Understanding fear of intimacy – A brief exploration

We as humans are relational beings, and inherent in all of our relationships is a need for physical and or emotional closeness and intimacy. We need to develop, build and experience relational bonds and experience closeness from another person. For some people however, intimacy is not so simple, and for some people it can be a source of fear, worry and difficulty. In this article, I aim to look at possible reasons for why people might develop a fear of intimacy, detail some of the symptoms people might exhibit and lastly, how psychotherapy can help those who may be struggling with a fear of intimacy.

What is a fear of intimacy?

At points, we all experience find ourselves contemplating the validity or meaning of our intimacy or closeness to another person. We may have concerns over the outcome of the relationship, whether we will be rejected, that the relationship will deteriorate or that our feelings of affection or care won’t be returned.

A fear of intimacy can be triggered by positive emotions or closeness more than by negative responses, and being chosen by a partner, experiencing their loving feelings, can bring about deeply held fears about intimacy.

 In simple terms, a fear of intimacy or closeness with others, is an often unconscious process, which frequently and significantly impacts an individual’s ability to form or maintain close relationships. This fear is of both physical and emotional intimacy, and tends to show up in people’s closest and most meaningful relationships.

A fear of intimacy could also be understood as a set of highly complex behaviours, emotions, feelings and thoughts which can prevent people from having meaningful long lasting relationships or that disrupt existing relationships. These fears do not only occur in romantically intimate relationships, but within platonic or familial relationships too.

Fearing intimacy is also not as simple as just a fear, and often holds within it a range of other difficulties, such as ambivalent feelings or uncertainty about these relational experiences. It is this complexity which means that these processes are difficult to understand and manage.

Due to the unconscious nature of having fears of intimacy, people do not intentionally reject love or care from another person. Instead what may happen, is during times of closeness, people may find ways of reacting with behaviours that create tension, strain or discomfort in the relationship, often leading to a premature end of a relationship, or one ending before it has had time to fully begin or develop, in essence, before a deep level of intimacy has had time to form.

How or why does a fear of intimacy develop?

 A fear of intimacy can develop for a number of different reasons, but for many people, it has its roots in childhood, and stems from the relationship between the infant and the primary caregiver. Infants express their needs (hunger, sleep, safety etc.) via crying or interacting with the caregiver or parent.

Over time, infants learn whether or not their needs will be met with either consistent responses of warmth, or with anger or irritation. Sometimes needs aren’t met at all, and as this cycle of expressing our needs and having them responded to develops in those first few years of our lives, we develop strong and lasting connections in our minds related to what relationships mean to us which stay present in adulthood.

These core beliefs developed in childhood can relate to a feeling we have about ourselves that we are in some way not enough, not good enough or somehow lacking in loveable qualities, or that we are bad, unlovable or in some way deficient. While these attitudes may be unpleasant, difficult or painful, they are also familiar to us, and to an extent maybe even comfortable. We can get used to their presence in our unconscious mind, driving our behaviours or creating patterns and processes in our relationships.

Symptoms of fear of intimacy

There are a number of symptoms or responses related to a fear of intimacy in a close emotional and or physical, and this will vary depending on each individual. The below list is meant as a guide only and is not exhaustive.

  • Feelings of unease or discomfort when expressing emotional truths
  • Fear of revealing deep feelings, discussing difficult or unpleasant personal experiences
  • Difficulty discussing emotionally painful experiences
  • Difficulty in showing concern for a distressed partner
  • Unease or discomfort when expressing affection
  • Difficulty in trusting a partner with personal information
  • Difficulty in being spontaneous in the presence of a partner
  • Fear that a partner may need you more than you need them
  • Unease or difficulty in expressing personal need
  • Discomfort or unease with open communication in a relationship

How psychotherapy can help

 Psychotherapy provides an opportunity to explore past relationships and early childhood experiences, and think about how these may have shaped you. It provides a space to examine fears or worries about intimacy that you may have, think in depth about patterns which may have developed in your adult relationships. Psychotherapy will assist you in working on deeply held beliefs you may have about yourself, challenge these, and ultimately work towards once again having meaningful relationships.

