For Movember — Men’s Health Awareness Month — we’re looking at why men can struggle to talk about their emotions, including some less obvious reasons…
'Men don’t talk about their feelings’.
A stereotype? Well, up to a point. Because it’s also true that some men can be open, upfront and articulate about their emotions.
But the fact is that in general, men find it a lot harder to talk about what’s going on inside them than women. For instance, 2021 research by men’s mental health charity Movember found that 60% of men don’t share how they are feeling with anyone.
And this is no small issue, as not being able to talk about what’s wrong can lead to isolation, anger, distorted thinking, addictive behaviours, spiralling life problems, broken relationships and mental health issues such as depression. In some cases, it can even lead to suicide.
In fact, in 2021 three quarters of deaths by suicide in England and Wales were male. And alarmingly, the biggest killer of men aged 18-45 in the UK is suicide, while in 2019 the rate for men in England and Wales hit a 20-year high. Across the world, 60 men are lost to suicide every 60 minutes. And although there can be a variety of reasons, feeling emotionally isolated can definitely aggravate suicidal thoughts.
Yet the question is, why do so many men struggle to express their emotions? In fact, the reasons might be a lot more complex and diverse than you think. Here are seven of them:
The ideal of the ‘stoic and silent’ male is one that remains strong in our society, showing up in everything from sporting heroes to superhero movies. In fact, it’s more than just a stereotype — in many ways, it is a powerful cultural expectation that men should somehow bottle problems up, be strong and ‘just get on with things’. That somehow, expressing any kind of vulnerable emotion is ‘weak’. As a result, men can be socialised from an early age into not showing their emotions.
And this is especially the case with older men, as well as those from religious or cultural backgrounds that have fixed or traditional ideas about masculinity. Crossing that huge social and cultural barrier to open up about your feelings can seem immense — it might even trigger deep embarrassment or shame.
Related to the above, many men see it as their role in life to be strong for everyone else, especially in families. Loved ones might also come to expect this, meaning that space is never really opened up for a man to express his fears or emotions.
Whether it’s being the main breadwinner, supporting the family through a crisis or remaining stoic in the face of ongoing challenges, it can be all too easy for people to assume that the ‘strong one’ is doing fine. There may also be a fear that family dynamics could be undermined if the person holding things together suddenly opens up and shares that they can’t cope. This means that men might be discouraged from doing so, both directly and indirectly.
It’s still much more common for women to get together to discuss emotional distress, meaning that they learn from quite a young age that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. This means that they are more familiar with the process of opening up to others, inviting in different perspectives and working out solutions together.
However, if a man has lacked these experiences then he might start to see his problems as insurmountable. He could get so trapped in his own headspace that issues could build and build until they are all-consuming. In his isolation, he might even end up developing unhelpful cognitive patterns, including catastrophising or black-and-white thinking. As a result, challenges might seem insurmountable — and at times, could actually get worse if they are not dealt with, for instance, debt. Eventually, he might simply feel that there’s ‘no point’ in talking about something that ‘can’t be fixed’.
Sadly, many men can’t articulate their emotions to themselves, never mind anyone else. So it’s not always the case that they feel ashamed but don’t want to share it — they might not even be aware that ‘ashamed’ is what they are feeling. This is because many men lack ‘emotional literacy’, which in essence means being aware — and being able to name — the various feelings that you are having. But why is this the case?
Generally, because men are so often expected to put on a brave face, they can end up totally disconnected from their feelings, treating them as inconveniences or as just too painful to process. So they might know that they are feeling ‘out of sorts’, but they might not have much practice in recognising and naming that feeling as ‘grief’, ‘fear’ or ‘anger’.
They might also struggle to identify or reflect on where certain feelings are coming from. For instance, if they feel angry then what is the actual source? And even if they know that it’s due to their annoying boss, they might not link it to the self-critical thoughts that the interactions are generating, or their boss reminding them of their narcissistic parent.
This is why it’s so hard for some men to open up about their feelings — because they haven’t developed the ability to name those feelings in the first place. Instead, they might have fallen into the pattern of burying their emotions, or acting them out through anger and aggression, or escaping from them with addictive or compulsive behaviours.
For many men, their first group of friends tends to be male. This can set a pattern of communication norms that last a lifetime, even after they start dating or making friends with women. In other words, they might never have become familiar with the easy back and forth discussion around emotions that many women take for granted.
