Tom smokes two packs of cigarettes daily. Ten years ago, his mother, a lifelong smoker, died a painful death from lung cancer. He supports a wife and two children. Despite the risks, Tom continues his self-destructive behavior.
Like so many other men, Tom strongly clings to his smoking habit despite the obvious hazards. Other men hold fast to similar negative habits such as drinking, drugs, and overwork. Physical problems, such as heart disease, liver problems, and serious stomach ailments are not uncommon consequences. Shame and secrecy often accompany these negative habits. This can lead to withdrawal and isolation from partners, friends, and family, putting great stress on relationships.
Of course, women struggle with similar self-destructive issues, but I will focus specifically on men. As a teacher and workshop leader for many years in yoga, breathing techniques, meditation, and other holistic subjects, I have been amazed at how few men attend. I concluded that men have more resistance to health oriented activities and became curious as to why this is so.
How can this negative, resistant, and risky attitude be explained?
First, we need to realize how important work is to men. Men define themselves by success in work. Traditionally, their major role has been provider and protector as hunter, warrior, scholar, teacher, and businessman. This is all well and good. However, an imbalanced drive towards materialism and success leaves little time and energy for health enhancing activities, especially if a large amount of time is necessary commuting to and from work.
Second, we need to understand the tenacity and dynamics of the psychological defense of denial. In denial there is an unconscious mental block to reality. Tom knows that smoking is harmful, but he denies that it can affect him. A vivid example of denial is the following fantasy-metaphor. A man is on the thirty fourth floor of a commercial building. He happens to glance out the window. To his amazement he sees a man hurtling downward in the air. The startled observer shouts to the falling man: “How are you doing?” The man quickly replies: “So far, so good!” Psychotherapists know that the defense of denial is one of the most problematic defenses to break through. Sometimes only the survival from a serious injury or disease motivates individuals to change course to better health goals.
Third, we need to understand that many men have issues around narcissism, pride, and stubbornness. This is reflected in the well known “I don’t need a map” syndrome, which is unpleasantly familiar to many females in the car passenger seat. Men’s need to maintain control in a woman’s presence can often be traced to the early years of childhood. At that time a major developmental task of a young boy is to free himself from dependency on mother. Men are not as comfortable or as flexible as women in accepting suggestions and help. To seek advice and to take steps to effect change, especially in the field of physical and mental health, is seen as weakness.
Partners who want to influence and/or cope with men’s resistance should consider the following facts.
As a partner, if you totally support the denial, you are being a codependent enabler. This position does not help either the man or you.
Partners of men often have an intuitive understanding as to the right course of action for their mate’s health and well-being. Further, if men are approached in the right way, they could richly benefit by heeding to their partner’s advice.
While many men are not comfortable with verbalizing and sharing feelings, they nevertheless consider their significant others their best friends.
Partners can influence changes in health of “best friend” by sharing time with him in sports or other activities. Men tend to be more comfortable with intimacy in action rather than expression of feelings. Consider participating with him in his favorite sport, which may be aerobic exercise or martial arts. Men appreciate this sharing .It just might open his psyche to listen to and participate in your activities and in your advice. Also, partners can set the example of a more wellness oriented life style by pursuing such endeavors as healthy eating, yoga, t’ai chi, and pilates. He may be inspired by your increased vigor and vitality.
To communicate feelings and ideas to another through words that effect positive health changes is vital. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by communicating “I feel” expressions rather than “You are” criticisms. See Ornish, Dean, M.D, “Pathways to Love and Intimacy” LOVE AND SURVIVAL (Harper-Collins: N.Y., N.Y.) pages 97-151. To illustrate this strategy, I will summarize a simple vignette from this book (pages 114-117) about Ted and Alice. Ted was rushed to a hospital because of a heart attack. He had insisted on cooking for seventy-five people in excessive heat every night during a vacation trip. In the hospital his wife Alice tells him he was stupid- he should have thought more about what he did to put them in this predicament. Ted becomes defensive. He insisted he did nothing that unusual. What Alice said made him angry, humiliated, and defiant. Motivation for Ted to change his attitude and habits would have resulted if Alice had said: “Ted, I worry about your not taking care of yourself. You know how much I love you. If you die, I will miss you so much!” Taking this softer “I feel” approach evoked an entirely different reaction. He was moved to listen to Alice. His attitude changed to taking better of himself. He became interested in steps to prevent illness rather than waiting for the roof to cave in.
It is difficult but not impossible for men to overcome their resistance to health. Experiences in psychotherapy or men’s groups can help men see the reality of their risky health behavior and to overcome their denial. Partners or good friends can influence men if they have a measure of knowledge of wellness principles, patience, and have good communication skills. They can participate with him in his athletic activities and encourage him to widen his range of activities that promote health and well-being. They can set the example by exhibiting their own positive benefits in body, mind, and spirit derived from their own health enhancing pursuits.
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