 In closing

 As adults, we may make the mistake of thinking that our behaviours in relationships are set in stone, that we will be afraid of intimacy for our entire lives. However, despite these fears having deep roots, they are not so deeply set that they cannot change. It is possible to rethink how we view ourselves and how the worth we ascribe to ourselves. We can be intimate, share our feelings, express our needs and wants, and experience meaningful and satisfying relationships.

Understanding Ambivalence in Loss and Grief

What is ambivalent loss?

In simple terms, ambivalence can be understood as a state of tension that occurs when we have opposing beliefs, feelings or behaviours towards a person, object, experience or situation.

A certain level of ambivalence in any relationship is universal, and not necessarily always hugely significant. In fact, there are few relationships that are devoid of or not complicated, by some level of hostility or difficulty at some point.

When considering ambivalence in loss and grief, it is safe to assume that it is common for most people dealing with the death of a loved one. It was Freud who believed that an important precursor to depression in the wake of the death of a loved one, was if the relationship before death was an ambivalent one.

There are many books written on mourning and grief, on how to cope with loss, or how to adapt to loneliness of loss. But, where are the resources for those who had a conflicted relationship, where is the book on managing unsaid or unspoken feelings or emotions, where is the book to help guide through a eulogy or funeral where you wish to speak up, but do not know how due unspoken ambivalence.

In this brief article, I aim to consider ambivalence in loss and grief, outline how or why ambivalent loss may occur, explore how to manage ambivalent loss, and look at how psychotherapy can help.

 How or why ambivalent loss may occur

 Each experience of loss and grief is unique and personal, however as explained earlier, ambivalence in loss and grief is fairly common. Below are some reasons which could lead to ambivalence in the grieving process. This list is no means exhaustive, and is given as an example only.

 Unfinished or unresolved feelings

This is a common component of ambivalent loss, yet can be very difficult to manage. Grieving can be interrupted when there are unresolved difficulties or feelings towards the person who has die. Ambivalence occurs due to the confliction of feelings, because on the one hand you may experience a sense of relief, and at the same time feel hurt that the things you wanted to say, even if these were negative, were not ever fully vocalized.

 Lack of contact before the death

A period of lack of communication, contact or relationship before the death can lead to a deep sense of ambivalence, and can raise questions about the distance between you and the person who has died, and the nature of your relationship. There can be a sense of longing to go back and change those elements of the relationship which led to the lack of communication, and bring about regret and maybe guilt.

 An abusive or psychologically damaging relationship

This a highly complex topic and therefore, the following is given only as a brief overview. Locating the true nature of this type of ambivalent loss can be incredibly difficult, as it takes an exploration of complicated ambivalent thoughts. On the one hand, the death of a person who may have represented terror, trauma, pain and hurt, and for whom you may hold anger or hatred. On the other, there can also be a sense of loss for someone for whom at one point you may have felt care, or even love for. Reconciling these two opposing views is incredibly challenging, leading in some cases to a sense of shame for even experiencing grief instead of rejoicing the death of someone who may have put you through very painful experiences.

 Remembering the deceased differently to others

When your experience or memory of the deceased is wholly different to that of others, especially family members or friends, can make grieving very difficult. Remembering the person who has died with negative feelings can feel somehow feel disingenuous, unfair or even untrue. It can lead to a sense of ambivalence about the true nature of your feelings, and a desire to keep these feelings hidden for fear of upsetting others.

