Mental health struggles have always been prevalent in our world; however, being open and transparent about what is really going on inside your head has not. It has very much been looked down on, as if you’re a weaker person for needing to vent your thoughts and voice your emotions. If humans were supposed to keep everything in, we wouldn’t be programmed to feel. Nothing would phase us, no fight or flight responses, no adrenaline—life would be stale and gray; but because we are all human and have feelings and emotions, this must mean there is a purpose for them.
Anxiety is natural for everyone; just like fear, it lets us know there is potential danger. Anger can bring attention to injustice or disrespect. Grief allows us to express all the love that can no longer be reciprocated. The list could go on, so there is definitely purpose to those feelings. Everyone is valid in their emotions, but holding yourself accountable for how and if we relay or express them—that’s the challenge.
Just “Be a Man”
American culture puts a lot of responsibility on men to be the “STOIC” leader of the family, whereas women are expected to be the nurturing, sensitive, soft ones, when truly we are all capable of being well-rounded, emotionally intelligent people. There may be a difference in the way each process stress and emotions, but it does not mean that either one is incapable of showing humility and strength, and being honest and open.
I’ve witnessed this challenge even more so in the past few years being married to a man who suffers from a moderately severe bipolar diagnosis. I’ve been there to see how the continual inconsistency with his mood states directly affects his self-perception and self-image. The phrase “Be a man,” is one that plays on repeat for a lot of men, and the most devastating part of that phrase is that it’s taught so young—at a time in identity development where observation is the teacher. But showing them that vulnerability is a trait that’s just as important as resiliency could help emotional growth and awareness.
For example, my husband lost his great grandmother, who was very close to him, at a young age. During this first true hurt and loss, he felt expected to be strong for his family. Even now having a diagnosis, being medicated, and knowing that certain emotions trigger him and can bring him back to those same feelings—the thought still gets filtered through the lens of “be strong, don’t express things”. So, when it comes to learning and coping with the symptoms of his diagnosis, it can be self-defeating. Having those emotional reactions, or moments with uncontrollable emotions is okay—it’s bound to happen.
Feelings are Not Facts
Remembering that feelings are NOT facts is vitally important, especially on days when you may feel no purpose or feel unworthy, it’s just that—a feeling, NOT truth, and reminding yourself that these feelings may be big, but the response does not have to be bigger is necessary for learning how to recognize and go against the ways you were taught, to be open and even verbalize more than, “I’m Fine.” The more you verbalize those feelings or write them down, whether it’s journaling or a note in your phone, the more often you will be able to identify the cause of the emotion. Practice and repetition are the only way to get consistent with something new. Continuing to bottle things up and swallow those feelings may lead you to become more callus and irritable. It’s easy to turn inward and start allowing the repeating, intrusive thoughts to take over, and it starts to feel like it’s your new truth. It is much harder to stop the thought in its track and not let it affect your mental health.
Complacency is a walk in the park, but striving for happiness and truly working towards overall spiritual, mental, and physical health is a cross-country road trip. There are days you may get a flat tire, or must stop for gas, or need to stay an extra day to sleep, or days where you might need someone to help keep you company while you drive; but it’s temporary. Challenges will always come, but getting through it becomes more manageable as time goes on.
It’s Uncomfortable to Change
As awkward as it may be, stepping out of your comfort zone to speak up about having any feelings of depression, or lack of self-worth, or anxiety, is part of the growth process. It’s hard to change when we aren’t ready to face the truth of how heavy those feelings may truly weigh. Accepting that something feels off or different helps your brain be able to continue processing it through fully. It is a long, but doable journey of learning yourself and realizing the true cause of the emotion. Once the reality of your “normal” sets in, some of the initial anxiety of not understanding how to achieve the indoctrinated view of “being a man”—which has taught men to avoid, ignore, overlook, and not able to vent or process it—will subside.
Being open and vulnerable when it comes to emotions embodies strength and true masculinity. It takes patience and maturity to openly communicate what you’re feeling without being impulsive or brash. It’s beneficial to look for support in the community or resources like therapy or peer support. Sometimes having people that see your potential and value helps change the perspective that your brain has convinced itself is fact. Even if it’s hard to conceptualize, there are many people that silently suffer and doubt themselves. Some people wear their heart on their sleeve and can let the world know what they are feeling, while others keep going and smiling until it debilitates and forces them to stop. Being aware and even being able to say “I’m not okay today,” is a giant first step into growth and change.
Jessica Bryant is a Peer Support Specialist with Youturn Health, who has personally been in recovery from SUD for the past 3 years. Jessica has a heart for helping people that suffer from substance use, depression, anxiety, and grief.