Emotional Expression and its Contribution to Men’s Mental Health
Most of us were saddened this past week to hear the news of Anthony Bourdain’s passing, not only because he meant so much to those who loved him, including his fans (of which I’m one), but due to how happy his life seemed. He was brilliant, handsome, compassionate, eloquent, and talented; and yet, he suffered, his distress proceeding in silence. Anthony found it challenging to share his sorrow with the rest of the world; partially, this was due to his celebrity persona, but I believe that his reluctance was also heavily associated with his internalized image of manhood, despite how empathic and compassionate he was.
I’ve written several articles on intimacy and authenticity, detailing how necessary it was for us, as humans, to connect, and share our inner-lives, with each other; unfortunately, this endeavor is often incredibly daunting for straight men. It’s a relatively rare feat for men to let their guard down and openly express their sadness and hurt, regardless of our compassionate they are; in my clinical practice, the men I meet are frequently terrified of not being masculine enough, essentially, of being human beings. They fear rejection and subsequent abandonment, by their associates, their friends, and even their wives. So, they resolve to encase their emotions in bubbles of shallow masculinity, living out their daily lives feeling isolated and misunderstood, symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder.
Depression, as a clinical syndrome, strikes where we can least spot it (unlike a physical, medical illness), beyond the exterior facade of one’s apparently well-adjusted self; therefore, its treatment is predicated on vulnerability and a willingness to expose one’s deepest thoughts. Men usually tremble at the idea, erroneously perceiving exposure as harmful and antithetical to their core sense of happiness. So, many males continue to hold onto an outdated, and unrealistic, concept of masculinity, despite our collective progress. The stigma surrounding mental illness significantly contributes to the high suicide rates among men, and sustains the low probability that they’ll seek treatment or even tell a friend about their emotional suffering. I seldom see stories about the internal struggles of men who desperately wish to be understood and helped, despite the pervasiveness of news stories that cover social media addiction and the subsequent spike in depression.
Addressing Mental Health Issues in Men
Intimacy, which is the experience of exposure to and acceptance by another, has significant benefits; it contributes to the reduction of the sense of existential and social isolation and, most significantly for this article, getting the help that’s so indispensable to the restoration of emotional well-being. So, I’ve decided to write this article to implore men everywhere to become more open with their wives, their friends, and especially with their therapists! The benefits of intimacy don’t stop there! Research has shown that processing, and experiencing, emotions are essential to overall well-being. We tend to think that suppression works, that we won’t be sad if we pretend not to be, but a growing area of research indicates the inaccuracy of that belief; in reality, the opposite is true: suppression prolongs and intensifies sadness. The more of our emotions, and particularly our softer and negative ones, that we allow ourselves to feel, the better we’ll feel in the long-term. Accepting that sadness, fear, and hurt are inextricable parts of life helps us to live better lives and helps the people around us feel more connected to us, which contributes to our increased moods.
Those who love us want to help, but they can’t if we don’t let them in. Rather than the expected rejection accompanying a failure of some antiquated version of manhood, our loved ones will love and admire us for the strength manifested through vulnerability. Someone close to me once told me that vulnerability was a strength; that truth appears more evident to me each day I treat my patients, as it takes great courage to exhibit one’s flaws. Those flaws are greatly exaggerated in individuals struggling with depression, and they need to be challenged and altered with a mental health professional; but that can only occur through the willingness and courage to be oneself.
Emotional suppression is linked to depression in men; we know that emotions tend to return with a vengeance when they’re suppressed, often presenting themselves as numbness and anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. And emotional suppression is linked with a sense of social isolation, perpetuating a vicious cycle of interpersonal disconnection and further need for suppression. I’ve struggled with intimacy for the majority of my life because I was raised with a flawed conception of what it meant to be a man. I had a stepfather who criticized me for being physically and emotionally weak when I was a kid; I continually have to fight the interior consequences of exterior forces, and hope to help other men, like me, do the same. The battle isn’t external, as it doesn’t comprise of becoming more masculine; in reality, it encompasses the imperative to rid ourselves of an ancient idea, one which blocks us from fully loving others, and as importantly, from fully loving ourselves.
This article is dedicated to Anthony Bourdain. Parts Unknown was an inspiring show.
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