 Managing ambivalent loss

 Managing or understanding ambivalent loss will be different for each person, but there are some strategies which can assist in this process. The list below is not comprehensive or exhaustive, and is given as an example only –

  • Remember ambivalence is a natural part of the grieving process
  • Remember ambivalent feelings or thoughts you might be embarrassed or ashamed about, do not take away from the positive qualities you remember about the person
  • Allow space in your mind for the conflicting thoughts, and know that this is ok
  • Talk openly about your thoughts with someone who you know is able to listen
  • Remember that thoughts are only thoughts, they do not always equate to truth, and you are not a bad person for simply having them

How psychotherapy can help

 Grief and loss are universal, inevitable and unavoidable elements of life. But when loss is left unexplored, left unspoken or thought about, difficult feelings can surface, leading to ambivalence and difficulty in facilitating the grieving process. Psychotherapy can assist in the process of unravelling grief, provide a space where all aspects of loss are open for debate, and reflection. Psychotherapy offers an opportunity to look in depth at the conflicted feelings you may have surrounding the death, and can enable you to explore these, with the view to understanding in more detail how you feel.

 In closing

 As previously stated, a degree of ambivalence is to be expected, and is a normal element of the grieving process. Nonetheless, it can be incredibly difficult and painful to grieve when you experience conflicting emotions for the person who has died.

 Grief will never have a clear-cut path, nor will it ever follow a pattern, and no theory on grief can ever explain how you will feel, but given time and reflection on the full range of our conflicted emotions and feelings, we will be able to work towards finding ourselves in a place where can begin to make sense of the process of grief and loss.

Understanding Ambivalence In Relationships

Ambivalence or uncertainty of any kind can be an anxious experience which can make us feel that our sense of safety and security has been threatened. Due to the nature of human connection, we can become psychologically, emotionally or even biologically connected to those we love. The mechanisms which drive human connections are powerful, and uncertainty puts them in a state of flux. This can lead to internal alarms being raised, and both body and mind seek a resolution and desire to feel secure and attached. Ambivalence both invites us to desire closeness whilst also avoiding becoming too detached.

Bouts of ambivalent feelings are to be expected within a relationship, and it is important to note that when we find ourselves questioning our relationship, it does not mean the relationships is falling apart; instead it is important to recognise ambivalence as a sign that feelings have surfaced which require attention.

What Causes Relational Ambivalence?

There are many reasons for ambivalence to appear within relationships and each relationship will contain its own set of difficulties, triggers and experiences which may lead someone to ambivalent feelings. Maybe you fear losing the relationship despite not being totally happy with your partner, or maybe you find it too painful to admit that your relationship may not be as it once was.

Ambivalence by its very nature contains negative and positive emotions and feelings, which jostle for space in our minds. It is painful to hold in our minds exclusively negative thoughts about those we love, or to think that we don’t love or care for our partner, or even that we’d prefer to be with someone else. We find ourselves switching between different feelings because settling on either one is too difficult or painful.

Below I have listed some common reasons why relationship ambivalence can occur and why it can continue without being addressed.

Fearing Consequences

It can be common to have a fearful anticipation of what could happen if you took action and addressed your relationship concerns. You may worry a conflict could arise if there is a history of explosive arguments, or feel apprehensive you may start something which could be worse than the ambivalence itself. Or even that you may open yourself up to ridicule, anger or mistreatment from your partner.

Naturally, people fear losing their relationship, connection and bond, so there can be a sense that it is not safe to disrupt the status quo of the relationship, despite not being totally happy with it. Even admitting a relationship may be experiencing difficulties feels terrifying enough for people to remain silent or to minimize or dismiss their ambivalent feelings. This can lead to people being stuck due to becoming continually focused on trying to avoid the inner discomfort they are experiencing rather than acknowledging and addressing it.

Torn Between Values Or Beliefs

During the duration of a relationship, we will inevitably change and grow as individuals, and sometimes that means our values or beliefs shift. It is great when you and your partner both shift and find ways to exist with different values or ideas, but this is not always possible. For example, one individual may realise that they do not want children, while their partner is very settled on the idea and feels very strongly about having children.

A difference in values or beliefs can be pivotal in creating relational ambivalence, and can contribute to the struggle for compromise or the desire for one person to shift their ideas. Although making sense of the exact values in conflict may not alleviate the ambivalence entirely, the act of naming them and discussing them will help ease the pressure, which can make it easier to come to decisions about the relationship.

