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Male Diet Culture and Mental Health with Chris McMahon

Male Diet Culture and Mental Health with Chris McMahon

This week on the podcast I spoke with Men’s Health and Mindset coach Chris McMahon.

We discussed the impacts that diet culture can have on our male students of all ages, how us teachers can help, and knowing when to refer out.

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Show Notes

Chris is a nutrition and fitness expert whose mission is to help men (and women) achieve their goals through sustainable approaches.

He’s at his most active over on Instagram here. Seriously, follow him even if you’re not a male interested in sustainable health and fitness.

You can also find a heap of free resources, as well as his coaching programs, on his website.

He also has his own podcast, which you can find here.



Welcome Chris. Thank you for joining us today.

Chris McMahon: Thank you for having me.

Emily: Excellent. I guess we could start off with bit of your experience in, the health and wellness arena specifically for men.

Chris McMahon: Oh, yeah. Yeah. So I’ve been now working as a coach for 11 years. It’s pretty crazy to think that way. Uh, and I kind of fell into it. I didn’t plan to be a coach. I was going to school to be an actor and I, I ended up just getting a job as a trainer, right at school, to pay the bills. I didn’t want to work in a restaurant and my buddy was actually working in a gym and I wasn’t a really athletic kid.

I had no desire to do anything with athletics. And, after my freshman year of college, I was cast in a show and they told me that I had to put on some muscle so I looked intimidating and not so malnourished. So I asked, I asked my friend and, he was going to school at the time for, I believe it was kinesiology and, and all sorts of fun training things.

And I asked him and he was like, sure, I’ll train you. I’ve never trained anyone before. So sure. You can be my Guinea pig. And I showed up and I kind of never stopped. I showed up and trained about six days a week

I ate maybe like five or 6,000 calories a day. And after, after the summer, I went from weighing about 119 pounds to about 160 pounds.

Uh, I can’t do the math in my head for kilos. Uh, but it was. Yes, it was, it was pretty much a transformation. And suddenly I went back to school and I saw, I got attention from women. I got attention from some men. I got, it was just, it was just like this complete, uh, confidence for me that wasn’t there before.

I always thought I was a confident person, but it was just, I felt comfortable in my body. And. Post-graduation I started working as a trainer and I just, I started to notice a lot of trends with men, especially now where I am in my life. Now I’m a father and I have a young son and I’ve just become more aware, especially working in like the nutrition space, more aware of sort of the, the pressure or the preconceived notion of what it might mean for a young man or an older gentlemen, uh, wherever you are on the spectrum of life to kind of take on the idea of, of getting in shape or, or making fitness a part of your life. And there is a lot of pressure there, you know, and it’s something that is spoken more about or more frequently for women

just because those pressures are things that that’s kind of what’s front of mind, it’s like, Hi, yeah, body dysmorphia or disordered eating.

Emily: It’s normal for women.

Chris McMahon: Yeah, it’s, it’s almost more normal, unfortunately , for that to be the common denominator, but believe it or not, it affects men. And a lot of it has to do with trying to look a specific way to fit a specific mold. And while I don’t discount anyone for wanting to look like a specific person to get them started on their journey for me, I want it to look like Hugh Jackman. I was like, all right, let’s, let’s do this. I still don’t look like Hugh Jackman. I looked like me and I’m so comfortable with how I go and how I carry myself today.

If you asked me tomorrow, I don’t know. I put up a post, like a long time ago, that kind of was really popular. And it was me standing in front of a mirror being like, I don’t like the way I look in this mirror and I went to a different mirror. I was like, I don’t like the way I look in this mirror.

And I don’t like the way I look in this mirror or this, oh, this is a good mirror. I don’t like the way I look at it. And it’s, I think the reason why it was popular is because sometimes we think that even if we are training or even if we are making these different choices that we will feel better about how we look that we’ll feel better about the type of person that we are.

And the reality of it is no! Whether you’re in a big body, whether in your small body, whether in your medium sized body, your thoughts and ideas don’t necessarily change. So in working with men, it’s being able to have those sorts of conversations. It’s being able to get away from crash dieting is being able to get away from some of the mentality around it. You know, being super restrictive or, you know, I don’t even, I’m not even going to name certain diets, but practicing those because you see it works for one of your buddies, but what you don’t actually see is that like, when they go off of it, they gain all the weight back.

