Emotional conversations suck. There’s really no way around that.
I’ve never met someone– male, female, or anywhere in between– who legitimately enjoyed having the kind of conversations that require us to be vulnerable, but in my experience, this is something that guys have a particularly hard time doing.
Boys Will Be Boys
Starting in childhood, we’re taught to be composed and cool; emotions, like sadness and fear, are discouraged in boys as being inherently feminine or otherwise unbecoming of young men. From a rational perspective, I think many of us understand the fault in this logic. After all, fear, sadness, and pain are as human emotions as the aggression, boldness, and bravado that are encouraged for men.
Yet even those of us know can think through these things rationally, there’s still a bridge to cross when it comes to actually embracing the emotions we’ve been taught to avoid. It’s like learning theory in a classroom setting and then freezing when you have to apply the concepts in real life.
Recently, I had to cross this bridge. To put this into perspective, I run an entire website about men’s lifestyles and redefining masculinity– I think about these things quite a bit. But when it became necessary for me to talk to my doctor about antidepressants, it definitely wasn’t the rational part of my brain that was in control.
It was that childhood voice of “boys don’t do this.”
The Ways We Open Up
I’ve lived with diagnosed depression for about seven years now, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that antidepressants were on the way. For most of my experience with depression, however, I was able to manage my symptoms well by exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and eating a balanced diet.
Moving into 2018, this process started to become less effective. Even when I exercised, meditated, rested, and so forth, my anxiety progressively got worse and worse until it was impeding upon my daily life. There were days at my day job where my performance metrics were halved because I simply wasn’t able to function as well as normal. As is usually the case, the anxiety bled out into other parts of my life too. The quality of my relationship, friendships, and overall quality of life all dipped. I was too anxious to put the energy into making those things works.
Eventually, my depression and anxiety symptoms got to the point that I had to do something about it. All of the coping strategies and exercises that have worked for nearly seven years simply weren’t cutting it any more.
So I made the decision to go see my doctor to finally have the antidepressant conversation.
My doctor is a great guy and he’s been my primary care physician my entire life, and I know that he’s not a judgmental man. Yet, when it came time to confess– to actually state to another human being– that I needed help with my mental health, I was terrified. As the nurses took my temperature and blood pressure ahead of my appointment, both were higher than you’d expect for a healthy person my age; I was so uncomfortable about admitting that I needed help that it was literally causing a physiological response.
Of course, once I actually explained to my doctor that I had been dealing with depression and anxiety for several years, and was reaching a point where my usual management techniques weren’t working, he wasn’t phased and advised that an SSRI would be a sensible way to supplement my other forms of symptom management– logical, straightforward, and expected.
Unfortunately, the male brain doesn’t respond to straightforwardness or logic when it comes to being vulnerable. Our conditioning to shy away from vulnerability forms a hard shell around our psyche. It makes us a lot like emotional geodes– for us to open up and reveal what’s inside, we don’t just open up. We’ve got to be smashed open, and getting to that point of being smashed open only adds onto our struggles.
Getting Better at Opening Up
Opening up is typically worth it and nine times out of ten it will deliver us to a resolution, but the resistance to opening up is so strong that we sometimes never reach that resolution.
The only way to get better at having these conversations and exposing ourselves to that kind of emotional vulnerability, all we can do is get practice at being vulnerable. Start small, with trusted confidants, by simply being honest about what you’re feeling. Try giving voice to your emotions, especially if they’re the ones you’ve been conditioned to suppress. If something makes you uncomfortable, say so. And if you feel like you need help, reach out for it.
(PS- If you’re a reader and are interested in exploring this concept in greater depth, I definitely recommend checking out Pema Chödrön’s The Places that Scare You and/or Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. Both are excellent and insightful resources for understanding emotional vulnerability and the freedom that comes from practicing it.)