Self-Esteem

Often the tensions we experience are related to either wanting or needing something from the other, and not being able to ask for it. People, who have a healthier level of self-esteem, may find it much easier to understand their needs matter and have value. This should not be seen as selfish, but instead that you are aware of your needs and require attention from your partner. Relationships require the renegotiation of our needs, desires and wants, for the relationship to effectively grow and flourish.

In Closing

By understanding what underlies relational ambivalence, you can more fully take steps toward to resolving conflict. This is by no means an easy task, and requires time, effort and potentially the help of an external mediator, such as a psychotherapist, or counsellor. Facing these difficult parts of the relationship may be hard, but no more so than living with ambivalence and not expressing it.

Ultimately, our close relationships hold much sway over how we feel and influence and impact on our decisions. Nothing can activate intense, powerful and also potentially destructive feelings like our relationships with those we love and care about.

Ambivalence – A Brief Exploration

What is ambivalence?

The word ambivalence can be used for a wide array of psychological conflicts that involve conflicting factors, thoughts or feelings. The term was first used by the Swiss psychiatrist Paul Eugen Bleuler and later by Sigmund Freud who used the word to describe conflicts which related to love and hate.

Ambivalence could be understood as a state of tension that occurs when we have opposing beliefs, feelings or behaviours towards a person, object, experience or situation. Ambivalent feelings can often be fluid in their nature, meaning they can be experienced differently from moment to moment. Ambivalent feelings also often occur simultaneously, and hold within them both positive and negative components. When we are torn between different feelings, we may weigh arguments one way or the other, and try to decide on the right course of action, yet after much back and forth, often still can’t decide on an appropriate course of action. This process can become paralysing and exhausting. In many ways it demonstrates that our motivation to engage in one particular course of action is often driven by competing needs and desires that will go back and forth for priority, importance or meaning.

Examples of ambivalence

Ambivalence is a complex concept, but is also a relatively simple one that could be explained quite easily by the following example: Someone goes to an Italian restaurant but struggles with the menu and can’t decide whether to order pasta or pizza. This type of ambivalence is common and can also be understood as indecisiveness.

A deeper and more serious example of ambivalent feelings is given below:

Jack, a 37 year old man, enters into therapy after a recent row with his father. Jack explains he worships and idolises his father, and says he wishes he could be like him. He speaks about his father with nothing but adoration. On the surface, it would seem Jack has mainly positive feelings towards him but after one particularly difficult session Jack explains, ‘He used to become angry at me often… he told me I was pathetic, that I was stupid.’. Jack quickly takes this statement back saying, ‘He was only doing what he thought was right as a father, he was trying to toughen me up a bit. I can’t think about him like that, after all he’s done for me’.

Jack spends many sessions going back and forth between loving his father and also holding extreme anger against him. This conflict was summed up succinctly in one session with Jack saying the following statement ‘I love him and want to be like him, but also nothing like him. He was cruel… he was mean.’

As the brief above example shows, the strength of ambivalent feelings can be powerful, overwhelming and at points very painful. When we hold within us such strong opposing feelings, especially for someone we love, have loved in the past or someone who has died, it can be difficult to know how we truly feel now, how we felt before, or indeed whether we are permitted to have negative feelings about them. Guilt and shame can often enter into the fray with ambivalence, and it is common for people to feel that this ambivalence should be hidden from others lest we be judged or thought of badly.

Whilst there are often situations where an individual is aware of their ambivalent or undecided feelings, as in the above example of Jack, it is not always so simple. Often people hold their ambivalence unconsciously, without fully understanding it is there. An example of this follows:

Marie, a 30 year old woman begins a course of therapy seeking to understand her life in more depth, why her last few relationships have broken down prematurely and how she can better understand her current relationship. Marie explains her parents divorced when she was 10 but says that this didn’t impact her too much as her parents kept up good communication and the divorce was amicable. She explains that when her current girlfriend expressed to her how much she liked her, her initial reaction was to laugh and tell her to stop being so silly. Her girlfriend was hugely upset, but Marie explained she couldn’t understand why. As the session went on, Marie explained that in that moment, she had found it uncomfortable and upsetting that her girlfriend had been so caring towards her, yet she had also felt cared for.

