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Being able to form strong bonds with other men is often essential to protecting a man’s well-being. The problem, however, is that a lot of men struggle to form deep, emotional, and meaningful connections with other men in their lives, including those people they love or care about the most, such as their father or best friends.
In contemporary society, men find it easy to bond in an active or competitive way, whether that’s in the form of sports, martial arts, the military, competitive games, or outdoor activities. Men will also traditionally bond in ways that confirm their masculine identity, such as partying and drinking together, and in a business setting.
However, not all men are passionately interested in these kinds of pursuits. They may want to form deep, genuine connections with men that don’t depend on masculine norms like competitiveness, winning, dominance, violence, primacy of work, or pursuit of status. And there’s nothing wrong with having these preferences. They don’t make you any less of a man. They just mean you might have a certain personality type or inclination that attract you to some activities and not others. For example, if you’re a highly sensitive man, you may prefer quiet one-on-one conversations to partying with your friends in a loud and busy bar or nightclub.
Fortunately, there are all kinds of social situations and contexts that allow for these kinds of conversations. Here are some examples of non-traditional ways that men can bond.
The bro-date or man-date is extremely underrated. They are crucial to any bromance. Two guys might feel uncomfortable going out together for lunch or dinner, unless (God, forbid) someone thinks they’re a gay couple. Which really goes to show how unhelpful and ridiculous masculine norms are. One of the 11 masculine norms that men feel expected to conform to is disdain for homosexuals. The way this manifests is that many men will avoid behavior, interactions, or relationships that – in their eyes or anyone else’s – might be perceived as or mocked for being ‘gay’.
Women don’t really have to contend with this issue. Two straight female friends don’t meet up for dinner and worry about being perceived as gay, nor are they likely to care if they were. This is a generalization, of course, but the masculine norm of disdain for homosexuals really does affect the kinds of relationships men have with each other. Which is a shame.
There’s nothing wrong, effeminate, or abnormal about two guys going out for a meal. Yet, if you’re ever in a restaurant and see two people together, it’s far more common to see two female friends than to see two male friends catching up with each other over some food.
The benefits of having a one-on-one meal with a male peer or friend can’t be overstated. Often, when men are in groups, it becomes difficult to have open, honest, and heartfelt chats because the dynamics change. Men are more likely to be competitive and jokey when they’re amongst a group of guys. If there’s something you want to get off your chest, it may seem inappropriate to do it in this kind of context.
When it’s just two guys hanging out, on the other hand, men may find it easier to talk candidly about their emotional life. This is especially true for introverted men, who may prefer one-on-one conversations to larger group interactions since the former more easily allow for deep, meaningful conversations. Introverted men thrive on these types of conversations and may feel more drained by and less interested in surface-level or frivolous topics. (Which is not to say that introverts are a boring bunch who shy away from banter, of course.)
So, if there’s a friend or male peer you’d like to have a more honest dialogue with, make plans to eat somewhere together. Turn that into a regular thing and you can build a male bond that can act as an extremely crucial and unique part of your support network.
A long car journey can be an ideal time for men to connect, as it’s a situation where it’s just two men. There are no outside influences you have to worry about judging you. You have complete privacy. Also, a lot of guys feel more comfortable speaking about deep issues when they’re not looking at each other since it can be a bit unnerving to have someone look at when you’re exposing your vulnerability or tender emotions. Being in a car allows you both to look straight ahead and talk. When you’re in a car together, you don’t have an excuse to escape. Many men find that their most serious conversations with other men, including their fathers, take place during car journeys.
Traveling with a guy friend can be another way to really get to know each other. Often, when you travel with a friend or go on vacation with them, that’s the true test of friendship, as you will get to intimately know each others’ quirks, tastes, and eccentricities (for better or worse!)
When it’s just the two of you traveling together, you’re going to spend a lot of time in each other’s company – certainly for longer periods than you would ever hang out back home. If you don’t drive each other crazy abroad, then, hopefully, you can form an even stronger bond. The unforgettable sights, activities, mishaps, and chance encounters you both experience can be something you both cherish and look back on fondly together. Think of a guy who you honestly think would make a great travel partner and start planning an awesome trip together.
It can be difficult for men who are struggling with their mental health to reach out and seek professional help. But a lot of men find it’s easier to speak to a male therapist because they feel they will truly understand their struggles as a man; how their mental health issues have become so tightly wrapped up with modern notions of masculinity.
The bond between a therapist and client can often be a very close one. Which is unsurprising, after all, since the client is bearing their soul and revealing their innermost secrets. In order to do this, a man has to feel he can trust the therapist he is speaking to, and feel assured that the therapist genuinely cares about his hardship.
The advantage of talking to a male therapist, as a man, is that it may help you to form a genuine male bond when, perhaps, you feel this is something you are lacking. Opening up to a male therapist can help you to realize that it doesn’t have to be humiliating or embarrassing to reveal your vulnerable side to another man. The therapeutic relationship can allow you to see that men are entirely capable of responding to your suffering with empathy and compassion.
Your therapist is not your friend, of course, although relations may be friendly and lighthearted. What your therapist may teach you, however, is that it’s okay to trust other men when it comes to sharing intimate details about your life and that it can be an invaluable thing to have a man in your life who you can have a heart-to-heart with.