And this is after you’ve tried it too. When you hop on the diet cycle, and it’s like this whole thing that it’s similar for both, for both sexes. It’s just, men tend to play it off as like, yeah, this is how I look yeah, but on the inside sometimes it’s like, ah, I don’t want to look this way.

I want to feel this way. I want to, I want to have all these other things. But it’s not as easy to say that sometimes.

Emily: And how do you think that would tie in with this concept of toxic diet culture? And is there such a thing as non-toxic diet culture?

Chris McMahon: Yes, there is. So to kind of get into it for a second for folks who are listening to this, maybe they’re not familiar. Maybe you are familiar either way. Everyone could use a refresher. There’s like two ends of the spectrum, right. I’m going to use nutrition kind of as like a ballpark here.

But when I say nutrition, it basically means. Well, it could be health and wellness. It could be training, whatever you want to look at. One end of the spectrum is the diet culture spectrum. So that end of the spectrum is like, you have to follow all the fad diets that come out. You have to do clean eating.

You have to, you have to track all your calories. And if you don’t adhere to that, you’re doing something right. There’s that end of the extreme where it’s like, if you skip a day, you’re not doing it right. If you, if you eat cake and it’s not your cheat day, what are you doing? Like, there’s that end of the spectrum, which works for some people,

Emily: That’s very moralized, isn’t it?

Chris McMahon: Yeah. It divides things into black or white thinking very much all or nothing. And it works for some people. But it also means they usually go back to the same diet, go back to the diet again, go back. So really it isn’t working. It’s just there’s comfort in doing something that’s the same.

Uh, it could be a little scary if you do something different. So that’s one end of the spectrum on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you have anti diet culture, which basically says to summarize, if you want to change the way your body looks. Shame on you. You should not do that. That’s summarizing it.

Basically. They’ll say facts that like all diets don’t work, everyone gains back their diet and the weight that they lost on their diet. And then some. Yes, there is some research out there that says that, but also there’s a lot of other research that says, if people have health promoting behaviors within their lifestyle and they practice having flexibility and self-compassion with themselves, they totally can maintain their weight loss.

It’s when overly restrictive practices are tried to be used. That’s when the likelihood of someone gaining weight goes through the roof. So it’s like we have these two ends of the spectrum that make people feel like poop for trying to change their body for not fitting one mold or for trying to break out of another mold.

So where I co-exist is in the messy middle, I believe someone has every right to lose weight. If they want to lose weight, for whatever reason they want to lose weight, no matter where they are in their journey, barring it’s through health promoting behaviors. I do not think that someone should do crash dieting to lose weight right away. I do not think that disorder behaviors should be glorified or promoted. There’s a popular trend going around right now on Tik TOK, where people are doing basically like almost doing a mock comparison of like body dysmorphia and making it seem like this thing that should be really a common practice amongst bodybuilders or weightlifters is just like a ridiculous thing.

So I exist in the messy middle. So if you want to practice carnivore and not eat anything but meat and you want to lose weight that way. Go for it. It’s not gonna work out long-term. If you want to do a low carb diet. Go for it. If you want to do X diet, why that go for it?

The only reason those things work is because you’re in a caloric deficit, that’s all it is. And there is a much more sustainable, realistic, gentle way to be in a caloric deficit. And it’s a coach’s responsibility or my responsibility to teach someone skills that allows them to learn how to do that. But to also develop self compassion and awareness around what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

I think both ends of the spectrum, do a really big disservice to people. I really do.

Emily: And you think that comes back to the why?

Chris McMahon: Yeah. I think if someone wants to make a change within their life, within their body, it might be very vanity at the beginning. It might be, I want to look good in a bathing suit. It might be, I want to have really big arms. It might be whatever it is, but we don’t really get to judge why someone has their why. We don’t. That defeats the purpose of it. What we do get to be is a vehicle for someone to reach their destination, but see that they can go beyond what that is, right. The thing that I love to help clients do are like one of the first things we do is really unpack their why. Like, we look at that. We do something called the five whys or some, someone might call it the why ladder basically you just keep asking yourself why until you get to that, to that thing.

And it could take time. You probably won’t get to it the first couple of times you do it. It’s okay. It’s always changing, but that why is usually deeply connected to like your value system and what’s most important to you. Now if someone came to me on day one and was like, I want to lose 30 pounds. And I was like, okay, what are your values? They would be totally scared away. And that wouldn’t be that wouldn’t be realistic. But if I was like, Hey, cool. Why do you want to lose 30 pounds? Well, I want to lose 30 pounds so I can keep up with my kids. Wow. I totally respect that. And that makes, that makes a lot of sense.

