“Holding onto that sh*t is exhausting!”—vulnerability, masculinity and men's therapy
The expression, “carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders” is not an aspirational one. This saying comes from the Greek myth of Atlas, who was sentenced to carry the world as a punishment. It is not a sign of strength to carry everything without help, it’s only a matter of time until you’re tired and are weakened by the (figurative) weight of it. Yet, along the way, this is exactly what’s come to represent a desired representation of masculinity—unwavering abilities, individual strength and resilience, and silence.
Over the last couple of years and very recently, I’ve noticed a marked increase in the number of men reaching out seeking help through therapy. To be frank and simple: it’s because holding onto that shit is exhausting!
It doesn't have to be masculinity vs. vulnerability
It’s hard for everyone to ask for help. But, the idea of asking for help creates intense vulnerability for the man who has been attempting to do his best impression of “classic masculinity.”
When “classic masculinity” means never needing help because of how strong and capable you are, “classic vulnerability” becomes the other side of the spectrum—you only need help because you were not strong enough in the first place, it’s a failure. It requires him to admit that in reality, no man is a mountain and everybody needs help sometimes. If he was ridiculed or punished for asking for help in the past, he will be even more reticent to let others know he may be struggling. This often leads to men secretly seeking solace in addictive behaviours such as drinking, smoking, etc.
Men have been societally and often culturally conditioned that to ask for help or need help is the same as being too weak to do it yourself. Often when we see the stereotypical “strong and capable man” in movies or other forms of entertainment, it’s a one guy vs. the world sort of scenario where, through strength or sheer determination, one “dude” powerhouses through all his problems without burdening others with them.
More men are seeking therapy now — what’s changing?
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced men, like many others, to spend more time alone with themselves. Sometimes this extra time shines a light on things they may have been avoiding. Another key reason is that the de-stigmatization of mental health in general has made therapy more accessible and, more importantly, more acceptable for people including men.
There is one example from the start of 2021 that I think really highlights the growing change in the global consciousness around men.
Following the horrendous events in the United States on January 6, 2021, Arnold Schwarzenegger posted a video on social media. For an ex-politician, I expected the message to be primarily political or more generally outward facing to the people of America. Instead, in the opening two minutes he publicly shared a painful childhood memory of his father, who suffered from alcoholism, frequently abusing him and his family. Arnold spoke not only of the physical pain his family (including his father) had endured, but also of their emotional pain.
While no person is a singularly ideal role model, including Arnold Shwarzenegger, I would be hard-pressed (no pun intended) to think of a more famous archetype of “classic masculinity.” Yet, there he was talking about emotional pain, childhood trauma, and the effects they have on us as a society. That moment encapsulated the shift I had already been observing in my practice, where more and more men had been coming in and feeling comfortable enough to admit they had been struggling with things in their lives.
What issues are men struggling with?
The most common issues in therapy for men are very similar to the issues that everyone else brings in—anxiety, depression, and relationship issues with others and with themselves. What often distinguishes men from some of my other clients is that, often, this is the first time they have shared their deeply personal issues with anyone in their lives. Sometimes I work with men for over a year before there is a session wherein they allow themselves to cry. I’ve certainly been that man as a client myself in the past as well.
For men who may be considering therapy but feel unsure, or are feeling uncomfortable, or are skeptical it will work, my message is: it does work.
Simply put, there is no amount of avoiding, denial, anger, or frustration that will ever (by itself) allow you to heal and feel better. However, therapy not only is proven to help you feel better, it also feels good. Sharing the problems in our lives and being heard by a neutral party who validates what you’re going through can be immensely liberating, even more-so if what you are sharing has been a closely-guarded secret for years.
Having the right therapist to help you release all of what you’re carrying and support you to make the changes you actually want to make is an incredibly empowering feeling.
Vulnerability is not on the opposite spectrum of strength and masculinity—they are intertwined.
Jupiter Vaughan is a Registered Psychotherapist who has been practicing in Toronto for nearly a decade. Jupiter holds certificates in CBT and IFS from Adler and IFSCA.