Support groups, whether they’re male-only or not, are another sanctioned setting in which men can be totally open with each other, without the fear of being judged or put down. When men feel a burning desire to get something painful off their chest, they may grapple with the worry that, if they tell another man, or a male peer finds out, that it will forever ruin their male pride. Once the dirty secret is out in the open, it can never be a secret again.
This worry, nonetheless, is often misplaced. While some insecure and narrow-minded men may criticize you for showing vulnerability, true friends wouldn’t do that. One way to get over this worry and feel comfortable expressing your emotions is by attending a support group. Whatever your problem, be it related to your mental health, drinking, or drug use, there will be other men in the room who are also struggling. And they will try to understand the turmoil that you’re going through, offering an empathetic ear, their life experience, advice, and support. Ron Tannebaum, the co-founder of intherooms.com, a social networking site for people in recovery from drugs and alcohol, said:
“12-step meetings. It doesn’t get any more real than that, and I’ve never felt closer to men than I have in those rooms. Throughout my life I thought I had strong male relationships, but it was only when I entered recovery that I found out what true male bonding was all about. I, by the grace of God, found men who reached out to me and taught me how to become a real man. A man with integrity, a loyal, trustworthy and monogamous husband, a good father and role model, brother, friend, employer, sponsor and a responsible member of society. My male friends are the cornerstone of my success in life, they helped me become the person I always wanted to be, me.”
Men’s support groups, in particular though, may be ideal spaces for men to open up about their emotions. In a male-only space, men are probably more comfortable being vulnerable, and less likely to ‘man up’, compared to if women were present. A mixed gender group could make you feel a bit more awkward about expressing more intimate details or discussing specific topics, such as relationships.
Deep down, men want to feel that they are understood, especially when it comes to their masculinity, which is why male-only mental health support groups may be best suited to this discussion. There is likely to be a widespread understanding of how gender impacts mental health. This helps men to know they’re not alone, which can feel like a huge burden has been lifted. It’s a relief to know you’re not suffering in isolation.
Fred Rabinowitz is a professor of psychology at the University of Redlands in California and he has outlined some of the benefits of men’s groups. For example, he argues that male support groups help men to trust other men again. In the competitive, macho culture that we live in, men may find it hard to connect with each other in an emotional and non-judgemental manner. But in a men’s support group, you can talk about who you really are. In this unique kind of environment, you can drop all of your personas and facades and find acceptance from other men.
If you’re just yearning to connect with another man who shares the same interests as you, then consider joining a group dedicated to that interest. These are usually organized on Facebook or on sites like Meetup.com. You may be passionate about all kinds of hobbies or interests, such as debating, writing, books, art, philosophy, science, politics, and spirituality. By joining a group based around a common interest, you can meet men who you can connect with easily and quickly.
Most guys love electronics, gadgets, and technology. For this reason, a lot of men have some of their best bonding experiences when talking about tech-related stuff. Whether you’re straight, gay, or bi, there’s a good chance you’ll have a fascination with technology. Men, after all, tend to display a natural preference for things over people, so when you have a bunch of guys surrounded by hi-tech things, it’s a chance for them to express their common interests and connect on that level.
Bonding with other men in sport may not be for you. And that’s alright. You may not be really into sports – or you might be, but perhaps interested in more solitary physical activities, such as weight lifting or running. If this applies to you, consider the above options as ways to bond with men. If you can foster these kinds of situations and relationships, then your general well-being will improve massively in the long run.
In the final Harry Potter book, Harry meets Dumbledore in an ethereal version of King’s Cross Station. With them there is a creature, a repulsive, whimpering childlike form, lying helpless on the ground. It is meant to represent what remains of Voldemort’s mangled soul. It also somehow perfectly embodies the way I see myself.
Repulsive. Whimpering. Childlike. Helpless. My inner voice tells me I am all these things. Pathetic and loathsome. Something that should never be seen. Something that can maybe be pitied, but can never be loved.
Shame is the emotion I am most afraid of. It is also the emotion I feel more often than any other. Shame for being the person I am. Shame for being fundamentally wrong.
It makes sense that I feel this way. I am gay, after all. And to be gay is to be something that simply should not exist.
A friend of mine once said this when I mentioned gay shame. She was a straight female in a group of gay males, so she probably felt outnumbered and undermined by the implication that gay shame is more important than hers. Still, I had to stifle the urge to clap back.
Of course, everyone feels shame, but it is different for different people. There’s a reason that gay shame is different to the shame of being a woman or of being black or Latino or overweight or less intelligent (and it’s not because gay shame is worse or more valid).
Growing up, I knew no gay people. Or, more accurately, I didn’t know I knew any gay people. I had a gay uncle who was spoken about in vague terms I didn’t understand. I had a gay cousin I had never met. I had a gay cousin my own age who was as deep in the closet as I was. The occasional teacher who was rumored to be gay was little more than a punchline.
Gay shame is what you feel when you’re not supposed to exist. You know no one else like you, and no one wants to be like you. No one is there to validate who you are. You harbor a secret that you spend your life trying to protect. If the veneer cracks, you could lose everything.
