Longing for Evolution
I never told anyone how I felt. I was unwilling and unable. Crushing pressure. Do not divulge what could be interpreted as emotional! The drive was powerful, but I could not understand where my compulsion to restrain originated. Later, I was told there were “social factors” in play, but regardless of motives, the results were clear. I never honestly shared the emotional ramifications of my experiences with anyone. My story is not unique, and I believe it is safe to assume that other men engage in this behavior as well. I was never provided with a suitable alternative, but I am slowly learning there is one. There is a method to harness the power and courage needed to examine personal feelings and process them constructively. Evolution hinges on the boldness of this transformation. Male emotional opacity has created a society were men perpetrate unnecessary violence, lack genuine connection, and are not suitable fathers to their children. The current model has been shattered by its ineffectiveness, but it is possible to break the painful cycle.
When I was a teenager, my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. He fought the disease for four years, until he died. I didn’t feel much and what I did feel, I never told anybody. I kept quiet, “like a good man should”. I never spoke to anyone else, or even thought to myself, about how much I was struggling. I thought it would make it better. I thought, consciously and unconsciously, that if I pushed my feelings down into the deeper recesses of my psyche it would reduce their intensity. After much needed reflection I found that, unfortunately, the exact opposite occurred. My attempts to lessen the emotional burden of my experience amplified my suffering drastically. I was unaware at the time, but I was held hostage by my reluctance to see a wide range of emotions I have since identified.
The first thing that surfaced was fear. Sheer terror and extreme anxiety about the future. Is my dad going to die? What is going to happened to him? What is going to happen to me? What will happen to me without him? The anxiety was grueling. I was so afraid. At times, it was so bad that I would have chest pains for four to five days. These pains could only be assuaged by a trip to the doctor for a full cardiovascular scan. It was debilitating, but despite severe hypochondria, and general anxiety, I still refused to name what I was feeling. I was in denial. I could not vocalize that I was absolutely terrified that my dad, my loving father, was likely going to die soon. The more I kept my fear a secret the more I became isolated and alone.
My fear firmly established, the next thing that really took hold was anger. Why is this happening to me? Why did my dad have to get brain cancer? Why is my dad dying? These are good questions, but unfortunately ones I never asked myself. Consequently, I was unaware of how angry I was during this period of my life. I could keep it under wraps some of the times, for instance, a school day with some semblance of appropriate behavior. Eventually, though, it would come to the surface. Either subtly, in sinister forms, or rapidly as uncontrolled explosions. Binge drinking, road rage, destroying property, punching walls to name a few. No matter how hard I tried to ignore or deny my anger, it snuck out when I was off guard. My anger was more challenging to recognize than my fear. I was out of control. I acted impulsively and destructively before I had a chance to think. I felt like it was unacceptable to be angry, an assumption that barred me from even considering the possibility.
Once I had some regular behavior patterns driven by fear and anger, the shame of that behavior was soon to follow. I was ashamed of my reliance on compulsive eating, excessive drinking, and chronic marijuana use. I was using these techniques to cope with the fear and anger that I was repressing. I ate sweet foods. It is amazing how agony can briefly fade away into a cheese Danish. Though it was only momentarily, it made me feel better. I drank alcohol to excess and constantly smoked marijuana for the same reason. I employed this behavior to escape from the pain and anger, but in turn I felt something else. I was ashamed. I judged myself ruthlessly. “You loser, why are you eating so much cake? Why are you high all the time? Why are drinking until you throw up?” I was so ashamed it was hard to look people in the eyes. I believed everybody else was judging me with the same severity. My shame helped me to push the people in my life away. I did not want to talk to anybody about my experience. I did not want anybody to know how I felt, or what I was doing to handle the emotions I was stifling.
Unintentionally, I practiced diligently and soon I could deny and squash any emotion into the depths of my psyche. I could not discriminate, and I was so good at hiding what I felt that happiness fell into that category as well. Although my father’s illness and death was a difficult and painful part of my life, the world is a beautiful place and there were times when good things happened. It didn’t matter, I was effectively numb. I tried not to express fear, anger, or shame and I couldn’t express happiness either. This was another one of the unintended consequences of consciously or unconsciously repressing my emotions. My suffering was compounded because the moments that could elicit joy did not have a significant effect on me. I was not elated. I was not filled with happiness. I had been working so hard to silence and dismiss my emotions that even when wonderful things happened I couldn’t acknowledge how I felt.
I suffered in this manner for almost four years until my dad died. After his death, I could add sadness to the equation. The loss and grief was beyond my comprehension. It was horrible. I watched a man I loved waste away. I watched him lose his mind. I watched his body disintegrate. He died, and I dressed his limp, dead body. The pain was excruciating. It was astronomical, but I pushed it down until I could barely feel it. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t cry at his funeral. I was sure the pain would consume me if I even touched my sadness. I didn’t say anything that I thought might make me cry even if it felt meaningful or important. I was sad beyond imagining, but I told everybody I was fine. I remained “composed”, but I was alone.
Every “I’m okay”, every “I’m fine” continued to isolate me more from the people that cared about me most. Those two phrases were my answer to anybody who was kind enough to ask me about my well-being. I thought I could keep my feelings concealed behind those programed responses, but my emotions started to escape in undesirable and harmful ways. I was dishonest in my relationships, violent towards myself, and caught in a cycle of perpetual escapism. It became exhausting. My attempts to contain it all required so much attention and energy that it made it difficult to focus on what was meaningful. More importantly, it made it difficult to connect with people because I was never honestly presenting myself or communicating what I felt. I was always guarded, always holding something back. I thought it protected other people from my feelings and my pain, but in hindsight, I just put up a disruptive barrier.
