As we head into another holiday season and continue to navigate the challenges of the ongoing pandemic, I want to take a moment to speak to something that can be especially stressful during this time of year. I’m talking about loneliness. Because of the socializations of the Man Box, we as men are unfortunately already primed for feelings of isolation. Layer in the societal pressure to feel cheery and connected for months on end, we men begin to feel as if we have to pretend more. We go deeper into our feelings. Deeper within ourselves. The holidays can be emotionally draining for us.
Primed for Loneliness
From early childhood, the majority of us men and boys are socialized to believe that any emotion aside from anger is unacceptable, and that to ask for or accept help equates with weakness. When we’re not feeling okay, the Man Box demands that we act okay. And that means that even in the midst of a crowd, at family gatherings, at office functions — men and boys can still feel immensely alone. When we do find community as men, oftentimes our relationships are a byproduct of shared activities — work, hobbies, sports, etc. With the added physical isolation that the pandemic has introduced into our lives, we’ve lost many of those spaces where we previously found connection, comfort, and support.
Even when we are able to create those spaces, I find that we as men can be hesitant to open up and be vulnerable with one another. I play cards once a month with the same four guys. That space is more about laughing and telling jokes and playfully insulting each other. And we love it. Sentiments like “I really want to know how you’re doing” or “I really want to help” or “I am here for you” are not shared at that table. If something tragic happens — like someone’s partner dying — men might say these things to each other, but it is situational. We haven’t been taught to have the emotional capacity to grieve in that way. We do not create spaces for each other to talk about loneliness. Men — we need to collectively do some work to learn how to be alongside each other with openness and vulnerability.
A 2017 Harvard Study followed a group of men for eight decades. The men were asked, “who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or afraid?” The study revealed those who had close friends or someone to turn to were happier and physically healthier. Men are fortunate if they have a childhood buddy who they continue to be connected with today — these are the men that have the opportunity for the most intimacy in a relationship with other men. We’re not going to put the work into a new relationship that will get to a point of having real intimacy — openness, transparency, and trust. Too often, we as men are primed for loneliness.
Why do you think some men resist reaching out to each other?
When folks are trying to engage men, it is easy for us to deflect and say, “I’m good.” And if you don’t know us well, we can convince you that we are. In the Man Box, we’re taught not to ask for, offer, or accept help. Even when we do offer to help one another, that’s an example of us stepping outside of the Man Box. To continue to push those boundaries and question one another a little further is an entirely different task. If I offer another man my help and he responds with “no, I’m good,” well then, I’m good too. That’s what we do as men. We remove ourselves from intimate relationships with each other.
In essence, for men, when another man is interested in us and how we’re doing (based on what we’ve been taught about what it means to be a man), we assume there must be something wrong with them. Too often, we become immediately suspicious that the potential helper has an angle or an agenda. So we put our guard up. It’s uncomfortable for us to think that another man wants to be there for us. In my estimation, these are recipes for loneliness.
Because of our socialization, simply feeling the need to connect to others makes us feel substandard. For some of us, we are alone because we fear rejection. Feelings of rejection leave us feeling paralyzed by our need, and we are unable to seek out what we so desperately crave — genuine connection. Vulnerability is risky, and risks are required to succeed. However, within the confines of the Man Box, if we are rejected when taking that risk of reaching out to ask how another man is doing, we feel like that makes us less of a man. Other men will tell us not to put ourselves out there in that way — to not leave yourself wide open to being rejected. When we do express that vulnerability and we are rejected, we feel like we just gave another man some power over us. Now he can hold that over our heads. Rejection is a powerful teacher — if it happens once, we’re not likely to ever engage in that behavior again.
Men’s Loneliness and Health Correlations
Who we are emotionally has an enormous impact on who we are physically, and our ability to connect with others is inextricably linked to our wellness. Studies indicate that our relationships with others have more of an impact on our physical health and longevity than even our genes do. There is a large body of scientific research that suggests high-quality relationships and feelings of closeness with others are highly correlated to a decreased risk of premature death, and that loneliness and isolation can lead to poor health in numbers comparable to smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity. Loneliness in men is also linked to cardiovascular disease and stroke, and men account for 80% of completed suicides (for which one of the leading contributing factors is loneliness). As men, we need to acknowledge and embrace the importance of connection to people in our lives. As men, we would rather compete than connect. While women enjoy competition, women are much better at embracing connecting. Rather than competing, I’d love to see more of us striving to connect with one another.
At an institutional level, there is also work to be done on standardizing a screening process for men’s loneliness. For twenty years, before beginning the work of A Call to Men, I worked in the human services arena. We had screening questions about domestic violence, smoking and smoking cessation, and alcohol use. Let’s imagine a world where every visit to a physician’s office began by asking these types of questions — Are you connected? Do you live alone? Who’s part of your support system? Normalizing engaging men around mental health in this way could be truly transformative.
What Can Men Do to Fight Loneliness?
Men — I know it’s tough to reach out. The Man Box has been telling us since we were young that to stand alone is to be somehow stronger. But I’m calling on each and every one of you to fight that urge to isolate, to resist those socialized ideas of what it means to be a man. As we round the corner on the home stretch to the new year, here are a few things to get you started down that path to a healthier, less lonely state of mind:
1. Acknowledge that loneliness exists. We cannot begin to heal until we acknowledge where we’re at in this moment. Pretending like we aren’t lonely will only make us feel more isolated.
2. Share how we’re feeling when we’re feeling it. A regular, honest feelings check-in (with a partner, a friend, a child, a member of your community) can help us all get more comfortable identifying and making space for each of our emotions.
3. Seek out a confidante. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finding someone who we feel comfortable opening up to — whether that’s a mental health professional, a friend, a faith leader, an online forum, a partner, or a family member.
4. Be open to professional help — even (and especially) when you’re not in the midst of a crisis. Mental wellness is an ongoing practice, and just like we might hire a coach or a trainer to help us advance our physical skills, seeking expert guidance for our emotional wellbeing gives us an enormous advantage as we navigate life’s ups and downs.