Ask Larry how he is doing and you’ll most likely hear, “Fine.” As evidence, he points to a stable job as a police officer, the recent move he and his wife made into their new home about a year ago, and that they are thinking of having a second child (their daughter just turned four).
As far back as he can remember, Larry has always been emotionally steady. Growing up with an alcoholic mother who was self-absorbed and often unavailable, Larry was left to raise himself and his younger brother. Very early in life Larry became the port in the storm for others in need.
The inability to describe what’s going on emotionally
Over the last two years, Larry’s wife Rebecca noticed that her husband seemed more reserved than usual.
“He’s always been somewhat quiet, maybe even a little shy. Looking back, I guess I could say that it was hard knowing what was truly going on with him. While he didn’t talk about his feelings, I did notice that he was becoming more moody. Less patient.”
In many ways, Larry did seem fine to the outside world, at least to those who weren’t looking very closely. He continued to work, he followed through on his responsibilities, he showed up at family functions and got together with friends to watch the Cowboys.
But he was seeming increasingly tense, and the pleas from his wife to talk about what he was feeling seemed to just agitate him and push him further away. Larry appeared distant, like he was going through the motions, robotically focusing on what needed to be done. He stopped working out. And each evening, he began to numb himself by downing a six-pack after his wife and daughter went to bed.
His sleep was negatively impacted. And finally, the one thing he felt he excelled at, his career, came crashing down when it was discovered that he had been drinking on the job.
Escaping the pain and cycles of self-destruction
Many of the men I work with in counseling are at a crossroads. Something isn’t working in their lives. They may feel overwhelmed (“stressed out”); shut-down, numb to what they are feeling; unable to stop out-of-control behavior; quick to anger; disconnected from themselves; distant from their loved ones.
In this state of mind, acting-out — any behavior that can temporarily blot out pain and confusion — is more likely to occur. For instance, abuse of alcohol and/or drugs; pornography; emotional/sexual infidelity; excessive gaming; engaging in risky/dangerous behavior; weekends spent mindlessly watching television; overeating…
Often, the fall-out (to self and others) of these behaviors is quite substantial. The solution (acting-out) becomes the problem. Patterns of acting-out become solidified as increasing numbing is now needed to deal with the wreckage brought about by these behaviors. These self-destructive spirals isolate men further, deepening their despair and hopelessness. It’s often a crisis or an ultimatum from a loved one that brings them to therapy.
If men could speak…
Larry knew he was under a great deal of stress. And he was also aware that he was feeling increasingly “tense.” But like many men who haven’t been raised to identify and express their emotional experiences, Larry’s emotional vocabulary failed to capture the more nuanced currents of his inner life. He was either “stressed” or “okay” — there was no description of what it was like to feel stressed and the impact it was having on his sense of self and body.
Research shows that being able to identify our feelings enhances our emotional wellbeing (Barrett, et. al., 2001; Vine & Aldao, 2014). By looking inward and clarifying what is going on, we’re in a better position to manage feelings that if left unabated, could become problematic.
Also, our feelings offer us a pathway to the deepest parts of ourself. They inform us about our core values and our psychological needs, important information that can be used to our benefit.
In individual counseling, Larry was encouraged to self-monitor. He was instructed to turn his attention inward, to do mental scans of his body in order to notice any physical markers (for instance, areas of tension, jitteriness, etc) that might indicate he was having a particular reaction that was not registering in his consciousness.
In this process, Larry was connecting to a new world, a range of self-experiences that challenged him to find a new, richer language (using words, images, metaphors) to capture what he was feeling.
But Larry didn’t like what he discovered.
Stepping through the barrier of shame and perceived failure
In one session, Larry turned to me and angrily stated, “You want to know what I’m feeling?! I feel like that kid who cried after he struck out in little league baseball and whose father was so ashamed he couldn’t even look at his son!”
At this point, Larry began to tear up and said, “I feel like a failure, like some kind of phony who’s tricking everyone into believing he’s got it all together. My wife, my coworkers. If they only knew the truth about me.”
These feelings (feeling uncertain, helpless, somehow inadequate) are, of course, very difficult to acknowledge.
For Larry, they violated the male “code” of having it all together, being the go-to guy when others are in need. To acknowledge these feelings would mean that he too needed others, but in a particular way. Maybe he needed his wife to be the “strong one” on occasion. Maybe he needed a place to let go and not be so in control, even just for a small period of time.
Larry’s deepest fear was that having these feelings somehow negated the self-image that was so familiar to him and others, the stoic male who showed love by providing and solving problems. This is a dilemma for men I work with and it is captured by a question a client once posed to me:
So now that I’m aware of these feelings, what do they ultimately say about me?
Too often, if these feelings are seen as anti-male (vulnerable feelings that are equated with being weak), these men conclude that they have failed in some way, that they aren’t able to “man up” the way they think they should.
This can pose a real crisis since the very foundation of their identity can feel threatened.
What I posed to Larry is something I pose to others who struggle in a similar way:
- Can being strong (as you personally define it) allow any room for uncertainty, worry, or other vulnerable feelings that may coexist with your ideals of strength?
- Can these different experiences (strength and vulnerability) coexist and enrich you rather than one having to wipe out the other?
Don’t worry about finding an answer to these questions (quick answers have the tendency to prematurely shut down an experience); what’s most important is having the courage (and strength) to ask them and patiently hold the inner tension they may create.
Rich Nicastro, Ph.D.
Psychologist, Georgetown Texas
Barrett, L. F., Gross, J., Christensen, T. C., & Benvenuto, M. (2001). Knowing what you’re feeling and knowing what to do about it: Mapping the relation be-tween emotion differentiation and emotion regulation. Cognition & Emotion, 15, 713–724.
Vine, V., & Aldao, A. (2014). Impaired Emotional Clarity and Psychopathology: A Transdiagnostic Deficit with Symptom-Specific Pathways Through Emotional Regulation. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33, 4, 319-342.