In my last post, Men Who Want to Connect: The Challenges and the Opportunities, I wrote about the challenges men face when going more deeply into relationships. In short, men face many injunctions against intimacy both from the culture at large and from their families of origin. From both of these sources, vulnerability can be viewed as weakness, while anger and aggression may be tolerated or even endorsed as “manly.”
However, from such oppression, there are many opportunities to heal and grow.
1. The opportunity to become present with yourself and to increase awareness of your own experience
The idea of becoming present with our own experience may sound simple, and it is in some ways, but putting it into practice in our lives is not always so easy. It may feel quite challenging to be with the various part of ourselves as they are, such as our anger, loneliness, sadness, or feeling needy.
For example, a client I will call Joe was telling me how sad he felt after yelling at his son. Joe was talking to me in a session about feeling completely overwhelmed because his son was crying, and looked sad and afraid. Joe said, “I love my son and don’t understand why I would treat him this way.” He seemed to be looking to me for an answer. I commented that his inquiry about his experience seemed more critical than curious. Joe acknowledged this was true. He seemed to relax a bit, and then saw an image of his son mocking him instead of following Joe’s directions. Joe said he was struggling between feeling angry and impatient with his son and feeling ashamed judging himself as a failure of a father. At this moment, Joe was too stuck in a cycle of feeling shamed by his inner critic for how he had reacted towards his son. If Joe continued on this same experiential track, he would likely go into shut down mode.
Through the use of mindful awareness I encouraged Joe to focus on the part of himself that cared deeply for his son, and set aside the parts of himself that judged both his son’s behavior and his own reactions. By doing this he was able to feel a little more connected to his son again. Now that Joe appeared more “back in his body,” I asked him to notice how he wanted to be in relation to his son and himself. He said, “I want to keep my heart open when I’m with my son.”
As he said this he put his hand on his heart and started to soften. I encouraged Joe to stay with this experience of holding his heart while at the same time staying present with what’s happening inside. This heart opening created more space in Joe’s awareness to remember times when his father yelled at him and taunted him. Making sure that Joe felt safe enough, I encouraged Joe to stay in the vulnerability of his experience and welcome whatever surfaced. By staying with this experience over the next couple of sessions, Joe realized how much his father suffered from fear and self criticism as well. Eventually, he was able to feel more compassion and space inside himself to hold his own suffering. Also, while he developed compassion for his father’s suffering, he became able to see his father as a separate person for whom he wasn’t responsible, as well as feel more of an appropriate parental boundary with his son.
In Joe’s story, it was initially challenging for him to meet his present moment experience because his inner critic got triggered. Our inner critic is a part of ourselves that we develop, which sets standards for us at an early age as an attempt to protect ourselves from criticism or feeling of weakness, or to get others approval in order to be liked or cared about. Our critic often does the best job it can to protect us. Unfortunately, our inner critic is usually based on the awareness level of a child, and doesn’t understand the complexities of the adult world we now live in.
Joe was able to become present with his experience by developing compassion for these hurt or more distressed parts of himself, but without allowing it to define who he is as a person. What is compassion? One of the ways that’s easiest to start noticing compassion is by paying attention to when you allow yourself or spontaneously feel moved by another persons suffering. Maybe this other person is someone you know or love, such as Joe’s son, or it could also be a stranger you encounter in your life. After you sense what it’s like to feel compassion for another person, you can try turning towards yourself in the same way.
2. The opportunity for a more durable, portable sense of who one is as a man
By committing to a healing journey as Joe did, men can continue to develop in mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual ways. The limiting beliefs dictated by culture can be challenged and the true essence of the individual can be recognized and restored. Usually, this individual approach is born out of some kind of pain and disconnection from one’s true nature. So the pain is the gateway to exploration of the strategies men have employed in order to fit in, gain respect, and get recognition. Some examples of these strategies are acting tough, hiding one’s feelings, and pretending to be smarter, richer, wiser, more capable than one really is. In short, an idealized self image is constructed to present to others. Many men even believe the false version of self themselves.
By acknowledging such strategies in a supportive relationship, such as with a therapist or a therapy group, the real self underneath the strategies begins to be liberated. Of course, this may be a process over time which includes emotional and even spiritual exploration. The result is a more capacious self who can be real and connected in a variety of environments (including home, work, and social groups).
These first two opportunities are about a man’s relationship with himself. He can be freed from unconscious limitation and deepen his own sense of self-respect and personal authentic power. He can heal the old wounds and restore his capacity for joy.
3. The opportunities in relationship
Once a man has developed kindness and respect for himself, it is natural to expect a desire to connect with others more fully. This desire may take the form of intimate partnerships and also more satisfying friendships.
All the stories I have related in these articles have involved relationships. That is because humans are a social species. Our brains are deeply wired to connect with others. Some of this even comes from survival instincts; we are more likely to be safe in numbers and have deep instincts to protect our young.
Such a journey requires a type of courage. That is the essence of bold love. The word courage comes from the French coeur, the word for heart. Courage is not an absence of fear or vulnerability; it is the presence of heart. Doing this courageous work is not only satisfying on an individual level, it makes for more authentic and secure relationships as well.
I will leave you with a poem by Rumi, who writes about meeting our emotions the same way we would meet a guest at our front door. The poem demonstrates the practice of becoming present to what is without making it right or wrong.
“The Guest House”
by Jelaluddin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.