In one particularly moving session for both Marie and her therapist, she explains that her previous relationships had ended because she felt they had become too close to her, or that they had become too attached or dependant on her. This led Marie to explore her conflicting feelings related to relationships and being cared for. On the one hand she wishes to be valued and cared for, but on the other is mistrustful of relationships and people caring for her. This stemmed from her parents’ divorce, which left her dubious about whether people can be in relationships effectively, whether they can last or that they will work at all.

As this example shows, ambivalence plays out in subtle and intricate ways within our unconscious mind and the patterns we follow are often occurring due to our desires and drives that we seek to meet or dismiss, even if we are not consciously aware of this happening.

In closing

Inherently tied into ambivalence is a sense of sadness or loss of what we could have or what we might miss out on. The truth is that much of life involves uncertainty about any number of known or unknown elements and it is natural to experience difficulties in making up our minds, or have periods of indecision, indecisiveness or uncertainty.

The balance between our needs and desires shifts constantly, as do our current priorities, motivations and feelings. Ambivalence is less an enemy to be feared, and more a representation of the internal conflicts we all experience in life

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – A Brief Exploration

What Is PTSD?

During World War 1, the term Shell Shock was used to describe what was initially thought to be the effect of intense artillery fire on those involved in warfare, but was later understood as the result of stress soldiers experienced in intense combat. The term PTSD became well known when it was associated with veterans of the Vietnam War, and was later mentioned in the third edition of the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the early 80s.

Today, PTSD is researched, understood and valued by many as a very real and impactful mental health condition. PTSD is used to describe a range of symptoms people may develop in response to experiencing events outside of their normal range of experiences, such as natural disasters, mass catastrophes or serious accidental injuries.

Symptoms

PTSD often has a delayed response, meaning an individual may not experience its symptoms at the time. It is common for people to feel distressed, confused and upset in the wake of a traumatic event, and may also feel emotionally numb, withdrawn or detached.

The impact, effects and psychological difficulties experienced through PTSD are diverse, depending on the individual, and there is no typical pattern in which PTSD occurs, furthermore, not all those who experience traumatic experiences develop PTSD, and of those that do, some may experience prolonged difficulties, whereas others find their symptoms disappear in a relatively short space of time.

Below are some of the symptoms an individual may experience with PTSD.

Reliving aspects of the trauma

  • vivid flashbacks – feeling the trauma happening again
  • intrusive thoughts or images
  • experiencing nightmares
  • intense distress at real or symbolic reminders or representations of the trauma
  • physical sensations – shivering, trembling, sweating or nausea.

Feeling on edge

  • panicking when reminded of the trauma
  • becoming easily upset or angry
  • disturbed sleeping patterns, or lack of sleep
  • aggressive, irritable behavior
  • difficulties concentrating
  • easily startled or frightened
  • self-destructive or reckless behaviours.

Avoiding feelings

  • unable to express affection for others
  • using alcohol or drugs to avoid painful memories
  • keeping busy
  • repressing memories or unable to remember aspects of the event
  • feeling detached or numb
  • avoiding situations which remind you of the trauma.

Some people who experience PTSD may also develop other mental health difficulties, which could include:

  • severe anxiety or panic
  • a phobia
  • differing levels of depression
  • a dissociative disorder
  • suicidal thoughts and feelings.

Causes

The situations and experiences which people find traumatic vary, however PTSD typically develops from situations which are life threatening, disturbing and highly traumatic. These could include:

  • a serious accident, such as a car crash
  • an event where you feared for your life
  • personal assaults such as rape, sexual assault or a violent attack
  • childhood sexual abuse
  • a traumatic childbirth, either as a mother or partner
  • witnessing a violent death
  • extreme war or combat
  • a natural disaster
  • losing someone close to you in disturbing circumstances.