Like what do you think you would get from that? How do you think your life would be different? What have you tried in the past that’s worked? What did you like about that? What didn’t you like about it’s very, open-ended. You can’t go into it and be like, ah, you know what your reasons for doing this are incredibly wrong.

Like this, that that’s, that’s not. And that, and that’s what both ends of those spectrums pretty much do.

Emily: How do you think, maybe even from your own experiences, how do you think this whole realm of diet culture and the societal expectations of men’s bodies, how does that affect teenager boys or even younger boys. Does it affect younger boys or does it tend to come in at teenagehood?

Chris McMahon: I think it does. I was made fun of all the time for, for being super lanky and awkward and, Gumby. I did musical theater all throughout my childhood and through college. And you know, my senior year I played like the scarecrow in the wizard of Oz. And I remember my junior year, we did a play, and it was a, this play Picnic, which is a really, it’s a wonderful play. It was a movie too that Paul Newman was in, and the main character was this ex collegiate football player who was like a jock. And I really wanted to play that part, but I was like 115 pounds soaking, wet, super skinny.

And I remember. Researching like bodybuilder magazines and looking up how I would have to eat to try, like I was convinced, I was like, I’m going to put on a lot of muscle for this part. And I am well aware that I was the best actor for that part, but I did not look that way. And I can remember them casting some other kid who just was bigger than me.

That’s all he was, he was not a very good actor, but he was bigger than me. And I was cast as the best friend who was like meek and, and not strong. And I can remember being really, really upset about that. I felt in that moment, I was like, oh, my body is dictating. Like my, this is me. I had in my thirties being able to say this now, but my body dictates like where I fit in the order of things.

And this is coming from someone who is in a smaller body. Can hardly imagine what it’s like to be someone in a larger body. I don’t want to have a thin privilege, but I do. So I can’t even begin to imagine what’s that like what that would be like for someone, but I can say that, those same conversations still go on within your head of like, my body has to look a specific way for me to get, and then even now with like Marvel superhero movies, it’s like, oh wow. I have to look like Thor. Like my son is obsessed with Spider-Man right now. Cause he thinks he’s really cool.

Right. And Spiderman, I guess the reason why I like Spiderman is yeah, he’s muscular, but he’s like thin and he’s able to move and he’s flexible. So I was like, oh, okay. This is a little different.

Emily: A little more realistic, perhaps.

Chris McMahon: A little bit, but it’s still very much for a young, I mean, I I’ve talked about this before.

I was bullied by kids who were like a grade or two younger than me, because they could. They were football players. And I was a lanky kid who did theater. I was best friends with a lot of jocks, which gave me protection, but I can remember getting like thrown into lockers and stuff because of the way I looked and because I did theater and because you know, that there’s a certain connotation with that, even though it wasn’t true, you know?

So, so that’s very much the thing. I would like to believe that youth right now has a much different, more open point of view when it comes to sexual orientation. When it comes to passions that you have within your life. However, I do still think people are probably bullied based off how they look, no matter how evolved we get an accepting we get, there’s this innate ability to attach someone’s worth to how they look. And I think for boys it’s really, really easy for them to bully other boys based on how they look because their brains are not developed enough yet. They’re just not, they’re just not. And you know, that could be me making a, I, I’m not a scientist.

But I do know that from what I witnessed in my childhood and in my teens, people who choose to identify as male are very quick to, to pounce and, and judge and be harsh. And I think that the narrative in society does play into that. I think boys will be boys. Like, that’s not a thing.

That’s not a thing. That’s, that’s ridiculous. It’s like, no you’re being, you’re being a jerk and you’re being hurtful, and people deserve better. You know, everyone deserves better.

Emily: I know that for a lot of young girls, our opinions on diet and body shape and whatnot are largely driven by our mothers or aunts or other women in our life, as well as, media perceptions of what a woman should look like.

Is it similar for boys and young men? Do they get that same sort of impact from adult men in their life? Or is it more eachother?

Chris McMahon: I think they get, it’s a blend of both. I can only speak from my childhood and what I’m doing now with my son. My childhood, my father was overweight. My mother was overweight. I remember going to weight watcher meetings with my mom and even with my dad for a little bit, it was something he always struggled with, but it would always make a joke about, and really didn’t seem to care a lot about, but I remember being.

