I love college football. The energy and enthusiasm that these young players bring to the field is, for me, highly preferred to that of their professional counterparts. Something about knowing that they’re just in it because they want to be, independent of endorsements and before it becomes a true “job,” makes Saturdays much more enjoyable than Sundays. I was fortunate enough last Thursday night to watch my undergraduate alma mater, the as-yet-unranked South Carolina Gamecocks, defeat the #4 ranked Mississippi Rebels.
As I watched the game, I couldn’t help but notice the gender issues at play. While most sports are certainly chock full of gendered behavior, football might embody traditional masculine norms more than any of the others. The acceptance and encouragement of aggression, anger, one-upmanship, and competition is a hallmark of football. Everything about it is un-feminine.
Including the bearing of pain for the greater good of the team. I watched as South Carolina’s quarterback, Stephen Garcia, took a couple of hard hits early in the game and was soon showing clear signs of being in pain on the field. Between offensive series’, cameras panned to coaches “patching him up” on the sidelines, no doubt encouraging him to play through the pain for the sake of the team. The announcers noted, after identifying his injury as a lower rib cage contusion, that “he has to keep going” because the backup quarterback was also injured and the third string quarterback had never played in a real game before. He seemingly had no choice – bear the pain and play well enough to beat a top-five team, or let down your team. And he did.
So many of my male clients describe a similar process of bearing emotional and physical pain, often silently and with the assumption that they can’t talk about it for fear of being perceived as weak or “un-masculine.” I know I’ve certainly felt that way before. It’s an unfortunate reality that most men in this United States culture were taught to hold it in, be a tough guy, be the rock for others, and never ask for help. Garcia knew this “guy code.” Many times men are rewarded for this behavior with praise or recognition. But I often talk with men about the potential costs as well. Of feeling like a pressure cooker about to explode, of using drugs and alcohol as emotional outlets, of feeling angry or bored most of the time but not knowing why. And of the toll that this eventually takes on their close relationships.
I’ve been lucky enough to have therapists (and a compassionate wife) who’ve helped me understand that holding in emotions and bearing various forms of pain ultimately puts distance between others and myself. “I’ve got this – don’t worry – I’ll take care of it. No need for you to help me. I’ll just do it on my own.” Much of the work that happens in therapy with men is normalizing and identifying emotional reactions and learning how to be fully in relationship with others, which means sharing these feelings and letting others in to help & support us. This is hard work. Scary work. Which is why any time a man makes his way to my office, I say, “Congratulations on having the strength to ask for help and for taking a risk to do something different.”
This is just an intro to masculinity and men’s issues in therapy. I’d like to do a series of posts on the topic at some point – there’s just so much to talk about. If you’re interested in reading more, Terry Real wrote a great book for men and their partners called I Don’t Want to Talk About It. For readers who are also clinicians, In the Room with Men by Englar-Carson & Stevens is an excellent place to start reading about therapy with men.
Thanks for reading,