This article is authored by Mubeen Qureshi, LMSW
Omar, a young professional in his 20s, is helping his mother run errands. He starts noticing a tight sensation in his chest and feels like he has to catch his breath constantly, like it’s hard to breathe. At first, he just brushed it off, but it kept happening throughout his day. Unsure of what to do, Omar told his mom that he was feeling anxious. His mother, taken aback by Omar’s revelation, brushed it off, “You look fine to me, don’t worry. I raised a strong son; it’s nothing, I’m sure.” Omar let it go and continued his day.

Later that night, Omar realized that he experienced these feelings before— when he was stressed about an upcoming event. Upon reflecting, he realizes he’s feeling anxiety, this time about an upcoming job interview and the possibility of moving to a different city.  But his mom’s voice is etched in his mind, “You look fine, I raised a strong man,” so he ignores what he’s feeling and goes to bed.   

Stories like these are far too common. Throughout history, men have had difficulty identifying and expressing their emotions. Due to stigma and societal norms around masculinity, men are less likely to seek help for mental health struggles. Unfortunately, studies show that men are also more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use, aggression, antisocial behaviors, and suicide. Men turn to alcohol and drugs to provide temporary relief—they engage in repression or antisocial behaviors due to a lack of emotional awareness. I see this very often as a licensed clinician who has worked with many male clients.

Without getting the help they need, men are at great risk for mental illness throughout their lifetimes, impacting their well-being as well as their families. In this article, I will present why men have difficulty with their emotions and how to cope in healthier ways to improve their emotional awareness, and ultimately, their mental health.

Society determines what emotions are acceptable for men to experience.

Societal and cultural norms have made it difficult for men to express how they truly feel. According to society, men are supposed to be tough and strong— expressing emotions and experiencing struggles such as anxiety or depression is seen as weak and unmanly. They can’t be anxious or depressed because they’re supposed to be strong and should “just handle things.” Whenever men talk about how they’re feeling, the terms “man up,” “suck it up,” or “stop being a baby” are often thrown out. Unfortunately, men are encouraged to experience certain emotions and physiological sensations: Anger, Fatigue, Hunger, and Sexual Desires.

Interestingly, the pressure to suppress emotions does not exist in the Islamic faith (although we see it in Muslim cultures). We can learn much about how men expressed emotions from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions. The Prophet (PBUH) was very emotionally intelligent—he was keenly aware of how others were feeling and thinking. He also had no problem expressing his own emotions, whether it be happiness or sadness. Look at this beautiful example of his emotional intelligence:
The Prophet (PBUH) said to Ayesha (ra), “I can well discern (I can tell) when you are pleased with me and when you are annoyed with me.”

She (ra) asked, “How do you discern it (How can you tell)?”

The Prophet (PBUH) replied, “When you are happy with me you take an oath saying, ‘I swear by the Lord of Muhammad. However, when you are upset you would say, ‘I swear by the Lord of Ibrahim.”

Ayesha (ra), said, “Yes (you are right) O Messenger of Allah, but by Allah, I leave nothing but your name.”
*For more information on prophetic examples of emotional intelligence, check out this book or this video.

Anger is not the emotion you should focus on

I know what you’re thinking.  Didn’t you just say society allows men to feel anger?  I did but hear me out.  In my experience of working with men, the emotion of “anger” is often used to describe how men feel in various situations— an argument with their spouse or getting yelled at by their boss. When asked to expand on their emotions, men assume it’s just anger. After some self-reflection, men realize that these situations can cause them to feel a wide range of emotions. Anger is an umbrella emotion. Just like an umbrella covers you while it’s raining outside, anger covers up other emotions an individual may be experiencing. Anger stands for: Annoyed, Neglected, Guilty, Embarrassed, and Resentful. Until men dig deeper beyond the anger they feel, they will not experience their full emotions and will not know exactly what underlying emotion is impacting their well-being.

So what can you do?

