WAY member and clinical psychologist Dr Jason Spendelow explains how taking the 'man-up' approach to grief can actually lead to man down...
Grief is an incredibly unique experience and no two people grieve in the same way. Equally varied are the options for coping with grief. One option I often see men use is the ‘man-up’ strategy. The goal of man-up is often the control or elimination of painful emotions. This approach to adversity suggests being stoic in the face of grief; keeping your pain to yourself, trying to disconnect from these difficult emotions, and pretending you’re ok (when you’re not). This is not ideal when attempting to grapple with grief.
Man-up comes from an outdated masculine ideal that is difficult, if not impossible to achieve. This coping strategy is of limited value because difficult emotions are inevitable, normal, and even essential to the grieving process. If unaware of these points, men may conclude that they have ‘failed’ to man-up to grief when painful thoughts and emotions persist. This sense of failure can create additional suffering and persistence with the self-defeating man-up strategy. Grieving the loss of your partner can be a very lonely experience. Supressing painful grief-related emotions can lead to further isolation from others as you avoid talking through grief with friends and family.
An alternative to the man-up approach is to consider the possibility to grieving in a variety of ways. You can think about healthy grief as involving a range of activities and skills, and not just going for the same coping strategy all the time. When we man-up, we cut down our options for coping effectively with distress that inevitably comes with grief. Research shows that coping flexibility with life challenges can have a positive effect on well-being (1).
A flexible response to grief can broaden our coping toolkit by giving ‘permission’ for alternative responses to be made. In this way, we are better able to adapt to the wide range of challenges that come with grief. There may indeed be times when it is helpful to avoid or supress our emotions (e.g., trying to get through a crisis). However, acknowledging, ‘normalising’, then responding flexibly to grief puts us on the path towards more healthy psychological lives.
There are many examples of successfully using coping flexibility to redefine what otherwise might form key elements of man-up. In one study of men with depression, some participants viewed seeking help as a manifestation of ‘independence’ (2). In another investigation of men diagnosed with prostate cancer, some believed revealing emotions to others was a way to exhibit ‘bravery’ (3). Metaphors can facilitate increased grief-related coping flexibility. Defining ‘strength’ as seeking assistance for wellbeing issues in order to ‘provide’ for family members can be framed as a masculinity version of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others. In the interests of moving away from a ‘man up’ style of responding to grief, here are a few other ways to foster flexible coping with your own grief:
1. Normalise difficult grief-related emotional experiences: Difficult emotions are not a reflection of your identity as a man, they are simply evidence of your brain performing its normal functions. Imagine a world where you could not experience fear. You’d never get to eat your first birthday cake. With the death of a partner, you are battling a huge loss and a period of great change. Ongoing painful emotional experiences are par for the course whether or not you are a ‘tough guy’.
2. Pay attention to your grief: Emotional acceptance appears to be a helpful strategy for responding to difficult emotions and countering emotional avoidance. Rather than electing for man-up by avoiding, denying or downplaying emotional reactions, try to pay deliberate attention to these emotional states, and remind yourself these experiences are to be expected. You need to spend some of your time focusing on and reflecting on these emotions for healthy grief to occur.
3. Clarify important personal qualities and values: Ten years from now, what do you want to say about how you showed these values through your grief? Brainstorm the different ways you can exhibit each of these values. For example, what are the different ways in which a man can show ‘strength’ through grief? This does not have to only be through emotional restraint. You can also show strength through being open with your feelings on occasion, bravely facing your grief by expressing it through writing, artwork, or joining a support group to share your experiences.
4. Use metaphors to help frame flexible grieving in a positive way: ‘Put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others’, ‘Expand the (grieving) toolkit’, ‘Bring a player with different skills onto the field when the game changes (e.g., when going from feeling calm to being upset).’
5. Move in tiny steps: Expand your grieving approach in small, gradual ways to reduce the discomfort that can come through departing from man-up. You might make a change with only one person, or in only one situation. Experiment with these changes and reflect on the outcome before taking the next steps.
1. Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 865-878.
2. Roy, P., Tremblay, G., & Robertson, S. (2014). Help-seeking among Male Farmers: Connecting Masculinities and Mental Health. Sociologia Ruralis, 54(4), 460-476.
3. Levy, A., & Cartwright, T. (2015). Men’s strategies for preserving emotional well-being in advanced prostate cancer: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Psychology & Health, 30(10), 1164-1182.