Ann Silvers, Counselor Counselor, Personal & Relationship Coach Ann Silvers, Gig Harbor Counselor

I Don’t Want to Talk About It

Overcoming the secret legacy of male depression

Excerpts from a research paper by Ann Silvers

Terrance Real is a therapist with over 20 years experience working with men. In his book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, Overcoming the secret legacy of male depression, hereveals the negative effects of traditional socialization of men.  Real puts forward the argument that to be taught how to be a man in America entails chronic traumatization of boys during crucial developmental stages.  Boys are denied feelings, denied connection with other people, denied affiliation with their mother and all things feminine.  He theorizes that these denials add up to a denial of self and give rise to low self-esteem, depression, addictions, inept relationship skills, and violence.

Real groups the trauma of boys’ socialization into three categories: (1) decreased connection to their mother, (2) decreased connection to parts of themselves, and (3) decreased connection to others.  He labels the collective of these disconnections as “the loss of the relational” (p. 137).  These disconnections are also dissociations from the feminine.

“For most boys, the achievement of masculine identity is not an acquisition so much as a disavowal” (p. 130). Real relays the results of research that asked females to define femininity and males to define masculinity.  The females “answered in positive language: to be compassionate, to be connected, to care about others.”  The males predominantly responded in double negatives . . . . not being weak . . .not being dependent.”  American masculinity, thereby, appears to be defined as: not-feminine.

“By not attending to boys’ relational needs—the need for connection, for nurture, support, the expression of vulnerability—we teach them, through passive injury, that those needs are not quite legitimate.  We begin sending boys the message that they have fewer emotional needs than girls from the very first moments of life” (p. 121).

They must condemn parts of themselves when they condemn relational and emotional attributes. There is a high cost to these dissociations and condemnations. “The price for traditional socialization of girls is oppression. . . . The price of traditional socialization of boys is disconnection—from themselves, from their mothers, from those around them” (p. 130).  These disconnections set up males and those that interact with them for difficulties.  The situation is worsened because of traditional male censorship of vulnerability (p. 148).  Shame of being vulnerable to difficulty gravely hinders men’s ability to admit to themselves that they are having problems and can render them unable to reach out for help.  Giving rise to the all-too-common litany: “I don’t want to talk about it.”

A study by Hammen and Peters found that female students who shared feelings of depression with their roommates “met with nurturing and caring reactions” (p. 38).  Under the same circumstances, male students “met with social isolation and often with outright hostility.”  A middle-aged client of Real told of an incident earlier in his life when he attempted to disclose his depressed feelings to college friends.  The client summarized the experience with the slogan: “Reach out and get crushed by someone” (p. 38).

Direct ridicule is a common result of daring to step from the prescribed masculine role. Slurs which question one’s masculinity (“Mama’s boy,” “homo,” sissy,” “you throw like a girl”) are an effective way of punishing non-conformity and ensuring that males distance themselves from all things feminine.  Real testifies that : “No man I have treated has fully eluded the taste of the lash one receives if one dares not accept masculinity’s ‘invitation’” (p. 124).

According to Real, males struggle with self-esteem because the male gender-role confers a “performance-based esteem” (p. 182).  Performance-based esteem is problematic because it is unstable.  Since performance-based sense of self fluctuates with the position held in relation to others, it is always threatened and often deflated (p. 55).

Addictions self-medicate feelings of shame and unworthiness. Alcohol and cocaine “enliven dead feelings” (p. 146).  High-risk behaviors such as gambling, excessive infatuation, and rage serve to stimulate hormones that give a sense of intensified feeling.  A complicating factor in male addictions is that many of their addictions are socially acceptable or even desirable for men (p. 62).  Alcohol consumption is expected. Sexual prowess is congratulated.  Unceasing, persistent pursuit of women is romanticized.  The acquisition of possessions is a symbol of success. Hard bodies are idealized.  Workaholics are admired as high-achievers.  Unfortunately, the normalization of addictive behavior hides the underlying stress and depression that drive the addiction.  This allows men to deny emotions that do not fit the male gender-role.

Violence ...Emotional pain that is denied is not neutralized—just ignored. “Men who do not turn to face their own pain are too often prone to inflict if on others” (p. 234).