1) Identify your emotions Men often say to me in session, “Just tell me what I need to do to stop me from feeling this way.” It’s not that simple. In order to solve the problem , you need to identify what it is you are feeling in the first place. When asked to expand on their emotions, men are shocked at how many different emotions they experience in a given situation. The same was true for Omar.
Initially, Omar stated he was extremely angry by what his mother said to him. But when given the space to explore his emotions, Omar realized he felt betrayed, hurt, and helpless by his mom’s comments—on top of the anxiety he was already feeling. Identifying your emotions is the first step in helping you heal from everyday stresses to more traumatic, painful experiences. If you’re struggling with identifying your emotions, try these strategies:

  • – Tune into the sensations in your body. Emotions show up physically in our bodies in unique ways. 
    • – Frustration could show up as a flush of heat in the face
    • – Sadness can feel like your throat tightening or your mouth constantly in a frown
    • – Anxiety can show through tightness in your chest or in your stomach
  • – Pay attention to your self-talk. Your self-talk can give you a lot of insight as to what emotions you’re feeling.  
    • – For example, if you’re saying “I can’t handle this, I’m giving up.” You may feel overwhelmed, stressed, frustrated, and disappointed.  
  • Try looking at an emotions list (please disregard the emotion of anger on the list). In my work with men, simply seeing an emotion with a facial illustration describing the emotion helps them identify what it is they’re feeling.  
  • – Learn to put words to what you’re feeling. Write down what you’re feeling, even if you’re not ready to share it with anyone.
2) Give yourself space  We hold onto a lot. With everything going on from stress at work or relationship issues with loved ones, we rarely give ourselves space to process what we’re feeling. We deal (mistakenly) by engaging in things that distract us and cover up the pain— like sports or watching TV, or other negative behaviors (aggression, drug use). The problem is that the pain doesn’t fade— as we discussed above. So what can we do? Giving ourselves the time and space to work on our feelings is an important step in helping us heal. Without giving ourselves time and space, these painful memories will anchor us down, and prevent us from moving forward. Try the following tactics to help begin the healing process:

  • – Take time out of your day to reflect: journaling, driving home from work, going for a walk, and so on.  Some questions that you can ask yourself during these moments are: 
    • – What emotions am I feeling?  What am I saying to myself (see self-talk point above)? What am I feeling/doing physically? Is my heart rate fast? Am I clenching my fist (or jaw)? 
  • – Talk to someone you trust. When feeling anxious or depressed, we feel as if we’re alone and that no one will understand what we’re going through. However, this idea is false. People are willing to help. Remember it is harder to avoid having the difficult conversation than to actually have it.  
  • – Consider therapy. If the thought of talking to someone overwhelms you and results in you shutting down, please consider seeking therapy. A preconceived notion especially amongst males is that therapy is for the weak. Again, this is completely false. Going for therapy doesn’t mean you are weak. It means that you are strong enough to face the issues you’re struggling with. A common practice among the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions was to let each other have the space to express their emotions— even cry!    
3) Develop a self-care strategy that works for you Once we’re on the path of processing our emotions, it is important to develop a self-care strategy specific to your needs.  When men are stressed out, many jump into “fix-it” mode, whether it’s jumping into more work or fixing things around the house. Although this can sometimes help, picking a self-care strategy means it’s something that helps you process your emotions— not just push them aside. Pick positive coping and self-care strategies that are tailored to best fit your needs (not what you see other men do). Remember, it is not the individual self-care strategy that makes the difference, it is the totality of the steps outlined here that will help you work through your emotions. Remember, if you can’t take care of yourself, it makes it that much harder to take care of others. 
When struggling with mental health, men feel as if something is wrong with them because we are socialized to think we can’t hurt. We may sometimes mistakenly think that Allah (SWT) is punishing us for not being a good Muslim or for a sin that we committed in the past. This can’t be farther from the truth. Throughout history, our prophets have all experienced various emotions and even experienced depression (i.e. Prophet Muhammad and the “Year of Sadness”). Using the strategies described in this article, we can break these negative patterns and begin the healing process.
How Breaking Stereotypes can Help us Move Forward: A Male Therapist’s Guide to Help Men Heal, by Understanding their Emotions
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