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'I was so done in that I just recognized it very plainly, "You need to do something"': Men's narratives of struggle, distress and turning to meditation

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Abstract

Traditional masculinities can mean men are unable or unwilling to deal constructively with distress. However, researchers increasingly acknowledge that men and masculinities (including hegemonic styles) are diverse. Moreover, men can positively manage their well-being, although little research explores how they do so. Uniquely, our study sought to find men who report finding ways to care for themselves to examine narratives about how such self-care originated. We aimed to do this by exploring issues underpinning men's journeys towards meditation, focusing on implications for well-being. In-depth interviews were conducted in 2009 with 30 meditators, selected using principles of maximum variation sampling, and analysed with a modified 'constant comparison' approach. Men's journeys towards meditation were fraught with difficulties. Men described crossing a threshold from boyhood into 'manhood' where they encountered traditional forms of masculinity (e.g. stoicism), and most described subsequent strategies to disconnect from emotions. While men eventually found ways to engage more constructively with their emotions and well-being, this article explores the struggle and distress of their journeys.
Lomas, T., Cartwright, T., Edginton, T., and Ridge, D. (2012) I was so done in that I just
recognized it very plainly, “You need to do something”’: men’s narratives of struggle, distress
and turning to meditation. Health, doi:10.1177/1363459312451178
Note: This document represents the version of the paper above, before any changes were
made via the reviewing process at Health.
Please go to: http://hea.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/07/04/1363459312451178.abstract
for the final reviewed and edited paper.
Abstract
Traditional masculinities can mean men are unable or unwilling to deal constructively
with distress. However, it is increasingly acknowledged that men and masculinities
(including those that subscribe to hegemonic styles) are diverse, and men can
positively manage their well-being, although little research exists exploring how they
do so. Uniquely, our study sought to find men who engage relatively constructively
with their own well-being to examine narratives about how such engagement comes
about. In-depth interviews were conducted in 2009 with thirty men who had taken up
meditation practice, selected using principles of maximum variation sampling.
Adopting a modified ‘constant comparison’ approach, the analysis explored men’s
journeys toward meditation, which were often fraught with difficulties. Men described
crossing a threshold from boyhood into ‘manhood’ where they came up against
traditional performances of masculinity (e.g. stoical), and most described subsequent
strategies to be emotionally tough and/or disconnect from difficult emotions. While
men eventually found ways to engage more constructively with their well-being
through meditation, many underwent a challenging journey first, involving
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considerable struggle and distress, as outlined in this paper. We discuss implications
for helping men to better understand, engage with, and manage their distress.
Masculinity and distress
Gender differences are frequently noted in rates of Common Mental Disorders
(CMD) (e.g. anxiety, depression), with women nearly twice as likely to experience
depression (McManus, Meltzer, Brugha et al, 2009). However, there is a concern
that men may express distress in other ways, with men being three times more likely
to commit suicide than women, (ONS, 2011b), and accounting for two out of every
three deaths from alcohol (ONS, 2011a). While distress is often ill-defined, it refers to
mental suffering, representing “an unpleasant emotional state” (Gadalla, 2009).
Distress is often used to denote negative subjective experiences that fall short of
clinical diagnoses for mental disorders as defined by classification systems such as
the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, although there may be a
degree of overlap between distress and defined disorders (Green, Emslie, O’Neill et
al., 2010).
Some commentators argue that rather than ‘internalising’ distress as sadness,
for example, men are more likely to ‘externalise’ it in various ways, such as
aggression, risk-taking, alcohol and substance use, and suicide (Pollack, 1998). For
example, in an Australian study of people who identified as being ‘down in the
dumps,’ men were more likely to try and avoid feelings of distress, e.g. through
numbing or escape behaviours, until these later culminated in a ‘build-up,’ including
aggression towards others, and suicide attempts (Brownhill, Wilhelm, Barclay and
Schmied, 2005). Men are also seen as less likely to seek help for distress and other
disorders, being more unwilling than women to disclose vulnerability, and setting a
higher threshold of distress before help is sought (Riska and Ettorre, 1999).
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These patterns of distress as described above have been linked to ‘traditional’
forms of masculinity, even to the extent that masculinity itself has been viewed as a
risk factor for health . Traditional masculinities often involved norms of toughness,
strength, and stoicism, and adherence to these norms could contribute to how men
experience and express distress: the gendered responding framework suggests that
gendered socialisation encourages men to adopt maladaptive stances toward their
own emotions (Addis, 2008); for example, learning to suppress negative emotions,
leading to restrictive emotionality and poor emotional regulation skills (Flynn,
Hollenstein and Mackey, 2010). Poor emotional regulation may then impact upon
mental health, as there is an emerging view that such regulation may be a critical
trans-diagnostic factor underlying various mental health problems (Aldao, Nolen-
Hoeksema, & Schweizer, 2010). Additionally, traditional masculine norms around
toughness and invulnerability can impose demands that exacerbate distress in other
ways. For example, in the ‘masculine depression framework’, masculine norms are
thought to create ‘gender strain’ as men attempt to live up to unattainable ideals (e.g.
suffering in silence) (Pleck, 1995).
Despite links made between traditional masculinity and distress in the
literature, relational theorists, notably Connell (1995), have proposed a more
dynamic reading of gender, involving a “multiplicity of masculinities, inhabited and
enacted by different people and by the same people at different times” (Paechter,
2003, p.69). Relational theory acknowledges the diversity of masculinities that are
constructed and enacted through everyday practices (Connell, 1995). These different
masculinities exist within hierarchical relationships, with a particular pattern of
gendered behaviour being culturally authoritative and dominant in any one setting.
This ‘hegemonic’ masculinity – “the most honoured way of being a man” in any
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particular locale (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005, p.832) – exerts power over
‘marginalised’ masculinities through its normalising power to frame behaviours as
natural (Donaldson, 1993).
