The Pandemic of Male Loneliness
The hidden reason men struggle with social distancing.
Posted February 24, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
For many men, socializing is usually tied to activities they have less access to during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some men find it challenging to initiate social contact for fear of how it will be perceived.
Men should consider how social and cultural influences might be holding them back from meeting their needs for connection.
We are all suffering from a certain amount of loneliness as a result of social distancing during the pandemic. This post focuses on the particular disadvantages faced by many boys and men. Males in our culture tend to rely on opportunistic socialization—socializing while engaging in a shared activity. For them, feeling the need to actively reach out to others can trigger a shame response about appearing ‘needy.’
In Western culture, females are typically socialized to value building and maintaining relationships: They are encouraged to reach out to friends and preserve alliances. Males tend to be raised to be more achievement-oriented. For them, relationships are often relegated to a secondary benefit—a byproduct of shared activities, like work, hobbies, and sports.
For boys and men who rely on opportunistic socializing, keeping at least six feet apart minimizes a significant part of how they socialize. Also, with faces half-covered, facial expressions are obstructed, blocking the ability to even tell whether a stranger is open to engaging socially.
Why Some Men Resist Reaching Out
In discussions of this issue with various male patients in my practice, they routinely describe how reaching out to make social contact leaves them feeling vulnerable—"open to rejection.” They fear appearing emasculated.
Note: these boys and men are progressive when it comes to issues of social justice and female equality. Despite being “woke," they continue to struggle with their own self-imposed isolation—the damage caused by being raised male in a culture that teaches boys to be stoic and self-sufficient.
As one young man puts it, “drop me in a crowd and I can work the room, but if I have to reach out on the phone or email, I feel disgusting.” Others explain that initiating social contact makes them feel like they are "begging" for something.
Normally, experiencing a need for something provides us with the motivation to get it. We feel hungry, and so we find something to eat. But when boys and men feel a need for a social connection, the competing need to feel self-sufficient kicks in. Feeling compelled to be self-reliant, they may disown their need for social contact.
For many males, experiencing the need for connection leaves them feeling inadequate—they feel unworthy of the very connection they yearn for. Worse yet, for some, having the need itself suggests to them that they have already been rejected: They are alone because others aren’t seeking them out. Feeling rejected and emasculated by their need, they are paralyzed to take action. Though the rise in male suicides and drug addiction indicates that men have been suffering under the patriarchal notions of male self-sufficiency and stoicism since before the pandemic, the pandemic seems to have worsened their plight.
John's Story: A Fear of Seeming "Intrusive" or "Needy"
John is a manager at a tech start-up. He is exhausted by his workday's endless stream of Zoom calls. Since working from home, he has worked hard to motivate his supervisees. He feels that it is important to provide them with a sense of connection that allows them to feel a part of the collective work of the company while isolated at home.
As we explored what was missing for him, he explained that he relied on having casual contact with other managers running different departments. These contacts had been vital to giving him a clear sense of how his work fit in with the greater mission of the company.
“I don’t know why it is so hard to send emails and ask people what they are up to, but I put them off. It was so much easier to just catch up with people in the break room to get a sense of what was going on.” He explains, “It’s the activation energy that makes me feel exhausted.”
Exploring this, we realized that “activation energy” was code for the emotional struggle he has to go through in order to reach out to his peers. Feeling depleted tending to his supervisees, he longs to connect with his peers. But he fears being "intrusive" or appearing "needy." The “activation energy” is the extra effort—the emotional work of battling his shame and fear—that he must achieve before contacting his peers.
Andrew's Story: Missing Activities Means Little Contact
Andrew, an adolescent, has done the majority of his socializing opportunistically. He has made friends with the guys who are in his classes at school and in choir practice, but he rarely got together with them outside of these activities. The pandemic has been a social desert for him.
With no track record of reaching out to friends to get together or chat, he just doesn’t “feel comfortable” doing it during the pandemic. He fears that he would seem weird to his peers if he were to reach out and openly express his need for connection. So, he keeps himself locked up in his fortress of solitude, suffering alone.
What Can Men Do to Fight Loneliness?
It is important for men to realize that reaching out for social connection might mean confronting a hidden belief that we are supposed to be able to go it alone and not ask for help.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Acknowledge how the social and cultural influences that have taught us to go it alone and suffer in silence dominated our childhoods and continue to this day.
- Accept that we are social animals deserving of emotional support.
- Act with courage to champion our needs despite the fear and shame of appearing needy. Other men will most likely be glad we reached out. If they are not, we just need to move on to the next.
At a time when opportunistic socializing is not available, males in our culture are faced with a hidden opportunity to learn new ways of interacting. The shame of appearing needy is a relic of the patriarchal past that lingers in many of us. To overcome it, we must fight for our need for connection with the courage to act in the face of fear and shame. If you recognize yourself in this post and continue to struggle with this, remember there is no shame in reaching out to a therapist.
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