By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS
I’m reading the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktore Frankl. It is a powerful and difficult read about his experience as a Jewish psychiatrist in the death camps of Nazi Germany during WWII. While there is so much to be said about this book and Frankl’s thoughts, something stood out to me in the passage I just read. Let me share.
There was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer. Only very few realized that.
When I think about how our culture defines masculinity – tough, dominant, confident, powerful, emotionless – there is no room for tears. Courage is displayed through aggression. This is simply and truthfully unhealthy, and perhaps even deadly. This denial of one’s emotions is equivalent to trying to hold back the tides of the ocean. There is no reality where healing comes only via suppression of real need, and first we must own that we suffer.
Males suffer grief and sadness, depression and anxiety, shame and guilt, and all manner of negative experiences. We are told from early childhood to stop crying, to suck it up, “man up,” and push forward. That may be helpful as a soldier in time of war but has no place in daily human experience. In fact, it has its greatest need, as Frankl shares, in our time of suffering.
When a male is struggling with an eating disorder or a related issue like muscle dysmorphia, the most common reason they forgo seeking care is it shows weakness. Weakness is antithetical to American perception of masculinity. Put more bluntly, it is seen as feminine, and thus a source of shame. How much this speaks to the culture of toxic masculinity is a whole other topic. But put in the context of eating disorders, which historically has skewed both in research and treatment to women at the near exclusion of males, and it is even more apparent why males do not seek care. Who would they share their suffering with? Who would understand their experience? As Frankl states, who would bear witness to that man’s courage?
This is why I created the first ever residential treatment unit for males with eating disorders. It takes courage to suffer, it takes courage to share those feelings, and it takes courage to recover. There needs to be a place that can provide the opportunity to do those things. It is here now.