All my life I had one big secret to keep. A secret so big that keeping it consumed me. Some secrets you can simply choose not to tell people. Other secrets you spend your life trying to keep from escaping on their own.
Being gay was like that. I had to watch my mannerisms, taking care not to ever let my wrist go limp. I had to filter the way I smiled and laughed. I had to listen closely to everything I said, making sure I hadn’t betrayed myself with a stray inflection.
And I had to remind myself not to tell people I was gay. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I do suffer at times from obsessive thinking. The term, “I’m gay,” was always on the tip of my tongue. If I let my guard down, my own words could give me away.
The thing with urges like these is that the more you tell yourself to stop, the stronger the urge becomes. I couldn’t count on myself not to say the thing which would hurt me most. This was true long before I had even come to terms with the fact that I was gay.
The impulse to blurt out my secret had a lot to do with the terror of the consequences that would occur if I did. It was a self-destruct button, the easiest way to hurt myself. But I know that part of it was the relief saying those words would bring. Letting go of the burden of that secret, sitting back and letting my guts spill from my body, would end the facade once and for all. Everyone would be repulsed by me, but at least I could take a break.
In the end, I didn’t say those words to anyone until I was somewhat comfortable with them and knew they wouldn’t destroy my life.
Traumatic coming out stories get more attention. The lesbian kid whose religious parents kicked her out, the trans person who was beaten to a pulp, or the non-binary person who was stripped by bullies to “see what they are” – these are all tragic stories which don’t end the moment the person is out the closet.
Happy coming out stories like mine, in which most of the people in my life accepted me immediately or shortly thereafter, have a resolution. I made it, and that’s cause for celebration.
Coming out did indeed relieve me of a burden. The process was transformative, allowing me to let go of so much. My mannerisms changed, not because I changed them but because I relaxed. I felt more comfortable speaking my mind without worrying about spilling dark secrets. I also got to stop obsessively checking my browser history.
Unfortunately, that’s only one side of the story. A lifetime of shame does not just go away overnight. Queer people are not just ashamed of being queer. We are ashamed to be ourselves. We internalize the shame. Just because our sexuality is out of the firing line, does not mean we are now okay with being ourselves.
My shame moves from one big thing to the next. I always have the feeling that if only X hadn’t happened or if only I had never done/said that, I would finally be okay with myself. But the truth is that this shame is not going away. Today, it is the shame that makes so many of my words or actions feel so consequential. It is not those actions that are causing the shame.
For many years, my shame crippled me. I lived as half a human, not daring to let go for a minute in case my repulsive, whimpering, childlike form revealed itself. I did not try new things or speak to new people. I shared nothing personal. I expected very little from myself and from the world.
Nine years ago, when I started therapy for the first time, I finally did something to counter that shame. This was still three years before I came out, but I made the first moves to prove to myself that I wasn’t as helpless and pathetic as I believed. Through a combination of challenging my inner voice, as well as forcing myself to do things I didn’t think I could do, I chipped away at the immense wall of shame.
Nine years later, and six years after coming out, I still feel ashamed of myself. I still obsess over things I say or the way I say them, mistakes I make, personal failures and career disappointments. It’s not nearly as monumental as it once was, and for the most part, it no longer stops me from living the life I want to live, but it is still constant and I still often run, hide, and try to fight it.
However, the battleground has moved. My goal these days is not to fight the shame but to accept it. As long as I express myself, I will continue feeling shame. Even if I don’t express myself, I’ll probably feel shame. But shame in and of itself does not have to be harmful.
Shame loses a lot of its power when you see it for what it is – a feeling. Feelings exist for a reason. They ensure you act in a certain way that is beneficial to you and your society. At least, that’s what they’re supposed to do.
Shame is no different. The feeling of shame can save your life. Queer people around the world have had to hide who they are in order to escape very real, often permanent consequences.
And like any other feeling, an excess of shame becomes harmful, rather than helpful. It continues to defend you against threats that are not as big as they seem, or that are no longer there. It causes you to do things that aren’t helpful or avoid things that aren’t actually harmful.
While I still feel a lot of shame, it no longer has the same hold on me it once did. I can step outside of it, recognize it as just a feeling, and let it be. The feeling is stripped of its sting, and I am saved from making decisions because of it.
There’s a practical exercise that helped me get a better grasp of this concept:
Next time you are feeling a little bit chilly, try to be aware that your body is sending you a warning. It is telling you that you might need to find a way to get warm in order to stay alive.
Take note of its warning, but ask yourself if you logically need to do anything. Is the cold severe enough to do any actual harm? If not, try to see the feeling for what it is. Be appreciative, and then let yourself feel the cold without taking action. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your perception changes and you no longer feel forced to reach for that sweater.
This is what I try to do with shame. I acknowledge it for the friend it is, sending me a warning to protect myself. And I try to let it be, in the knowledge that it is unnecessary now and that I am already safe.
It doesn’t always work, but it has been effective enough for me to pursue a career in which unadulterated honesty is often necessary. I know that, as a gay man, my honesty helps many others like me deal with this very same shame.
Ten years ago, I was well on my way to becoming a rabbi.