Maybe I was 12 or 13 and my parents got me like a weight set. Cause I guess my dad wanted me to start working out. Cause he could see that I was getting bullied in that I was small. But it was never really talked about, like it was just, Hey Chris, go try and do this or go try and do this. I was put in sports.

I played baseball. I was teased a lot, playing baseball and playing sports. I was good, but I didn’t really care. I wanted to be doing shows and acting. And then I had my peers who were, you know, it was, I was so very fortunate to be involved with theater because it was one of the most accepting places to be.

I could show up and be however I wanted to be. No one cared. We were playing make-believe like, it was such an amazing, welcoming group of people I got to be with, which helped me. But if that was not there for me, and I was only hanging out with, the kids on the baseball team, or I could very easily see how some of those other traits might’ve been developed. Now with my son, he sees me work out all the time.

He sees that we’re doing this for, for fun. I never make him try to do what I’m doing. We just make a game of it and we play and he sees that I enjoy it. My wife enjoys it. When we go on long walks, you know, we’ll do race up the hill. We’ll play around on the ground. Like we’re playing tag or whatever.

He just sees that. And he copies me doing some things, he’s like two and he copies me doing some things. So I really think the best thing you could do for your kids is to show them how to be on the ground and how to play and how to have fun. And if in that process, they see you moving your body and exercising too.

It’s okay. What I don’t think is okay, is pressuring them to do it. Buying me a weight set and telling me to go lift weights.

Emily: That’s got to have an impact on your mental health and self-esteem.

Chris McMahon: A little bit, I know that wasn’t the intention. The intention was,

Emily: Protective, almost.

Chris McMahon: Yeah. It was like, he wanted me to be, be strong and strengthen that way. And you know, even in talking with my son now, you know, he’s in that phase. He’s two. He hits and swats and.

Today he swatted and, and I said, Hey, what are you feeling? What’s going on? And then I said, son, you’re very intelligent. You’re so smart. Hitting is the least intelligent way of communicating with someone. I know you could do better than this with your words. I know you can. I believe in you. And he gave me a hug that I’ll take that.

Emily: Well, that’s lovely.

Chris McMahon: My wife and I were trying really hard to be able to have that sort of dialogue, because for us as kids and for the generations before that really wasn’t how these sorts of things were dealt with. It was like, why don’t you understand? Well, you’re a tiny cave person.

Emily: And more than that, you’re a tiny boy. You’re not supposed to have feelings.

Chris McMahon: Yeah, exactly. And so it’s like, no, no, no, no. You have big feelings. My son has big feelings. He’s very much like me in that regard. We have big feelings and I’m lucky that now later in life, after being in therapy and, talking and, being sober and doing all of these things. Now I can communicate those things.

I want to put my son ahead of the curve. I want him to be able to have a fighting chance to be able to negotiate these things and navigate them with a little more efficacy than, than I had. And I think that that’s what most generations try to do for their kids. Every generation is trying to correct the things that they thought weren’t right about the like it’s, it’s just, you could ask any parent any grandparent, like you would see.

Emily: I really feel like our generation of parents now. The thing that we’re really trying to work on is emotional intelligence and mental health and wellbeing.

Again, speaking from a female perspective, but I think, diet culture plays a lot into that. And from my experience of observing, you know, my brothers and my husband and the male students that I teach, I feel like the impact that diet culture tends to have is that boys are supposed to look a certain way. But the way that they’re supposed to look seems to fall into categories of either muscular or lanky or really pudgy. And it’s kind of okay to fall into any of those categories, as long as you embrace the personality that’s supposed to go with that body shape. Does that kind of make sense? Like, you know, if you’re a boy in a larger body you’re supposed to be a comedic, you’re supposed to be funny and very self-depreciating.

Whereas if you’re a lanky body you’re supposed to be, like a nerd or a geek or whatever. And if you’re in a muscular body, you’re supposed to be very cool and popular, but then that also tends to come with an unkind personality,

Are my observations, hitting the mark a bit there?

Chris McMahon: Yeah, I think, unfortunately those are the tropes. I can give you a great example of that. My wife won’t be mad for me saying this she’s talked about it before. My wife and I, we started dating when we were seniors in college. But the year prior that our junior year we had a, we had a class together, a dance class together.

