Pushing Yourself Too Hard and Self Abuse: Where’s the Line Between Being Tough and Being Abusive?

Ahh, more lessons from the toxically masculine eighties. And everybody had a good time… When I was a child in the eighties, there was a hyper focus on what the roles of men and women were. These were crazy and polarizing times. What I was taught about how to be a man is pretty much summed up by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from “The Predator”.

In summation, this meant that they (men) were always in charge and used force to stay in control. They frequently displayed a lack of forgiveness, especially towards those who were considered to be weaker (accept women and sometimes children), and displayed proudly their anger in destructive ways. I.e. by breaking things in the heat of an argument to show dominance of the situation.

I’m sure that all men weren’t like this, but the popular culture I was raised in valued and glorified this type of gender role assignment. I was often called sensitive as a child because I displayed a range of emotion that was greater than that of anger and confidence. Being scared as a man, regardless of age was unacceptable. And I was scared often due to the amount of abuse I was experiencing at the hands of my loved ones.

I’d like to talk about what some of the expectations were for me, growing up as a man, and the impact they made on me in my life. There was a lot of reparenting I had to engage in, due to the toxic lessons I was subjected to. And I know I’m not alone.

So if you’ve been measuring yourself to an impossibly masculine standard of self-reliance to the point of not being able to ask for help, or your emotional arsenal consists mainly of indignant rage, then keep reading. We maybe able to help one another by practicing another skill that most men from my generation were taught was too feminine for men to experience. That of listening and attuning to our feelings, and hopefully find some ways to heal ourselves in the process.

Are We Being Tough or Abusive? Where do you Draw the Line?

Resilience is a word that’s tossed around a lot these days. I struggled with what this word meant for a long time. As a man, I was taught that we were supposed to be tough, able to handle anything. Resilience was an unspoken part of that package. But what I’m finding out now is, the difference between being emotionally resilient and how I was taught to be “tough” by covering over difficult emotions.

When I was taught how to be tough, there wasn’t really much of a lesson plan. There was a lot of bravado, posturing and ways we covered over our emotions. The latter usually took form via drinking, pleasure seeking by abusing pornography and dissociating from them by pushing them off onto women and denying we had them in the first place. We were neither tough nor resilient. We had run from our emotions to the point of denial, and numbed them out when we were too tired to run.

What we were doing was a form of abuse to ourselves. By disconnecting from ourselves so thoroughly, we had completely ignored our own needs for emotional attunement. To ourselves and from others. Being tough has come to mean something else completely from how I was raised to imagine it.

Resilient Not Tough: Words Matter

So if what I was taught about being tough was all pomp and priss, then where did that leave me when it came to face my emotions? When they all came rushing in at once? It wasn’t ideal, that’s for sure. When the fear and insecurities came flooding in, it left me feeling overwhelmed and filled with anxiety. I had no tools, relationships or resources that I had been cultivating because I was relying on avoidance as my only coping skill. And in case you don’t know, you can’t avoid your emotions forever.

This is when I started searching for better ways to manage my neglected emotional world. Meditation was one that came in particularly handy. There’s a phrase I learned while listening to Tara Brach’s Dharma talks about meditation. It goes, “sit, stay, heal.” This is sound and straight forward advice. As I’m writing this, Kings of Leon are singing in the background, “ride out the wave”, which has a similar sentiment. Both suggest that you need to feel through it, in order to heal through it. This is also what is possibly meant by facing your fears.

And that’s the trick, that there is no trick. You just need to feel the fear, feel the insecurity, feel the sadness in order to come to be stronger for it. But that’s a difficult task for a lot of us struggling to deal with our difficult emotions. A friend of mine once told me that the more you feel your emotions, the easier it gets. And he’s right. It isn’t easy at first, but necessary if you want to live a life free from avoidant and possibly addictive behaviors.

Too often we get caught up in wanting to feel better in the moment. For me, I would drink lots of caffeine to alter my emotional state. Or alcohol if it was after work. Looking at pornography was another way of pleasure seeking for the moment. Not to mention something that was, along with going to strip clubs and objectifying women, the mark of a “true man” as taught to me by my caregivers.

Of course I didn’t realize I was covering over my difficult emotions. I was doing what was taught to me and what felt natural. So when I started feeling them without an aid, they were most definitely overwhelming. But my friend was right. The more I feel my emotions without the aid of something, the less intense they become. It’s amazing what a little practice can accomplish.

So what feels like abuse, subjecting yourself to staying in the difficult emotions, is actually the way to build resilience. And this isn’t to say that relying on medication isn’t wise if we’re dealing with very intense emotions. It’s when we self medicate by abusing medications or other drugs and activities to avoid our emotions that we run into trouble. And when in doubt, ask a professional such as a therapist or counsellor.