I had been studying in a yeshiva, a religious institution for young Jewish men, for three years. In just another four years, I could officially become Rabbi Joshua Marcus. After that, I’d either teach at a school or lead a congregation or both. I would get married somewhere along the way, and have two or three children, who I would raise in the faith.
But in my fourth year, I slowly came to accept what I’d suspected all along. My life was never going to be that straightforward. I could never be a rabbi or teach Torah. I could never marry a religious woman and raise Jewish children. There was something fundamentally wrong with me.
The problem was that as hard as I tried, I could never condemn the bad guy. The sinners, the enemies of the Jewish people, all were just doing what they knew to do. They believed they were right, just as we believed we were right. That was my logic.
The emotional impetus, however, came from someplace else. I couldn’t condemn the bad guy because I was the bad guy. I was the pervert attracted to some of my peers. I was the asshole who planned to marry a woman just to keep up appearances. I was the sinner, pretending to be a saint.
Gradually, over the next couple of years, the vision I had for my life fell to pieces.
My story, while intensely personal, is far from unique. I came out when I was twenty-five. A few years earlier, I had assumed there was zero chance it would ever happen. Coming out was affirming in many ways, but it didn’t stave off the threat of depression.
Research consistently shows that LGBTQ people suffer from depression at a far higher rate than our heterosexual, cisgender counterparts. Honestly, it shouldn’t be surprising. Nor should it be surprising that the more discrimination, bullying, or familial conflict a queer person faces, the more likely they are to struggle with depression.
Queer youths are four times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual youths. It’s a tragic, all-too-common reality in our communities. There are many reasons for this, beyond the reality that society makes it difficult to be gay. My depression is strongly connected to my struggle with a sense of self. When I realized I was gay, I had to reassess the way I had always expected my life to go. Narratives of identity, shame, and existential crises, are common among LGBT people, and all play a part in queer depression.
Yet depression, and mental illness, in general, does not come up very often in LGBTQ discourse. Inclusivity, representation, pride, and many other (worthy) subjects are far more familiar talking points. And so, while the letters in the LGBTQ acronym itself keep evolving in the hopes that no one is left out – and that can indeed make a palpable difference to the way we view ourselves – most would agree that a disease that is literally killing millions is a more pressing issue.
There are understandable reasons we’re reluctant to talk about mental illness in the queer community. For starters, there’s the pesky fact that homosexuality itself used to be listed as a mental illness in official diagnostic manuals (DSM I – III). It remained there for decades, and although the last vestiges were removed in 1987, we still feel uncomfortable mentioning homosexuality and mental illness in the same sentence. Furthermore, transsexualism remained in the DSM in some form until much more recently.
Moreover, there is still a significant stigma surrounding mental illness in general. Many people, especially people suffering from it, see it as a weakness, rather than a bona fide illness.
So despite homosexuality being far more accepted and understood today, there are still many politicians, religious leaders, communities, and individuals, who speak of it as something maladaptive. They view being gay as a condition that needs to be treated, not something that should simply be accepted.
Queer people are just as likely to see mental illness as a weakness or a fundamental wrongness. Even today, it is way easier for me to tell people I’m gay than that I suffer from depression. Admitting to suffering from depression can feel like a capitulation to the perception of homosexuality as maladaptive. It certainly doesn’t help in our battle against homophobic attitudes.
Unfortunately, rates of mental illness, and depression, in particular, will continue to correlate with homosexuality et al. as long as homophobia exists. And we can’t expect homophobia to disappear entirely in the foreseeable future. What we can do is try to change the perception of mental illness as a weakness or wrongness. Because LGBT people, even those with relatively straightforward coming out stories, inevitably go through a lot.
Some people know from a very young age that they’re gay. My husband had some sort of recognition of it from the age of three. I had no idea until much later on. I remember realizing I was attracted to a guy for the first time at age fifteen, on the school bus on the way to play a hockey match. My reaction to Matty and his abs came as quite a shock to me.
But it was much longer before I finally accepted that I was never going to feel that sort of attraction towards a girl. I was in denial for a very long time, and didn’t dare mention it to anyone until the age of twenty-three. Yes, I always knew there was something “wrong” with me, something which made me different to other boys, but that came through as a general wrongness for most of my life.
In the end, acknowledging to myself that I was gay was the final piece of the puzzle that forced me to change my entire perception of who I was. More than that – it forced me to recognize that I had no idea who I was. The life I had envisioned for myself, as a rabbi with a wife and kids, could no longer take the place of an actual identity.
And that is a terrifying place to be. The despair of feeling like I was no one, and that I never would be anyone, and that it did not matter how hard I tried or how long I tried for, has always been the major theme of my depression narrative. When you have a strong sense of self, life is manageable. If something terrible happens, you can go on with your life. It doesn’t have to make sense, but it doesn’t leave you wondering why you even bother.
But if you don’t have a sense of self, the painful things only hammer home the nail of meaninglessness. Your life right now is pain, and you have no reason to believe it will be anything but. “Good” things are temporary reprieves at best. You hope that one day you’ll be okay, but you can’t even picture how that might look.
Between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-five, I couldn’t envision a future for myself. All I knew was that it wouldn’t be what I had expected, and what the people in my life had expected for me. These days, I still can’t envision my future, but that is because I see too many possibilities. Back then, there were zero possibilities that made any sense at all.
