Men and loneliness.
UK Council for Psychotherapy accredited psychotherapists Stephen Westcott, John-Paul Davies and Noel Bell explain some of the challenges of loneliness which are particular to men, the barriers men face and how to address feelings of loneliness.
Statistically, men are the least likely to confide in anyone that they are feeling lonely or isolated. Men are also more likely to be in jobs where they work alone off-site due to remote working. “Men have traditionally learned to not show feelings or vulnerability, and both are vital in making new friends. We connect with others through these as much as through shared interests.” - Stephen Westcott. "Despite having as much need and capacity for the benefits of opening up and understanding their own mental health as women, men have historically been less likely to seek out support” - John-Paul Davies.
Being a man is often wrongly taught as meaning you shouldn’t need any help or support. When they come for external support like psychotherapy, they are more likely to have been encouraged by someone else to do so. Reasons include the mixed messages men get around being vulnerable and the importance of being seen as the one who is ‘strong’ or ‘knows’ in relationships. Men’s own social relationships are also often not as supportive as they could be, with a culture of banter, for example, that can actually give more emotional difficulties rather than helping them. Common dominant values like winning, competitiveness and status can aggravate emotional distress, disconnect people within relationships and impact feelings of self-worth.”
John-Paul Davies explains: “Loneliness isn’t just about being on your own, you can be lonely and surrounded by people. Your loneliness can arise from not being able to talk about the things that are important to you.
Although it is stereotypical, it is often true that men find it harder than women to open up about particular emotions, possibly partly due to physiological reasons, but, in the greater part, due to social conditioning that means many men struggle more with the vulnerability and intimacy needed to open up about their range of feelings.”
Noel Bell adds: “Men can struggle in the modern world, not knowing which role they should play or are expected to play. Should they be the main breadwinner, for instance, or the gentleman? Be the leader of the pack or maybe the defender? If the expectation is to be a knight, for example, in protecting fair maidens, their mental health needs are at risk of being overlooked. Men tend to bottle things up, and because of lad culture, men often see talking about problems as a sign of weakness. There are many toxic myths about men and mental health, one is that being depressed makes you a burden and that it is deemed cowardly to seek help. Such toxic messaging systems only help to feed isolation and increased vulnerability.”
Psychotherapist John-Paul Davies explains the barriers that men face in more detail...
Men’s social groups are more likely than women to be linked to watching or playing sport, there is often a competitive element to their social interactions and very rarely is it an emotional experience, except perhaps for feelings of anger or winning. Rarely in these settings is there space or acceptance to discuss emotions like fear, pain, hurt or love.
This drives social conditioning that life is about ‘winning’ and status and, as such, the fear of being a failure stops many men from talking.
Binary emotional language
Men tend to be more binary when it comes to the language of their feelings and emotions than others. Men (and other people!) often externalise their fear and sadness as anger, which can be disconnecting to people around you. When you are tearful, people are more likely to approach you, to reach out and express compassion, concern, a hug or other emotional support. Yet, when sadness is expressed as anger it scares people and makes them run away, pushing them to disconnect from you. Even though inside, the angry person may be feeling lonely and in need of support.
Presenting your best self in a relationship
With romantic partners, if a man’s primary concern is about presenting his best self to the person he is attracted to, or loves, it can be much harder to share vulnerabilities and discuss emotions. Yet opening-up is usually the making of the strongest long-term relationships. Some men can rely on their partner to help with their emotional processing about other people and situations, which means they may not develop the emotional tools themselves and are left isolated if their romantic relationship becomes a source of distress.
Receiving mixed messages
Barriers can exist both ways. If a man hasn’t discussed his feelings in the past, there can be difficulties around finding the language to express what he feels. Some women and men don’t like it when their male partner cries, experiencing a tension between the desired strength they want to see from their partner and accepting their vulnerability. Men can get mixed messages on when and how they are ‘allowed’ to be vulnerable.
Dismissing with banter
With friends, different layers of people’s conditioning may make it hard for men to both open up or hear other people’s vulnerabilities. Banter, particularly for younger men, can be used to dismiss or make a joke of someone’s feelings. Although humour can be a great way of connecting, it can also be a roundabout way of expressing anger or demeaning another person. If the latter is true, this can make people feel invalidated or criticised for sharing how they feel, so next time they say nothing or just make a joke of it.
Men don’t just hide feelings of sadness and fear from their friends, they can also hide expressing love and happiness for fear of being laughed at and judged.
Men are more commonly status driven than women and that can impact their ability to open up, particularly with friends. With sometimes very narrow definitions of ‘success’, the hidden feeling of being perceived as a ‘failure’ stops many men from talking about their vulnerabilities, increasing their sense of isolation.
The wider circle of family and friends may also hold stigma about talking about mental health and loneliness. In certain cultures and faiths, it can be seen as your faith being tested and something you and your belief should deal with alone. Many groups hold deep-rooted prejudice about loneliness not happening when you are young, and not being something you can talk about when you are older.