The concept of hegemonic masculinity has evolved over recent years in
response to various criticisms of the original formulation. For example, initial
formulations focused on power imbalances in society that upheld men’s “global
dominance” over women in a patriarchal social order; however, this conception was
later deemed too simplistic to account for the “complexity of the relationships among
different constructions of masculinity” (p847); as such, more recent formulations of
the theory have sought to emphasise the historical, local, and dynamic nature of
particular configurations of hegemony (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005). These
configurations have been studied at varying levels of scale, from a national level
(Munn, 2008), to smaller, more specific groups, (e.g. Norwegian lumberjack workers,
where hegemonic ideals shifted from “weathered” appearance to the wielding of
heavy machinery (Brandth and Haugen, 2005)).The idea that particular ‘communities
of practice’ (i.e. “groups or networks of people with shared understandings of
identity, norms”; Creighton and Oliffe, 2010, 414), can encourage particular patterns
of gendered behaviour, or “configurations of practice”, is helpful in understanding
how local forms of hegemony can emerge. However, not only can hegemony have
multiple, shifting meanings, men are seen as being able to take up different subject
positions in relation to these meanings according to need – rejecting essentialist
ideas of a fixed, trait-like view of gender. So various enactments of masculinity
represent not different types of men, but rather the way men may flexibly and
strategically “position themselves through discursive practices” according to the
dynamics of the particular social situation (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005, p841).
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Recognition of the way hegemonic ideals can shift with various social
configurations has led to a more nuanced conception of the relationship between
masculinity and health, where contrary to the ‘masculinity-as-risk-factor’ model,
theorists have argued against drawing a straightforward link between masculine
forms and negative health outcomes (Sloan, Gough and Conner, 2009). This applies
to the field of mental health, where researchers have examined ways in which men
have been able to challenge or reinterpret masculine norms (e.g. around toughness)
to find more constructive ways of relating to feelings of distress, and emotions more
generally. Some studies have emphasised that men are not inevitably emotionally
disconnected, and when given ‘permission and safety to talk’ can talk openly and
insightfully about their emotional experiences, even around sensitive issues (Oliffe,
2005). A number of studies have explored the way in which some men have been
able to respond to experiences of depression in relatively constructive ways (while
depression and distress are different constructs, they overlap sufficiently to be
instructive for understanding men and distress; (Green et al., 2010)). Emslie, Ridge,
Ziebland and Hunt (2006) discovered that some men with depression were able to
frame their illness experiences in a positive light, creating a valued sense of
masculinity based on enhanced sensitivity, intelligence and independence from
‘macho’ norms (i.e. challenging hegemony), while others positively constructed their
plight in ways that aligned with hegemony, e.g. a ‘heroic struggle’.
Men have long been overlooked and under theorised in mental health
research (Riska, 2009), and there have been calls for a greater understanding of
men’s subjective experiences of distress , particularly in terms of exploring the
heterogeneity of men’s approaches to their mental health (Addis, 2008). In the light
of promising studies suggesting that some men are able to cope adaptively with
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difficult emotional experiences, more research is needed to explore how they are
able to do so (Chuick, Greenfeld, Greenberg et al., 2009). Research into men’s
constructive engagement with their emotions and mental health is generally limited
to coping with depression or physical illness (e.g. cancer), with assessment of
engagement often confined to willingness to seek help . There is currently no
research examining men’s own strategies for engaging with feelings of distress, as
well as well-being more generally. Well-being is a multidimensional construct which,
in psychological terms, refers not only to the absence of disorder and distress, but
also the presence of positive subjectivity (e.g. affective experiences of pleasure;
cognitive judgements of life satisfaction, the realisation of potential; positive values
and meaning) (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
Consequently, our study sought to find a group of men who were likely to
have found at least some ways to self-manage their emotions and well-being, with
the aim of exploring why and how this self-management came about. It was
envisaged that men who meditate may represent such a group, since meditation is
associated with positive outcomes on a wide range of mental health indicators,
including depression (Mars and Abbey, 2010). Meditation can be considered to
involve “training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under
greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and
development” (Walsh and Shapiro, 2006, 229). Despite wide-spread interest in
meditation across a variety of research domains, there is currently no research
examining meditation in the context of masculinity or men’s mental health.
Methods
Overview
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The study elicited narratives via one-to-one semi-structured interviews with a sample
of 30 male adults recruited using a maximum variation sampling strategy , analysed
using a ‘constant comparison’ approach (Strauss and Corbin, 1990). Such interviews
were considered appropriate to the study of men’s approaches to well-being as they
facilitate exploration of the issues and complexities of the topic, and allow
participants’ own meanings and priorities to emerge (Emslie, Ridge, Ziebland and
Hunt, 2006). The interviews analysed in this paper were conducted in 2009.
Participants
Inclusion criteria were that men must be aged over 18 and currently practice
meditation in some capacity, though not as part of a clinical intervention for a mental
health condition (this does not mean that they may not have first encountered
meditation through such interventions). A purposive sampling design was used,
specifically maximum variation, which aimed to include the widest practical range of
life experiences, socio-demographic backgrounds and meditation experience .
Recruitment was mainly through a meditation centre London, UK, plus a number of
other talks and meditation classes. Access to participants at the meditation centre
was granted through a number of gatekeepers. Snowball sampling occurred through
participants and their personal contacts. Recruitment ended once saturation was
reached (i.e. additional interviews did not generate any substantial new themes of
interest to the project), and in total 30 male meditators were recruited. Sampling
occurred concurrently with initial stages of data analysis, with the emerging analysis
suggesting the inclusion of certain men in order to increase the robustness of the
analysis (Cutcliffe, 2005). A diverse sample of participants was obtained as outlined
in Table 1, all of whom lived and/or worked in London, 22 men had varying levels of
involvement with one particular meditation centre in London (ranging from sporadic
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attendance, to living there); 4 more were linked to other communities, and 4 were
unaffiliated.
