Isolation and Being a Man Shouldn’t Go Hand In Hand

The Man Standard

I spoke about this some in last weeks post, about what it means to be a man. My experience, while growing up in the eighties, was a very polarizing one. Views and mindsets were on the verge of changing to be more inclusive, but there was still a stronghold of intolerance that shaded everything a stark black and white.

The lessons I gleaned from the opinions modeled for me were, men acted one way and women acted another. There were no shared emotional experiences or characteristics. In my family, men were hard, in charge, responsible for everything and got what they wanted, when they wanted it and could resort to force to get it if the other did not comply.

Women on the other hand were objects to be won, raised the children, had no responsibilities, said and did cruel and cutting things with impunity as long as they did whatever the man wanted from them. Spoiler alert, this did not end well for anybody involved.

Why is that so? Because this way of being bred an awful lot of resentment. And if it’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that resentment is corrosive to relationships. I say corrosive because it seemed as though every action was being judged and criticized while every intention was called into question. And at the heart of this resentment was the limiting ideals of who could feel what or could be who they were, aka a human being with emotions, outside of the polarized views of the expected roles of who men and women should be.

This, was, crazy making. I’ve talked about my abuse before on this blog. An experience that shaped my future interactions with people, making me meek and timid around others. My timid nature was the subject of a lot of ridicule among my caregivers. I was called “sensitive”, which under the regime of my family, was a trait that men simply didn’t have.

It didn’t matter to them that I was traumatized at an early age and habitually abused and neglected. The reasoning being, if I were a real man, I should be able to handle it and do it on my own. This was/is an unreasonable expectation of anyone, especially from an eight year-old. But I soldiered on under these expectations, not realizing the damage they were imparting.

Doing It On Our Own

I’m not sure where this standard originated, but it’s one that’s been alive and well for a very long time. From my experience, asking for help was akin to showing vulnerability. And vulnerability was seen and preyed upon as a weakness. In my family anyway, if you showed that you weren’t able to handle something on your own or asked for help in anyway, the other person would show a deep sense of resentment.

Mostly because we all already felt like we were stretching ourselves to thin. So the burden of one more request was sharply felt in the form of resentment. But also because we never thanked anybody, or showed gratitude for anything anybody ever did. We definitely had a martyr complex and did not hesitate to proudly display this to others.

So instead of normalizing relying on and asking for help from others, I was taught that this was an act of aggression. One of disrespecting the other’s time and resources. In reality, I was just too scared to ask for help and to feel the scorn of any would be aid. But since fear was another emotion that men weren’t supposed to feel, I pretended that I was better than asking for help. This was how I tricked myself into believing that asking for help was for the weak.

Weakness Ain’t So Weak

But this wasn’t something that was unique to my family. This was a cultural phenomenon. For example, most all of the Rambo movies were about just this. One man fighting against all odds to make right the situation. Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger from “The Predator”, was another solo male role-model. Doing it all on their own without any help and leaving a wake of destruction wherever they went.

When I was young and felt like I could take on the world, these were definitely two dangerous role-models for me to have. Learning that having to rely on others is a form of weakness, is no way to navigate challenges that come up in the day to day. But this was the playbook I was given. And one I jumped at the chance to emulate. Everybody I looked up to was doing it, why couldn’t, shouldn’t I?

What I hadn’t realized at the time was, that most of the male role-models in my life were scared to death of some sort of version of coming up short. Whether it was due to social pressures, pressures from their loved ones, societal expectations… The list goes on. But instead of owning these limitations as “unreasonable expectations”, the men in my life chose to fake it till they made it. Only, there wasn’t anywhere to go. This however translated to a lot of drinking, belittling others and an awful lot of machismo bravado. And all of it designed to show how independent and manly they were, not realizing they were seeking somebody else’s approval. This did not work in their favor.

Most of the relationships in my family failed in one way or another. Family gatherings became strained events, where we would all inevitably drink too much and talk about those closest to us in demeaning ways. There was an awful lot of hurt feelings and bruised egos as well. And everybody was too scared of one another to share how they actually felt and what was on their mind. It was a suffocating environment to grow up in.

Making The Change: From Man-Up to Cool-Down

When I was in high-school, as I said above, I was meek. I was quiet and timid but also outspoken in other ways. I did not go to classes, and made a few enemies along the way. One of them was a bully, but no ordinary one. Once, when I was confronted and cornered by this bully in the hallway during a class we were both skipping, she punched me in the eye while here two oafish friends held me in place. I had a black eye for a few weeks and on top of that, I had to tell everybody that a girl beat me up.

This was tough for my 15 year-old ego at the time. Especially growing up in the culture I had. If it was one thing that men didn’t do, it was get beat up by a woman. One of my caregivers even came to my defense and said, “what were you supposed to do, you’re not supposed to hit a woman.” There’s a lot of thing that aren’t right about this statement. Among them being, nobody asking why I was getting beat up in school instead of going to classes. But they were too ashamed of my “sensitive” nature to ask the important questions and set things right.