Just as LGBTQ people are very diverse, our experiences are diverse too. My story is only one of many queer depression narratives. For others, depression stems from years of oppression. They’ve been beaten down by the world, allowed no opportunities for a better life, driven to despair. Their world looks bleak because it is bleak.
Still others feel a crippling loneliness and isolation that comes from hiding who they are, denying themselves romantic possibilities, and feeling different in general.
For transgender people, the disconnect between their physiologies and identities is incredibly painful and confusing.
My life has not been immune from some of these experiences, and they have contributed to my depression to some degree. Ultimately, queer depression is attributable to many factors. And so, while there is a lot of variation in our developmental stories, many routes lead to the same outcome.
Narratives tend to simplify complex realities, and the above certainly doesn’t describe my entire experience. While my homosexuality has played a major role in my mental illness, so has my genetic propensity towards depression. My mother, grandmother, and many more individuals on both sides of my family have suffered from depression. Mental illness is also physical, which is why antidepressants have made such a big difference in my life.
Death anxiety and financial stress, among other things, have also been contributors.
However, these factors are much more manageable when there’s not a secret tearing at your very self-perception. They can be handled when you have a sense of self which you can fall back on. A sense of self which sighs and says, “Ok, this sucks but I’ve got this.”
I see mental illness as being as big a part of my queer experience as my sexuality. It’s still the part I find hardest to talk about, that’s harder to just accept as normal. These days, it’s far easier to tell people I’m gay than to tell them I take antidepressants. Few of my friends know about the couple of months I spent in a psychiatric institution a few years back. It still feels important for me to paint pretty pictures about living as a gay man.
But it’s an essential part of my story, without which my life doesn’t make sense. It led me to a sense of self far deeper than my old religious identity. It led me to a life of fulfillment based on sensitivity, meaning, and profound personal experience.
Maybe one day mental illness will no longer correlate with queerness. But that’s not the world I grew up in. My responsibility, to myself and my peers, is to remember that there’s nothing wrong with me, that mental illness is a symptom of humanity rather than a weakness, and that, most of the time, self-care is more important than idealism.
There are many reasons why men have a hard time protecting their mental health. One important factor is that men often struggle to form close bonds with other men. This can leave a lot of men feeling isolated, a painful feeling that can worsen existing mental health issues or contribute to such problems.
Self-care has become quite a trendy term, promoted by mental health bloggers and advocates. Simply put, self-care refers to actions that individuals take in order to take care of themselves. And taking care of yourself means developing, protecting, maintaining, or improving your well-being. According to the mental health charity Mind, positive mental well-being is associated with:
In this way, we can see that self-care is not a luxury but is often essential to keeping yourself stable, functioning well, and happy. Nonetheless, it seems many men avoid self-care. They do not take care of their overall mental well-being in the same manner that women do. This happens for a variety of reasons, the first being that men are simply put off by the notion of self-care and its connotations.
Self-Care is Not Seen as Very Masculine
While it’s important for all of us to take of ourselves, self-care is seen as something effeminate, reserved for women only. This is because the concept has become stereotypically associated with pampering and other activities aimed (mostly) at women, such as spa and beauty treatments. Self-care conjures up images of manicures, getting your nails done, aromatherapy, bubble baths, and facials.
Men may avoid self-care simply because of these connotations. They will avoid talking about self-care because the whole concept itself is seen as ‘girly’. But self-care is so much more than self-indulgence. Of course, treatments such as massage can be effective at alleviating stress, but self-care encompasses many other beneficial activities, including:
Men may automatically avoid taking self-care seriously because of the way it’s wrapped up with pampering. It’s crucial, therefore, to emphasize that self-care stands for taking care of yourself and that there is nothing fundamentally effeminate or emasculating about this. We all have physical and mental health. When we look after both, our lives can improve dramatically.
Certain activities, such as yoga and massage – while practiced and enjoyed by men – seem to be primarily marketed to – and dominated by – women. Men may avoid yoga classes for fear of standing out. It may feel emasculating to carry around a yoga mat. But the truth is that men have been practicing yoga for thousands of years (in fact, those who founded the practice were men).
As well as being a spiritual discipline and involving meditative aspects, yoga is also a form of stretching and exercise associated with improved strength, posture, balance and reduced stress. More men, on the other hand, are starting to see how beneficial yoga is to their well-being, and are starting to care less about whether the practice is perceived as feminine.
It can also be difficult for some men to view massage as being something other than a form of female pampering. Massage studios displaying only images of women may not help in this respect. Nevertheless, massage can effectively help anyone manage stress levels and increase feelings of relaxation. For men who engage in sports or intense physical activity, massage is also a helpful way to treat injuries and related pain. Physical health and mental health are strongly linked. When men don’t take steps to look after their physical health, their mental health suffers as well.
Not Too Many Men Are Promoting Self-Care
Self-care is also seen as for women only because it tends to mainly be women who promote it. This is due to the fact that most mental health bloggers and advocates are women. So looking after your well-being becomes perceived as effeminate. And this perception may be enhanced by the kind of posts you see on social media or on blogs, where self-care is presented in a gender-specific way, perhaps using images of flowers and hearts, or with self-care written in ‘girly’ font or in pink.