The role of protector and provider
Within a family unit, men often feel they need to show ‘strength’ and have narrowly defined this as being as ‘unemotional’ as possible. To be the protectors and providers for the family can lead men to worry that the expression of feelings is seen as weakness, rather than the emotional success and strength that it actually is. It is time to change perceptions. Strong men (and women) communicate their vulnerability and full range of feelings.
'Unsafe' to disclose at work
Workplace barriers are different for different people. For many people, but men even more so than women, it doesn’t feel safe to discuss worries with a boss or colleague. Even when your workplace asks you to tell them when your mental health is struggling, most people worry about what this actually means in terms of support, promotion opportunities and respect from colleagues and peers. As well as this fear barrier there is also a sense of shame and fear of disclosing mental health issues at work or being seen to be ‘admitting your faults'. Too often work environments pay lip service to mental health issues, looking at training as an ‘add-on’ without proper time, consideration, and communication.
Breakups and redundancy
UKCP Psychotherapist Noel Bell adds: “Times when men can be particularly vulnerable to social isolation are following a relationship break-up or following redundancy when they will lose many of their support groups and friendships through the process.”
“Men are most often looking for a fix or for tools to help them with the emotion that they are feeling...
They don’t always realise that simply talking to someone (and being listened to and heard and accepted for your vulnerability) is a tool and ‘the fix’ in itself”
Start to notice and reflect
“If you are worried about sharing your feelings, notice when these doubts come up. What’s the topic of conversation that makes you feel afraid of opening up? Be aware of how much of yourself you are able to share with different people. What happens when you, or someone else, shares (do people laugh or support you/them)? Who are the most empathic people in the group? Has someone experienced this before? Try to engineer some time to talk one-to-one with the person who makes you feel the most comfortable at opening up about your concerns.
Trust, and show your vulnerability
“If you have not experienced this feeling of being supported in your vulnerability, it is hard to know how good it can feel. Know that there is a huge benefit to your vulnerability, to trusting other people to help regulate your feelings and release those brain chemicals that help you to feel good in the process. Know also that not sharing ourselves perpetuates our isolation and disconnection and that these tend to ‘tighten up’ over time in a vicious circle and not end well for people,“ adds John-Paul Davies. Stephen Westcott adds: “Support is available for men, through men’s groups, helplines, psychotherapy and counselling, and probably most importantly, just through speaking to friends and family who you can trust.”
Support outside of friends and family
Noel Bell adds: “When you don’t feel you can talk to a friend or family, there are many support groups and peer association networks where male bonding is encouraged. Find someone to share your situation with. This could be one-to-one or in a supportive group. Acknowledging there is a problem in your life is the first step towards finding a solution. Speaking about it helps the realisation that you are not alone.”
Tips for connection and making new friends
From Psychotherapist John Paul Davies
Let the internet help you connect
Although you can’t beat face-to-face support, the internet does offer forums and settings to help you build connections that can form the start of new friendships. There is a ‘disinhibition’ factor when you can’t see someone’s face over an email or phone which can help you step out of your comfort zone and share what is happening for you more easily. Some people also find themselves more able to talk to strangers than to people who are in their lives ‘everyday’.
Find a walking group
Walks are really good ways to connect, as the process of walking side by side and communicating without direct eye contact can help us to feel more comfortable to open up. There are more and more men’s mental health walks springing up, particularly in nice locations. These combine three key factors that generally help our mental health: nature; exercise; and others we trust to share our experience with.
Try to trust other people, and other men, more. Most people have experienced fear, sadness and loneliness. Everyone has been hurt, we all want to love and be loved and most of us have a story of grief or loss. You can feel like you are the only person who has known this pain, but when you start to trust yourself and other people, you are most likely to realise that you have much more in common with others than your loneliness might lead you to believe. When you experience this, and it feels good, you are more likely to share again in the future.
Feel the fear and do it anyway
From making new friends, to trying a new social group, enrolling as a volunteer or just opening up a conversation with a stranger in the pub, sometimes you just need to take a deep breath, feel the fear and try it. It may not always work out the way you’d have liked, but by going ahead despite the fear, by trusting more, we can bring out the best not only in ourselves, but in the other people we trust too.
Value other people
Think about how you can show other people that you value them. Remember the birthday, the job interview, the big date, show people what they mean to you and it will help to deepen the connections in friendships.
Dial up your connection
In my book Finding a Balanced Connection, I share a technique which involves choosing your values from a list and making a top ten. You can then look at the extent to which you are living your life in accordance with these values.
Take time to look at what’s important to you now. A lot of people will talk about the value of success, but how do you define that? Why are you doing the things that you are doing? If good family relationships and good friendships are amongst your top values, are you behaving in a way that is aligned to them? If you are choosing to work long hours or work away from home all the time, are these relationships really the most important thing to you? Then, you can look at your values list and see what you might do this week to make sure you’re behaving in a way that’s closer to them.
Rate your relationships
You can do the same technique as above with relationships and friendships. Look at where your relationships are now and how important they are – look at romantic partners, friends, family and rate your relationships with different people from one to ten, then ask yourself ‘what can I do to increase this, by just one point?’