When it comes to psychological well-being our culture now encourages men to ‘talk about their feelings’. This seems to suggest that the barriers to men getting the help that they need arise from their unwillingness to ask for that help or engage properly with it when they do get it.
Is this analysis flawed? Does it ignore structural factors (such as the lack of male psychologists and mental health professionals) and ingrained cognitive biases which point to a reality that we actually might not care that much about men, and tend to see them as problems when sad, depressed, or angry. Might we struggle to have empathy for men when they are distressed, especially if that distress comes across badly.
Men expressing their feelings can disastrously backfire, when those feelings are expressed to the wrong audience, at the wrong time or in the wrong way. If we tend to see men as inherently privileged or entitled, then we might not view them with much sympathy or struggle to see them as genuinely in need of help or attention. We might see their expression of distress as an expression of their entitlement.
My own experience bears this out. The two most distressing periods of my adult life partly emerged from ‘talking about my feelings’. The problem seems to arise when you express those feelings towards someone who has become at least indifferent towards you, or has come to actively dislike you, or even see you as an enemy.
Self-awareness and the silent treatment
One might think that such folly should be obvious to the person engaging in it. That when you’re behaving in such a stupid way, that it should be easy to stop. Sometimes it’s not easy to have insight when you’re in the middle of such a situation, when engaging in self-destructive behaviour. Your self-esteem can quickly plummet when you’re ignored, which in my experience was the usual outcome of such expression. You can become increasingly anxious and uncertain, you can rapidly spiral to a very bad place.
The ambiguity of a silent response can be psychological torture – you don’t know where you stand, you don’t understand what the other person is thinking, everything remains unresolved, and it usually made me feel incredibly bad. The power of ignoring someone else can be profound. Silence can be used as a way to punish someone, it can be cruel and hostile. When I followed the modern script and was openly vulnerable, I didn’t get a good response. It invariably felt like I was being treated with indifference, contempt, and disgust.
Our different lived experiences of the same communication
The problem is partly that when you express yourself, you can ‘know what you have given to someone, but you cannot know what they have received’. When receiving emotional expression we can be ungenerous to the intentions of another, and we can sometimes presume or project the worst onto other people. This is simply a reality of human life.
When I reached out, sometimes in very obvious distress, it seemed to be automatically seen as being in some way motivated by feelings of ‘entitlement’ to attention. It was as if a desire to be treated with dignity, respect and decency was somehow entitled. This is not the recipe for good outcomes.
In the worse case scenario, when unwanted, communication can be seen as, or described to others, including the police, as, harassment. The reality of the senders intention, or even the objective content of the communication can then quickly and horrifically become irrelevant to almost everyone, usually apart from the (now extremely distressed) sender. The consequences can then quickly become very serious and can even destroy lives.
Rather than advise or encourage men to express themselves more, do we need to be more honest about reality, the lived experience of men, and human nature? Perhaps we’re not as kind as we like to see ourselves. Perhaps we should avoid giving men bad advice that can lead to unwise behaviour and quickly to very dark places with bad consequences.
Rob Walker is a member of the Male Psychology Network.