The pandemic has given many of us time to reflect on what is important in our life. It has also thrown up lots of questions, many of which cannot be answered. During the past year and a half human connection kept running through my thoughts and here is where those thoughts lead me.
Most of us are aware that humans are social animals and to me this can mean more than just being around other human beings. These connections come in a variety of different ways and mean something different to each one of us. Some might get these met at home or work, others may be part of activity groups and others do not have many, if any connections at all. However these connections take place for a person they also have different levels of emotional, psychological and spiritual depth. More thought is needed when someone is looking for a more in depth connection with others. Deep connections with others often require vulnerability by showing ourselves to those we are close to. It requires giving and receiving feedback, setting clear boundaries and communicating clearly about what it is we do and don’t want. In my opinion these are a necessary part of relationship building, and also an important aspect of getting to know ourselves better. For men this can be particularly difficult as many of us grow up with a message that we have to be the provider for those around us and are told that showing emotions is a sign of weakness. This often leads to psychological problems, which some may mask with substance use and/ or unhealthy behaviours such as over working, obsessing, over or under indulging in food, gambling, phone/ social media use etc. These are what are classified as addictions, which in turn has its own stigma attached to it and can lead to shame and a disconnect with those we love. If they are not recognised and given some space this can often lead to more serious mental health issues and can become a part of someone's daily lived experience.
I discovered a while ago when seeing a psychotherapist that I had been holding onto many unhelpful ideas of what it is to be a man. Through working with men I discovered that many others also find it difficult trying to make sense of what we are told society expects men to be. The messages we are given around experiencing emotion can be confusing and also shaming. These lesson are usually learnt in childhood and stick with us into adulthood, becoming the version of ourselves that we think we are. Messages like “what a brave boy you are for not crying!” or “big boys don’t cry” become embedded into our reality of how we “should” behave. Many boys are encouraged to fight any feelings they experience and by taking on these messages they lead to shame around feeling them. I’m now able to show this vulnerability in my personal life and workplace. It feels great to do so. Scary, but great. I’m not suggesting everyone does the same of course. as many people are not living or working in places where it is safe to do so. But it’s my belief that finding somewhere/ someone where this can happen is necessary for becoming our true version of self.
Throughout my work I have noticed that many men have a tendency to self isolate and try to manage things on their own, which I can as my own personal experience. I have noticed some themes through these conversations and the reasons why this behavior is happening. Self isolating can sometimes be an indicator that there are emotions that the person is trying to avoid. It can also mean someone is missing the connection of others but the thought of being around others can feel overwhelming. This can often be due to a poor choice in the people we are surrounding ourselves with, or a lack of boundaries when around those who are close to us. Feeling stuck in this can be really frustrating and lonely. Developing healthy boundaries is something that can be worked on in a therapeutic relationship and can have significant affect on the way someone’s life can be. Again, young boys often learn really unhelpful messages about what it is to be a man and in turn develop unhealthy boundaries around asking for what they do and don’t want in their life. Speaking out and saying what is and isn’t ok can often be misinterpreted as being aggressive and can often lead to men not speaking out in fear of being labelled as an aggressor. In turn this leads to self isolation and not speaking one’s truth. Again we are back to the unhealthy behaviors and/ or mental health issues that I spoke of previously.
I have often heard the term “toxic masculinity” being used when talking about men showing anger and aggression. Many men find this message really confusing and shaming and often bring these feelings to the counseling room. Toxic masculinity is not a term that I use, or find helpful as it feels a little judgmental about what are just emotions and behavioural responses. My personal belief is that aggression is an unsurprising behavioural response to feeling angry. It can often be the go to response for men as it was subtly encouraged in childhood. Feelings like sadness, fear and frustration can often be criticised by those around a male child and so any vulnerability that he is feeling turns to anger and aggression. There are of course many other ways to use aggression that are healthy and don’t affect the person and those around him. When it is processed and understood anger can be an extremely useful guide for learning about what we do and don’t want in our lives. Uncontrolled anger can be extremely damaging both for the person who is experiencing it and also to those around them.
There are many options for achieving personal development and a sense of self actualization. Some options available are:
I encourage anyone to find the courage to seek out therapy and personal development as a way to process their feelings and relationships with others. In my opinion it’s a challenging journey... but one worth the trip.