When Pride is Confused for Being Tough

Muscling through difficult situations as though we need to face them all on our own is nothing short of foolish pride. This was a characteristic that was found in abundance in my family. We were all too proud to ask for help. This usually meant we were in over our heads. But for us, it was seen as a sign of weakness to ask for help. So we muscled through by avoiding the difficult emotions in the moment and actively sought to numb or speed pass them in lou of finding support. This is abusive behavior.

I think what we were avoiding the most was the ridicule we would receive if we asked for support. We would be seen as weak. And weakness was active sought after and used as a means to do harm to each other in the cruelest ways we could muster. I feel that this was a way to release some of the pain and resentment we were holding in from past battles. But one thing is for certain, for me it was not safe to be seen as weak by those closest to me.

This is where pride became our main line of defence against each other. It was the one way we were able to keep ourselves as safe as possible in an environment that was consistently steeped in hazards. There was no safe place to turn, including inwardly. So we dissociated from ourselves and one another in order to survive the thousands of tiny wounds we were constantly inflicting.

I think what perpetuated this way of being in relationship with each other was, the fear of being cut down the way we watched those closest to us cut others down. It is a cycle that we repeatedly engage in, in order to keep the temporary illusion of safety in an otherwise treacherous environment. And it takes willpower and strength to break this habit.

Disengaging From the Patterns of Abuse

This ain’t easy, to put it mildly. In order to break free from the patterns of abuse, of giving and receiving it, we have to be the first to show our “weaknesses” or vulnerabilities. This is a scary proposition. As I’ve said above, my family was trained to maliciously attack any sign of “weakness”, as defined by our family’s unspoken rules and roles. So putting yourself in a place where you know you will be abused takes courage. Especially since your intention will be not to attack once you’ve been torn apart.

And the worst part is, there is no guarantee that the relationship will be salvaged once you put yourself on the line. If you’re ready to be done with the cycles of abuse, but the other isn’t, then you’ll be left wounded and alone. This is where it’s important to have supports already in place. So if things don’t end up working out, or progress is slow, then you’ll be able to find comfort in knowing somebody else is there for you.

Setting Boundaries

This was something I experienced a few years ago when I attempted to reconnect with somebody from my past. We met at a local Whole Foods to get lunch and catch up. When we sat down to talk, I noticed that we were slipping into old patterns of behavior.

The person I was with was used to more hostile interactions. The ways we use to interact was by making small, cutting remarks mixed in with the normal flow of conversation. Essentially being mean for no reason. When I recognized that this was happening, I knew I needed to give the relationship more time. So I ended our meeting early and took some time before reaching out to them again.

It wasn’t easy, but it was well worth the effort in order to properly care for myself in the relationship and establish a new standard of how I want to be, and will be treated. But it’s not enough to just cut ties and run. We need to tell the other person what we’re doing and why. Otherwise disengaging can be taken as an act of passive aggressive punishment. Withholding love without a proper explanation can feel to the other person like a cold place. Leaving them to wonder why you aren’t talking anymore.

Finding Support

And while you’re working on your relationships by setting healthy boundaries, it’s good to have people who know what you’re going through. People who can offer some advice, some insight or maybe just an ear to listen. It’s also helpful for these people to be practicing healthy boundaries themselves. This can be difficult if you are just beginning the journey of learning how to cultivate healthy relationships.

A therapist is a great place to start when looking to expand your support network. They can offer unbiased insight into how you can go about establishing these new rules you want to set in your relationships. They can also suggest other healthy resources that will aid you along the way. They can be a healing ally and guide, as you sort out the unattended areas of your life.

Friends are also invaluable during this process. I have one friend that I know I can count on for just about anything. To field a phone call about a hairy situation, get some logical advice about practical matters or text about something that’s happening in real time. I’ve talked to a few friends for their perspective of this post topic alone.

It’s also nice to feel the support of someone who knows you and what you’ve been through. To feel seen and recognized. This is especially powerful if you’ve been emotionally neglected. If this is the case, the act of attempting to connect with others can bring up emotions of anxiety and fear. By having friends and other supports, the feelings aren’t as strong as they would be if you were facing them alone.

Being Tough Means Finding Support

And finally, if you’ve been closing yourself and your emotions off from others, you become weaker in the process. It’s not healthy to be isolated from your surroundings for too long. We need one another to be the best versions of ourselves. Staying connected and growing stronger in those connections, that’s what being tough really means.

So if you’ve been told that being tough means grinning and bearing it, or rub some dirt in your wound, you’ve been mislead. Caring for ourselves by knowing our emotional limits and checking in with how we’re feeling is our true strength. This and the support of others is where we’ll be able to stop the cycles of abuse and become the healthiest versions of ourselves. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Tired” by Geoff LMV is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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