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One of the defining features of psychological/emotional wellness is self-awareness, the capacity to remain open and curious about ourselves. We each have a relationship to our inner life, a felt sense of what it’s like to exist across space and time. But accessing what we’re thinking, feeling and experiencing isn’t always that simple.
Research shows that the quality of our earliest relationships has a profound influence on how we relate to ourselves. For instance, the emotionally secure among us may have learned that our feelings are acceptable to others and therefore legitimate, and because of this, a deeper connection to one’s inner world may take hold.
Others may have learned early on that it’s best to turn away from certain longings and feelings, that there is great pain in remaining attuned to certain self-experiences. This can occur in environments that are chaotic or when children experience neglect or abuse (emotional, physical, sexual).
Men learn to abandon their inner lives
In addition to our families, culture and society also have a hand in the relationships we form with ourselves and the level of self-awareness that we nurture. Many of the men I work with learned early on that their emotional experiences, especially those equated as “soft” or “feminine,” are incompatible with their masculine identities. These damaging messages continue to be perpetuated in Western society.
In order to personify an acceptable masculine identity, aspects of selfhood must be segregated and even killed off. Early on boys often face the painful choice to feel and express their authentic reactions and face ostracism from others (including family members and/or peers) or, alternatively, to shut down their reactions in order to save face.
At some point the deliberate suppression of one’s emotional life becomes so rapid and automated that it is difficult to know if and when it is occurring.
Self-rigidity comes at a great emotional cost
Masculine ideals are not inherently good or bad. It is one’s relationship to these ideals that matter.
Think of this pattern: a man experiences an emotion he is uncomfortable with (like vulnerability). In order to cope with the discomfort that the emotion evokes, he reverts to a masculine ideal (like stoicism). In this way he doesn’t have to experience what might be seen (unconsciously or consciously) as a threat to his manhood.
The problem is that if he moves away from the vulnerability too quickly or automatically, without any introspection, he will miss what the moment might hold, or what it otherwise might teach him. (And of course this can pose interpersonal problems in relationships, since his partner might need him to be vulnerable at times.) Also, if this pattern is the norm rather than the exception, then a rigidity takes hold, one that abolishes self-awareness and prevents him from seeing that there are a range of choices in how to relate to his experiences and the experiences of others.
In these instances, it is the rigid prioritization of masculine ideals that is problematic, not the ideals themselves. Rigidity tends to occur in extremes and leaves little room for anything else.
In instances of defensive rigidity, masculinity takes on a caricatured quality that can look something like:
- Anger and/or emotional numbness stands in for vulnerability;
- Narcissism (extreme forms of self-confidence) supplants humility;
- Arrogance overrides openness;
- Competitiveness pushes out cooperativeness;
- Independence is the default position over mutuality (and healthy connection);
- Blind certainty does not allow for uncertainty;
- Action (and acting-out) displaces contemplation and surrender.
Anger and defensiveness become inevitable under this internal regime
We each have our own running definition of what it means to be a man, the ways of being that are in sync with and violate our particular version of maleness. The rules that establish our masculine selfhood act as powerful filters of experience, shaping how we relate to others and what we allow ourselves to think and feel.
Developmentally, boys discover that to fit themselves into an acceptable role of maleness, they must learn to exclude the thoughts, feelings and ways of relating to others that clash with their burgeoning masculine-self.
A process of self-constriction must occur. The inner dimension where the self is allowed to learn and expand is narrowed.
What is consciously felt and experienced is atrophied, and when an off-limits reaction does break through — for instance, a feeling of helplessness or being overwhelmed about a certain situation — a secondary reaction (such as anger) or some experiencing-numbing behavior (drinking alcohol) takes its place.
The outcome of all this is that men often do not know what they truly feel, and what they truly need.
A constricting masculinity strangles emotional vitality
This constricting process doesn’t just occur for distressing emotions that are deemed unmanly. A range of experiences like joy, enthusiasm, exuberance and playfulness can also be muted. These positive feelings require a letting go; we must allow ourselves to surrender and become swept away by these positive experiences. For the man who places a high value on self-control, these experiences can be as threatening as feeling helpless or sad.
For some of the men I work with in therapy, it’s a lack of connection to a wider range of inner experiences that leads them to struggle with emotional emptiness or depression, or feeling that their lives are joyless and muted. Here the journey to discovering how they unconsciously constrict themselves and how and why they learned to do this is an important step in reclaiming their lost vitality.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Photo by Max Sandelin on Unsplash)