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Disentangling the 'I'm Fine' Retort from Boys and Men.

wall that has a crack trying to hold it all together with red and brown tones depicting mental health struggle in men.

Expressing feelings (especially uncomfortable ones) or talking about struggles with mental illness doesn’t come naturally or easily for a lot of people. There’s often a fear of being judged, labeled, or discriminated against, and this is especially true for individuals who self-identify or are perceived by society to be male. 

But why? 

Why, in an age where an estimated 49.5 percent of adolescents have had a mental health disorder and 57.8 million U.S. adults experience mental illness in a given year, is it so difficult for boys and men to speak up about their mental and emotional struggles?  

. . . . .

The stigma around males expressing their feelings is no secret. It’s a complex and deeply rooted social issue with historical, cultural, and psychological dimensions. While attitudes towards this topic have been evolving in recent years, various reasons contribute to the lingering stigma.

Gender Stereotypes

Traditional gender roles have often portrayed men as strong, stoic, and unemotional, while women have been expected to be more nurturing and expressive of their emotions. These stereotypes can be limiting and harmful, as they discourage men from expressing their feelings for fear of being perceived as weak or unmasculine.

Toxic Masculinity

Men and boys not only have a history of being scrutinized for their vulnerability but also a toxic set of societal expectations that encourages dominance, emotional suppression, and aggression. Phrases like “man up” and “don’t be a sissy” reaffirm the myopic and misogynistic view that expressions of sadness or fear are counter to the male disposition, leaving many men and boys reluctant to express their feelings openly discuss their mental health concerns.

Positions of Power

The antithesis of power is weakness. Throughout history, men (particularly white men) have often been in positions of power and privilege, which has made it challenging to sympathize with their emotional struggles. The common perception is that men’s emotional needs are less important or less worthy of attention than those of their presumably fragile female counterparts. 

Lack of Emotional Education

Emotional education, also known as emotional intelligence education or social-emotional learning (SEL), is a process that focuses on developing individuals’ awareness, understanding, and management of their emotions and the emotions of others. It aims to equip individuals with the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate their emotions in a healthy and constructive way, build positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Key components of emotional education include:

  • Emotional Awareness: Recognizing and understanding one’s own emotions and being able to label them accurately. 
  • Emotional Regulation: Techniques for coping with stress, frustration, anger, sadness, and other emotions in a constructive manner.
  • Empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.
  • Interpersonal Skills: Tools and techniques for effective communication, conflict resolution, and building positive relationships.
  • Self-Awareness: Exploring values, strengths, weaknesses, and personal goals. 
  • Decision-Making: Making responsible decisions based on values, emotions, and the consequences of actions. 
  • Resilience: The ability to bounce back from and cope with adversity and setbacks in a healthy way.

Many societies do not provide adequate emotional education or emotional intelligence training. This lack of education can result in a limited understanding for all individuals in relation to men’s and boys’ emotional needs and experiences and also makes it more difficult for males to talk about mental illness and express and manage their emotions in healthy ways.

How We Can Empower Males to Break Through the “I’m Fine” Default Setting

All the above reasons have contributed to the standardization of those three default words so often voiced by men: “I am fine.” But it doesn’t have to remain this way. Through a collective effort made between society, individuals, and communities, we can challenge the status quo and empower males to more openly talk about mental illness and difficult emotions.

Here are some actions we can take (or continue taking) to help reduce the stigma:

  • Normalize the Conversation: Encourage open and honest discussions about emotions and mental health within families, among friends, and at workplaces. Normalize the idea that it’s okay for boys and men to talk about their feelings.
  • Promote Self-Awareness: Encourage men to develop self-awareness by reflecting on their emotions and understanding their triggers. Self-awareness can lead to a better understanding of one’s mental health.
  • Lead by Example: If you are a man who is comfortable discussing your own emotions and mental health, you can set an example for others. Sharing your own experiences can make it easier for other men—especially those who you suspect to be suppressing their feelings—to open up.
  • Educate About Emotional Intelligence: If you are in any type of influential role, such as a parent, coach, therapist, teacher, blogger, or social media influencer, and you recognize the importance of destigmatizing male vulnerability, provide information about emotional intelligence and its benefits. Explain that understanding and managing emotions is a valuable skill that can improve overall well-being.
  • Offer Support and Listen Actively: Be an active and empathetic listener when a boy or man opens up about his feelings or mental health. Avoid judgment, let them know that you’re there to support them, and ask how you can help.
  • Create Safe Spaces: Whether in your school, church, or a public space, establish safe and confidential spaces where males can talk openly about their emotions without fear of ridicule or stigma. 
  • Provide Resources: Share information about mental health resources, such as hotlines, counseling services, and support groups. Offer recommendations for books, podcasts, or websites that focus on men’s mental health and emotional well-being.
  • Respect Boundaries: Understand that not everyone may be ready to open up immediately. Respect their boundaries and allow them to share at their own pace.
  • Challenge Stereotypes: Discuss and challenge traditional gender stereotypes that discourage men from expressing vulnerability or seeking help for their mental health.
  • Encourage Professional Help: Emphasize the importance of seeking professional help when needed. Normalize therapy and counseling as valuable tools for mental health support.
  • Advocate for Workplace Support: Encourage employers to implement mental health initiatives in the workplace that address the stigma and offer support. For example, invite a prominent male figure to come present on his struggle with mental illness and how he overcame it.
  • Celebrate Progress: Recognize and celebrate the courage it takes for men to open up about their feelings and mental health. Positive reinforcement can encourage further discussion.
  • Be Patient and Understanding: Understand that opening up about mental health can be difficult and may involve setbacks. Be patient and offer ongoing support.

It’s important to note that there has been growing awareness and efforts to challenge these stereotypes and reduce the stigma surrounding males expressing their feelings and mental health. However, we need to keep the momentum going.  

Steps Males Can Take Toward Embracing Vulnerability

If you’re a male adolescent or adult who struggles to open up about your mental health or to openly and honestly express your emotions, there are steps you can take to build and embrace your vulnerability.

  • Do Some Introspection: Sometimes the first barrier to break through in being able to openly talk about your mental health is the one you’ve put up against yourself. To overcome this barrier, journal about the difficult emotions you’ve been experiencing recently. If you’re not sure what those are, write down words you think are the opposite of what you’re feeling, and then try again. Try to remove any shame or judgment, as writing things down through a safe and private outlet can help you gain clarity and a deeper understanding of yourself. 
  • Mindfulness and Meditation: Practice mindfulness and meditation techniques to become more aware of emotions and learn to manage stress and anxiety.
  • Find Your Person or People: One of the most impactful ways you can embrace vulnerability is finding someone you can be vulnerable with—a friend, significant other, sibling, coach, or teacher. It takes great strength to open up to someone about your mental and emotional struggles, so think about who in your life has historically demonstrated understanding and acceptance. Once you’ve determined who you;d like to confide in, make sure to:
    • Choose the Right Time and Place: Find a comfortable and private setting where you can have an open and uninterrupted conversation. Ensure you have enough time to talk without feeling rushed.
    • Plan What You Want to Say: Take some time to organize your thoughts and feelings before the conversation. Consider writing down key points or feelings you want to express.
    • Be Honest and Direct: When you start the conversation, be honest about your feelings and experiences. Use “I” statements to express your thoughts and emotions, e.g., “I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately.”
    • Express Your Needs: Clearly communicate what you need from your loved one. Whether it’s emotional support, understanding, or practical assistance, let them know how they can help you.
  • Seek Inspiration from Male Celebrities and Influencers: Learning about other boys’ and men’s mental health struggles can help reduce any shame and seclusion you feel. This can be especially true when those boys and men are high–profile celebrities or influencers who, from the outside looking in, appear to have it all. To get started, here are 20 male celebrities and 5 social media influencers who have opened up about their mental health. 
  • Join Support Groups: Consider joining men’s support groups or mental health support groups where individuals can openly discuss their experiences in a safe and non-judgmental environment.
  • Professional Help: Be open to seeking professional help from therapists or counselors when needed. Recognize that reaching out for support is a sign of strength, not weakness. 

. . . . .

Remember that personal growth and change take time, and it’s okay to take small steps toward becoming more open about mental health and emotions. Encouraging these behaviors in boys and men can lead to improved mental well-being, stronger relationships, and a more inclusive and understanding society.