“Be a man.” That means put aside our feelings so we can be fearless soldiers and hard workers. All our lives we’ve learned to get approval by ignoring our emotions.
We’ve ignored our emotions for so long we can’t even identify them when they hit us over the head. In situations that ought to stir up anxiety, fear, or sadness, we respond by working harder, fighting, consuming alcohol and drugs, running away, anything but acknowledging our emotions. Because of our stiff, awkward relationship to emotion we’re more vulnerable to life’s blows. We have a hard time expressing grief, and find ourselves diminished by death. Because we bottle up fear and shame, all too often, these unresolved emotions leap out violently.
We’re poorly prepared for intimate situations and relationships. When we get too close, we’re threatened by the feeling that we’re going “soft.” Our manly training has taught us to respond to this fear by acting tough, or shutting down, or running. Women who have been taught by society to value our toughness enjoy it at first, but eventually become disheartened by our emotional distance. We expect women to be the keeper of all emotion, and as a result our relationships tend to be one-sided, shallow and fragile. This pattern keeps us at arm’s length from the healing power of deep emotional partnership.
Our fathers, caught up in the social stereotype of the unfeeling man, helped pass their remoteness to us. As boys we learned from the earliest age, that to be accepted, we must shut out emotions. When we express normal, child-appropriate need for nurturing and reassurance we are ruthlessly taunted as being a “sissy” or “girl.” From the time we are in the crib, we have received stern advice to “be a man.” Little boys need affection and unconditional love but instead we got approval for toughness and accomplishments. Even as children we sense that approval is a poor substitute for love, because approval can always be withdrawn. Our desire for dad’s permanent approval drives us forward in constant motion, perpetually seeking to feed our starving hearts by working and fighting.
Our mothers too, expected us to be strong. We learned first from them and later from other women that we were supposed to express little emotion or vulnerability. Because these expectations are built so deeply into the social psyche, we continue getting signals from parents, playmates and peers that continually reinforce our fear of expressing emotion.
Because we ignore our emotions, we are clumsy in the emotional interplay in relationships. We have few tools to explore feelings that we don’t understand. We are especially susceptible to becoming confused by our own anger, as we are unable to unravel its causes. If our feelings seem dangerous, or if our emotional remoteness or anger are preventing us from enjoying our relationships, we need to seek another way to approach ourselves.
How do we deepen our understanding of our own world, when we have been taught from the beginning to avoid the complexities of our own mind? We resist therapy because therapists expect us to talk about ourselves, and our emotions, and for most of us we’d rather be out playing ball, or doing our work. We feel uncomfortable poking at the demons that may be lurking under the surface.
But therapy and growth are not just about feelings. We are thinking creatures, driven by our thoughts and beliefs. We can start learning about ourselves by exploring our beliefs. By journaling, counseling, and meditation we learn more about ourselves, where we’ve been and where we going. Introspection opens up new doors.
Ultimately, as we understand how much of ourselves we’ve been ignoring, we need to learn how to feel our own emotions. The human animal has a vast toolkit of words that help us understand and describe the complexities of life. When our words and beliefs are out of touch with our emotional reality, and out of touch with the feelings of those with whom we are trying to relate, we become isolated from ourselves and each other. We can increase the vitality of our internal and social life by learning to understand, put words on and communicate our own emotions, whether we are experiencing grief, fear, sadness, joy or love.
Because our father was not comfortable expressing emotion to us, our intimate relationship with him was emotionally barren. As a result, almost all men have unresolved feelings about their fathers. Exploring our relationship with our father may provoke strong reactions and arouse emotions that we would prefer to avoid, but avoiding these emotions has created many problems in our lives. As we wish to grow, we need to give ourselves permission to open up to the emotions we never expressed with our fathers. Counseling helps us talk about these feelings and helps us heal and deepen our ability to open up emotionally in all our relationships.
Group therapy is an especially powerful experience for men, because it gives us the opportunity to expand our range of communication with other men. We discover how much we have hidden from ourselves and each other.
Underneath our cool exterior our soul longs to dance and fly. By exploring our feelings, and accepting that we have a deeper dimension, we give our soul air and light. Creative arts provide insight into our feelings and our soul. Poetry, music, drawing, sculpting, open channels of communication to the stars. When we expressed interest in the arts, we met with strong opposition from our fathers. Now, as adults, we may give ourselves permission to find creative expression.
The oak tree is strong, yet it bends in the wind. With emotional suppleness and pliability comes tremendous strength, that will give us everything we want as a man while improving our health, and our ability to contribute emotionally and even spiritually to those around us.
See also: Anger, Assertiveness, Child within
Courage to Raise Good Men by Olga Silverstein and Beth Rashbaum
Emotional Intelligence by Dan Goleman
Iron John by Robert Bly
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Men are from Mars, women are from Venus by John Gray
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon, Ph.D. and Michael Thompson, Ph.D.