Table 1: Table showing demographic characteristics of the 30 male meditators
interviewed
Age Yrs
meditating
Hrs/wk
meditating
Ethnicity Occupation Education Relations
20 – 30 yrs
n = 4
0 – 5 yrs
7
0 – 2 hrs
6
White British
21
Health-care
9
Secondary
2
Single
13
30 – 40
7
5 – 10
8
2 – 4
8
Mixed British
1
Community
5
College
2
Partnered
11
40 – 50
14
10 – 15
7
4 – 6
10
White other
6
Business
5
Graduate
8
Family
6
50 – 60
4
15 – 20
4
6 – 8
3
Indian
1
Education
3
Post-graduate
6
Homosexual
9
60 +
1
20 +
4
8 +
3
Asian
1
Other
8
Professional
12
Heterosexual
21
Data collection
The interviews were semi-structured, lasting up to 2 hours, conducted by the first
author. Participants chose to be interviewed in their own homes, at the University, or
at the meditation centre. An interview guide was initially devised in consultation with
the literature and the research team, and revised after the initial interviews. Prior to
the interview, participants signed an informed consent form and completed a brief
demographic survey. The project was approved by the University Research Ethics
sub committee, and an ethics protocol was in place to ensure the well-being of
participants.
The interviews aimed to elicit men’s narratives concerning their engagement
with meditation. Narratives order events in time and reflect how people construct and
represent meanings about themselves and their lives (White, 1987). The interview
approach was designed to be sensitive to men (e.g. being non-judgemental, using
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their words as prompts), providing a safe space in which they were encouraged to
tell their own story in their own words . The first part of the interview focused on
narratives regarding life leading up to, and following on from, involvement with
meditation. The opening injunction (“Tell me something about life before meditation”)
enabled participants to begin their narrative at any point in their life history, and to
include any aspects of their lives they felt to be relevant. Narratives were pursued up
to the present moment, and looking ahead to the future. The second part of the
interview focused on specific areas of interest, including: well-being, stress; coping;
masculinity; relationships; social life; work; hobbies; spirituality and meaning.
Participants received £20 for participation as a token of appreciation.
Data analysis
Interviews were professionally transcribed, identifying details redacted, and
transcripts sent to participants for approval. The NVivo software package was used
to help code, organise, search and analyse the data. The data was explored using a
‘modified’ constant comparison approach (focusing mainly on open and axial
coding), in which theory is generated through a bottom-up data-driven inductive
process (Strauss and Corbin, 1990), while also linking back to existing literature to
clarify the emerging analysis (Cutcliffe, 2005). In an initial coding phase, interview
transcripts were examined paragraph by paragraph to identify emergent themes.
This paper concentrates on the data pertaining to participants’ lives before
meditation (leading up to, and including, initial meditation experiences). There were
around 20 prominent codes identified, such as ‘crossing into manhood’, ‘trying to be
tough’, and ‘fitting in’. The next stage involved generation of a tentative conceptual
framework: codes were compared with each other, and grouped into four
overarching categories according to conceptual similarity. The themes mentioned
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above created the category of ‘becoming a man’. The other categories were:
emotional distress; coping responses; and turning to meditation. These categories
constitute the 4 main sections below. The final stage involved fleshing out the
properties, dimensions, and interrelationships between these categories and codes.
All the authors were involved in debating the codes and their links, and drafting the
manuscript.
Results
There was considerable variation among men, however, in this paper we focus on
the common themes in order to highlight issues which may have broader relevance
to men and wellbeing. One overarching explanation for engaging more constructively
with well-being emerged from our analysis: most men narrated their decision to
begin meditating as being a response to feeling something was not right in their lives
– there was something missing, they were unhappy, ill at ease, distressed or in
crisis. Under this theme, there were four interlinked themes. The first concerns the
hegemonic pressure men felt during adolescence to become a man and be
emotionally ‘tough’. The second relates to how this toughness was linked to
problems regulating emotions, and a sense of inner turmoil and distress. The third is
about how men responded to this distress in various ways which were ultimately
experienced as ineffectual. The fourth details how men eventually turned to
meditation, at least partly as a potential solution to their problems. These themes are
discussed in turn below, illustrated with interview excerpts. All names used are
pseudonyms.
Crossing the threshold of manhood
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The Cure had a hit with ‘Boys don’t cry’. I remember it meaning a lot to me,
“Oh yeah, I’m not supposed to cry.”. . . This old conditioning, being a man, this
idea of who I’m supposed to be (Dalton)
Many men told a story of experiencing pressure to ‘be a man’, especially in
terms of being emotionally tough, both inwardly (not ‘having’ emotions) and
outwardly (not showing them). These pressures were often (though not always)
portrayed as emerging, or becoming particularly salient, during adolescence.
Although only some men focused their narratives on their childhood, many
highlighted adolescence as an important period, particularly in terms of the formation
and development of their masculine identity. Many referred to a pivotal time around
ages 11 to 13 where they talked about crossing a threshold from boyhood into
manhood. Although this period in men’s lives held positive memories, such as
increased freedoms, and a few focused entirely on its benign aspects, most recalled
it as a particularly difficult transition in retrospect. The transition into manhood was
linked to specific social events, like parental divorce, or moving to secondary school:
I had a very happy, stable family upbringing in suburbia . . . quite a safe,
protected bubble. . . . The big change happened when I went to secondary
school. That was my first experience of life as a tough, hard environment.
(Steven)
This crossing the threshold was linked to a sense of vulnerability and mission.
