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  • Social Conditioning in Men

    Most of us are aware that we are influenced by people such as our parents during our formative years and even that we are influenced by our peers throughout our lives, but few are aware of the extent of this influence, what it actually is that we are led to believe without question, or how great the implications can be of some of the behaviour we adopt. Plus, we rarely realise that there might be other ways to look at things when ideas are instilled in us from a very early age.

    Not many question these ideas because it is not obvious that there is anything to question in the first place, but think about most areas in your life and you will soon come up with a whole range of areas where you have knowingly (or unknowingly) been exposed to social conditioning.

    An example I often use to demonstrate how we become conditioned is that I ask my client to tell me the colour of the item I'm pointing at (it's black by the way!). This question is met with some confusion - and already I have my answer, even before they open their mouth. Next, they often recite the question back to me to ensure they have heard the question from me correctly. When I affirm this, there is still a short delay and then they usually say "Black", but in a very unsure way. I congratulate them on answering the question, but then ask, "and how do you know this is black". Once more, I usually am met with a quizzical stare - they find it very difficult to answer the question and to be fair I have to tell most of them that it stems from their parents influence.

    Thinking about this example, I often tell them that when you were a small boy, your mother and father would play a game with you and ask you to recall colours - this goes on for some time and then you go to school, where a different adult also re-affirms this to you. So naturally you know that the item is black.

    And so, a possible description of social conditioning is "the process through which individuals inherit and adhere to the grand beliefs and behaviour of their society; in other words, it is the way they learn to believe what everyone else around them believes and to behave in accordance with the accepted boundaries society deems correct."

    This influence then is what causes people to subconsciously conform to the prevailing attitudes, standards, and practices of society. What's worse is that I am aware (now) that Mrs. ManCoach and I have been giving the same messages to by two sons as was passed down by our parents! Yikes!

    Social conditioning can be a good thing in some instances such as taking care to cross roads or taking care around strangers etc - these are all super positive behaviours, but when we start to look more deeply around how damaging social conditioning can be, specifically around men's behaviour and beliefs, we find that the influences we have been exposed to both positively and negatively is a large part of the jigsaw that creates the environment for men to partake in some quite catastrophic behaviour and is probably one of the largest reasons why 75% of suicides in the UK are male.

    How does this play out? Well, how many times have you heard the term "man up", "don't show your emotions", "be strong", "grow a pair"? Probably quite a few times, depending on your age of course, but think about the reinforcement that is happening here! Men are, without doubt, conditioned from a very early age to subdue any emotion we have around crying, being or appearing vulnerable or becoming emotional - and for what? Simply because society doesn't think that men being vulnerable is an acceptable behaviour! What a load of crap!

    How can some people in our society feel it's OK to steal and behave in other anti-social ways? It generally, but not always, comes down to their influences growing up as children and young people - it just so happens that the vast majority of parents are looking to develop "fine young men" as if this makes them successful to design another's life in a particular way?

    This suppression of our emotions, over time, leaves men feeling alone, vulnerable and scared - but still they struggle to discuss issues with professionals who could support them, or at very least listen to them. This constant fight with wanting to talk with someone, but not wanting to appear weak is something that affects all men at some point in their lives - and for what, because society deems it out of the ordinary that men should appear vulnerable.

    Many men struggle to even look for support and understand that even if they could find support, they are unlikely to be able to clearly describe or define their issues - again another side effect of never talking about our emotions. Men are statistically less inclined to seek out much needed NHS psychological support - only 36% of customers were male!

    Can I change my behaviour more positively? I believe so - but for me, it's about how much you want to change? Is the pain of going through the change and then continuing with the new behaviour greater than the pleasure of remaining where you are right now? If not, you're not ready to be coached - however if you are prepared to work on yourself lets look at the types of areas you feel would benefit from improvement.

    A lot of the clients I support feel that they have to work long hours, because their employer demands it or infers it! I've worked with men to support them to start saying "no" with really positive results in all other areas of their lives - family, marriage, stress, mental health - all improved because they are able to feel secure in themselves that they have taken the correct decision for them.

    Prochaska and DiClementeand their Transtheoretical Model (1983) demonstrate a five stage approach to changing behaviour

    • Precontemplation
    • Contemplation
    • Determination
    • Action
    • Maintenance

    They suggest that following these 5 stages gives the individual a good chance of identifying and sustaining the change in their life.

    The true power of this model really becomes apparent when we recognise these stages are sequential and conditional. In my practice, I first identify the stage in which a client sits with respect to the behaviour I want them to change. A man who is full of anger who's never seriously changing his life would be in the stage of Pre-contemplation - and if I expected them to jump from that stage over Contemplation and Determination directly to Action, they'd almost certainly fail to change and frustrate us both.

    If, however, I focus on ways to move them from one stage to the next, I can "ripen" them at a pace with which they're comfortable: from Contemplation to Determination to Action to Maintenance.

    As an example, I often give clients in the stage of pre-contemplation a simple assignment: I ask them to think about how the change I want them to make would improve their lives and write it down. That doesn't seem like such a difficult step, but if they do it, I've just moved them into contemplation!

    That may seem like insignificant progress, but it's actually 20% of the work that needs to be done.