So asides from being taught that it wasn’t okay to be “sensitive”, how did I find a way to take better care of myself even with the years of harmful lessons I was taught? It started with embracing my sensitive nature and calling it for what it was, me being a man having emotions.

Emotional Experiences: From Traumatic Fear to Just Plain Afraid In a Good Way

The road I took wasn’t a straight forward path. There were a lot of twist and turns and quite a few ignored emotions that needed to be felt. When I started “driving my own life bus” as my boss likes to say, I had to swallow my pride and admit that I had made a mess of the life I was living. Not asking for help from anybody left me alone and with few options as far as how to move myself forward.

I moved back in with family members and had to learn how to be a part of a family again, only this time in a healthy way. And this was difficult. The more I was around my family, the more old emotions were coming up that I had been running from. This was when I began dissociating. I would feel an intense emotion come on, and my mind and body just wouldn’t be able to handle it. So I checked out. People have described it as there being nothing behind my eyes, empty. That was the traumatic fear I was unable to fully feel.

But the longer I stayed with the feelings, meeting my edge and softening, the more I could embody them without dissociating. This took a lot of work in the way of, self-care, learning to be able to trust others, accepting support from others and trusting myself that I wasn’t going to carry on the legacy of the lessons that were taught to me.

Practice Makes Perfect: Wait, Maybe That’s an Unreasonable Standard

And what made this work possible, was a whole lot of practice. My default settings were to rely on the harmful lessons of my caregivers past. I had to consciously work to recognize when a situation would arise where I was operating under old, unhealthy ways of being and willfully work to change the course of my old teachings.

A great example of this is the ways I used to view women. As I said above, I was taught that women were objects to be won. This also meant that they were only to be seen as objects and their purpose was to fulfill desire. This meant sexual desire in my family. So my default teaching was, when I saw a woman, I immediately put her in one of two categories: attractive or unattractive. In my family, this was the extent of a woman’s value.

I hadn’t realized how demeaning this was because I wasn’t really driving my own life bus. I was acting on auto pilot, mostly for fear of being rejected by the people who where teaching me these unhealthy lessons in the first place.

So I first had to recognize that these views I held were unhealthy. This came with getting to know the women I was already relying on in my day to day relationships as first; people with emotional worlds all their own, and second as smart, funny, caring and loving individuals. To my surprise, they were fun and loving people with loads of personality and lots to contribute to just about every area of life. This is a bit of hyperbole, as I’ve always had a respect for women.

But treating them as equals was something that went against my initial teachings and something I had to actively recognize, when I was judging them solely on their appearance. Because how can you really see someone as equal if you decide their worth boils down to how hot they look in an outfit or naked?

So I was relying on the aid of these women to teach me how unhealthy my views and lessons learned were, by them being amazing and strong women. I was also recognizing the judgements I was making that were popping up in my mind as they were happening, while also challenging them in the moment.

This was tough, I’m not gonna lie. And I can see how some would choose to bury their heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t need their attention. But the quality of my relationships has grown exponentially with these women and I’ve learned so much just by being around them. For example, my boss is an amazing woman who’s, started her own business after leaving a successful career in finance where she traveled around the world while raising a family. She’s like an unstoppable machine and I’m pretty sure who Merion-Webster had in mind when they defined the word and phrase, “capable” and “excels in every area.”

I could go on and I want to take this opportunity to thank all the women, especially those who go unrecognized, for putting up with people who I used to resemble for as long as you have without killing us. You are much stronger than we’ve ever given you credit for being : ) Thanks.

So the new lessons I’m choosing to live by are, men don’t have to go it alone. There are loads of people that are more than willing to lend a hand, women being among some of the the most capable. And asking for help is not equivalent to weakness. If you’ve found yourself in a situation similar to mine, know that you are not alone. It takes some work to break free, but it is most definitely worth it. I’ll leave you with a song that’s given me strength on my journey. Peace 🙂 and thanks for reading.

Strength, Courage and Wisdom. India Arie

Image Credits: “Lonely Man” by Nickeeth Lopez is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Finding Your Emotions in an Emotionless Family: What Happens When They are not Only Taboo, but Just Plain Feared

I was having breakfast with a friend a few days ago when I found myself feeling very uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure why at first, but then it came to me after I had left the coffee shop to go for a walk in the woods. He was talking about vulnerability and how self compassion was different from self confidence. At the time this seemed reasonable enough. His wife had just sent him an article about self-compassion and how it leads to success. But the language he was using was making me feel frightened.

Realizing You Don’t Know How to Talk About Emotions

This seemed strange to me. I often explore my own emotional states. So why should talking about them bring up such a reaction? I tried searching my memories for other times I felt uncomfortable discussing emotionally charged topics. It was then that I realized that I don’t talk about emotions. With my family at all and friends seldom. I was stunned.

