Although my blogs are always aimed at supporting and helping both men and women, I learned something this week that is connected to last week’s blog post. In my work as a therapist, I have always encouraged women to be mindful of self-care. However, I am reminded of the men that I work with who are also giving and, therefore, at risk of becoming depleted.
Let me begin my story here:
Some time ago I met with a couple for couples counseling. The husband shared with me some of his life challenges. I asked him…. “How do you cope with your emotions (a must read!)”? His response, combined with a bit of a blank stare, was “I don’t understand the question”. I remember giving him a warm smile when I said, “well, you just answered the question”, meaning that I knew identifying and then coping with emotions was unfamiliar to him. Fast forward to our current work together, the three of us remember that moment fondly with humor as well as acknowledging how far he has come in his work in recognizing his emotional world. I can still picture the stunned look on his face when I shared with him that there are hundreds of emotions. He has worked hard to be able to identify emotions. AND!! He is much better at managing his stress.
That being said, recently we had a conversation about work stress. It occurred to me as I was listening to him that he was giving so much of himself to others, both at work and at home, that he was forgetting to give to himself. He is a hard worker, a devoted father, and husband. As I was listening to him, I was thinking about my most recent blog about “too much” giving and how that leads one to feel depleted. So I asked him what he does to replenish aka “fill his tank” aka “give to himself/self-care”. And there it was again… that look as if I had suddenly started speaking a different, unfamiliar language. He had no idea what I meant. He said to me, “I don’t even know what you mean by giving to myself”. And he said he did know what he would feel if he was filling his tank.
In that moment I realized that most men do think in terms of “self-care” although they may do it without identifying it as self-care, such as engaging in hobbies, going out with friends and so on.
My client said to me with both humor and a sense of minor frustration that he felt he was going back to kindergarten just when he felt that he had moved up to 3rd, 4th, maybe even 5th grade. Meaning that he has worked so hard to identify emotion, now he needs to learn about self-care! The three of us laughed while at the same time I recognized that the concept of self-care and men was an important issue. In our culture (great article to read!) men are discouraged from expressing emotion. Well, except for anger, that appears to be the only socially acceptable emotion for men. So when men (not all men of course) are asked “How does that make you feel?” they are a bit lost. My husband teases me when I ask him this question… his response to me, “always with the hard questions!” This question of “how does that make you feel” is often the joke made about therapists. I understand the joke. It can sometimes be an overused question in therapy and believe me, I have learned to ask it in many different ways. But, and this is a big BUT, knowing what you feel and being able to express your emotions is crucial and impacts every aspect of your life. In regard to giving, men (just like women) are susceptible to giving too much. Therefore, men are at risk of being depleted as well. Men need to be supported and encouraged to engage in self-care too. I don’t know; maybe we can call it something different for men. Suggestions are welcome!
My husband enjoys going for walks, biking, tending to the garden and playing with our dog Chloe. If I asked him how he engages in self-care, I honestly don’t know if he would have named these things that I know replenish him. But if I were to ask him if these things help him feel better when he feels worn down, he would, without question, answer “yes”!
I think that much of the focus of self-care is geared toward women. And it is crucial that women engage in self-care. But men work hard too; they give to their wife and their children. I think it is even more challenging for men to recognize when they feel depleted.
Two more very important things:
First: How can women help men? And I don’t mean in a “taking responsibility for them” way, I mean support men as they struggle to recognize emotion and engage in self-care. First and foremost is to be very patient. I can picture the wife of my client holding her husband’s hand in therapy as a show of love, support, and reassurance. Women can recognize that men are inundated with mixed signals in our culture… men are told to man-up (what does that mean anyway? I’m still not sure) and then they are told to be more emotional, express their feelings and talk. They are told to be strong (I’m going to talk about that next) and unbreakable. They are shamed if they show fear, sadness, and tears, anything that leaves them feeling vulnerable. So women can support men by understanding all that I mentioned, and learning to recognize that men feel as if they are learning a very new skill. Remember as my client so wisely put it, it is like going back to kindergarten. And let me interject here in support of women as well – I work with many women who struggle to identify what they feel. We are a “get over it” culture, but for women, it is culturally acceptable to show emotion, therefore, a bit easier to not only recognize but also share our emotions.
Second: Let’s redefine words such as strong and weak. We use strong for people who do not show emotion. This is not strong. Strong is feeling your emotions. Strong is showing your vulnerability. Strong is managing your emotions and taking care of yourself. We use the word weak to describe how we feel when we show emotions when what we really feel is vulnerable. And there is only one thing connected to vulnerability, and that is strength.
I’m looking for suggestions for men and what would be helpful for self-care! Help!!
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Details of the stories told in my blog have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
Photo Credit: Abd Allah Foteih @flickr.com