There are other factors which can make people more vulnerable to developing PTSD, or could even make the symptoms experienced more severe. These could include:

  • experiencing repeated trauma, as a soldier in war, or a civilian experiencing war
  • having little support from family, friends or professionals
  • previously experiencing anxiety, depression or other mental health difficulties
  • dealing with added stress at the time, such as a bereavement.

If you experiencing trauma at an early age or if the trauma was extended over a period of time, as in the case of prolonged childhood abuse, then you may be diagnosed with what is known as ‘complex PTSD’, meaning that treatment required is more long term and intense, than that which is needed to recover from a one off traumatic event. Of course, there are no absolutes with PTSD, and each individual will respond to prolonged or one off experiences differently.

Self-Help

After a traumatic event, many people find it hard to accept what has happened, and may behave as if nothing bad occurred. This response may allow time away from the trauma, and subconsciously, you may be beginning to process what you experienced. When you are ready, you may find some of the following ideas helpful.

Talk to someone

Talking about your experiences can be a good way of coming to terms with what happened, and turning to friends or relatives, or seeking professional help can assist you in the first stages of understanding your trauma.

Talk to people with similar experiences or contact an organisation

It may be helpful to share your experiences with others who have been through something similar. This can be an extremely important step in moving away from isolation and towards regaining control. There are many UK organisations which can assist, such as Assist Trauma Care, Combat Stress or Freedom From Torture. Taking the first step in searching your local area will make a big difference to you gaining ownership of your life, and realising that your past experiences do not own you.

How Psychotherapy Can Help

Psychotherapy can assists you in delicately exploring your trauma, and seeing how your past experiences have impacted your feelings in the present. In a safe environment, you can explore the emotional responses you have experienced through your trauma, and can go at your own pace to learn ways to manage these intense emotions and feelings.

In Closing

What makes traumatic experiences so difficult to manage and process, is that they undermine our fundamental beliefs we hold that our lives are safe, secure and manageable. They are outside of our normal range of experience, which makes them shocking, overwhelming and powerful.

Everyone has a unique response to trauma, and will proceed at their own pace. Talking before you want to may not be helpful for you and it may take you a little more time before you feel ready to speak.

By seeking the right support and learning to understand and manage the impact of these experiences, you can find light, movement and progression, and move toward seeing you are not bound to, or owned by your past experiences.

Why The Use Of Imagination in Psychotherapy Matters

People enter into therapy for different reasons, whether to understand bereavement and loss, or to explore a recent spate of anxiety. In therapy there are many aspects of our lives, experiences and relationships which can be explored. Therapy emphasises the importance of exploring our minds, seeking truth or clarity and uncovering our past. This exploratory process takes place in the hope that we may unburden ourselves from a myriad of complex thoughts or feelings.

This is why imagination becomes so important in therapy, because it allows us to explore thoughts and experiences, which if shared in the outside world, may not be understood. Imagination enables us to view or interpret experiences with a variety of different lenses which we can alter, change or shift as our mind explores concepts further.

Why Imagination Matters

All of us hold the potential for imagination, creativity and reflective thought, and can benefit from thinking outside the box. Imagination matters because it is fundamental to who we are. It is linked with dreams, ideas and what makes us individual and unique. No one will ever see, understand or engage with our imagination as well as we will ourselves. We are connected to imagination throughout life from an early age. Imagination assists with development and growth in infancy, and helps us to learn the boundaries of the world we are learning about and exploring.

Some people in therapy benefit more from working within the world of metaphor and imagination, than exploring what is more factual or ‘real’. The idea that progress can only be made if one owns up to their difficulties, admits fault or is real with oneself, is not an absolute. Of course, there must be some ownership of thoughts feelings and ideas, but this is not the only route to progress in therapy. In fact, it can be in abstract or creative patterns of thinking, which can lead us down meaningful avenues of self-exploration and growth.

