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Sam Woolfe - Jul 27, 2018

Why the Masculine Ideal of Self-Reliance is Flawed

Psychologists have pinpointed 11 masculine norms that act as standards or rules for socially acceptable male behavior. These include winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, playboy, self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, disdain for homosexuals, and pursuit of status.

man alone, architecture in backgroundMany of these we would regard as negative while some we may instinctively view as virtuous. For example, self-reliance – the ability to navigate through situations using your own resources, decisions, efforts, and abilities – seems like a positive characteristic. But the truth is, men can become too attached to this ideal of self-reliance. Many men feel expected to do everything on their own. The idea of asking for help, support, instruction or advice feels emasculating.

Men who are extremely self-reliant may find it difficult to form intimate relationships. After all, healthy relationships depend on a certain level of balance and interdependence. An even greater danger, however, is the danger that this norm poses to men’s mental health.

In many countries, men under 50 are more likely to die from suicide than any other cause. The male suicide epidemic is a highly disturbing problem that we have to solve. It needs an explanation. And an Australian study published last year helps to shine a light on this crisis in men’s mental health.

This research, from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Mental Health, found that men who strongly identify with being self-reliant had a much higher chance of reporting thoughts about suicide and self-harm. If we think about the way that mental health issues can escalate, this makes sense. If you’re going through a really rough episode of depression, say, and you try and deal with it completely alone – refusing to even talk about it – then it’s very easy for it to spiral out of control. 

Men end up suffering in silence because they feel expected to. Which is really just a devastating fact about modern masculinity. Being a ‘strong man’ means closing your self off, refusing to show your true emotions, and pushing through the pain in complete isolation. Of course, this ends up backfiring. Seeking help and support from loved ones or a professional is often absolutely essential in mental health recovery.

It’s not until things reach a critical point that men will ask for help. And even then, many men will choose to battle the darkness on their own. It’s somehow emasculating to be seen struggling. In reality, though, every single person is struggling with something. Mental health issues do not make you weak. Asking for help does not mean you’ve failed as a man. It just means you’re human and want some relief during times of hardship. Man or woman, you can find relief by getting stuff off your chest (a problem shared is a problem halved). We all want to feel understood, loved and supported by others.

What we really need to do is develop a more mature and healthier perspective on self-reliance and strength. It can take a lot of courage to speak honestly about what you’re going through, especially if it’s really dark stuff. Self-reliance is definitely a virtue. But when it’s viewed in a very narrow and absolute way, then it can put men in harm’s way. If we can define self-reliance as exercising one’s own powers of judgement, then this certainly includes having the confidence to speak up and ask for help.

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Written by Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer who is interested in mindfulness, mental health and the evolving concept of masculinity.

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