Real men talk

Talking about feelings is often difficult for men. The counselors from the "Real men talk" project offer help.

When words fail

Overload in everyday family life, disputes at work, arguments in a relationship: conflicts occur in all families and in every single life. To resolve them, it is important to talk about your own challenges and difficulties. This is not always easy. Men in particular often find it difficult to put their feelings, wishes and thoughts into words. The counselors in the "Real men talk" network offer help and counteract speechlessness with their services. We spoke to men's counselor Björn Süfke about the service.

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Counteracting speechlessness

Do you sometimes find it difficult to put your feelings and thoughts into words - especially when you're not feeling well? For example, when it comes to arguments in your relationship or excessive demands at work?

If you ignore your own dissatisfaction, simply continue to function and suppress negative feelings, you will only make the situation worse in the long run. This can lead to health problems and serious problems in the partnership, the family and at work. The consequences are sometimes dramatic and lead to men acting destructively towards themselves or others.

Easily accessible counseling services offer support in such crisis phases. The North Rhine-Westphalian counsellors of the "Real men talk" project have specialized in just such conversations from man to man. One of them is Björn Süfke from man-o-mann Männerberatung in Bielefeld:

Mr. Süfke, you have been advising men exclusively for 25 years. How did this specialization come about and what do you think is the most common problem that men bring to the table?

Björn Süfke: I started working almost exclusively on gender issues 30 years ago during my studies: Gender relations in general, but above all constructions of masculinity, the male psyche. Immediately after graduating, I started working as a psychologist at a men's counselling centre and also wrote a few books about being a man and a father ... well, the topic obviously won't let me go!

In my experience, the biggest problem for men - to put it simply - is this strongly internalized emotional defensiveness. Due to our socialization, we have often learned to suppress our feelings.

Why exactly do men so often ward off feelings?

Because we live in a society in which warding off feelings is virtually the core of the traditional - today we also call it "toxic" - image of masculinity. The man is supposed to be the breadwinner, protector and rock of strength. Sadness, fear, helplessness, guilt and shame do not fit into this image. The only tolerated emotion is actually anger - this is considered "strong" and therefore "masculine". All other feelings are trained out of us from an early age. When I was a child, the saying was "An Indian knows no pain".

However, this splitting off of feelings also happens much more subtly, simply because crying men are hardly ever seen in society or in the media. As a boy, you often don't see a single father, uncle or guardian expressing their feelings. In addition, boys' feelings are taken less seriously than those of girls - they are simply not taken into account as much. All of this leads to men learning to reject feelings more and more. After all, if you ask an adult man how he is feeling, the answer is often: "It's fine!" And that's not a lie or anything, it's just what the man actually feels at that moment. He has no access to what is going on inside him because he has learned so well to shut off this emotional access.

How do the feelings of men and women differ?

Not at all: all people, whether male, female, intersex, non-binary, have the same feelings - in principle, all of them. But the problem is that society - mediated through everyday actions, education, the media, the world of work, etc. - only assigns certain feelings to the genders. Or to men, in fact, only anger. Anger is often even placed in a rather positive context, as it motivates men to fight, assert themselves, assert themselves and win. Women, on the other hand, should not have this feeling of anger because otherwise they would rebel against the circumstances. Women are allowed to be anything: sad, anxious, helpless, guilty, but they should "stay in the closet" and not come out with their anger. For men, it's the other way around.

Do men really feel so much anger all the time?

If a man is angry, it could just as well be that he is actually sad or anxious. He just sometimes doesn't even know it ... In this respect, anger often hides completely different emotions.

Hasn't the image of men become much more permeable in recent years? Aren't men now even expected to be empathetic and gentle rather than angry?

Something is changing, but very, very slowly. You've seen a development here for about ten or 15 years, although mainly in academic circles. But yes, more and more men are now really coming to counseling on their own initiative - and not because they were sent by the courts, medical staff or their personal environment. Many experience the requirement to be both traditionally masculine and emotionally attuned. This dual requirement is of course stressful...

However, most men would not go to a counseling center for this reason - or talk to anyone at all about personal difficulties. In surveys, we continue to see that a large majority of men say they prefer to deal with personal problems alone. The majority only seek help when their relationship has broken down, they have become violent or after years of sexual difficulties or health problems.

How do you find access to the men who come to you for counseling?