I had been lifting weights at that point. I was more muscular and I would wear like a muscle shirt or whatever to class. And we would talk, well, we never really talked that much. And then we started, we started seeing each other and dating. And the thing that she said to me, like always shocked me.

She was just like, I didn’t expect you to be such like a goofball. To be such like a clown and to joke and childish. And like, I didn’t expect that, like I looked at you and I did not see that. And I think that’s like a prime example. It’s like, we think because someone looks a certain way, they’re going to act a certain way or feel a certain way.

And in fact, there is a very outdated form of categorization for like body types. So there was there, there ectomorph endomorph, mesomorph basically like the types of bodies that people had and, we’re genetically programmed to be overweight, or genetically programmed to be thin and couldn’t put on muscle.

The person who created the system also associated personality traits with these specific body types. Thank goodnessthat has since been like debunked and proven to not be true at all, and to be very outdated. it’s just been around forever where people think someone does a certain thing or acts a certain way.

You know, it’s like with the same idea of thinking that someone’s, who is in a larger body, must eat like all day, like they must eat all day. The reality of it is no! You don’t know they could be on a medication. They could have a thyroid issue. Maybe they’re not eating all day or maybe they are eating all day, but they’re just eating really small meals that aren’t calorically dense enough for them to actually hit what their calorie is. Maybe one day they’re eating way under calories. They’ve eaten only like a thousand calories. So then in the middle of the night, they wake up and they’re really, really hungry and they grabbed the nearest thing. Right. You, you don’t know what someone’s life is, what someone’s lifestyle is.

Right. You can have someone who’s incredibly thin and maybe they do eat a lot,

Emily: My husband.

Chris McMahon: Yeah, that’s just their genetics. You don’t know what they’re eating, right? That was kind of how it was for me. When I was a teenager could eat whatever I wanted, I was very fortunate in that regard.

However, I’m also a type one diabetic, the food choices I was making were probably not the best, or I know in my mind, we’re not the best for my blood sugar, for my A1C, for all of those things that I’m aware of, you know? So it’s just a very interesting thing that body type cannot be associated with personality. And it’s very much, you know, we’re judging a book by a cover. People don’t give credit for how complicated they actually are.

Emily: Especially teenagers and children.

Chris McMahon: Yeah, exactly. Kids are complicated. Teenagers are really complicated, you know, and it’s unfortunate that we try to fit a kid into a specific mold before they’ve even had a chance to recognize that they are human. All right. You know, my son loves doing a lots of things. Sometimes my family with, oh, he’s going to be an engineer. Oh, I’ll play baseball. I’ll be like, you know what? Let’s see if he can tie his shoes, know, we’re on Velcro right now.

Let’s see if he could tie his shoes. Let’s let him decide what he likes and let’s not put upon him what he should like. And I think that’s really important.

Emily: Yeah, I agree. And I see that even with my own son, he’s four now and he’s quite bright and you know, people will come along and they’ll say, well, yeah, but you’re a teacher and your husband’s a scientist. Of course he’s bright. And like, No,

Chris McMahon: No, it work that way.

Emily: That’s nothing to do with us.

Chris McMahon: No, no, no. Yeah. Yeah.

Emily: I guess the next thing I wanted to sort of segue into is the impact of all of this on mental health in men, which tends to be another topic that’s a bit taboo. We’re starting to sort of break out of that taboo category a bit. I guess I’m curious as to what impact do you think diet, culture, body image, does that have as much of an impact on men’s mental health as it does on women’s mental health?

Chris McMahon: Yeah, I think I could speak from my own experience. I can’t really speak for anyone else. For me personally, I do think it was tied. Like I I’ve struggled with depression , probably for most of my life, I just didn’t know it was depression until I started to go to therapy and they were like, yeah, you know, if it barks like a dog wags its tail…

Emily: Do you think that’s a bit of the gender stereotype there like you, you’re a man you’re not supposed to be depressed?

Chris McMahon: Yeah, I think a little bit of it was that I think a little bit in growing up, it was never talked about. It’s something that everyone in my family pretty much on my mom’s side has struggled with. And then on my dad’s side, everyone is an alcoholic. So it’s kinda just like depression and mental wellness are probably wrapped into both of those. And both things I’ve struggled with in my life. And. I will say that when it comes to looking a specific way or doing a specific thing, when I had probably like my darkest period with depression, it was when I was from the outside. I looked. I looked amazing.

