We all know someone who could use a good chat. But how do you ask a friend if they’re ‘right‘ in a way that will go beyond a “yeah, yeah, all good mate?” Clinical psychologist Lars Madsen says the key is to lead with vulnerability.
With R U Ok? Day upon us, a lot of men are wanting to let their mates know that they are there for them. The problem? Not many guys know how to respond to being asked, “R U Ok?” In fact, for many guys, your mate laughing off the question might come as a relief. But there’s a way to cut through, and give someone stoic the opportunity to share what’s bothering them: sharing your own vulnerabilities.
As Dr Lars Madsen, a clinical psychologist at The Forensic Clinical Psychology Centre, told DMARGE, a lot of men have difficulties being able to communicate their vulnerabilities.
“There’s a socio-cultural experience to that, I think. Men growing up weren’t given the same opportunities that little girls might get in terms of being able to talk about feelings [or] explaining and being listened to [when talking about their vulnerabilities], so part of the population hasn’t been given the guidance skills or nurturing, in many cases, to be able to talk about things that make them feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.”
“With regards to relationships men have with other men, we can get into habits where we become very jokey and we become very avoidant about talking about vulnerability, weakness, uncertainty and doubt and that’s done in a fun loving and jokey kind of way.”
“But workplaces, football teams, contexts like that can often develop a culture of ‘that’s how we communicate with each other; the only way we can communicate with each other is when we’re taking the piss, making fun out of one another; gently ribbing someone for something and that’s our way of showing that we care, they’re our friend and we’re all on the same page.’ But that doesn’t allow us to really change tact with regards to talking about stuff that might be on our mind.”
“Having an acceptance of these sort of dynamics can almost happen unconsciously.”Dr Lars Madsen
Lars told DMARGE that initiatives like R U Ok? Day are great in principle, but fall flat in many people’s eyes because they feel superficial (or limited in what they can achieve among an audience that lack the internal architecture to work out if they are, indeed, ok, and what to do about it if they are not).
“I think people go: ‘yeah, yeah, sure – all good mate,’ but the key we have to talk about and what changes all of that is leading with vulnerability,” Lars said. So rather than putting the question straight to your friend, according to Lars, you might have more chance of crossing the bridge into real talk territory by kicking things off yourself.
“Leading with your own struggles changes the dynamic completely,” Lars told DMARGE, encouraging guys to ask their mates how they are doing in a sensible situation and under appropriate circumstances (“in the middle of ordering a round of pints in the middle of a bunch of lads from the football team,” Lars said, “is probably not the ideal time to do it”).
But in a quiet, sensitive and thoughtful moment, Lars said, “being able to lead if you want to talk about meaningful sh*t” will help you check in with a mate in more of a real sense.
“If you’re worried about them, leading with vulnerability changes the dynamic, it changes it insofar as it suddenly means it’s ok – it’s like they suddenly don’t feel alone – they feel like you’ve made yourself vulnerable before you’re expecting them to do it, and that’s one of the key things that I think would actually be a very, very powerful thing.”
“If you’re concerned about someone, lead with your own vulnerability and check in with them.”Dr Lars Madsen
Lars said whenever you are concerned about one of your friends, whether that’s due to a change in their lifestyle (whether that’s a break-up, going from living with friends to on their own, a change in their employment status) or just a hunch, it’s always a good idea to regularly check in with each other.
“Sometimes for someone like that, it can be pretty lonely to be on your own all the time, struggle with stuff, no one there to talk to,” Lars said.
“I think what R U Ok? is trying to do is to make us a little more sensitive to each other’s emotional experiences, rather than just assume things are ok, but actually start to develop into our language a way of bringing that kind of stuff up and asking that kind of question in a serious way. R U Ok? Day has merit because of that.”
“For me as a psychotherapist who works primarily with men, one of the challenging things men often face is not having the inner architecture and scaffolding to be able to make sense of their inner world. That means even when they come and pay me $250 an hour to talk about their feelings because they know something is wrong, they can sit there for the hour and struggle to even figure out what it is that they are feeling because they are so disconnected or detached from it – but they know that something is not quite right.”
“One of the things men struggle with is having emotional literacy of themselves,” Lars told us. “Many men can find it hard to tell whether they are anxious, angry, or depressed.” According to Lars, a lot of things like anger, rage or anxiety – which we do recognise – come from feelings of vulnerability, upset and stress – that we often don’t recognise.
“They don’t happen in a vacuum. Being able to improve your emotional literacy around those things is really key for a lot of men to be able to start to recognise, well, ‘actually I’m not feeling angry, I’m actually feeling anxious and it’s coming out as anger because it feels easier to be angry.'”
Other than helping each other feel less alone by sharing our own struggles with each other, Lars told DMARGE that learning how to be more emotionally literate is like playing football, tennis or golf (“you go along and you give it a go”). It’s all about giving it a go, and then being persistent (and maybe getting training if you want to hasten the process).
“You’ve got to start asking yourself the questions: got to start having a go. Most people can tune into the fact that things aren’t right one way or another (you feel a bit down, you feel not right), but it starts through a process of exploration; of opening up to the idea of starting to use words and terms – and start to think about those things rather than pushing it away and blocking it out.”