Here men recalled feeling threatened by a world that was experienced as more
challenging than before, however, at the same time, they remembered having a
sense that they should ‘become a man’. Toward this end, participants described
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trying to fit with traditional forms of masculinity, for example being emotionally tough,
at least partly as a way of coping with their vulnerability. Toughness involved
suppressing, denying, or disconnecting from feelings like fear and sadness, as well
as not showing vulnerability, e.g. keeping others at a distance.
I remember my mum talking about my grandfather, he was as tough as old
boots, he didn’t have ‘emotions.’ There was a lot of that growing up . . . “You
don’t want to be soft.” . . . I remember a sense of, “I’m grown up now.” It
seemed to happen over night, “I shouldn’t cry anymore.” I went to a new
school, had a difficult time. I thought, “I’ve got to face this alone.” (Dalton)
Men also talked about acting tough during the threshold period because they
wanted to fit in and be “one of the lads,” involving displays of bravado and ‘attitude.’
Participants discussed how they found it hard to resist expectations about how they
should perform as men. Some men linked their behaviour in hindsight to feelings of
insecurity, describing it as an attempt to emulate others who appeared to possess
confidence that they themselves seemed to lack.
I never quite felt like a man. . . . I was trying to emulate some kind of
manhood. . . . That came from feeling insecure as a younger child. . . . Images
of hip hop got more aggressive. . . . I bought into that in a real way. They have
a swagger, an attitude, they carry a confidence. To not feel anxiety, that’s a lot
of what it stems from. (Earnest)
Participants’ descriptions of three types of family relationships during this
period had some resonance to attachment theory (Bowlby, 1973); where participants
discussed three kinds of attachment: ‘dysfunctional’ (relative absence of care and
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support), ‘facilitative’ (a caring nurturing environment which encouraged
independence) and ‘constricting’ attachments (caring yet overbearing support that
discouraged independence). Earnest recalled a dysfunctional attachment: “At 13 I
was badly beaten up by [a relative]. I left home and spent the next ten years being
passed from pillar to post, not really having a sense of place.” In contrast, Sam
described a more facilitative bond: “[My parents] found it important that I would live
my life the way I wanted. They were concerned . . . but always very, very
supportive.” Finally, a constricting environment was depicted by John as follows:
“Very supportive family. A little bit, not claustrophobic . . . smothering.” The few men
who felt better able to resist hegemonic pressures also described a ‘facilitative’
upbringing. For those with dysfunctional families, lack of support during the threshold
period was described as accentuating feelings of vulnerability, encouraging
emotional blunting and toughness as a coping response – Steven recalled being
“shoved sideways” when his parents divorced age 13; subsequently there was “no
emotional connection with them . . . I can hardly remember leaving home, it just
doesn’t mean anything”. For those with constricting backgrounds, lack of
encouragement of agency appeared to entail less independence to challenge
hegemonic expectations. Ali recalled how “engineering was something I did because
my parents wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer. [Caring] is something a
girl does, that kind of attitude.”
Narratives around authenticity, conflict and fragmentation
Men often described the ideals of masculinity available during adolescence as
modes of behaviour which they felt did not reflect who they ‘really’ were. Using the
language of ‘inauthenticity’, they described how expectations about how they should
be as men created unease and conflict. As Kris explained, “I was trying to fit in . . .
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be one of the lads, when I’m not . . . doing things, not being comfortable with it, but
not really knowing why.”
For some men, this sense of conflict was not simply between a public and a
private self (i.e. not being themselves around others) – some described internalising
hegemonic expectations, and feeling that aspects of themselves (e.g. feelings of
vulnerability) were ‘wrong.’ Many spoke of how they denied or suppressed their
feelings by pushing them ‘underground,’ and how this could create internal conflict
between acceptable and unacceptable aspects of themselves. This phenomenon
was perhaps most evident in the domain of sexuality. Nine participants were gay,
and most presented a painful story about difficulties integrating their sexuality into
their identity. Although gay participants shared many themes with heterosexual
participants, hegemonic norms in relation to sexuality meant these men often felt
particularly marginalized, with additional burdens. Such marginalization had more
severe outcomes in the narratives of older men, some of whom recalled
homosexuality being illegal and frightening when they were young. Some men talked
about internalising these cultural prohibitions, and feeling a sense of shame; as
Henry recalled: “I was working really, really hard at ‘No, it's not there’. A lot of misery.
It nearly killed me.”
As men entered new social worlds in adulthood, some found hegemonic
norms shifting away from traditional masculine qualities, towards other variations
which introduced new pressures. Michael, for example, described how he later
moved within feminist circles that had differing expectations of masculinity, with new
internal conflicts created by his gender strategy to become a SNAG (sensitive new
age guy) which seemed to be valued in such circles:
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I’d taken on I should be more like a woman. It meant I had a much darker
shadow side, which didn’t come out. Not allowing myself to know it, feeling
guilty. I tried to make myself this sensitive New Agey man, but that left too
much of me out.
At an extreme, some men talked about the fragmentary experience of not
successfully negotiating multiple social contexts, each of which appeared to them to
require a particular kind of man. William recalled being “extremely blokey” with male
friends who wanted “somebody to get pissed with”; for female friends he was a “good
listener” and a “shoulder to cry on”; with colleagues he was “professional and
competent and serious”. The varied nature of these gendered performances , and
the way his identity seemed to shift according to context and expectations, often left
him feeling confused and empty.
I’d think “What am I? Who am I?” Utterly lost, a different person for different
people . . . liked by a lot of people, but because I was revealing to them
only . . . the bit they connected with. There would be all these different bits of
me. . . . I used to feel like I didn’t have very much inside me.