Emotions are also crucial for counseling work, as they provide information about how we want to shape our lives. Given what we've just discussed, it's not surprising that most men initially need a lot of support to get through to their feelings. I can't just sit back and wait for them to tell me what they feel. I have to be a bit more confrontational with men than with women, speak to them more directly and poke at things. For example, I confront them with the way they talk. If it all sounds very rational and no feelings come out, I interrupt them and address exactly that. In a loving way, of course, so as not to provoke any further defensiveness. As the conversation continues, I also mention feelings that I think I perceive but that they don't express verbally. If I am reasonably understanding, most men gradually manage to overcome their emotional defenses to some extent. We can then move on to the other problems - and usually find good solutions quite quickly. Men are often incredibly good at finding solutions and, above all, implementing them, which often suits their solution and action orientation very well - it's a home game, so to speak ...

So it's a matter of practising differentiated perception of your feelings?

Absolutely, you can train this in principle. I also give my clients homework on this: I ask them to sit in their favorite place for about half an hour a day, somewhere where there are no distractions. Then they should listen to themselves and simply observe what comes up. For most men, these 30 minutes are pure torture at the beginning. I also tell some of them to deliberately choose an emotional movie from Netflix, nothing from the thriller, science fiction or espionage category that men usually like to choose. They should choose a movie that might touch them, because that also gives them information about what is going on inside themselves. I myself can now often tell you whether I'm going to cry or not just from the five lines describing a movie. After all these years, I simply know exactly what touches me. A father-son theme or a teenage love story will make me cry immediately, perhaps even more than a war drama.

Why is it actually so important to recognize and accept all feelings?

Feelings are sources of information, that is their evolutionary purpose. Fear indicates when danger is imminent. If you weren't able to feel fear, you would have died long ago. Anger tells you that your boundaries have been crossed in some way. Sadness and joy mean that something is important to you. Feeling guilty is usually the result of having done something morally reprehensible. Helplessness makes it clear that you cannot move forward on your own. All these feelings provide vital information. If you can't hear this information, you are at a loss and have to take your cue from others, from any instructions, advice and guidelines that your parents or partner give you.

What is the best way to deal with this information? And what role does the mind play in your actions?

You should take your feelings seriously, but of course also use your mind when acting. In a way, your feelings provide you with information about what is going on; your mind helps you to choose an appropriate way of dealing with each feeling. But the fact is: feelings are always there, even if I don't deal with them, and the sharpest mind cannot replace them.

The ideal approach would be to be well aware of your own feelings, understand the information behind them through self-reflection and then plan appropriate actions. If this does not happen, you tend to fall into unconscious actions that are not always the best ones.

Men seem to get away with keeping access to their emotions to a minimum their whole lives. Until they are in a relationship with a woman ...

In many areas of life, men are in fact not so reliant on their feelings as sources of information. At work, they know exactly what to do. When they're playing sports with their buddy or talking about factual topics, they don't have to rely on information from deep within themselves. The situation is different in a relationship. Women often demand a certain emotionality and this is how many men are confronted for the first time with the fact that they don't know exactly how they feel at this or that point.

How can couples succeed in communicating better

With more understanding for each other. Men often don't understand how women are socialized and what speaking means to them. In turn, it can help women if they understand how men are forced to fend off their emotions as they grow up. And how difficult it is to get in touch with your feelings as an adult, even if someone lovingly asks you about them. You can't just flip a switch. Once you understand this, you no longer take it so personally when a man sometimes avoids you ... and you may also feel less hurt.

This is how a "Real men talk" consultation works

The professional counselors support fathers seeking help with specific problems. They help men to express what they really feel and not what is expected of them. This helps them to better understand the background to their personal situation and initiate changes.

The aim of the consultations is to give men the tools they need to deal well with themselves and with the people they are in close relationships with.

The experts help them to sort out their own feelings and understand the causes and background to their own difficulties. Together, they will discuss what new ways of dealing with them are possible.

Where can we find help and advice?

The counseling services offered by men for men provide a wide range of thematic support in times of crisis. The men's counselors are specially trained experts with many years of experience. The counselors offer both individual counseling sessions and group courses - in many locations in North Rhine-Westphalia. Detailed information and an overview map of the counselors can be found at https://echte-männer-reden.de/.

Are you in a crisis and would prefer to receive advice online? The Caritas online platform provides boys and men with free counseling: simple, fast, secure and, if desired, anonymous.

In addition, the men's counseling network lists nationwide counseling services that address boys, men and fathers, are tailored to men's concerns and where male role models and stereotypes can be reflected upon in a professional manner. A counseling map shows you the relevant counseling centers in your area.