It’s no surprise that this kind of content will put many men off from considering the importance of self-care. Men would probably be less likely to avoid self-care if they saw that male mental health advocates, influencers or role models were promoting the concept. Fortunately, men’s magazines are increasingly covering the topic of self-care for men.
Indeed, self-care can be promoted in a way that appeals to men, by promoting self-indulgent activities like getting a fresh haircut and buying new clothes, pushing oneself in a sport or at the gym, and being disciplined. Self-care is more likely to attract men’s attention when it is framed in the form of self-improvement. The psychologist Konstantin Lukin, in writing for Psychology Today, says:
“When you think of the term “self-care,” a woman in a bathrobe lighting candles and painting her toenails might come to mind. While this may seem amazing to some, most men would probably have different desires.
The truth is, men need to work especially hard to take charge of caring for themselves. After all, is there anything more manly than being independent in your ability to care for yourself, not just physically, but emotionally and tangibly?
We also need to change the way we think of “actualized manhood” in modern times. Instead of defining ourselves only in terms of work, productivity, and the overall “get” mentality, we must embrace other parts of ourselves that make us who we are and most importantly, make us happy.”
Lukin recommends different ways for men to practice self-care. He argues that self-care should include:
Certain conceptions of masculinity often prevent men from taking care of their emotional health. For example, many men have a tendency to overwork or to prioritize work over other aspects of their life. This relates to cultural expectations about manhood. The Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CMNI) identifies the primacy of work and the pursuit of status as two masculine norms.
A lot of men hold onto the notion that being work-obsessed and gaining status is central to their masculine identity. Anything that could get in the way of these pursuits – relationships, leisure time, and one’s mental and physical health – has to be sidelined. Working less than your full potential may be seen as a sign of a weak character or lack of determination, ambition, or competitive edge. These expectations about masculinity mean that men are more prone to overwork, stress, burnout, tiredness, isolation, and all the emotional problems that these can lead to – depressed mood, anger, and irritability.
When a man’s identity and self-esteem is so strongly to into his work, he is less likely to take a break when he needs it. He may fail to see how his attitude to work is impacting his relationships and mental health, or – if he does – he will ignore the seriousness of these consequences or play them down. A man may compare himself to his productive male peers and convince himself that any kind of self-care would show weakness; proof that he cannot persevere and cope with challenges.
In modern society, we are addicted to being busy. We have to always be on the move, have events scheduled in, and never rest. But this seems to be a masculine attitude, in particular. Men feel they constantly need to push themselves, take action, and achieve. The idea of slowing down and stopping, for a while, may seem out of the question for many men who pride themselves in their busyness. A lot of men may fear that self-care may give other people the impression that they’re lazy and unambitious. As a man, you may worry about male peers or potential romantic partners viewing you in this way.
If we can emphasize that self-care is not about being passive, but about taking action to solve a problem, then this could help many men to take it seriously. In the grand scheme of things, self-care practices allow you to rejuvenate and be the best version of yourself, be that at work or in your family life. Well-being is inextricably linked to productivity. And this is why some of the most successful men on the planet make sure to put time aside for self-care.
Self-care can also involve seeking support from others, such as friends, family members, or a professional counselor or therapist. We can often look out for our well-being by having a heart-to-heart with someone and getting stuff off our chest.
However, many men strongly identify with the masculine norm of self-reliance. The result is that these men do not seek help from a support network, as to do so would feel unmanly. Real men, they believe, should be able to handle all of their problems on their own, without any outside input, help, advice, support, or guidance.
How Men Deal With Emotional Hardship
Self-care is of paramount importance when we try to get through difficult times in one piece. Emotional hardship calls for self-kindness, as well as positive actions, habits, and relationships. But a lot of men feel expected to deal with emotional pain in a narrow and unproductive way. When experiencing distress, they might tell themselves to just grin and bear it, suck it up, deal with it, man up, grow a pair, and stop being such a wimp.
Many men believe that the manly response to pain is to push through it, bottle it up, ignore it, deny it, or diminish it, rather than fully accept that pain and take steps to alleviate it. Being stoic, all the time, and having a stiff upper lip when it comes to emotional hardship is seen, generally, as a sign of strength.
But actually, this approach to hardship tends to worsen pain. It prevents you from learning how to cope in an effective and sustainable way. Indeed, staying silent about personal issues is one of the biggest threats to men’s mental health. In contrast, self-care is about taking an open and honest stance towards difficulties in your life because this is the most effective approach. It works to lessen pain and help you get on with your life.
The way that we are taught to deal with stress and difficult situations comes from our parents. A lot of men today simply did not grow up with fathers who know how to look after their emotional well-being. Many men today weren’t raised by a role model who placed a high importance on self-care. Our fathers – our primary male role models – instead focused the conversation more on work, money, and success.
When a father communicates to his son that working hard, financial success, and getting on the property ladder is what matters the most, this is what he will remember as he grows up. These aspects of life are important, of course. However, if they are not balanced with lessons on self-care, then it becomes difficult to lead a full and happy life.
