Relieving Anxiety for Men

One time, I was driving my partner to the grocery store when she pointed up ahead and said, “Turn here.” It made sense—she knew the neighborhood we were in much better than I did.

Yet, my mind spiraled into anxious thoughts: Why doesn’t she trust me? What would my friends think of me if they saw this? What would my dad think?

 “No, this way,” I said, taking a left instead of a right, even though I didn’t know for sure. Her eyebrows furrowed. I could tell she knew I was wrong.

For the rest of the drive, I tried hard to make sure I didn’t look as lost as I actually was. Despite my stoic demeanor, I was an anxious wreck inside. I had to maintain the impression that I knew exactly what I was doing—and anytime she questioned me, I had to act like everything was good

What should’ve been a casual, fun trip to the store became a tense, anxiety-ridden battle, and we ended up arriving 10 minutes later than we should have.

This might not sound like much. But it’s not the first time I’ve inauthentically acted like I knew what I was doing. And as a therapist, I hear similar stories from many cisgender men who come to me with issues in their relationships, at work, during sex, and in other areas of their lives. What I tell them is that ideas about what it means to be a “real man” are to blame.

How men are socialized

The messages our society sends to men—the American Psychological Association calls them “traditional masculine ideology”—include things like avoiding help and putting a “disproportionate emphasis on control and being in positions of power,” especially over women.

Yes, being able to take charge and lead other people is a powerful skill for any human, regardless of gender. But not when it takes away another person’s agency. Not when it’s a subtle form of control—which is what I was doing in the car.

Knowing that certain behaviors of mine can be harmful—and that they are a big cause of my anxiety—has helped me in relationships, with friends, and at work. It’s helped me become closer with my father. It’s also helped me empathize with women in my life, many of whom have been hurt by men unaware of the damaging aspects of how they’ve been socialized.

Our gender identity is “socialized”—meaning, it was developed when we were children based on expectations from our parents and other adults. This socialization caused us to express ourselves in certain ways versus others. Men typically keep their hair shorter, for example, while women tend to have longer hair.

When we were born, a doctor assigned us a sex based on our body, typically male or female. This impacted how we were treated by adults, whether we were considered a boy or girl. For example, boys are often given Legos and chemistry sets, while girls are often given more feminine toys, like dolls and pink Easy Bake ovens. In fact, toys are now even more gender divided than they were 50 years ago.

It goes far beyond toys. At school, boys are encouraged to compete while girls are urged to collaborate. Teachers often praise boys more than girls, and they give boys more opportunities to expand on their ideas. This socialization continues into adult life. Messages about “being a man” are all around us, in movies, on the news, in politics. Even parents who believe in gender equality can unconsciously reinforce different expectations based on their kid’s gender assigned at birth.

Our society’s defines masculinity is a set of rigid ideas about what traits and behaviors make a “real man.” Researchers generally agree on three core components:

  1. Men must act tough, meaning we must be physically strong, cold-hearted, and aggressive
  2. Men must reject anything considered feminine, like showing “soft” emotions or asking for help
  3. Men must dominate others, especially at work and in romantic relationships.

These expectations and behaviors are harmful to everyone—including men. The vast majority of violent crime is committed by men. Most violence against women is committed by current or former intimate partners. While women are diagnosed with depression two to four times as often as men, men die by suicide much more frequently. Men also die due to alcohol-related causes at almost three times as often as women.

What’s really tragic is that traditional masculinity is what keeps many men from getting the help we need. Men are far less likely seek out therapy and other forms of support for mental health issues. Even when we do, we are more likely to underreport symptoms of depression.

How I work with men experiencing anxiety

My car story is a perfect low-stakes example of our society’s messages about being a man holding me back. I wanted to be in control no matter what, even if it meant making me anxious and annoying my partner. Even if it meant weakening my partner’s trust in me. When my control was challenged, a part of me felt emasculated, like I was less of who I am.

And that’s the trick. Masculinity is a part of us—not all of us. It’s not the deepest expression of who we really are—it’s not our full, true self.

As boys, we got the message that people wanted us to always be in control, fully aware of where we were going, a “man with a plan.” This created a little manager in our mind, a part of us that’s afraid that if we’re not in control, no one will like us—especially women. This part is terrified of asking for help—because that would be “soft” and “weak.”

And here’s the really heartbreaking thing: It’s also afraid in moments like in the car to bring up any of this to anyone else. Rather than talking about our feelings, this part takes over and tells us to stay calm, cool, and collected on the outside even though inside we’re anxious.

When I work with men experiencing anxiety, I will start by identifying the symptoms you’ve been experiencing. We will also identify the situations and circumstances (“triggers”) that cause the symptoms. I will teach you practices to address the symptoms as they arise in the moment, like mindfulness meditation. We will also discuss potential changes at your workplace, at home, and other areas of your life.

Using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, we will identify the “parts” of you that are contributing to your anxiety. If you were raised as a boy, you likely have a part (or parts) that feel like you should always be in control, never show emotion, and never ask for help. It’s like a kid with cartoon ideas of what it means to be a “real man.”

I will help you see that this part (and other parts) is actually trying to help and protect you. It doesn’t want you to feel the isolation and loneliness that it thinks you’ll feel if you don’t act “like a man.” It just has extreme ideas about how to do that.

In IFS, parts are internal subpersonalities we developed as children. They get “frozen in time … and keep doing whatever extreme things they did to protect [us] when [we] were young,” says Richard Schwartz, the therapist who developed IFS.

We will get to know your parts and help them release their childlike, extreme beliefs about how you need to be. With time, this can lead to less anxiety and more choice and freedom in how you show up at work, in relationships, and throughout your life.

How much does therapy cost?

Click here to see my fees for individual therapy.