Imagination not only assists with healing, growth and understanding in therapy, but also contributes to a person’s personal and mental development. Actively using imagination in therapy assists with transpersonal development, meaning it allows people to understand experiences which extend beyond the personal level of their psyche. Imagination, and reflective thinking, can assist someone in making links between their experiences and thoughts and help them form more detailed connections in their lives.

Free Association, Metaphor & Imagery

Freud believed greatly in the importance of imagery, metaphor, symbols and dreams. He believed much could be deciphered from a person’s unconscious processes, and that these became clearer through an individual’s use of language, imagery and metaphor. He encouraged people to express any and all thoughts which floated into their minds during a session. No image, thought or idea was too small, and all held value and meaning.

Exploring the mind without hindrance, censorship or embarrassment is a key tenant of Freudian therapy, and is known as free association. The idea behind this concept is that by speaking freely, a person will, through imagery, metaphor and language, reveal deeper aspects of their unconscious mind, which for several reasons may have been covered up.

Metaphor in therapy is not easy to define, and depends hugely on each client and therapist relationship, and how a therapist or client may understand particular metaphors used. For example, a therapist may use their own understanding or knowledge of theory to infer meaning to a metaphor which a client did not mean, or a client may have several understandings for a metaphor. Imagery which was considered safe, may become dangerous or unsafe. Through imagination, we can add or remove meaning as necessary, and there are no wrong or right answers. Thoughts that that once made sense may shift and become confusing and difficult. Through actively seeking an imaginative understanding, we can make these ideas more malleable and fluid.

The reason imagination matters in therapy is because it can allow a client to express how they are feeling about something when the direct use of words may be too painful. Symbols and metaphors can be used in place of complex and difficult memories or feelings. A brief fictional example of this is below.

Client Sometimes I feel like a decaying rusty anchor, lying on the ocean floor.

Therapist  Can you say a little more about what the image of an anchor might represent?

Client  It represents feeling unused and forgotten. It represents feeling heavy.

Therapist – Can you say more?

Client – I feel unable to stop decaying, that I am destined to remain on the ocean floor.

Therapist – Does the anchor represent you and your depression?

Client – Yes, and right now I feel chained to it. I do not know if I will ever leave the ocean floor. I may rust over some much, that I will be incapable of life.

As the above example shows, the metaphor of a rusty decaying anchor, held behind it a powerful feeling of helplessness, depression and sadness. The use of imagination in place of words enabled this person to explain the depth of their sadness, which was equivalent to the depths of the ocean itself.

In Closing

Imagination is a personal and private part of our lives, to which we alone can attribute meaning, value or feelings. The vastness and complexity of the mind, means that often thoughts, feelings and ideas become jumbled up, confused or lost. Therapy can assist you in detangling these aspects of your mind, and provide you with a greater sense of clarity, and allow you to see things in a different light.

Imagination could be viewed as providing a symbolic bridge between our conscious and unconscious thoughts, as a container or a conductor of psychological energies, feelings and sensations. Ultimately, it gives us a platform for expression, offers a wide array of tools to understand ourselves at greater depth, and when used within therapy, provides us with the chance to consider and reflect upon what could be, what might have been, what was, and what is.

Men’s Mental Health – Masculinity & Feelings

Due to the way young boys are socialised in education and society, their ability to deal with emotions has been systematically undermined from a young age. They are taught that certain aspects of their personality are not acceptable to others, taught not to feel, cry or express how they feel. In school, they’re shown the games they should or shouldn’t play, and may be mocked for liking ‘girl’s toys’ such as dolls. Rarely throughout school are they encouraged to engage with their feelings.

Television and advertising play a large part in how men view themselves and their feelings. Films and magazines paint a picture of what a ‘real man’ looks like. Men are bombarded by perceptions of masculinity, usually connected to muscles and bravado. Over time they are made to believe that being a man entails these specific criteria, and if they do not fit within these boxes they are not ‘man enough’.

