AND I would caution all of us to think about what is working within the traditional models that might be hard wired for many, and difficult to change. In other words, how can we both expand contemporary ideas of strength, success and providing for one’s family while keeping what’s honorable and functional within some of our more traditional models. If we embrace the diversity of many expressions of manhood, we will be a far more resilient species.
Scripts of Masculinity: Traditional and Contemporary
Referring back to the 1976 (David & Brennan) book The 49 Percent Majority — let’s dig a little deeper into these common and traditional scripts of masculinity:
1. “No sissy stuff”
The idea behind this script is that to be a true man, one must not do things that have traditionally been thought to be feminine. For instance, if women are generally seen as skilled at expressing emotions and are more likely to seek mental health care when feeling unwell, then the “no sissy stuff” script tells men not to do this. On one hand we know emotional intelligence is a critical part of overall intelligence, and the ability to effectively express emotions is essential for effective interpersonal communication. Additionally we know that not seeking preventative care for many health issues is one of the main reasons women are outliving men by about seven years on average in the U.S. (Desjardins, 2004).
On the other hand, within our current civilization, we also need certain people to effectively compartmentalize emotions to perform necessary functions that would not be possible if emotions were being fully felt — for example surgical, combat and rescue functions. Men’s adherence to social scripts that support stoicism and emotional inexpressiveness are in opposition to “help-seeking” (Nam et al, 2010), and yet many men would benefit from counseling and other forms of mental health treatment.
How do we bridge this gap? I have worked with many fire fighters who have sought psychological services — fire fighters whose lives depend on decisiveness and emotional control — and they have reframed their experiences this way, “I didn’t see it as seeking help. I saw it as learning new coping strategies, like a physical trainer for the mind.”
2. “Be a big wheel”
For this script men are conditioned to strive for achievement and success with a focus on beating the competition. Again, striving for excellence is a good thing. The problem with this script is that success often becomes the “single source identity.” Men who buy into this script often identify primarily with what they do and are constantly striving to reach the “top.”
The challenge becomes that the goal post for achievement is an ever-moving target. In these circumstances, striving for success can become “the golden handcuffs” because men can begin to feel trapped when the achievement identity loses its connection with a far more important concept: purpose.
Work-related humiliation, failure — or even retirement — can lead men who subscribe to the “big wheel” script to feel like they’ve lost themselves. They can start to feel unneeded and adrift, a burden unto others. Thomas Joiner’s (2006) model of suicide risk clearly links perceived burdensomeness to a desire for suicide. Thus, our opportunity for the future is to help men find multiple pockets of purposefulness that can shift over the lifespan.
3. “Be a sturdy oak”
This script tells men to be the one that people depend on, not the one who needs others. Self-reliance is a virtue in many circumstances. Having an ability to persevere through and innovate around problems is highly admirable. Nevertheless, the truth is not all problems can be solved by oneself, and rugged individualism is lonely. Research supports the paradoxical finding that self-reliance increases risk for suicide (Pirkis et al, 2017).
What gives me hope is a great emerging appreciation for the effectiveness of peer support among men. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a proliferation of formal and informal peer support programs in male-dominated communities — in construction, law enforcement, fire service, military and more. Why have they been so popular? Again, Dr. Quinnett reminds us (Spencer-Thomas et al, 2013), that when men ask for help they run the risk of appearing weak and incompetent BUT accepting help is another matter. When a man accepts help offered he is still seen as strong, “but not quite strong enough to lift a car out of ditch or drag whole elk back to hunting camp…” Accepting help is acceptable because it creates the opportunity for “repayment reciprocity” — or the notion of “I’ve got your back, and you’ve got mine.”
4. “Give em hell”
Finally, this script calls for men to act aggressively and to display dominance, especially when threatened. In threatening situations, strong stances are often needed to establish boundaries and regain control. Thank goodness we have brave warriors and first responders who are able to protect the rest of us with these skills. Let us also not forget how many of us are inspired by the incredible accomplishments of some of our most aggressive athletes.
When this aggression is not used for a noble mission, however, men prone to aggression are more likely to perpetrate domestic violence, physical and sexual assault, and other criminal activity. On a lower level, the agitation and irritability related to this script leads men to get in trouble rather than get support or empathy. Often what is behind this aggression is depression (NIMH, n.d.). In our new diverse appreciation for masculinity, we can cultivate an awareness that emerging agitation may be a signal of depression or the experience of feeling threatened, and intervene much earlier — and in compassionate ways — before violence erupts.
In conclusion, I am thrilled my sons are growing up in an era where concepts of masculinity are as diverse as they ever have been. I am hopeful that however they mature, they will find healthy role models that will help shape them into men of honor and substance. For those of us excited about these changes, I would encourage us to not throw out traditional models of masculinity as there is great value for having many ideals for the many different roles men now play. By looking deeper into evolutionary psychology, we can better understand how diverse patterns of male behavior have developed the way they have and how we can best position health and well-being within many different social scripts.
For help in Australia
CAPS – Talk Suicide Support Service – Free telephone and face to face support 1800 008 255
Salvation Army Care Line 1300 36 36 22
Lifeline 13 11 14
Mensline Australia 1300 78 99 78 (24 hour phone counselling and referral)
QLife 1800 184 527 Phone & Chat 3.00 – 12.00 pm everyday
SANE Australia Helpline – Talk to a mental health professional (weekdays, 10am-10pm AEST) 1800 18 72 63
Helpline chat – Chat online with a mental health professional (weekdays 10am-10pm AEST)
Kids Help Line 1800 55 1800 (24 hour phone counselling)
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 (Professional call back service referral line operates seven days a week)
Veterans Line 1800 011 046 (after hours professional telephone crisis counselling for veterans and their families