Because when groups of men get together for socialising and activities, the topic of feelings might not necessarily come up. Instead, shared interests like sports or movies, casual chit-chat or witty banter might be more likely topics of pub conversation.
And when a man is in a pattern of only discussing ‘safer’ subjects with his social group, it can feel hard — impossible even — to suddenly make the switch into talking about feelings. Especially if he has tried to do so before and noticed that it makes his friends uncomfortable.
Going through distressing events or circumstances in childhood can make it very hard to open up and be vulnerable in adulthood.
For instance, if a man comes from a background of neglect, abandonment or abuse (physical, mental, emotional or sexual) then opening up can actually feel dangerous. And sometimes, this feeling of danger might be outside of his conscious awareness, especially in the case of buried or ‘normalised’ trauma. Instead, feeling emotionally cornered could trigger his ‘Four F’ threat response, causing him to shut down, become confrontational or simply walk away. Yet he might not fully understand why he is acting in this way.
Yet it could be because, as a child, he was ignored or disciplined for expressing feelings. Or he might have had a bullying sibling who mocked his distress. Or, in the case of sexual abuse, might have been warned not to tell a soul and threatened with dire consequences if he did.
Or if he had emotionally disconnected parents then he might have found that his tears simply went unnoticed or uncomforted — that no one came when he was distressed. Or he may have noticed a parent pulling away emotionally if he got ‘too much’. As a result, he might never have learned how to receive comfort from others, instead developing an avoidant attachment style that makes it very difficult to open up.
Or if he was forced to grow up too early — for instance, by having to give his mother emotional support after a divorce or death — then the role of the protector might become his default position in all relationships. It might even feel uncomfortable for him to reach out and seek help from others, as he might believe that his self-worth lies in being strong.
The reasons for a man feeling unsafe about opening up can be complex and myriad. But all can lead to shutting down becoming his default.
It’s really important to acknowledge that rather than talking about their feelings, some men might find it easier to get release or relief through activities, such as sports, dance, music, or physical labour. If this helps to keep them emotionally healthy then they shouldn’t necessarily be put under pressure to open up – in fact these activities often provide opportunities to talk about issues in a less direct way, where they’re not the main focus.
However, problems can arise if the issues that the emotions are flagging up are not being addressed – ultimately our emotions are signals that we need to pay attention to something. So whilst physical action can provide some release, it doesn’t necessarily get to the root of the problem and if it persists, then it might be time to talk to someone.
Maybe you can relate to some of the above? For instance, maybe you feel that you just don’t have the space or opportunity in your life to talk about how you are feeling? And even if you have loved ones who are willing to listen, you might not be ready or able to talk just yet. It could all just feel really unnatural to you and that’s okay — in fact, it’s common.
If this is your situation then therapy can help. With the support of an expert, non-judgemental therapist, you can develop the emotional literacy skills to talk about how you are feeling. This can include sitting with your emotions, naming each one and exploring their causes, from everyday triggers to deeper childhood roots.
A therapist can also help you to make sense of why you might struggle to open up, from cultural expectations to difficult childhood experiences. In particular, Psychodynamic, Schema therapy and CAT can explore how your relationships with caregivers might still be shaping who you are today.
Or if you feel stuck in unhelpful thinking patterns — for instance, catastrophising or all-or-nothing thinking — then cognitive approaches such as CBT could help you to shift your thoughts and beliefs, and ACT or Mindfulness Therapy could help you learn to relate to them differently.
And if you have been through a traumatic experience that you don’t feel ready to talk about, then both EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can create a safe structure for exploring this. With these approaches, you will learn resources for coping and won’t re-visit the trauma — or release it — until you are ready.
Finally, if struggling to open up about your feelings is affecting your relationship, then you might want to consider Couples Therapy. This way, a therapist can create a structured space for you to have deeper conversations with your partner.
It’s not easy to talk about feelings, especially if you were raised to conceal them or feel that men should act in a certain way. But to stay mentally healthy and get things in perspective, everyone needs someone to talk to. There is no shame in opening up to people who care about you. Yet if that feels difficult to you right now or if you just feel alone, then therapy can give you a confidential space to explore what you are going through.
Interested in giving therapy a try? Browse our world-class MTA therapists or take our Right Match Assessment to find the best therapist for you.
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