Other men echoed this theme of inner confusion and fragmentation. A number
of men articulated how, having been encouraged to dissociate from their emotions,
they experienced their internal world as a hostile and foreign territory. These men
described having little means of engaging constructively with their inner life, and
narrated a sense of powerlessness and bewilderment. Dustin recalled how “there
was no planning to [my life]. . . . The wind took me rather than where I decided I
wanted to go,” and that “most of my life has been survival mode.” Many men
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presented moving stories of experiencing considerable distress, which was
frequently portrayed as connected to their perceived lack of centre and emotional
control. This inability to cope was linked by men to feelings of anger, destructiveness
and dying.
I was always battling, had suicidal thoughts. It comes out of a sense of you’ve
got nowhere to go with your own mindset. . . . The internal stuff was so
strongly negative, it would be triggered and I would be, “I want to be
obliterated, I want to be annihilated . . . I don’t want this pain.” (Colin)
Relationships, hedonism, work and hobbies
Although most participants described experiencing emotional problems of some
form, they generally did not explicitly seek constructive help. Instead, they spoke of
hoping that various ways of being a man in the world – relationships, hedonism, work
and success – would help to “sort out” their problems in some way. As Andrew put it,
“take drugs, drink, possess things, people, relationship, career, whatever.” In the end
though, these strategies were ultimately portrayed as being unsuccessful.
Men’s narratives often turned towards to romantic relationships, for many
reasons: feeling good (“Love . . . makes you feel wonderful.”); self-understanding
(“She helped me talk through some of my stuff.”); security (“. . . looking for some kind
of security.”); sexuality (“We stirred up lots of energy.”); self-expansion (“She
broadened my horizons.”); avoiding negative emotions (“. . . distractions from looking
within.”); finding happiness (“I knew I wasn’t happy, but I figured a relationship would
sort that out.”); and romantic fulfilment (“. . . looking for the one person I could put all
my hopes on and we’d live together forever and it would be blissful.”). Participants
described how, when relationships flourished, they did indeed feel content. However,
16
this happiness was portrayed as ‘precarious’, as it was contingent on the ongoing
success of the relationship. Moreover, many men discussed relationships in the
context of them failing, in which the consequent distress became a bigger part of
their narrative than the positive impact of the relationship.
Whenever . . . it didn’t work out I’d be absolutely crushed, feeling suicidal. I
used to think, “Do I have anything inside me holding me together?” I’d be
utterly bereft . . . just this cold nothingness inside . . . literally like you don’t
have a heart. (William)
Many men discussed turning to alcohol and psychoactive substances. Like
relationships, these served different functions: hedonism (“Intensifying experience
with pleasure.”); coping with negative emotions (“. . . a subduing effect on the
emotional life.”); overcoming feelings of isolation (“. . . relief from the pain of being a
separate somebody.”); and enabling a sense of exploration and freedom (“Euphoric .
. . more spontaneous, more creative, more light.”). However, some acknowledged, in
retrospect if not at the time, that the use of these substances could also become a
form of self medication. They recalled how, lacking the skills to engage directly with
their problematic emotional world, substances became an indirect way of regulating
emotional states. However, although this ‘strategy’ was initially described as
successful, men eventually portrayed it as ‘maladaptive’ because it tended to
exacerbate their emotional problems.
I [had] really difficult times with my mental state, depression, stress, anxiety.
My self-medication was smoking far too much dope. It’s hardly surprising I
became hooked because it was such a strong, marked difference . . . an easy
quick fix to all the pain I was carrying around. . . . [But] it end[s] up
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exacerbating it in the long term. . . . The comedown, all the paranoia and the
neuroses, just get bigger. (Terry)
Some participants hoped to find happiness through work as a source of
meaning and fulfilment. Although some discussed work simply as a functional
necessity, others invested a lot in their vocations. For example, Silas recalled
choosing a caring career after “a moment of vision that I just wanted to care for
people.” However, even for these men, the context for speaking about work was
generally in terms of articulating their difficulties coping with the stresses and
pressures of work. He went on to recall:
From a process of engaging, and living from one’s ideals, to a process of
disengaging [was] painful. . . . The sense of resentment, the sense of lack,
inability to respond in the way I used to. . . . It [was] burnout.
Alvin recalled that having initially wanted to be an investment banker, after
“living in a block full of investment bankers, it’s the last thing I want to do . . . They
were all miserable as sin.”
Men also talked about hobbies. These seemed to be the most reliable source
of contentment in the narratives. Some men highlighted social aspects, such as
friendships in a sporting team; others mentioned the appeal of experiencing a state
of absorption, which some would retrospectively identify as a form of meditation.
Robert described how, in playing the piano, “consciousness is absorbed on one
thing, it becomes contemplative.”
Beginning to constructively engage with distress (and finding meditation)
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Although men had different reasons for turning to meditation, in each of their stories,
they began meditating when they felt that whatever was wrong in their lives –
unhappiness, distress, stress, a lack of meaning, or just something ‘missing’ – could
not be addressed by the ways explored above (relationships, hedonism, work and
hobbies). A few men recalled beginning to meditate after actively looking for
‘meaning’ in early adulthood. These men described wanting a life based on more
than just relationships, hedonism and work, and actively explored various
philosophies (e.g. existentialism and humanism) and spiritual practices. Here,
meditation was identified as a possible vehicle for meaning, and was subsequently
embraced as such. These men’s narratives were less concerned with themes of
emotional toughness and distressed subjectivities. These men also happened to be
from facilitative backgrounds, and there was some suggestion that their freedom to
explore was also helped by a favourable socio-economic background (in contrast,
one man from a less privileged home spoke of being “too busy getting on with
making a living” to engage in similar explorations).
[I had a] very stable background. . . . It was like, “What am I going to do with
this life? I’ve got an opportunity here.” . . . There was definitely a strong desire
for meaning right from an early age. . . . I met someone who was a Buddhist,
and it really fitted, “This is a potential tool for meaning.” (Peter)
However, most men told a story of trying and failing to find happiness or
alleviate distress in the ways discussed above. Within this, some spoke of how they
looked for better ways of managing their feelings of stress and distress. These men
were not explicitly looking for spirituality, but had sometimes ‘dabbled’ with Buddhism
before, remained open to it, and tried meditation when life became sufficiently
19
difficult. Having been drawn to meditation at university, but turning away from it for
various reasons (“it was all too scary at the time”), Harry re-engaged with it 20 years
later, during a particularly traumatic and difficult period in his life, as a way of coping
with stress.
