boys learn this message from parents, coaches, media, or society more generally, they run the risk of feeling like they are not being masculine enough when they express emotions that could portray them as “weak.”

So it’s probably not surprising that men often deal with their emotions by either denying their existence or hiding them inside. But, even if emotions are not acknowledged or expressed, they are still present and felt. And these unacknowledged emotions can still drive behavior and become expressed in unhelpful ways, such as addiction, depression, or relationship violence/breakdowns. 

So, how do we start the potentially uncomfortable process of acknowledging emotions and supporting other men in doing the same? Here are some tips: 

  • Notice feelings in your body. If you have a hard time noticing and identifying emotions, start by paying attention to changes in your body. Emotions usually come with changes in bodily sensations. For example, anger often comes with feeling hot and sadness often comes with feeling heavy.
  • Label your emotions. Once you notice changes in your bodily sensations, try to label the associated emotion. Labeling emotions helps us better understand ourselves and respond to them in a healthy and appropriate way. Are you a writer? Start writing down what you notice about your emotions.
  • Check-in on your buddies. The next time you see your male friends, don’t be afraid to ask “how’s life really going?” Invite them to share what’s not going well in their life. The door may open slowly, but every inch is an inch towards building a more supportive and authentic relationship with your friend.
  • Avoid call-outs. Often, telling people that they are in “denial” has the opposite effect of the goal. Rather than being helpful, call-outs can make people feel attacked. Instead, show your friends that you offer a safe space to talk without judgment and that you yourself are open to being vulnerable emotionally. 

One of the most impactful ways that men can support themselves and other men in becoming more aware of their emotions and expressing those emotions is by being the first one to do so. Often, it only takes one person to start opening the door for themselves to support others in becoming more aware of their own emotional experience. For example, show that it is okay to talk about how stressful COVID has been for you, or that you feel sad, disappointed, and scared at times. 

If there is one thing we can do, it is to re-write the narrative of what it means to be masculine through opening our own doors first. We can create a deeper sense of what it means to be a man. We can acknowledge that strength at times means needing others, as no one does it on their own.

MindBeacon is here to help with a variety of supports available in our Virtual Mental Health Therapy Clinic. If you are part of our Workplace Mental Health Program, please visit your company page for access to services covered by your program.

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Stronger Minds content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to establish a standard of care with a reader, you should always seek the advice of your mental health professional, physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call emergency services immediately. You should never disregard or delay seeking medical advice relating to treatment or standard of care because of information contained herein. Medical information changes constantly. Therefore the information herein should not be considered current, complete or exhaustive, nor should you rely on such information to recommend a course of treatment for you or any other individual. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.