I even put, I put a post up about it and it was really interesting. It was 20, 2017, 2018. I was training twice a day. I was eating really, really well. I could have done like a fitness model thing. That was kind of where I was in my training and I was doing really hard skills, that were kind of impressive and things like that. But what people didn’t see was I was sleeping like four to five hours a night, my depression was the worst it have ever been. I consistently was struggling with making food choices because I was so afraid of eating the wrong thing. I was having mood swings. I was just incredibly, incredibly, incredibly depressed. But if you looked at me on the outside, I looked amazing. Right. So it’s like, it’s not how it works. Like I hinted at it earlier in the beginning. It’s what we have is we have a suit of armor, right. We have the suit of armor and we wear it, however we choose to wear it.

We can build up the armor. Right. But the goal in life isn’t to have the thickest armor. The goal in life is to be able to be with other people and to hug them and to actually be able to maneuver through life and to be able to fit through small spaces in life and come out on the other side stronger. Now, if we have the thickest armor in the world, I’m not going to be able to make it through those moments when things are really hard, because there are narrow spaces.

What I have to do is leave a little bit of the armor behind to be able to do that. And if we actually can take off the armor and see what’s underneath, then, then we can be strong even without the armor. Then we can understand what strength looks like. You know, if we talk about a value system and we look at something like strength, what we have to understand is that it’s open to more than one definition.

Right. The traditional definition of strength is like, ah, I gotta be able to lift a certain amount, be a superhero. No, what strength is, is being able to say, you need help be okay with it. Say, okay, I’ve done enough. Say, okay, like I’m figuring this out. That is strength. I will always look at that as someone who is being ridiculously strong over however much someone could bench press or Olympic lift. It’s dependent upon the person and where they are, but I just know I could do, I could do freestanding handstand pushups, but I was at the weakest point in my life because I could not say I needed help until it got to be too much for me to deal with. So I think it’s very closely related. At least in my story.

Emily: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that story. Would you have any tips for teachers if they were to see any of their male students, perhaps falling victim a bit to toxic diet culture or unrealistic expectations? Like what can teachers do to support those students through that journey?

Chris McMahon: I think it’s like a two-sided thing. I think one, if you really do see a student or someone struggling with this sort of thing refer out. I know sometimes that’s not, that’s not really said, but I will say if someone comes to me and they’re at a stage where maybe there’s disordered eating practice, or maybe there’s a depressive state.

I know a lot about emotional intelligence and acceptance and commitment therapy. However, I’m not a therapist, I’m not a body image specialist. I have no problem referring someone out and pointing them in the direction of someone or even taking them there myself if times are different and it wasn’t a pandemic still. To point them in that direction. So they feel like they’re not alone. So they feel like they can actually navigate themselves. So that that’s number one. I would always refer out. Whether that be a guidance counselor, whether it be, in schools, if they still have nurses, whether it be it be someone who specializes in that sort of thing, to be able to have that dialogue because it’s so nuanced.

The other thing I would do is I would have an open conversation. My wife is a teacher. So she would probably be more wise and perceptive of what you could actually say and can’t say, but for me, I would be like, I would just ask the person, okay, how are you doing? What’s going on? What can I help with? It’s just being open-ended questioning. As opposed to say, you know, it’s like motivational interviewing. It’s, it’s literally, you want the person to have their level of autonomy and be able to come to you if they want to come to you. But if it’s not open-ended questions, you’re not going to get far all.

Emily: Especially if it’s a child or, you know, a teen boy, they’re not, uh, verbose the best of times.

Chris McMahon: Yeah. I mean, the thing for me that works really well, personally is I do. I journal every day. I write about it and in thinking about it, when I was in kindergarten, I was getting bored. My mom tells me this all the time. I was getting bored and getting in trouble.

Cause I think, I don’t know. Maybe I was learning faster than what was being taught and my kindergarten teacher, Mrs Kelner. Long retired by now. Noticed that, and she gave me a marble composition notebook and gave me like writing assignments, like little, like things that I got to do on my own in my little notebook.

And I’ve had some form of journals since probably like maybe middle school, boxes of them, all over the place. And just being able to write and have that structure really made a difference. And when I was in middle school and high school, we used to have to give our journals to our English teacher and they would write notes in there.

And, I think the art of writing is, is just so beneficial because you’re never wrong. You’re never wrong. They’re your thoughts. They’re your ideas. Just get them out on the page so you can actually see what they are. And, you know, I do a lot of writing now, for my business as a coach, I write fairly long articles and emails and for someone who wasn’t a huge fan of writing in school, now I do an awful lot of it.

