Finding the True Man Within: Masculinity and Mental Health Challenges for Men with Different Types of Learning Differences

As a Bergen County psychotherapist and coach, I see many young men who are struggling with some aspect of their masculinity. For young men with learning differences, social rejection, challenges in school, and later difficulties maintaining employment can not only be acutely painful, but also shake the foundation of their manhood.  The intersection of disability and masculinity is eloquently captured by Erin Kelly when she states, “When you have society constantly telling you. ‘You can’t do that!’ It eats away at your soul-no matter who you are. When you have a disability, people aren’t telling you that because they think whatever you are doing is wrong or against the law. They’re most likely telling you because you don’t ‘look the ‘part,’ due to the fact that you have a wheelchair or what have you…for a disabled man to hear these things, I think it would be worse than any pill to swallow” (Kelly, 2015) Young men with “invisible” learning differences might “look the part,” but also feel emasculated when friends and family members shoot them slightly disapproving glances when they discover that  they are living at home after college, for example. As an individual and family therapist who often works with young adults with nonverbal learning disabilities, I know how important it is to support these young men reconnect with their masculinity. These are a few of my techniques.

Some of the young men who come to my practice feel “stuck.” They may feel overqualified for their job, unable to afford moving out from their parents, or missing meaningful social connections. These feeling infringes on a traditional sense of masculinity that emphasis self-agency and personal responsibility. Therefore, it is helpful for them to reclaim their personal power where they can. For example, one male client who was interested in exploring outdoor activities with other men described the satisfaction he would feel when he cut down a tree, finally seeing the tangible results of hard work and feeling as though there was something he could change in his tangible environment. Other young men describe feeling most competent when they go to the gym and build their strength and endurance, while some others become involved in developing new hobbies, such as fishing or music. In general, encouraging the young men I work with to imagine their own efficacy and power outside of their work lives has been helpful for them to develop their sense of masculinity and power.

In addition to encouraging self-efficacy and personal power, I have found that some young men respond positively to reframing their experiences as uniquely masculine. Indeed, for many of these young men, it took tremendous personal sacrifice to graduate from high school and college, for example.  I may often ask them, for example, to consider the fact that they never gave up and that they pushed through, characteristics that are traditionally associated with masculinity.  Some of the young men I work with are able to consider that overcoming challenges has led them to become more resilient and better able to face down what life throws their way, like a boxer who has taken multiple hits but keeps on fighting. This image has resurrected a sense of masculinity in some of the young men I work with.

I recognize that some concepts of masculinity include aspects with which I strongly disagree, such as sexism and patriarchy. However, while I do at times present alternative concepts, I think that it is important to keep in mind that some of these young men have felt beaten down, misunderstood, and not even recognized as whole and complete individuals. For them, an identity that includes traditional ideas and concepts of masculinity are essential for developing a wholeness to their identify, something that may have been stripped from them. In this context, exploring how they can define a masculine identity for themselves solidifies a therapeutic alliance, as part of their identify is validated by another male.



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