Growing up in my family, we never spoke about how we were feeling. Or how a situation had an affect on us. I actually only recently found out there was a difference between the words affect and effect. I should also mention that I have a degree in English and writing! So it was no surprise that I was as uncomfortable as I was. My friend was speaking another language completely. One I had no idea how to navigate.

Using Emotions as a Weapon

I’m realizing now that in my family, emotions were something to be used. Or they were manipulated to get something from someone. This bred a distrust and fear of emotions. Especially vulnerability. It was like opening a wound over and over again, to get the lifeblood of the other while leaving the person to bleed out. It was uncomfortable to say the least.

And with this type emotional practice between “loved ones”, it’s amazing that any of us were able to feel anything at all. We were all so hyper-vigilant about what the other person was going to say about us, that it was close to impossible to build trust and love in our relationships. Fear and resentment were the result of this type of connection. I also remember feeling as though I was never meet their expectations.

Covering Over the Wounded Emotions

So, in lieu of love and understanding, my family fell back on the old standby of drinking and other forms of distraction to numb the pain of not feeling accepted or belonging. Shopping was another way we chose to numb the hurt. The thought was, maybe by fitting into whatever trend was popular, we could feel the acceptance we were lacking from those that were holding it back.

Though, those methods didn’t work to ease the pain of not feeling belonging. Drinking however worked to make us mean. Something my family excelled at. Drinking was a way for us to turn off our filters, so we could let loose on the other and say how we were feeling. But in a way that would make the other feel as unloved and afraid. And how we felt was cut apart. If you’ve ever seen Bacon’s “Figure with Meat“, it was akin to feeling like this. Split wide, tender and vulnerable.

In a State of Emotional Shock, Not Being Able to Feel

And as I’ve said in previous posts, I didn’t know what feelings were until my early thirties. This has mostly to do with the traumatic events that I’ve experienced. This left me in a state of emotional shock. But add on to that a life’s time worth of critical, cutting and mean natured remarks, intended to wound on impact and you have a different type of trauma.

With the quality of our relationships, it’s no wonder that we were so afraid of our own emotions and those of others. Why would you want to explore the areas of yourself that have been so thoroughly wounded, rejected, abused and manipulated by those who were supposed to love and support you? This was how I learned to abandon and neglect my emotional self.

Learning to Leave

Every time I had an emotion that reminded me of the ways that I cared for my family, fear came up. Front and center. This made it almost impossible to feel comfort or care for myself. Because anytime those feelings would come up, I would then be bowled over by fear and anxiety for not feeling like I was worthy of self-care and love. But also because I had few memories of what it meant to feel loved by those who were supposed to show me how.

So after I realized I was leaving my emotions, my job then became learning the language of my emotions. Especially those closest related to love and care. Without knowing what they were without being entangled in fear and anxiety. It was like trying to give shape and names to what was right in front of me, but hidden from my senses. It was maddening.

Leading the Way Without a Map

But I made the journey regardless of how difficult it was. Having faith that things would work out. And I had a lot of help along the way too. Without which, I don’t like to think about where I would be. But my journey began with giving up what Tara Brach calls, the false refuges. One of the biggest ones for me was drinking. Because that’s when I was most self-destructive, mean spirited and critical of others.

I now have a beer with my Self-Care Sunday dinner, and once and a while when I’m out with friends. But the difference between now and then is, now I’ve set healthy boundaries with my drinking. Meaning I only have one or two. I also check in with how I’m feeling while drinking. Because my boundaries were so poor and self-destructive, I needed to regain some trust in myself. To do the right thing when it comes to the areas of my life I had abused for so long.

Walking Away From the Chaos

And it was jarring. Reawakening to my emotional life was strange, scary and at times just plane terrifying. And it took time. It wasn’t a one shot. Where I felt loving and gentle to myself and others and never again felt fear or relived past traumas again. It takes time. Because healing is a process. There’s a phrase in the meditation community that goes, “sit, stay, heal,”. I love this saying because it encompasses this sentiment with such accuracy.

Learning how to be patient with myself was probably the turning point for helping me to learn and give name to my emotional life. It was the one tool that helped me to allow the emotions to just be. Without using something to push it away long enough for me to give it name and know it’s presence. It was then that I was able to recognize them for the emotions they were. And not the fear provoking trauma they were attached to.

And finally, it taught me to go slow. Emotions can be overwhelming. So when in doubt, stand back and give yourself some space to see a little more clearly. If I could give one bit of advice to you on your own healing journey, it’s to be kind and go slow. It takes time to learn to love again. Peace, and thanks for reading :]

Image Credits: “Closeup on the Linen Book/Mummy Wrappings of the Lost Etruscan Language” by Curious Expeditions is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Updated: 7/29/22

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