And it’s because I write about the things that are important to me and are near to. Whether it be writing with a pen and paper or writing an email, you know, that there’s are things that are important. So I think for someone who is struggling teaching them or showing them that they can write about what they’re feeling and they don’t have to show it to anyone if they don’t want to, but at least they can start to negotiate or navigate and see what’s actually going on.

And when you can actually practice the art of noticing, and naming and bringing self-awareness, that’s when you start to feel as if like, oh, maybe I should talk to someone about this thing that I’m noticing happening a lot. Oh, maybe I’m not alone. If I feel this way. Like, these are things that I think are maybe not talked about a lot. I don’t know. I’m still figuring out I’m a new parent. But I do think that it’s probably one of the most powerful things that was given to me was learning how to write and release self judgment from what I was writing.

I’ll be completely honest. I have horrible grammar. My wife has re-read so many of my things and fix them for me. Thank goodness for Grammarly. But you know what? It’s okay. I’m not a novelist. I’m not a, you know, I’m just, I just write and I, I fix things. I do a lot of editing now, but when I write in my notebook, I just misspell things.

I don’t care. I cross it out. If it really bothers me, I just, I do not care. It’s just simply the act of doing the task of writing. It’s just very therapeutic. I love it. So I, I would give that.

Emily: So, would you give that same advice to, if a teacher recognized in themselves that they were struggling with these things? So you’d say refer out if need be, and start writing about it.

Chris McMahon: Yeah. I think if an adult is struggling with it and they maybe noticed them, referring them to someone, if they are struggling with disordered eating or depression always finding a specialist, someone who understands those things.

It’s because it’s very nuanced and very, delicate. I would always refer out. When it comes to journaling, literally writing about what you’re experiencing, what you’re feeling, what you’re noticing, all those things can be helpful because then when you do have a dialogue with someone, you can refer back to this thought or this feeling or this thing that came up. I do find that to be a pretty powerful tool.

In fact, all of my, all of my clients, they eventually get what I call a value-driven journal, which is about 15 weeks of journal prompts and you just do one a week. You do one a day if you want, but it’s like one a week and you journal for like five minutes every Sunday. You know, it’s a great way.

They’re they’re questions that ask you about your values. What’s important. What are you feeling? What are you experiencing? They’re very important because our life is divided into, I like to look at it as like we have four quadrants in our life. We have our, our work, and our school, and then we have a relationships and then we have fitness and wellness, and then we have self care.

Those are the four I like to look at. We have values for each of those. And if we’re not aware of those, then that’s when usually life starts to get out of whack, right? When we can be aware of those. And when we are able to recognize what we’re, what we truly value, and we take a moment to set our targets on what needs attention. It becomes that much easier to have clarity and to begin to make choices that make us feel better. For lack of a better word. So those are things that you can do, a journaling. Those are things that you can do with voice memoing right. If you don’t like writing, you can just literally say a voice memo of what you’re feeling and being able to acknowledge that it’s happening.

Usually we don’t acknowledge that the thought or the idea is happening and we just let it sit and then we expect it to just go away and feelings do come and go. We ride the wave. Feelings are kind of like monsters on a bus. It’s a wonderful analogy or metaphor from acceptance and commitment therapy.

We have a lot of emotions and all our feelings to get on the bus with us. And we’re the bus driver. All we’re supposed to go is go stop to stop, to stop. People get on the bus, people get off the bus, monsters get on the bus, monsters get off the bus. But then sometimes monsters get on the bus and they want you to stop at random places, or they don’t want you to turn down a different avenue.

Maybe you want to go down the scary street. For me as a teenager, it was singing in front of lots of people. That’s a scary avenue. The imposter syndrome monster might be yelling in my ear, not to turn that way. So I don’t right, I don’t go that way. I ignore it. I stay quiet. I keep playing baseball, you know, but eventually if you react and you yell at the monster and tell him, fine! The monster still gets what it wants.

But if we eventually can look at the monster and say, Hey, you know what, I’m driving the bus. You get off at your next stop if you want. And you go down that way. That’s what we’re trying to learn, how to do. It’s called diffusion, diffusing the emotion or the feeling as opposed to fusing with it, being stuck with it, feeling like it’s our identity, how we identify ourselves. In Susan David’s book, Emotional Agility, she calls it hooked.

