Of course it’s not completely true that men don’t attend therapy, however, women are more likely to attend therapy in greater numbers. According to Statistics Canada, there are also differences in the types of mental health disorders and addictions reported by men and women. Approximately 6% of women and 4% of men experienced a mood disorder during the past year. On the other hand, about 4% of men and 2% of women had a problem related to substance dependence in the same period (Statistics Canada 2003).
Many women complain that their husbands or boyfriends don’t communicate how they are feeling. When they ask their partner, “how are you feeling?” the response is something like “I’m fine” or “I don’t know”. The general belief appears to be that women talk more about their emotions and enjoy watching ‘chick flicks’ or soap operas that allow them to relate to the protagonist or vicariously experience the character’s feelings. However, I would suggest that most men watch soap operas too – except they call it ‘sports’. Think about when you most often publicly see men expressing strong emotions such as; joy (“he shoots, he scores!), fear (“…35 seconds left in the game and the home team is barely holding onto the lead… oh no, they just took a penalty!”), disappointment or sadness (“…that’s it folks it’s all over, they just couldn’t hold on and gave up the winner with 3 seconds left”), anger (“…can you believe that cheap hit, he’s lucky he didn’t break the guy’s neck!”).
Sports – like novels and soap operas – allow men to identify and live vicariously through “their team”. They follow intensely emotional storylines involving heroes, villains, jokers, underdogs, overcoming obstacles, human frailties, perseverance and testing the limits of the human body and will. So, the next time you think your partner doesn’t express his emotions – just observe him while he’s watching his favourite sports team play.
Okay, but how does this help me if my partner still says “I don’t know” when I ask him how he is feeling? Well, most people don’t know how to ask effectively. Here’s a tip, when he says “I don’t know” this is what it usually means… he doesn’t know! Don’t assume the worst – e.g., “he’s just trying to avoid talking about it”, “he’s intentionally trying to make me mad”. Okay, yes he might also be trying to avoid talking about it, but he probably still doesn’t know how he’s feeling. In fact, this is partly why he may avoid talking – so he doesn’t feel ignorant, embarrassed or vulnerable. This is probably why guys don’t ask for directions either. Many men who are attending therapy for the first time are afraid that the therapist will ask them, “So, how are you feeling?”, then sit and stare at them for an uncomfortably long time waiting for a response. This is like someone asking us an impossibly hard astrophysics question and then sitting and waiting… slowly shining the spotlight on our ignorance. Most of us would likely get defensive or try to avoid the question.
As a general rule, emotions that are stuffed, repressed or covered-up have greater power over us
In general, it is true that women in our society are better ‘educated’ in understanding and expressing a wider range of emotions. For example, it is more culturally acceptable for young girls to express sadness, fear, disappointment or embarrassment. Often young boys are told, “be a man… suck it up… don’t be weak”. So why are we surprised when those boys grow up to be emotionally uneducated men? Further, these men have not learned how to constructively express negative emotions in ways that don’t leave them feeling vulnerable or open to criticism – e.g., fear, embarrassment or guilt. As a result, they may cover up these ‘primary’ negative emotions with a ‘secondary’ negative emotion such as anger – which, in the short-term, leaves them feeling less vulnerable. So, instead of acknowledging the underlying feeling and saying, “I feel embarrassed and afraid” – some guys might say, “That situation ticked me off, leave me alone!” As a general rule, emotions that are stuffed, repressed or covered-up have greater power over us. Admitting that we are afraid, embarrassed or sad is usually the first step in reducing its effect on us.
The good news is that it is not too late for someone to educate themselves in order to better understand and communicate how they are feeling and that there are many constructive ways to deal with unpleasant feelings.
Dr. Martin Phillips-Hing is a registered psychologist (#1361) with a private practice at Oakhill Counselling and Mediation Services in Abbotsford and Langley. He writes for the Abbotsford Today magazine. Comments or questions can be sent to him via his website – www.psychologist1.com
[Article published in the Abbotsford Today magazine - December 18, 2008]