The Role as Breadwinner
Even though there is more gender equality than ever in Westernised countries, a lot of men still find themselves under pressure to be the sole (or primary) earner in the household. Men feel an expectation to be a provider, which means making sure they are earning as much as possible and protecting their job security. Being able to provide for your family and offer them security is obviously a noble thing to do; yet taken to its extreme, it can become unhealthy.
In light of this discussion, it would be helpful to reframe self-care in a way that speaks to modern men. For example, we can think of strength and self-reliance as an individual’s ability and resourcefulness to take care of him or herself. There is no reason for men to feel emasculated by the desire and decision to practice self-care. Knowing how to handle the emotional dimension of your life is a sign of maturity. If you cannot take care of yourself, then you will find it more difficult to handle the inevitable struggles of life. When you prioritize your well-being, on the other hand, you give yourself the best chance of growing as a man and staying happy in the long-term.
When discussing issues relating to men’s mental health, one area that isn’t touched on a great deal is male friendships. If you suffer from a mental health issue, having a support network can be key to your recovery. Your support network is made up of people who you can trust and rely on for help. Friendships are often key people in your support network. The problem with many modern male friendships, however, is that they are not so commonly characterized by the kind of openness exhibited in female friendships. We have forgotten the importance of the bromance.
As a man, you can have friends who you’ve known all your life, who you’ve shared your best life experiences with; yet when it comes down to hardship and personal issues, there isn’t so much sharing going on. It will be helpful to first examine the nature of male friendships in more detail and why they may not provide a man with what he desperately needs during a difficult time. This article will also look back at how male friendships used to be, as they weren’t always about men hiding their vulnerability and tender emotions.
The relationship between male friendships and men’s mental health should make us pause for thought. After all, one of the reasons that men face unique challenges with their mental health is that they often struggle to open up. If we can recognize that there is nothing inherently ‘male’ about this lack of openness (since male friendships have changed over time), then we can start to see what a more healthy friendship might look like. There is nothing lame about a bromance. In fact, a close, emotionally intimate relationship with a male friend is invaluable.
Men nowadays have a hard time forming deep, meaningful bonds with each other. Men tend to resist telling male friends about their emotional struggles, which can create a less intimate friendship. Furthermore, if a man does feel a deep connection to a male friend, he may hide these feelings of intimacy, for fear of how it may be perceived. Many men feel that open conversations and emotional intimacy are awkward, embarrassing, and inappropriate. Dr. Roger Gould, a psychiatrist based in New York, highlights:
“It is true that men do not easily show intimacies and revelations of strong emotional responses. It does not mean the relationships are not filled with trust, deep regard and respect, fun, and sometimes crisis support. Men relate to other men quite well, just not the same as women relate to other women.”
The psychiatrist Dr. John Jacobs points out how male friendships like this develop. He says:
“I think the template for male bonding is set by late adolescence. And the template is probably based on their relationship with their father, and how they viewed their fathers’ friendships.”
A man may have something to get off his chest and may intuitively think about how he should tell one of his male friends about it. But there are many thoughts that get in the way of this desire to be open and connected with another man. And these unproductive thoughts are borne out of notions of modern masculinity.
A lot of men feel they have to live up to certain standards of masculinity. Machismo, the sense of being ‘manly’, self-reliant, and tough, may contribute to a man’s level of confidence and self-esteem. So any behavior that is thought of running counter to his macho identity is stigmatized and repressed.
Men may view their mental health struggles as a sign of weakness. And for fear of appearing weak in front of their male friends, they will keep their pain bottled up. Male friends will often try to prove their bravado to each other and have fun with each other based on competitive feelings, dominance, and success. This may involve putting your friends down or mocking them in a light-hearted way.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with bonding in this way. It’s not necessarily mean-spirited. But if this way of interacting with male friends is the norm, it may prevent men from expressing themselves. As a man, you don’t want to be seen as struggling, as you may fear judgment from your friends that you’re unmanly, a failure, and unable to cope.
However, despite the fact that male friends may act macho around each other, this doesn’t mean that genuine pain will be used against you. It may feel incredibly difficult to open up to a close male friend about your personal issues, but once you do, bravado goes out the window and a real, heartfelt conversation can take place. It would be very unlikely for a male friend to not show any care about your struggles. And if a ‘friend’ did actually judge you for your vulnerability, this could throw into question how genuine the friendship really is – or perhaps indicate how uncomfortable he is about emotional expression.
Men also want to be seen as completely self-reliant, able to sort out all of their problems on their own by just ‘pushing through’, ‘dealing with it’, and ‘manning up’. Strongly identifying with self-reliance is another reason that men will feel cagey and hesitant about opening up. They believe it would be emasculating to be supported by another man, as this dynamic would prove who the real man is, the one who isn’t struggling and isn’t calling out for help or advice.
Male friends may also fail to form bromances with each other because this kind of friendship is often based on the expression of tender emotions. In order to create a deep, close bond with another man, you need to be honest about your feelings, talk to him in times of need, as well as be receptive to your friend’s emotional life. This requires compassion. However, the problem is that many men do not perceive the expression of compassion, kindness, care, and warmth as very macho. In fact, it is seen as effeminate.
