Man up? Never

There are some phrases or sayings that people just churn out when they don’t know what else to say.

Often this is something harmless about the weather that they might chirpily say to the postman or newsagent: “Nippy outside, isn’t it?” or “Lovely day.” In football, there are mundane cliches that players, managers and pundits trot out when they have to say something but haven’t had time to think about what that something might be: “He’s come in and done a job” or “At the end of the day it’s all about getting three points.”

People can take the same approach as those tongue-tied football experts when confronted with an awkward situation or inconvenient truth. Say, for example, a relative or friend reveals they are struggling with depression. Unless you’ve experienced depression for yourself, it’s hard to know what to say, because you don’t know what that person is thinking or how they’re feeling. So, out come those reliable old gap-fillers: “Chin up,” “cheer up, you’ve got lots to be happy about,” “pull yourself together,” “stiff upper lip” and all that.

I have nothing against such well-meaning attempts at helping someone to feel better. They’re often said with a kind heart and good intentions. OK, so they’re rather thoughtless and not exactly helpful, because cheering up is one of those things you would probably tend to do if you were blessed with the capacity to do so at that particular time. Even somebody who isn’t suffering from depression but is having a bad day might not react favourably to such merry, faux motivational small talk. Your well-meaning adviser is simply failing to understand and diagnose what is wrong, and is using their limited or non-existent knowledge of it to give you a slightly feeble and misguided pep talk.

There is a similar phrase I’ve heard a few times recently (not directed at me) that is not only unhelpful but is also ignorant and, to be blunt about it, stupid. That phrase is ‘man up’.

I am a man. I have the parts to prove it, should the need arise – so to speak. No amount of ‘manning up’, in any circumstances, is going to alter my manliness. It has remained at a constant level throughout my adult life. Before I was a man, I was a boy. Nobody tells you to ‘boy up’, though, so we can forget about that.

I have heard two men recently saying that they were going to ‘man up’. They meant they were going to try and toughen up. If that means they’re going to face their problems head on and get the help they need to get better, then fine. The alternative meaning, though, is that they’re going to do that ‘strong, silent type’ thing that’s meant to personify the rugged, heroic, masculine, chisel-jawed breadwinner, who ‘just gets on with it’. My problem with that is that ‘just getting on with it’ is what frequently seems to cause depression. There is only so much ‘just getting on with it’ a person can do before it starts to take its toll on their health. For ‘just get on with it’, read ‘just get stressed out, just fail to express your feelings, just take on too much, just get mentally ill as a result’.

Worse, though, is when someone else tells you to ‘man up’. I saw this on Twitter recently, in response to a well-known sportsman openly tweeting about depression. The tweet helpfully advised him to “man the f*** up”. In reply, he simply and brilliantly retweeted this moronic insult so that all his followers could see it.

This use of ‘man up’ was deliberately hostile and provocative and clearly wasn’t the well-considered product of an ingenious mind, but the ignorance riled me nonetheless. It’s based on the presumption that someone going through depression is just having a prolonged sulk, and can suddenly jolt themselves out of it when they receive a timely piece of unexpected guidance. It’s also grounded in a ridiculous misconception of what a man should be.

The reality of depression is that it is not merely a bad mood that you can snap out of, however manly you may be. It’s an illness. As I was mulling over – and probably scowling about – the idea of ‘manning up’, I caught side of the inhaler by my bed, and it occurred to me that there are some parallels between depression and asthma:

  • both are medical problems
  • both have varying degrees of severity
  • both can be triggered by a range of factors
  • many cases of both can be managed with the right treatment
  • both can be killers

If I were ever to have a severe asthma attack, I hope it would not even pop into someone’s head that they could suggest I ‘man up’, because that would not help me to get my breathing under control and prevent serious harm. It is equally daft, useless and dangerous to aim a ‘man up’ at someone fighting depression. What possible good could that phrase do? It is about as much use as a PE teacher telling you that you ‘need more confidence’ when you’re not doing very well at a particular sport. “Ah yes,” thinks the teenage boy, “you are right. Glad you pointed that out. I will locate my ‘confidence’ switch and that will solve all my problems’.” If you don’t have confidence, how exactly are you going to find more just because someone has suggested it?

‘Man up’ could have been a phrase that encouraged men to face their troubles in a healthy way – it could have been about admitting to a problem and asking for help. Instead, it is a sub-cavemanesque grunt of ground-breaking stupidity that enforces meathead sterotypes of masculinity. Gentlemen – it’s time we gave it the boot.

I wrote this blog for the Blurt Foundation. Visit them at http://www.blurtitout.org.

 

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17 Comments on “Man up? Never”

  1. Even though I’m a woman, your piece is great, as ever, thanks for saying it. The thing that I find most unhelpful is when people tweet cheery, so-called ‘uplifting’ sayings. If I’m depressed, reading these always casts me down further, as if reading stuff like ‘your heart is a bird, let it sing’ can shift anything at all. What works for me is being reminded that I am not alone, however I’m feeling.