[Meditation] took the edge off it, kept me on a reasonably even keel. [The
stress] was enormous. . . . Nerve endings tingling, high blood pressure, high
performance. I would meditate in the morning then . . . feel a bit calmer.
Some men began meditating as a result of difficult existential questioning.
These men described feeling unhappy, with a sense that life somehow “wasn’t
working,” and so began to question their values and priorities. Many described
feeling “lost” and “lacking direction,” and experiencing life as lacking meaning. Unlike
those who found meditation through explorations around meaning in early adulthood,
these men tended to articulate a sense of desperation and despair. For some, this
story centred on a period of seeking (e.g. travel to Asia). In this mode of seeking,
participants described being intrigued by meditation. After trying it, many identified it
as a potential source of meaning. Dean recalled a conversation with his wife shortly
after engaging with meditation: “I remember saying . . . ‘This is it . . . the furrow that I
need to plough.’” He said, “I’ve always wondered, ‘What do I base my life on?’ And
[this] feels like it.”
Finally, around a third of the participants articulated more dramatic narrative
shifts where their engagement with meditation was precipitated by an emotional
crisis. They described how, despite misery, they initially did not seek to change. For
example, many regarded alternative strategies such as meditation as too ‘flaky’ for
the rational man they saw themselves as, often emphasising the impact of moving
20
within well-educated, secular social spheres in modern day London (“I thought ‘I’m
not a spiritual person . . . all a load of rubbish, wishy-washy, hocus-pocus, airy-
fairy.’ . . . I didn’t talk to people about religion, or the meaning of life. They just
weren’t the kind of conversations that were had.”). Some remembered feeling there
was “no way out”. Dalton recalled how “I saw an endless life stretching ahead of me.
It just seemed a bit pointless, the whole thing, and there didn’t seem any relief.”
These men told a story of a build-up of distress. This was depicted as leading
to a tipping point, where a negative event, often a relationship break-up, was
highlighted as the catalyst for an emotional crisis. Men tended to view these crises
retrospectively with some gratitude as important turning points in their narratives.
I was in a relationship with someone that didn’t work out. . . . I just had a really
big dip . . . a breakdown. . . . Lots of things came to a head, stuff that had
been stored up for years. . . . I went really down hill to rock-bottom. (Terry)
However, although those in crisis were aware change was necessary, the
subsequent period was described as involving serious problems, with five of these
men suggesting they actually experienced depression. These men sometimes
sought the intervention of a therapist. Despite their distress, most were reluctant to
seek help.
I had a view that only people who were incapable in some way had therapy,
who were weak. . . . Asking for help wasn’t something I did. [However], I was
so done in that I just recognised it very plainly, “You need to do something.”
(Silas)
21
Therapy was valued for various reasons, but most prominently in terms of
allowing men to express and better place the emotions they had learned to
suppress. One recalled needing “someone that would really, really listen and take
my distress seriously.” Once they were sufficiently contained in therapy, some
recalled being encouraged to try meditation by their therapist as a way going forward
constructively. They described how meditation helped them considerably with their
emotional problems.
I went on a retreat [and] it’s a bit of a cliché, but I haven’t looked back. . . . I
just feel generally better in myself, more in control of my life, less anxious
about things, more balanced, saner, and healthier. . . . It teaches me how to
be more aware of what’s going on, which then helps me in other situations,
being calmer . . . more open, more spacious, more positive emotionally.
(Terry)
Having traced men’s journeys towards engagement with meditation, it is beyond the
scope of this paper to explore narratives of how men’s engagement with meditation
unfolded. Nevertheless, through meditation, men sometimes found themselves in
networks that involved new local hegemonies for masculinity, for example around
more freedom for physical and emotional intimacy than they had previously
experienced; as Dalton said, “In this community, I can be more affectionate and
more loving.” Importantly, no men suggested that engagement with their new
meditation networks was a universal panacea for their problems or wellbeing, and
men still had ongoing distress and issues to cope with. However, on the whole, most
men reported being better able to manage their distress, as well as new
opportunities to redefine what it means to be a man:
22
[Meditation] has been helping me to connect with a sense of love and
affection . . . It’s very healing . . . [Before] it didn’t fit in with my idea of a
man ... Man is more of a warrior, an adventurer. For a man to be loving can
seem to go against some of the ideas of conditioning . . . It’s a work in
progress, but over time I’ve got more and more in touch with kindness”
(Dalton)
Discussion
The value of this study is that it highlights a group of men who appear to have found
ways to self-manage their distress and wellbeing. Men are capable of positive self-
management. Moreover, many of these men described previously having difficulties
with emotional regulation, and narrated experiences of distress linked to a form of
traditional masculinity which valorised attributes such as autonomy and toughness.
The results suggest that it is possible for men – even those who initially subscribed
to unhelpful forms of hegemonic masculinity – to find ways to better manage their
emotions, as well as redefine masculinity. Other studies have suggested that some
men with mental health issues are able to find relatively constructive ways of
managing their emotional problems . However, our study is unusual in focusing on
men who more or less do manage their wellbeing, and articulating how they came to
do so, revealing narratives to be complex and varied, and involving considerable
struggle and distress. It is noteworthy that although distress was not the original
focus of this study (participants were not selected for having experienced distress), it
was a prominent theme in the narratives. The findings also support the notion that
this distress is linked in complex ways to traditional hegemonic masculinities and
emotional regulation (Addis, 2008).
