Crushed Masculinity and the Agony of Depression
According to Merriam-Webster, the word "emasculation" is defined as "making a man feel less masculine" or "depriving a man of his strength and/or role."
When I first heard that word several years ago, during a session with my therapist, I felt surprised, confused, terrified, and threatened. I had never entertained the idea that interactions with certain people in my life could make me feel like less of a man. Besides, I was completely resistant to the discovery that this could be the underlying cause of my depression. That was a tough therapy session — possibly amplified by the fact that my therapist is a woman. Let me explain.
My feelings of emasculation are triggered during regular interactions with women. This has frequently led to power struggles in my romantic and work relationships. As a child, I was expelled from three schools because of my behavior. In each of those situations, I was in a power struggle with an authority figure who was a woman.
For many men, depression and emasculation are synergistic. Understanding this is critical to recovery. What I have learned in my journey is that feelings of weakness about my masculinity can lead to depression, while at the same time, depression can lead to feelings of emasculation.
In our society, masculinity traditionally connotes power, control, competitiveness, independence, and aggression. As a man, I want to experience those things. Take them away from me and I spiral down fast.
There is a stigma surrounding mental health, but I believe that there is an even bigger stigma surrounding depression and masculinity. One of the reasons for this is that we see them as opposites (depression = weakness while masculinity = strength).
It all starts in our childhood homes
"When I was around 5 years old," says Jed Diamond of MenAlive.com, stated via phone interview, "I remember overhearing my mother talking with a group of women in the kitchen. They were talking about their husbands in a negative way, saying things like, ‘He can’t get a job,’ ‘He’s home all the time,’ or ‘He’s like one of the kids.’ More than the actual words that I heard from them, was the tone in which they spoke. It was a tone full of pity and contempt for men who weren’t fulfilling their roles. I made a commitment to never let women ever talk to me like that. I promised myself that I would die before I would ever be out of work, no matter what it takes. This commitment drove me to work harder and harder. Everything came crashing down when I lost my job. I was deeply wounded and went into a deep depression. The shaming voices of the women still ring in my ears.
I see this pattern with men who are out of work or afraid of losing their jobs. Like me, many men feel threatened by the thought of losing their job and not being able to provide for their family.
Although this pattern frequently begins with a man’s relationships with his mother, his relationship with his father also can contribute to it. Mental health speaker Tom Roberts believes that, “Depression in men is a deeply personal issue for me. I watched my father let untreated depression kill him because he feared stigma and for his employer to find out about it and fire him. He died from heart disease at 62 two years after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.”
Many men don’t seek help for depression
Many men avoid getting help simply because the idea of having depression triggers feelings of emasculation. In fact, it is more socially acceptable to see a man express anger rather than the sadness associated with depression. In my experience, I’ve also learned that sometimes anger is depression in disguise.
“When I was first diagnosed with the brain disease bipolar disorder, with psychotic features, I thought, ‘No, this can't be me. I was a high school wrestling champion I played football on the winningest team of our class! I don't have this disease, I'm not crazy! Nothing's wrong with me. I just need to ‘man up!’ I didn't want to be labeled,” says Kevin Hines, stated via email.
“For one entire year during the worst of my struggles, I forced myself to stop crying. Tears of pain and the innermost mental turmoil became completely dry, I went absent of one our most human physiological needs in processing such strife. I shut down emotionally. I repressed my emotions. In effect, cutting myself off from feeling anything at all.”
A possible solution to help men
Part of my recovery from depression has been taking a look at the role masculinity plays in my life. As I’ve explored this with my therapist, talked with other men, and read books on the subject, I’ve come to these conclusions:
There aren’t many role models for "healthy masculinity" in our society
Issues of masculinity (and femininity) are present in our interactions with everyone
Here are three tips that have helped me feel more masculine and cope with my depression:
Begin to think about how you see yourself as a man
Notice how masculinity plays out in your interactions
Take the time to learn about, think about, and create a vision for healthy masculinity
Ironically, the most important lesson I have learned about my masculinity is to embrace my femininity. As men, our femininity is what allows us to express ourselves and become stronger.
“Today I understand that as males, what makes up healthy masculinity is the balance of our biologically necessary femininity,” Kevin says’Each of us has both. Not one without the other, my vulnerability is what makes me truly a man. Allowing people to foster me through my depression, to aid in the healing of my pain, makes me the best man I can be.”
A new paradigm
In the years since that therapy session where I first heard the word "emasculation," I have gained a new level of awareness about my relationships with others. That awareness has been a stepping stone for finding happiness and feeling hope.
"What I have found on my journey — and that journey took me from a place of being paralyzed, alone, and ashamed by my depression — is that by sharing our story, by opening up to those who can help us, we become not weaker but stronger,” says Michael Kasdan of The Good Men Project. “We become more relatable to others, not less. We become more connected to everyone around us, not less."
Mike Veny is one of America’s leading mental health awareness speakers, HealthCentral’s newest social ambassador, and a high energy corporate drumming event facilitator. He delivers educational, engaging, and entertaining presentations to meetings and conferences throughout the world. Learn more and connect with Mike at TransformingStigma.com.