themighty logo

What It Means to Be a ‘Real Man’ When You Have Anxiety


Historically, being considered a “real man” has carried a certain set of characteristics that are almost unachievable. Men are often lumped into a single group where there is a way that all should feel and act. For example, a “real man” needs to be:

Strong.

Courageous.

Selfless.

A provider.

Fearless.

In control.

A protector.

These are high standards to expect someone to live up to at all times. Society’s standard for a man can cause quite a bit of anxiety to even the strongest-minded men. If you already struggle with mental health issues, living up to all these lofty standards can be extremely overwhelming. The anxiety of trying to be the “perfect” man can cause great struggles on the mind and can even lead to depression if/when the characteristics are not met.

As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that being a “man” is a subjective term. You could poll a hundred people and get a hundred different answers. Sure, there will be some characteristics that stick with the majority but ultimately the definition of a “man” depends on who you ask. For someone who is working through anxiety-related disorders, living up to a standard that can’t even be accurately defined is practically impossible.

The older I get, the more responsibilities I seem to take on. First came getting a real job after college. Then came buying my own home and a car. Next came starting an adult relationship with my wife-to-be and stepson. Soon after, I was getting engaged and planning a wedding. Then came two more children. It seems like a lot of life’s big changes and added responsibilities happen over a relatively short period of time. These quick changes can be a struggle emotionally.

Anxiety and Emotions as a Man

Anxiety has been like a really “crappy friend” who has been with me through all these adulthood changes. Anxiety has been there to cause worry, fear and doubt in almost every new step I take. As a “man,” some believe that being fearful or filled with worry are not acceptable traits. A man should be able to control his emotions and shouldn’t need help to deal with mental struggles. “Suck it up” or “man up” were two phrases that were popular when I was growing up. To be a man, you weren’t allowed to show you might be struggling emotionally.

As a man who struggles with the ups and downs of anxiety, hiding all that emotion is a recipe for disaster. Trying to hide the anxiety makes you feel “dirty.” It’s like you are hiding a part of yourself because you fear you will not fit the traditional mold of a man. Holding these emotions inside for too long, and the feeling of inadequacy that comes with it, can lead to severe depression. You start to feel like you don’t belong, or you are not worthy.

Why can’t you just be like everyone else? Why do you have these fears and struggles? Why can’t you be mentally strong?

The Need for Change

Well, I’m here to tell you, there is no one who does not struggle mentally from time-to-time. The problem is that society has made it seem like men shouldn’t have and don’t need to deal with emotional struggles.

Here’s a comparison: Look at how most men and women are depicted when modeling clothes. Most models are, what most would consider, the “perfect” height, weight and shape. The more you see this over and over in magazines or online, the more you think this is the norm. So, then you start to critique yourself physically because you may not meet all the standards you see in these ads.

Now, look at this in terms of mental health. Historically, the “ideal” man does not show his emotions. “Manly” characters in movies or books keep their emotions hidden because they are strong. Men don’t show emotion, women show emotion. Even though times have progressed, and this statement seems outdated, the concept is still ingrained in people’s minds.

Hopefully, with the recent surge of celebrities, athletes and public figures coming forward and sharing their mental health experiences, the perception of a “man” can better reflect the truth.

Men have feelings! Men have emotions! Men have doubts! Men have fears!

The sooner these notions can become aligned with the perception of a man, the sooner men can stop living in fear and shame.

A version of this article was previously published on the author’s website.

Photo by Asif Aman on Unsplash