These perceptions of masculinity can lead a culture of silence and fear, and a deep sense of shame permeating throughout male culture. The perceived definition of what it means to be a man is not only outdated and ridiculous, but harmful, not only for the men of today, but those of the future, who see this as the only way of being. The idea that men are to remain strong, silent and capable is a total myth, and belongs in the past.

Why Don’t Men Discuss Their Feelings Or Emotions?

Masculinity, and what it means to be a man, has been implanted, grown and developed in the minds of men since childhood. Men grow up witnessing the stereotypes of masculine heroes, who are self-sufficient, strong and capable. The role of offering emotional support is not one associated with being manly, and is therefore dismissed.

The reality is that many men experience mental health difficulties. In fact over 3 million men in the UK have a mental health difficulty, and the charity Mind previously found that 37% of men in the UK feel worried or low. The top three issues playing on their minds were job security, work and money.

I have listed some common reasons men may find it difficult to speak about their issues. This list is not exhaustive, and is meant only to highlight common difficulties.

  • Men often stigmatise themselves, leading to a sense of shame or embarrassment regarding their mental health difficulties
  • Men are often embarrassed to admit to others, particularly other men, and to themselves that they struggle, even if their troubles are considerable
  • Men often ‘put up’ with difficulties, which can lead to a sense of being overwhelmed later
  • Men often don’t display traditional symptoms of mental health difficulties, and may instead ‘act out’, through drug use, alcohol or aggression
  • These factors can lead to mental health difficulties being undiagnosed or overlooked in men

Men & Suicide

According to the office of national statistics, the ratio of male to female suicides has shown a sustained rise over the last 30 years. In 1981, 62% of suicides in the UK were male, and in 2014 this figure had risen to 76%. Suicide is the single biggest cause of death in men under the age of 45 in the UK.

So, why are the statistics for male suicide so high? Men have been conditioned to be less in touch with their emotions, to not show weakness, and often feel they have an image to uphold. Fearing someone may find out their weakness and judge them as inferior can be terrifying. The expectations of manliness make it difficult for men to feel comfortable in expressing they are having a bad time. Not being strong, essentially equates to them feeling as if they have failed as a man.

Needing to uphold this masculine image is tiring, especially if you are unable to speak to someone. Combining the idea of ‘failed masculinity’ with losing a job or relationship for example, can lead to devastating consequences, where men feel so ashamed and inferior that taking their own life seems the only option.

How Therapy Can Help

It would be inaccurate to say men do not seek help, or that all men are strong, silent and dismissive of feelings. However, often it is not until a point of crisis that men seek help. It is crucial to recognise, given the past conditioning & perceptions of being a man, this has been an incredibly hard thing to do, and accepting they need support is a huge step.

Therapy can offer men the chance to be seen without judgement as they are. They can show their vulnerabilities, stresses and anxieties, as well as being seen as strong, confident and capable. In therapy, men can learn to understand more of themselves, their difficulties and their thoughts, and explore the rich and diverse nature of masculinity, and see that it is not a one sided image so frequently painted by the media. Therapy offers men the chance to explore their life experiences, relationships and their pain and difficulty. Ultimately this experience allows them to be more enriched, and enhanced, and to understand more about what it means to be a man.

In Closing

The importance of dispelling the myths surrounding mental health is crucial for society as a whole, as it allows for a more open and honest conversation to take place and lessen stigma and discrimination. The reality is, mental health operates on a scale, and we all struggle at points.

Gender does not discriminate when it comes to mental health difficulties, and being a man, makes no difference to whether you should feel able to discuss, think about or engage with your feelings.

It is crucial men are able to have conversations with others, but particularly with other men, about their mental health and feelings. It is only when the idea of ‘what it means to be a man’ begins to change, that men will be able to open up, or reveal about themselves, those feelings or difficulties they are experiencing.