Most men don't spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to them to be a man. That's because in our society, being a man is an advantage, one that does not often invite self-reflection. And, even when men are interested in discussing such topics, they are often cautious to do so for fear of being perceived as politically incorrect and chauvinistic.
As a male therapist who frequently works with men, I often think about my male clients and their underlying masculinity. I've seen firsthand how restrictive and damaging gender roles can be for some of the men I work with. By "gender roles," what I mean are those implicit, and often explicit, messages men receive from society on how to behave as men. Most of us will immediately identify with the adage that to be a man often means: being tough, staying in control, never crying, working through physical pain, providing for your family, and never backing down from a fight.
While such roles provide men with an operational model in which to exist, they can also be extremely restrictive. My colleague, Ronald Levant, for example, has studied traditional (American) masculine roles and has come up with his own eight basic principles that guide male behavior. They are: (1) emotional restriction, (2) avoidance of femininity, (3) focus on toughness and aggression, (4) self-reliance, (5) achievement, (6) rationality, (7) objectification of sex, and (8) homophobia.
The pressure to rigidly adhere to this masculine ideal can make life pretty complicated for men. Some men who seek therapy suffer from major depression; however, many are uncomfortable with the stigma that such a diagnosis carries. After all, society tells us that real men don't get depressed. And, even if they do (which they don't!), the last thing a man is going to do is talk to another man about it. Are you kidding me? No guy wants to waste another guy's time getting into all that touchy-feely stuff! That's just crazy! While I jest, many men acknowledge and accept the mantra, real men don't talk about their feelings. And it is exactly this stoic stance that can be the source of so much unhappiness in men.
Our profession has a fancy term for men who are unable to identify and speak about their feelings. It's called alexithymia. The term derives from the Greek and literally means "without words for emotions." Practically speaking, alexithymia captures a group of men who have great difficulty identifying and putting into words what goes on inside of them. Frequently, I find such men rely heavily on logic and rationality to tackle their personal problems. While intellect can certainly be helpful in many areas of life (such as the ability to stay cool in a crisis situation), it can also get in the way, particularly in men's personal relationships. Often, men who depend exclusively on their intellect to address problems end up isolating themselves—paradoxically, at the time when they are most in need of help.
Men are capable of learning more adaptive ways of processing and communicating their feelings with others. Some may even benefit from working with a therapist. The goal of therapy is not to "change men into women," but rather to help them feel more comfortable with who they are; process what goes on inside of them; and assist them with establishing and strengthening their relationships with those who care for them.
Tyger Latham, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, D.C., counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns.