When it comes to males sharing their personal issues with a friend, family or therapist, there seem to be large barriers for them to overcome in order to seek help with the problem. For example, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in a car, even when hopelessly and utterly lost, is incapable of stopping and asking a stranger for directions.
Men always feel they should know how to get to their destination and are embarrassed when they don’t. It’s no different to how men face up to, or more accurately, don’t face up to their individual personal issues.
Why do men have trouble acknowledging they have a problem, be it physical and emotional problems, or behavioural disorders; why do they have difficulty in discussing their feelings and; why do they find it so hard to ask for a hand to lift them out of the water.
My name is Geoffrey Thomas and I was a Samaritan volunteer for 15 years, no wiser for the experience and no closer to providing a definitive answer as to why so many men would choose root canal treatment in preference to calling a help-line or seeking counselling with their personal issues. The only provenance I have is that I’m a man.
We feel guilty even admitting we have a problem because we know there is someone else with a bigger problem, yet rationally we know that unhappiness is not a comparative exercise.
There’s an Arabic proverb that runs “I complained I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet”. However, not being able to afford a pair of shoes is dispiriting, even when you know there are people who can’t walk. It is as though we suspect compassion is a finite currency that should only be spent on the most deserving.
For us friendships, especially male friendships are a double-edged sword. One of the things that stop us from seeking help with our personal issues by calling a help-line or making an effort to find a therapist is a nagging fear that if we had real friends, then we wouldn’t need to talk to a stranger on the phone or even worse, pay someone to listen while we self-indulgently discuss what’s going on and what’s going wrong.
Saint Augustine said, “it was pride that turned angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels”. Sixteen hundred years later men are still stupidly, pig-headedly and just occasionally, touchingly proud. More than anything it is our misplaced pride that draws us away from reaching out.
But there are signs that things may be changing. At their best, to my eyes at least, the generation that will shape the future give no oxygen to blind prejudice and value humility as much as my generation build walls to hide their personal issues and leads with our pride.
How To Help When It Comes To Men Sharing Their Personal Issues
The Good Men Project have some useful tips on how to help a man who needs to talk and several of their suggestions are very relevant for anyone a guy might ask for help, not just therapists. Here are 10 suggestions below, in no particular order:
- 1/ Acknowledge that it can be difficult for a guy to confide in someone or ask for help when he’s having problems. Holly Sweet says many guys would rather have a root canal than talk to someone about their problems.
- 2/ Don’t assume he’s good at talking about his problems, even though he wants to talk.
- 3/ Give him time to gather his thoughts and find the right words. This may mean your conversation is punctuated by silences that are longer than usual; that’s okay.
- 4/ Don’t assume he knows what to expect from this type of conversation; if the thing he’s talking about is complicated, you may need to be explicit about the fact that the two of you can’t deal with all of it in a single conversation and that you’ll need to talk more at another time.
- 5/ He may not know specifically what to do, but he probably wants to. This is most obvious if the problem is about a relationship (family, work, romantic, etc.). Given that we do a pretty poor job of teaching boys and men how relationships work, he may not have a good idea of how to actually start a conversation about Topic X or what to do to “re-establish trust,” for example.
- 6/ He may not follow your advice or come back for round two, even though you both know it was good advice and further conversation would be helpful. There are many possible reasons, from the difficulty of asking for help, to concerns that he may become overly reliant on your advice (and thus lose his independence), to his decision to pursue a different approach, to … you name it. There’s also the possibility that you will be—or are being—seen as some type of threat to other important people in his life. Whatever happens, try not to take it personally; the lack of a second conversation probably isn’t about you.
- 7/ Don’t assume he’s a stereotypical guy. Even though he may fit some parts of the stereotype, he probably doesn’t fit it 100%. And even if he does, there are lots of things the stereotype doesn’t really address, such as feelings about children or parents.
- 8/ Don’t expect him to use feeling words—even “happy” or “sad”—with any regularity. In general, we teach boys not to think about their feelings, not to understand their own behaviour in terms of emotions, discuss their own personal issues, and not to think about other people in emotional terms, so he might not be comfortable with those words. If you desperately need to hear those terms, that’s your problem, not his.
- 9/ In general, and especially for therapists, don’t assume you—or the broader “we”—know everything there is to know about male socialization. Although the research was biased towards men until about 1980, it tended to ignore issues unique to men. In the last three decades, there’s been much more female-specific than male-specific writing. As a result, we don’t have a good overview of what male development or behaviour looks like in the current day; it’s certainly changed from where it was forty years. Get educated (and keep reading The Good Men Project).
- 10/ Be aware of your own feelings, especially if you’re offering help on a regular basis. In the therapy world, this is countertransference: a therapist’s feelings regarding their client. Although we typically think about this in terms of romantic or sexual attraction—and there have been plenty of movies about that—you might find that he reminds you of a family member, co-worker, friend, etc., for good or for bad. If that’s happening, you need to recognize it for what it is and find a way to deal with it.