The counselor Zach Rawlings emphasizes that the only two acceptable emotions a man can express are anger and apathy. So when male friends are talking to each other about personal issues, the true nature or extent of the problem can be masked by the limited emotional scope in which it is expressed. Being irritable, aggressive, angry, or apathetic may not communicate to a male friend how deeply hurt and sad you actually are. These restrictions in emotional expression can make it difficult to form a genuine bromance.
In addition, men can be put off forming bromances due to worries about being labeled ‘gay’. The Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CMNI) is a measure used by psychologists to figure out how closely men identify with masculine values, roles, and behaviors. And one of the 11 norms it outlines is disdain for homosexuals, which means that a sign of masculinity is the shaming or stigmatization of homosexuality. This is why boys and men will often use ‘gay’ as a slur, equating homosexuality with weakness, effeminacy, and unmanliness. So even though men may want to bond deeply with other men, masculine culture may unwittingly convince them that this is wrong or too embarrassing.
Male friendships weren’t always so closed off and emotionally distant. Indeed, the history of traditional masculinity provides some useful insight into this discussion. For example, ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle spoke highly of platonic friendships, those loving relationships that involve an emotional connection without sexual intimacy. Ancient stories of ‘heroic friendships’ (e.g. David and Jonathan in the Bible, Achilles and Patroclus in the Illiad) idealized a relationship between men that is also based on intense emotions.
Emotionally deep friendships between men were the norm in the Western world for a long time. As a case in point, photos from the 19th century show American male friends being comfortable in their intimacy with each other. Affection and care between male friends were totally normal. Men could be physically intimate in a non-sexual way, holding hands, hugging, putting them arms around each other, and this was seen as a natural way of showing affection. It wasn’t a sign of any homosexual desires. Intense male friendships also existed in the 19th century because there wasn’t a lot of interaction between the sexes, not until marriage, at least. Men, therefore, sought out their need for physical affection and emotional bonding in other men.
So how did the nature of male relationships change so dramatically over time? Well, author E. Anthony Rotundo sheds some light on this shift in his fascinating book American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. He points out that in the 20th century, many politicians and religious leaders were arguing that homosexuality was incompatible with manhood. Then in the 50s, homosexuality became associated with communism, which was perceived as the greatest evil.
Over time, homophobia increased in the US. Men’s fear, prejudice, and hatred towards gay people made homophobia a masculine trait, with men constantly feeling pressured to prove their straightness and denounce any behavior that could be remotely perceived as homosexual in nature. Men in America started to lose their closeness. They were afraid that having intimate relationships with other men would lead people to judge or label them as being ‘gay’ or ‘queer’.
Rotund claims that the Industrial Revolution encouraged men to view each other as competitors, rather than potential friends. He also underlines that male friendships in the 20th century changed because men became increasingly mobile in the pursuit of work, which made it hard to settle down and form strong friendships with other men. Moreover, industrialization was accompanied by increased leisure time. And with their free time, men began playing more sports and engaging in more outdoor activities. Men’s relationships with each other then became centered on work and these leisurely pursuits, rather than based on emotional companionship.
Men today who can bond well with other men, or who are trying to do so, can still find it challenging to form a bromance. With the pressures of work and family, you might expect men to seek advice from their male friends. But it’s hard to break old habits. Men have grown up avoiding talking about personal issues, so it takes a lot of effort and discomfort to get used to doing so. Modern men have learned to keep emotions hidden and can’t shake off the belief that sensitivity is a sign of weakness. Also, if a man is busy with his career and family life, it may seem like too much of a time commitment to work on emotional intelligence and find some bromance in his life.
However, we are seeing a change in the cultural narrative around male friendships. Interests in bromances have been reignited and they are starting to lose their negative connotations. The film I Love You, Man (2009), starring Paul Rudd (as Peter) and Jason Segal (as Sydney), tells the story of a fiancé trying to find a best man for his wedding. It’s a brilliant tale of bromance and it communicates the important value of close, male friendships. The psychologist Jeremy Clyman, notes:
“…on another level, this bromantic comedy astutely examines the nature of meaningful friendships, which, as it turns out, is a critical component of mental health. In our culture, the value of friendship is not appraised. It is either overlooked as a thing that falls by the wayside as one ages or dismissed as a hobby that one either does or does not enjoy. But we know from research that friendship is a significant buffer to mental illness. In fact, the presence of a single friend can make a world of difference.”
“In the end, we see that friendship has transformed Peter into a healthier version of himself. The friendship instills many facets of mental health: self-exploration (Sydney questions Peter’s motives for marriage), overcoming fears (Sydney increases Peter’s professional exposure as a real estate agent), finding balance (Peter’s sense of masculinity increases) and gaining self-efficacy (Peter learns that he can make friends).”
Indeed, men are increasingly appreciating the benefits of a bromance. And the changes in attitudes towards masculinity are helping to make it easier to form bromances. For example, a study published by University College London (UCL) show that a majority of men value loyalty and honesty more than being macho or having a stiff upper lip. Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done. There are many men who crave emotional bonding with their friends, yet feel held back in being able to achieve that.
It may be difficult for men to overcome the pressures of masculinity. But the tide does seem to be turning on this issue. Bromances are on the rise. And in terms of men’s mental health, this is a sign of progress. After all, openness and close friendships play a crucial role in protecting our well-being.