Men and Mental Health Awareness Initiatives: Rejecting the ‘Boys will be Boys’ Mentality
By Jason F. Sikorski, Ph. D.
In American society, wherever you turn, expectations are everywhere. Family, friends, bosses, co-workers, romantic partners and even social media pundits expect certain things from people. Individual men know the rules in society for how they are supposed to act and feel: ‘shake it off’, ‘stand up for yourself’ and ‘stop whining like a b—–’ are variations of a message that permeate the daily interactions of men. Help-seeking is framed as a sign of femininity, such that attempting to achieve balanced wellness in the areas of physical and mental health is viewed by many men as a sign of weakness. The ramifications of these gender-based social constructions can be tragic, as far too many men suffer with symptoms of mental illness in silence.
As a college professor who works with men to challenge expectations consistent with ‘toxic masculinity’, I often use the theory of cognitive dissonance to create theory-guided interventions with men that are more likely to result in real behavior change. Given space restrictions, I summarize the essence of some of my work below.
Cognitive dissonance is the idea of creating a situation for individuals where their own behavioral tendencies are inconsistent with their thoughts. When human beings experience cognitive dissonance they tend to feel uncomfortable, and something has to change, either their thoughts or behaviors. Men are not going to change because we lecture them to do so. They are more likely to be influenced by direct, real-world stories that point out the hypocrisy of manhood.
For instance, many college-aged men engage in reckless and impersonal sexual interactions with women. They tend to see women as ‘hook-ups’ as opposed to potential partners. Yet, the men who think this way are the same men who become outraged and angry when asked to think about another man treating their mothers or sisters similarly. Now they feel it! Recognizing and processing this hypocrisy associated with manhood can serve to set the stage for behavior change.
Expressing private emotions is not something that many men are used to doing. Challenge them to engage in simple tasks so that they can directly experience the benefits of feeling things. Use baby steps here! Men are not going to pour out their emotions instantaneously. I often ask the men I work with to call someone they care about that night and tell them how much they mean to them. I require them to pay attention to how it feels when they do that and how others respond. I ask them to think about instances in their lives when they did not get to tell someone how they really felt about them until it was too late and how painful that experience was. Many of these men report back that their loved one broke down and was so very appreciative of their sentiments. Many of the men describe feeling a ‘weight lifted’. They feel authentic. In short, based on these direct experiences you create for men, they may come to believe that emotional expression can’t be all bad like they were taught. Cognitive dissonance can drive actual behavior change.
I challenge men directly. After all, men often respond well to direct and demanding coaches in athletics. I urge them to consider whether real men are supposed to chart their own paths. Should men just follow along and buy into societal expectations that obviously cause harm just because that is what other men do? I directly challenge men to consider being a change agent and to reset societal expectations by being a confidant to their male friends, by seeking out help with emotional problems and by practicing being the type of partner and father they dream about being in the future…understanding, kind, receptive, available and loyal. Isn’t that what being a real man is? Perhaps of great surprise to many, the men in my workshops have typically never been challenged to think this way before. They have been going through the motions when it comes to gender roles for their entire lives.
Through simple exercises like these, done in a group setting typically, a true context for meaningful change can be created. Of course, the change to occur is not going to take place at our workshops or Fresh Check Day, it’s going to occur when the heads of these men hit their pillows at night and they come to think more deeply about their lives and their futures. We can’t be frustrated when the men we work with do not do all we ask on our PowerPoint slides. Men are thoughtful, reflective and accountable most of the time. We should trust men to implement their own specific changes, while rejecting the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality by providing vivid real-world education and experiences that they may have never encountered prior.
Jason F. Sikorski, Ph. D. is an Associate Professor of Psychological Science at Central Connecticut State University.
If you are in a crisis, dial 2-1-1, in Connecticut. If you are outside of Connecticut and need support now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or, text CONNECT to 741741 to get help 24/7 from the Crisis Text Line.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit the Jordan Porco Foundation’s resources page.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal, and not those of the Jordan Porco Foundation. The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as mental health advice from the individual author or the Jordan Porco Foundation. You should consult a mental health professional for advice regarding your individual situation.