Continuing our focus on how talking can change lives, in this article performance and business psychologist Aidan Kearney considers why sometimes talking is not as easy as it seems.
It’s good to talk. And talking is easy, isn’t it? All we have to do is open our mouth and vibrate our vocal cords making sounds and forming words. That’s talking after all.
Ah but hold on a minute, the next thing you might think is… What are we talking about?
Some conversations may be easier to have than others. Talking about our last holiday might be easier than say addressing conflict in the workplace. So, the content and context of the conversation might have some impact on how comfortable and ready to talk we actually feel.
What then if I were to ask you how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking? Again, if the context and the content of the conversation was, say, about the food you had just consumed you might give me plenty of detail.
What if the subject of the conversation was about some trauma you have recently experienced or some emotional distress you’re currently dealing with? How easy might it be to have that conversation? How readily would you think, it’s good to talk (about that)?
The reality is that we are all likely, at some stage, to experience some form of trauma or emotional distress whether that’s witnessing or being involved in some form of critical incident, for example a road traffic collision, experiencing loss (in its many forms) or being bereaved or experiencing elevated and extended stress responses.
That’s the uncomfortable truth of life and the world around us; life doesn’t play by our rules.
For many of us reaching out for help and talking at these times becomes a safety zone where we can heal and recover.
But there are some demographics who might find it more difficult to open up and talk. Who are they and why might this happen? In terms of demographic it’s people who identify as male and whose concept of masculinity has been influenced by western male gender identity formation.
Wow, what does that actually mean?
Let’s look at this simply. We are the product of a variety of influences. We are surrounded by information and lessons from the world we live in (our parents, care givers, peers, colleagues) and then we also have an internal world that exerts influence too (how we think about, encode, assign meaning and make sense of our experiences). This is explored in a multi-faceted way in Bussey and Bandura (1999) Social Cognitive Theory of gender development and differentiation.
All of this and more adds up to help us create our sense of self, our identity. However, when we think about the concept of maleness and masculinity and how it is shaped by stereotype and certain norms, some interesting and noteworthy aspects begin to emerge.
If we look at research, we note that Golombok & Fivush (1994) identified social pressure for men to be tough, robust, ‘strong’ and to deny anxieties and insecurities; while Canetto & Sakinofsky (1998), noted that men’s response to depression often involves ‘social withdrawal (including hiding symptoms from others), unwillingness to consult healthcare professionals, and a denial of symptoms’ due to perceptions that symptoms of mental illness are inconsistent with aspects of male identity.
As the economic crisis continues to wreak havoc, research findings are no less relevant. Male gender identity norms around constructs like success, losing employment and decline of socioeconomic status, have been studied in relation to suicidal behaviours, with Qin et al (2003) finding evidence to support a relationship between unemployment and suicide, while Sher (2006) found evidence linking lowering of economic status and suicide.
In 2020, King, Shields, Sojo et al, surveying 829 young males in Australia, found links between conforming to social norms of masculinity and deleterious outcomes for mental health including greater risk of suicidal ideation.
In short, the research indicates that western male gender identity norms, such as toughness, could contribute to increasing suicide risk and could inhibit men from reaching out for the help they need.
This is important because of stark and tragic statistics. Firstly, NHS England report that suicide is the leading cause of men under the age of 50. Further, ONS statistics highlight that in 2020 the England and Wales male suicide rate of 15.4 deaths per 100,000; for females, the rate was 4.9 deaths per 100,000.
So, What Can We Do?
While it is important to acknowledge social, cultural, hormonal and other differences between us and that each of us is an individual, we are all (broadly) functioning with the same system – the human physical brain and psychological mind. This is where I want you to reflect on all of the influences that have fed into your construct of you, your identity, and then exercise some self-compassion.
- Observe Lingering Thoughts: We’ve all got the same operating system in our heads so it’s just as likely to hijack our thinking, to give us stress and anxiety, to offer up inflexible and rigid constructs as the next person or to offer us thoughts that it might be better if we weren’t here anymore. These thoughts may be very fleeting, the thing to watch out for is if those thoughts begin to hang around or become more regular or pervasive or we begin to make plans around those thoughts.
- Know it’s OK Not to Feel OK: Maybe no-one has given you permission before, as a male, to know that it’s ok not to feel great, to feel down, to doubt yourself. Here’s the reality we all feel like that sometimes.
- Self-Compassion First: So, we can begin by practising some self-compassion. And if challenging thoughts show up we can create some distance in our thinking with interventions like box breathing or mindful awareness.
- Recognise the Stress: We can learn skills to observe our thinking, to examine our beliefs around what our thinking deems ‘allowable’ within the constructs of our gender identity and then to practice some self-compassion; to recognise that stress and anxiety impact us all at times. After all life simply does not play by our rules.
- Exploring Beliefs: We can harness evidence-based behavioural skills to manage our internal physical processes and skills such as reframing to explore our beliefs about toughness. After all leaning into uncomfortable emotions, exploring our own vulnerabilities and self-critical thoughts isn’t an easy thing to do.
- Reach Out for Support: Ultimately, we can build the skills and beliefs that can manage any challenges we face seeking and accessing support when we’re challenged by stress and anxiety and build a new understanding consistent with elements of our gender identity, that whatever the topic: ‘It’s good to talk’.