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Thanks Vivien. I think the female equivalent of ‘manning up’ is those adverts for cold and flu products that show women having to ‘soldier on’ through illness to do a million things all at once. And you’re definitely not alone.

  2. Although both women and men suffer equally from depression, very sadly I believe many more young men than women take their own lives, especially in their teens and early twenties. Also with boys, it’s far more common that the method they chose is immediate and violent. There’s no chance of going back once they have made up their mind. They leave devastated but also mystified family and friends who didn’t even realise they were down. It’s a sad fact that we as a culture do not understand that depression and low mood in men is nothing to do with their masculinity. We need to be encouraging our young men to talk about their feelings without any sense of shame and we need to take them seriously when they do.

    Paul, you have ‘manned up’ in the true sense. Talking about depression takes a lot more courage than hiding it. Love the parallel with asthma. I shall be pinching that to use with my young clients on a daily basis!

    Thanks again…. how’s Brookes doing at the moment? Bet he hates these blogs?

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Brill, thanks Chrissie. Great comments as always. Brookes had a very good week about a fortnight ago, but has been less busy in the last few days. He has a go, but I am fighting back :)

  3. Steve Houlihan says:

    I’m 41, I was 39 when a friend of my nephew’s who was about 18 told me to “man up Steve”. Part of me wanted to crawl into a hole and hide and part of me wanted to punch his lights out. I did neither. I just sort of laughed it off.
    And this from someone who supposedly has self esteem issues. Yeah right.

  4. Mrs Oliver says:

    I think seeing a comment like that, especially in reply to someone discussing depression, would have infuriated me! It’s the sheer ignorance to suggest to someone suffering from depression should ‘be a man’ – because what? Men shouldn’t be seen to suffer with depression, as somehow it makes them less of a man? How utterly ridiculous and offensive! I sympathise with anyone who receives a comment like this, even a well meaning ‘chin up’ can send me spiralling on my lowest days.

    Thank you for another excellent post – you were the inspiration for me starting my own blog.

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Wow, I’m humbled! I’m so pleased to have inspired you to blog! Thank you. And you’re right, ‘man up’ is an offensive thing to say in those circumstances.

      Keep blogging!

  5. LitLLinden says:

    Hi Paul, as I said on Twitter, I love this post. I have added a link to it from my blog because it compliments one of my posts quite well. You can check out my article “10 ways you can help someone with Depression” and the link here: http://littlelinden-hrc.blogspot.com/2011/11/10-ways-you-can-help-someone-with.html Maybe you will return the favour! :-)

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Thanks Little Linden, both for your kind comments and for linking to my blog, which is a big compliment. I love your blog post – very helpful – and will post it on Twitter too.

  6. LitLLinden says:

    I just read this again, aloud to my husband. The second last paragraph is my favourite and made this post a winner. The last paragraph is my second favourite and I whole-heartedly agree.

  7. Fantastic! I was told to ‘grow a pair and man up’ I’m a woman!!
    Well said! Oh and the star wars analogy helped my husband understand my illness!
    Ta.

  8. JJ says:

    My wife told me to ‘man up’ a few weeks back. I can’t get it out of my head. I’m usually a good forgiver!, but not sure how to forget this one. Any ideas ?

    • paulbrook76 says:

      It’s one of those things that people sometimes say as a light-hearted, throwaway comment, so I suppose it depends on the context she said it in, but as you’ll have gathered from my blog post I don’t think it’s ever very helpful!

      I’ve found myself that it isn’t healthy to dwell on things that have been said – you have to choose whether to accept them and move on, or act on them. i.e. ask your wife what she meant and talk about how it has made you feel.

      Hope this helps in some small way.

      Cheers
      Paul

    • LitLLinden says:

      Presumably her comment hurt because it felt like she was dismissing or disregarding your feelings. What hurt more – the comment, or not being heard?

      You said: I feel x about x
      She said: Man up.

      Now you might say: I want to talk to you about x because last time we spoke I don’t think you understood how important it is to me. (She might say ‘why?’ and you might say ‘I wanted you to x but do you remember what you said instead?).

      Or, find a way to let her know what you think about the phrase by drawing her attention to it when other people say it, or say something similar, in real life or in film and TV.

      You might say: “Did you notice that person say x? That’s a bit like when people say ‘man up’. Do you know what I don’t like about that saying?….”

      …and then you can talk about it in the 3rd person. Instead of saying “when you say, I feel…” you can talk about people generally, about “them” and how “he must feel” when “he” or “she” says ‘man up’ or anything similar.

      good luck!

  9. [...] up’ or ‘get a grip’, but this can take on a gendered dynamic, with men being told to ‘man up’, suggesting to male sufferers that in having their condition they have failed as men. In the [...]


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