Whether he’s making shelves out of the drawers you bought from Ikea, “exploring” country roads or silently growing moles the size of mushrooms, men have one thing in common. They don’t like asking for help. Yes, this can be a stereotype and one I’m well used to hearing but if we look at the evidence we see another story.
Lighthearted tomfoolery to one side this is a serious problem. Men are less likely to reach out for health-related support. One survey showed that twice as many men don’t visit their family doctor compared to women. More women get skin cancer than men, but more men die from it. This indicates men are seeking help much later than women which is having a serious impact on their health.
Nearly 80% of suicides in the UK are men and often caused by men battling their problems alone. The problem extends to loneliness. Men are less likely to stay in touch with old friends and as a result, are losing important peer support networks in their lives. In a 2015 UK study, 2.5 million men described themselves as having one or fewer friends. Men are afraid of asking for deeper friendship and support from their peer groups due to fears about how they will be judged for it.
The fundamental reason men don’t ask for help is that they have learnt not to. They have slowly and systemically learnt that asking for help is not acceptable. What is acceptable is being like the men who have come before them; autonomous, self-reliant, stoic and independent. Their sense of identity is steeped in the good, strong, independent man who is the lone wolf. And the lone wolf goes it alone.
The rhetoric goes like this.
Ask for help = Unable to help yourself = Helpless = Victim = Weak
Studies show that asking for help makes you happier, healthier, more successful and have better relationships. So why do so many men refuse support and go it alone in life?
This is the third article in the Stories of Men series where I’m looking at the old stories we have learnt about what it means to be a man. I’m looking beneath the stories to understand where they come from. I want to challenge the stories in order to propose new, healthier ones to help develop happier and more inspiring men.
Old Story: Men isolate themselves and don’t ask for help. Men must be self-sufficient so asking for help is a sign of weakness.
New Story: Asking for help when you need it helps make you be a good and better man.
To rewrite the story we must first understand how men have learnt that asking for help is so wrong. Here are three reasons that I believe explain why men don’t ask for help:
#1. The Man Code
Being a man comes with a code of conduct. The code says that you must live up to the identity of what your society expects of you. This code was written before you were born and determines how men should behave. It says what you will do, what you won’t do and what the consequences are if you to fail to play along.
With the Man Code in place our behaviours, habits, language and actions are all modelled to us from a young age by those around us. We learn to read and write just like we learn not to ask for help. There are few things that represent the classic male stereotype more than the stoic, independent, self-reliant man. Boys and men learn that these are virtues and provide a compass in their pursuit of what it means to be a man.
Through one lens they provide status, identity and are a sign of strength. Through another, they contribute to isolation, detachment and even physical health problems. This silent identity is hidden in our society, in the words we use, the clothes we wear, our entertainment and our jobs.
The important point isn’t whether we think this is true but whether men believe that it is true. Yes, there is social pressure to conform but that alone doesn’t cause men to deny help and support. The more men identify with this story and the expectation they believe others have of them, the less likely they will seek help and support in life. This is an important distinction between those men who do and don’t ask for help.
#2. How men respond to their feelings
Feelings play a large part in why men don’t ask for help. There are two parts to this that motivate men to not seek support:
Part 1 – Men aren’t comfortable with the feelings that come with asking for help
Men have the capacity to feel just as much as women. Studies have shown boys up to the age of four express as much if not more emotional signals than girls. After this age, however, they begin to change in response to what they learn is good and bad. Feelings were once valuable expressions showing us information about our experience. They told us what we loved, what we were scared of and when we needed support. We used feelings to help communicate our needs and desires.
However, over time boys learn to avoid and repress many feelings – “boys don’t cry”, “you’re such a girl”. These phrases tell boys that only certain feelings are acceptable. So when difficult feelings come they are shamed and pushed down.
Asking for help is vulnerable. Expressing vulnerability is difficult because this feeling is uncomfortable when men have not learnt to acknowledge, feel and communicate such feelings before. Certain feelings are not consistent with the cultural expectation of what a man is. As a result, men will avoid this feeling by not asking for help in the first place.
Part 2 – Men don’t value the feelings of connection and intimacy that come from asking for help
Connection and intimacy are forged out of vulnerability and expression of feelings. Because men haven’t developed an ability to feel and express emotions they don’t value them when they arrive. They also don’t value opportunities to deepen connection through the expression of these feelings. As a result, any opportunity to deepen connection by vulnerably expressing their feelings to another is not valued and therefore avoided.
#3. Men don’t want to be judged
Another reason men don’t ask for help is because of the judgement they believe they will experience if they do. Men base their sense of identity on the societal definitions they grew up with. Boys learn that stepping outside of that definition comes at a great cost and that conditioning stays with them into adulthood. As a result, men learn to fear any questioning of their manliness or social standing.
The gender stereotypes men want to live up to are so ingrained in our cultural stereotypes we don’t even realise they’re there. We can see an example of this in a study into how we perceive male and female leaders when they ask for help. The study indicated that people think less of men than women when they asked for help.
We can agree that this is wrong and that we should treat men and women equally. However, the data suggests to the contrary. We have various unconscious biases which drive our behaviours, our judgement and our actions.
If men sense judgement when asking for help (if only a tiny amount) then they won’t do it.
The happiness and success in my own life has been proportional to the extent I have been able to reach out for help. This has helped me grow as a person, heal old wounds and deepen my relationships and friendships. So for those who have grown up believing men can’t ask for help, I propose a new story. This story says that asking for help, when you need it, helps make you a good and better man. And the world needs these men now more than ever.
Stories of Men Series
This article is third in the Stories of Men series. In this series, I want to share the alternative stories about men that we rarely hear. I want to share stories of men that will inspire and not shame our boys and men.
This is not to challenge the legitimacy of some of the old stories. The purpose of this series is to promote a more mature expression of men and masculinity. An expression that we rarely see modelled in today’s world. It’s my desire to share these stories so we can begin to rewrite what it means for each man, to be a man.
More articles in this series are detailed below:
I hope this post was helpful. Why do you think men don’t ask for help? What’s your experience of this? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it. For regular content like this just fill in the box below.
To your success