Being a man in the 21st century – Depression and masculinity

For men of today the pressure is mounting. The call has been sounded for the rising up of a new kind of man, labeled variously as sensitive, new age, emotionally intelligent, in touch with his feminine side, articulate of feelings and emotionally attuned. This shift has been a growing trend in contemporary cultural and social values for a while now, but what exactly does it mean, and how does it translate to the man on the street? The various needs which are pressed upon us as men of a particular kind of world, to adapt and assimilate in relation to a shifting social atmosphere, confuse us from time to time. In some ways the situation of being compelled to catch on to the de rigueur is in itself simple enough to navigate. See what’s out there, see who ascribes to it, and assimilate if it feels authentic for you, if it fits. Toss it away if it doesn’t. When it comes to clothes, music, ideologies, people and places, this seems cut ‘n dried enough. Moving with the times isn’t all that difficult. But what about when it concerns to the self, that mysterious domain of partly known and partly elusive inner experience? What is to be done when the social imperative to rejuvenate calls into question our experience as emotional selves; as emotional men? There is of course no way to generalize about these things. The only truth about the contemporary relationship which men have with their own feelings is that that relationship is formed inside the social, cultural, familial, gender-based and political context which each person comes from. In various ways men have been granted far more permission to think about and communicate their inner emotional experience. We have been extended the invitation to become feelings beings, and we’ve even been told that, amongst other things, this may make us more attractive. Even though this has been a gradual process shaped by the shifts in the social order, it feels somehow as if the movement from being emotionally staunch, invulnerable and unbreakable, to being sensitive, attuned and emotionally switched-on, feels like being  forced out into the open, when we are not quite ready for it.

I write this article as a psychotherapist, who works with a variety of different kinds of people with different kinds of struggles. Some of the work that I do is with men, both individually and in groups, who are trying in their own ways to engage with the quandary of living a life that carries an inherited legacy of the absolute importance of emotional toughness. This legacy weighs heavily on our attempts as men to reestablish ourselves as emotionally liberated. It is the weight that hunched our father’s and grandfather’s shoulders, as they spent their lives staunching the flow of feeling, for the sake of living up to the social imperative to soldier on. We are faced with a duality of voices, which ask us to soften, but order us to nut up. Voices which invite us to collapse a little, but order us to be a man. The link between standards of masculinity and emotionality has been set in stone, and the consequence, as it seems, is that men continue to be bound by the old adage “boys don’t cry”, even though no one really says that anymore, hopefully.

Considering this struggle, it seems that men are still confronted with a situation of being limited in our opportunities for emotional experience and expression. The space for feeling is still a confinement, with there being few possibilities for talking about and demonstrating what we feel and how we feel it. One of the ways in which this comes through most strongly seems to relate to the language that we are allowed to use when talking about our internal worlds. The language of feeling for men, bound as it is to standards of masculinity, is one of limited vocabulary. We have certain words which we can use as often as we like. We can say of ourselves that we are stressed, that we are angry, tired, ticked off. We can acknowledge when we are struggling to asleep, but when it is feelings of sadness of loneliness that keep us up at night, we may feel the need to hide this. We can say that we need to blow off some steam. We can even, on occasion say that we’re not happy with our lives, that we are discontent or dissatisfied with the way things are. But can we ever be vulnerable? Can we express feeling overwhelmed? Is it possible for us to freely and safely say that we feel fragile or frightened, or that we are lost? Oftentimes it’s not possible, and the consequence is that much of our inner experience goes unsaid, unrecognized and unattended to. One of the implications of this, as it seems, is a pervasive, low-level experience of depression, as our emotional experience continues to be locked away, and we continue to try and cope with an unsatisfying and stilted emotional and interpersonal life.

It is a hopeful sign that men are finding it more and more acceptable to work through their struggles in therapy, and I have often found that such work can be deeply facilitative of the kind of growth towards emotional liberation which this article talks about. The struggle still exists out there in the world, where men struggle to feel able to experience and express feeling, either because of their own self-imposed sanctions, or because of their expectations of judgement by others. Either way, there is room for a much needed change and growth.

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