23
Learned emotional suppression, suggested by the gendered response
framework (Addis, 2008), connects to distress in key ways in the narratives outlined
in this paper, including: feelings of ‘inauthenticity’, de-centeredness and conflict; men
losing contact with their emotions, which become a foreign territory; men finding
ways to regulate emotions which can be unhelpful; and difficulties in dealing
constructively with their emotional distress. The narratives around feelings of
inauthenticity and conflict link to the ‘masculine depression framework’ (Pleck, 1995),
where pressure to live up to unattainable hegemonic ideals (e.g. not ‘having’
emotions) creates a feeling of internal strain. Furthermore, the inability of many
participants to deal constructively with their inner ‘turmoil’ corroborates the ‘masked
depression framework’ (e.g. Mahalik, Good and Englar-Carlson, 2003), where
inability to acknowledge and deal with negative emotions exacerbates distress while
also rendering it invisible to others. This inability to acknowledge or deal
constructively with distress led to many participants trying to cope through
externalising, numbing and escapist behaviours, also a feature of theories of ‘male-
specific depression’ (Pollack, 1998).
The findings also reinforce the idea that, within a given social milieu, the local
form of masculine hegemony varies, yet resistance to it can be challenging (Connell
and Messerschmidt, 2005). Moving away from ‘traditional’ behaviours (e.g. being
‘one of the lads’ at school or at work), and beginning to engage constructively with
well-being, was a considerable undertaking, and for many, an adolescent hegemonic
masculinity involving toughness and lack of emotionality left an enduring legacy. It
was also interesting to note that other non-traditional forms of hegemony – e.g.
Michael’s experience within a feminist milieu – were also linked to distress in various
24
ways, creating a sense of conflict between acceptable and unacceptable aspects of
self.
The findings support recent studies challenging the inevitability of emotional
inarticulacy linked to masculinity (Oliffe, 2005). Moreover, not only was it possible to
locate men able to articulate and begin engaging constructively with their emotional
world, but many men who described being previously unable to manage their
distress found ways to do so more successfully, some without professional help,
some without. This affirms what social constructionist theories of gender have
suggested (Paechter, 2003): that men’s socialisation and gender performance are
never set in stone; that the construction of gender is a fluid and ongoing process;
and that locally, men can narrate and enact different, and more helpful, gendered
performances (Brickell, 2005). Better emotional regulation was encouraged and
facilitated by men’s connections to ‘new communities of practice’ centred on
meditation, where emotional intimacy was sometimes promoted as a new
hegemony. Our analysis provides support for those who have argued against any
simplistic link between hegemony and negative health outcomes (e.g. Sloan, Gough
and Conner, 2009), as it shows it is possible to encounter hegemonies which
promote positive emotional health.
The narratives appear to show that those who found meditation relatively
early in life (e.g. through explorations around meaning in early adulthood)
experienced less distress than those who found it harder to explore alternative
strategies, and who only did so after experiencing more severe problems later in life
(e.g. a breakdown), where some experienced a build-up of distress culminating in
actual depression (echoing the findings of Brownhill,Wilhelm, Barclay and Schmied,
2005). Those engaged in men’s health promotion might capitalise on this finding, as
25
it would seem to suggest that if men are encouraged to explore alternative
masculinities and ways of regulating emotions sooner, men could avoid extremes of
distress, and possible mental disorders.
Teaching emotional regulation skills could be especially important in terms of
facilitating greater self understanding and control and preventing distress from
leading to destructive externalising behaviours and possible mental disorders.
Kilmartin (2005) argues that men with depression should be taught about the
negative impact of restrictive gender norms to help them “resist the cultural pressure
to be masculine” (p97). The findings here suggest that this advice could be usefully
extended to other men who do not currently appear to be depressed, or suffering
from distress or other mental disorders, because they might still experience distress
related to masculine norms at some point in their lives. Further research is needed in
terms of understanding how to promote techniques of emotional regulation to men,
as well as resistance to hegemonic norms which can discourage such engagement.
There are some limitations to the study. Firstly, narratives are reconstructions
of memories and experiences rather than strict factual records (Frank, 1997).
Methodological reflexivity requires an acknowledgement that their telling is to some
extent a performance – and a gendered one – and that the data gathering process
can shape the way experiences are recalled and presented (Gergen, 1989). For
example, research interactions can represent an opportunity for men to perform
hegemonic masculinity as they engage in ‘identity work’ (Allen, 2005). However, as
others have found (e.g. Oliffe, 2005), participants here spoke with candour about
their vulnerabilities and difficulties. Secondly, the participants are not representative
of men in general, and the findings here cannot be generalised to men at large. The
sample features a relatively high number of gay participants (9 out of 30), and
26
studies have suggested that gay men have higher rates of depression (Mills, Paul,
Stall et al., 2004). Moreover, that these participants managed to find ways to engage
constructively with well-being could mean they are a special group, e.g. more
emotionally functional. For example, people who meditate often have relatively high
levels of socio-economic status and educational attainment (Jacobs, Epel, Lin et al.,
2011), which is also true of the sample here. However, the point of the study was to
consider a relatively functional group, i.e. who appear to successfully self-manage
their well-being, to examine the factors behind their engagement. In any case, the
qualitative and exploratory nature of our research means the findings generated here
are not intended to be generalised beyond this sample of men. Rather, our findings
are useful to those seeking to understand and explore experiences of men, distress
and well-being, and help to shed light on this poorly understood area.
27
References
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This article deals with the issue of stability and change in rural masculinity by studying how masculinity changes when work changes. Logging, which used to form a basis for the construction of masculinity in peripheral areas, is in the process of being replaced by new types of work brought about by the commodification of natural and cultural resources. Hunting, fishing and adventures in the wilderness as products are grounded in the traditional competences of rural men, but include elements of service work that go beyond masculine rural knowledge and networks, and introduce features of femininity and urbanity. When urban customers enter places and activities that used to be central for the identification of the rural masculine, rural men seek new places and challenges where 'real rural masculinity' may be expressed.