We get hooked on the thought or the idea. And we view it as fact when in fact it is not fact, it’s usually a fact that is sprinkled with a bunch of fiction. The only thing you can control is the narrative that you put around those facts. So gluing yourself to facts is really, really helpful. Giving yourself a chance to diffuse from those fictions is really, really helpful too.

So writing it out and seeing it is a great way to do that.

Emily: Brilliant. I love that analogy. That’s really nice.

Chris McMahon: Yeah, it’s really, it’s Yeah, cool one.

Emily: It’s really good one. What is one thing that you wish teachers knew or would take into account when they’re teaching boys and young men who might be operating in this sort of space?

Chris McMahon: I guess that we’re complex, right? I, I wish that that was at the forefront. I’ll use my son as an example, he hits because he doesn’t know how to say what he’s actually feeling. Right. He does. He, he has a huge vocabulary. He like your son is, is just he is a little smart with words. I don’t know why, but he could say a whole bunch of things.

I think with young boys it’s the same. Like they may hit, they may act out, they may do a specific thing. It’s usually not because they’re trying to be little monsters because they don’t know how to communicate what they’re actually feeling. And sometimes there’s a lot going on under the surface, whether it be their home life, whether it be the fact that they’re being bullied, whether it be the fact that they’re frustrated about something, whether they’re confused about something, whether it’s.

You know, we can go all realms of it, whether they’re like they’re having a lot of different confusing feelings about their like sexuality and things like that. Like all of those things are happening from probably like fourth grade until they’re done with high school. Those are the things that are happening.

I don’t know why I picked the age of 10. I think it’s because that’s when I, maybe I was like six or seven when I realized that I was like here. Like I realized that I was human and yeah. Like, I, I feel like that’s when I realized that or recognize that. So I feel like by 10 that’s when I was like, oh no, I got a lot of stuff going on in here.

You know? So yeah, I think it’s that boys are more complicated. And they’re not just cave people, you know, I tell my clients that they’re humans are not robots. You’re your only job is to be a human. Your job is not to be a robot. So if you have thoughts, feelings, ideas, all these things, it’s completely normal.

It needs to be normalized. When it’s not normalized, that’s when we’re supposed to be robots. And that just doesn’t, it doesn’t work out. It doesn’t, it just will not.

Emily: And I guess expanding on that, you know, children and teenagers are not adults. They don’t have the emotional maturity. They don’t have the mental development. They are still children.

Chris McMahon: Oh, yeah. I think it’s easy sometimes to think that maybe they are, you know, especially if they are a brilliant student to think like, oh, wow. You know, I make that mistake with my son all the time, because we can have conversations with him. I’ll be like, why doesn’t he get this? And then I’m like, oh yeah, he’s two.

Well, the same thing with like a middle schooler or elementary school, they could be a very intelligent well-spoken child, but they’re still a child, you know, they’re still, they’re still a teenager. Those parts of their brain aren’t formed. I wish I knew the terms for those parts of the brain, but I do know that they’re not formed until we reach a certain age specifically, like logic and reasoning.

Like I know they’re not.

Emily: I think those for men, I think they don’t develop until they’re about 25.

That’s the last research I saw. Yeah.

Chris McMahon: That makes, that makes a lot of sense. Uh, yeah.

Emily: All right. Now I’m very concious of taking up so much of your time. So where can our listeners find out more about you and your work? I know you’re very active on Instagram.

Chris McMahon: I am. Yeah. Folks who follow me on there @coach.chrismcmahon, my first and last name. I’m pretty much active on there all the time. If folks want to read anything that I write, you can just go to my website. I put up a new article every week, tackling different topics on nutrition, sometimes fitness, but mainly a lot of nutrition stuff, a lot of mindset stuff in that realm. And I have, you know, a bunch of free stuff on there that folks can, can check out if they want to learn a little bit more or try some stuff. So yeah, you can check out my website. That’s And everything’s there.

Emily: Beautiful. All right. Well, thank you so much for your time. And I apologize again for the massive technical difficulties.

Hopefully I can get that sorted sooner.

Chris McMahon: Yeah, no, it’s quite all right. Uh, I just know that the podcast will be that much better because it had time to marinate before it even happened.

Emily: Let’s go with that.


Photo by Jennifer Burk on Unsplash


Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys sharing the real and human teacher life, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine.

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