Personal responsibility helps me to reinforce power I have to change my behavioral patterns, but there are external factors, out of my control, that are involved as well. Regardless of whether it is rage, sadness, happiness, fear, or shame, men have been discouraged from being honest about their emotions. Social pressures have created an image of men who are immovable. Men that, in the face of the challenges that life presents, are encouraged to remain composed. Men that remain immune to suffering. I am not sure how I learned this, but it is prevalent in paternal modeling, media and tradition. Men are taught that “boys don’t cry”. They do not have anyone who can healthily display anger, or talk openly about fear. It is no wonder that men struggle to share their emotions. It is no wonder that men don’t even know about their emotions.
Sometimes I think that it is conscious silence, and sometimes I think that men are so removed from their emotions that they do not even know what they are feeling. I know that in my life both cases have certainly been true at different times. Whatever the case, the negative ramifications of this behavior are poisoning our society and the pain and suffering that is subsequently caused is widespread. It is time to shift our mindset. We can begin to foster a culture where men are empowered to embrace what they feel. This will be both challenging for men who are trying to access feelings that could have been buried for decades and the people around them that will be present when they finally access those feelings. For instance, rage is often the first emotion that men feel comfortable expressing, and even if it is not perpetrated against anybody, it can be frightening or intense to be around.
Though there is certainly variance, the predominant industrialized culture of the world today fosters no connection with honest feelings. We have forgotten why it is so important. Indigenous tribes around the world shared their emotional states because their survival depended on it. If somebody did not share what they were feeling, good, bad or indifferent, they could not be trusted to play their role. Tribal safety was contingent on open discussion of everything from sadness to judgement. The Greeks also knew the importance of emotion and it was demonstrated it in drama and theatre that was central to their culture and understanding. The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart, rather than the brain, was the center of wisdom. Our society today reflects that exact opposite. We have brought our entire existence into the cerebral realm citing the dogma of western science. Though our brains are important, our obsession with them has distanced us from our feelings that often reside in the tissues of our bodies.
I knew that I needed to change when the pain became unbearable. Of course, that change didn’t come over night. It has required much hard work and dedication to acknowledge and communicate my emotions. I still have much to uncover, particularly my connection with grief and sadness. I think I always will, but I am committed to being more transparent with the people around me. In a world where I am inclined to turn inwards, lost in the endless content and information available at my figure tips, I want more connection. I often blame ‘technology’ itself, but that is merely a technique to avoid personal fault in the problem. I can be more honest with myself and others, and in turn, form deeper more loving connections with the people in my life.
Though I am still practicing, forming a stronger connection with my emotions has given me the ability to achieve what was impossible for me. When I build a stronger understanding of my anger I can use the energy of my rage to move and transform my body. When I breathe into my fear, its significance diminishes and I can act in accordance with my intentions instead of letting fear control me. Increasing my awareness of shame, I can also lessen its influence on my life. I can learn to forgive myself for my mistakes and still hold myself accountable for them. When I am aware of sadness, I can form deeper bonds with both men and women who can trust me more because of my honesty. Best of all, forming a more coherent picture of my emotional landscape, I can notice when I am overwhelmed with joy instead of letting the wonderful moments pass without gratitude and appreciation.
Undoubtedly, working to acknowledge and utilize my feelings is a challenging task and a work in progress. However, when I deny my feelings, I cause more suffering. In turn, I externalize that suffering into the world. When I work to acknowledge what I am feeling, I can use the power of my emotions to influence my life in a positive manner. I have made my decision and I want to take the difficult path to improvement. We are in desperate need of an honest and open society. The necessity of this change transcends politics, race, gender, religion, etc. The survival of our species depends on such an evolution.
We can come together, in a time of division, by taking a courageous step into the tumultuous world of our emotions. Easy to write, hard to accomplish. It will require incredible effort to but the pain in the world necessitates positive change. I want to be exceptionally clear here: positive change does not mean that all men are obligated to become gentle and vulnerable all the time. It means that men can begin to be more honest about what they are feeling. The truth is that sometimes it will be hard for the man facing his emotions and those around him. Emotions can be frightening, particularly anger, but pressure is relieved when those emotions are accessed. It brings a tangible clarity to problems that are difficult to identify.
Taking responsibility for personal improvement is hard, and evolution is painful. It is challenging to slow down, take a breath and investigate, but the benefits are dramatic. The ensuing relief will ripple out into the world and usher in a new era of human connectedness. The paradigm of personal responsibility will shift. Men will no longer demonize external factors’ contribution to their individual circumstances. Men will say, “I will be honest about my feelings. I will not label them: good or bad. I will simply feel. I will be an authentic man.” Though it is aspirational, following these principles, men can learn to live truthfully and healthily.
This endeavor is fundamental to our evolution. It is challenging beyond reckoning, but it is also a wonderful opportunity. As individuals, we have the power to change the world by honestly taking responsibility for how we can improve. So, let me ask, are you being honest with yourself? Are you being honest with your family? Your friends? Your coworkers? Your community? Close your eyes and take a deep breath before you answer. If you answered “no” to any of these questions, you have work to do. If you didn’t answer “no”, you really have work to do. Though that responsibility is frightening it is also empowering because you have an ability to personally change to world!