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The concept of hegemonic masculinity has influenced gender studies across many academic fields but has also attracted serious criticism. The authors trace the origin of the concept in a convergence of ideas in the early 1980s and map the ways it was applied when research on men and masculinities expanded. Evaluating the principal criticisms, the authors defend the underlying concept of masculinity, which in most research use is neither reified nor essentialist. However, the criticism of trait models of gender and rigid typologies is sound. The treatment of the subject in research on hegemonic masculinity can be improved with the aid of recent psychological models, although limits to discursive flexibility must be recognized. The concept of hegemonic masculinity does not equate to a model of social reproduction; we need to recognize social struggles in which subordinated masculinities influence dominant forms. Finally, the authors review what has been confirmed from early formulations (the idea of multiple masculinities, the concept of hegemony, and the emphasis on change) and what needs to be discarded (onedimensional treatment of hierarchy and trait conceptions of gender). The authors suggest reformulation of the concept in four areas: a more complex model of gender hierarchy, emphasizing the agency of women; explicit recognition of the geography of masculinities, emphasizing the interplay among local, regional, and global levels; a more specific treatment of embodiment in contexts of privilege and power; and a stronger emphasis on the dynamics of hegemonic masculinity, recognizing internal contradictions and the possibilities of movement toward gender democracy.
Article
The study of masculinities has not escaped the influence of Judith Butler’s writings on gender, performativity, and subversion. However, this article suggests that Butler’s formulations of performativity and subversion express a lack of clarity and engender a number of problems with respect to agency, action, interaction, and social change. This article argues for reformulating performativity and subversion in a more explicitly sociological frame to render the concepts more useful for examining agency and subjectivity in the study of masculinities. The writings of Erving Goffman suggest ways to reclaim the socially constructed agency of “performance” from the mire of “performativity,” with the latter’s apparent disappearance of subjective action. This article suggests reworking subversion away from parody and resignification toward a consideration of resources for subjectivity and challenges to prevailing social structures. In this way, performativity and subversion may be set more convincingly within a sociologically informed study of masculinity.
Article
Displays of hegemonic masculinity within research contexts are often perceived to inhibit the collection of ‘good’ data and present a problem which the researcher must overcome. Instead of being seen as hindering the research process, this article takes such moments as ‘data’, which provide first hand insights into the way male sexuality is made within focus group settings. This environment is seen as constitutive of male sexual subjectivities in the way that it provides a public forum for young men's presentation of self. Through their talk about sexuality young men engage in the management of their own sexual identities, fashioning these through what they reveal and conceal about their sexual selves. In order to meet the objective of the focus group and discuss sexuality ‘seriously’ yet also preserve masculine identity, young men deploy discursive constructions in complex ways. Such demands render the maintenance of an identity which conforms to traditional constructions of masculinity precarious, so that constant slippage between projections of ‘hard’ and ‘softer’ versions of male sexuality occur.
Article
The article addresses the link between manhood and nationhood in postconflict Kosova. Albanian Kosovars, like many “traditionally” patriarchal societies, have constructed identities of the patriotic man and the exalted childbearing woman as icons of national survival. These designated identities often negate the realities of war-affected communities. The gendered places of man and woman in political reality are marred by the traumatic events of conflict and postconflict life. By thinking about the masculine microcultures of nation building (daily life), especially the construction of over-sexed and under-sexed individuals (i.e., the soldier) and the promiscuous enemies within (i.e., the female rape victim), there develops a connection between monoracial and heterosexual preserves and the need for this society to hold onto the traditional vision of man, at least until there is the political union of nation and state.
Article
Background: Mindfulness may be viewed as a supra-cognitive state of consciousness focussed on the decentred, objective and compassionate observation of transient mental and physical phenomena that may be attained through meditation practices. Mindfulness meditation is thought to be beneficial in the management of various physical and mental health conditions. Objective: To assess the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation practice as a healthcare intervention. Methods: Systematic computerised and hand literature searches for randomised controlled trials and evaluation using methodological quality criteria. Results: The higher quality studies analysed in this review have demonstrated replicated statistically significant improvements in spirituality and positive health measures and decreases in depressive relapse, depressive recurrence and psychological distress. Conclusions: Despite the lack of specific, reliable and validated mindfulness measures, mindfulness shows potential as a positive healthcare intervention and continued investigation is warranted. Further research using improved methodology and utilising specific mindfulness outcome measures in trials with long-term follow up, larger populations and a wider demographic range is recommended.
Article
Fewer men than women are diagnosed with depression, although commentaries about men's depression suggest that the lower reported rates may be due to the widespread use of generic diagnostic criteria that are not sensitive to depression in men, as well as men's reluctance to express concerns about their mental health or access professional health care services. This article provides an overview of the connections between depression and masculinities and, based on that literature, recommendations are made for how we might better understand, identify and treat men's depression in gender-sensitive ways.
Article
Sex comparisons reveal men as more likely than women to die earlier and experience debilitating injury. Historically, this trend has been positioned as somewhat inevitable, an outcome of men's 'natural' biologically charged tendencies for risk-taking and reluctance around help-seeking. More recently, gender research has emerged to describe cultural norms about masculinity and explore their relationships to men's health and illness practices. Empirically, masculinities and men's health research has revealed diverse practices that suggest some men's risky health behaviours are amenable to change. This article provides a brief review of how masculinity has been understood in men's health research before making recommendations for where we might next go in theorising social constructions of masculinities. Specifically, a vignette drawn from a study examining young men's responses to the death of a peer is used to illustrate how the communities of practice framework can be applied, and might conceptually advance future masculinities and men's health research