Historically, anger has come naturally and easily for men. Probably because on some level, we evolved to be warriors, hunters, and physical laborers. Every single one of us comes from a lineage of bad assess that knew how to scratch and claw to survive. Our ancestors’ lives were brutal, and we carry their DNA because they were the ones that lived just long enough to reproduce. That was no small accomplishment either.
Anger has been the fuel system that’s motivated men to push up against life challenges with force. It increases blood flow to our large muscles and reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex (largely responsible for intelligent thought), while the more primitive structures of the brain kick into gear. Exactly what we needed for when life was brutish and short.
Yet we live in different times now. Our aggressive tendencies have been criticized, and for good measure. We are much more likely to be held accountable if we lash out verbally or physically, which is warranted. And the expectation to keep our worst impulses in check are ever-increasing. These corrections were long over-do.
I’m glad we have made some changes, but I’m also afraid that we have not defined alternative ways for men to express emotional pain. Not that it was ever okay, but we used to (sort of) get by with tantrums and outbursts, even though we suppressed sadness, confusion, loneliness, and other “soft” emotions that lie beneath the surface. But now that norms are changing, it seems like many men have completely shut down. I see it all the time in my clinical practice, and, to be candid, I work against this tendency in my own life.
Psychological research has clearly demonstrated that emotional suppression leads to all kinds of mental, physical, and social problems, and if we take into account the prevalence of suicide, violent crime, addiction, and chronic disease among men, there seems to be some legitimate evidence that something has gone seriously wrong.
True, these aren’t exactly new problems for men, but since the age of accountability has begun putting male anger and impulse in its proper place, we haven’t exactly seen the type of progress one might expect. At least anger seemed to make a little sense, but figuring out how to express the various layers of our emotional reality can make the mind go blank. I don’t want to imply that this is the case for every man, but saying what we think generally isn’t so bad. It’s more comfortable to operate on the intellectual level. But talking about how we feel? Yeah, how about you back off and leave us alone.
Deep down, we know that isn’t the solution. Most of us are aware that we too have emotional needs, but the words tend to escape us. All of a sudden, our native language can seem foreign and inadequate. But at some point, we have to shed our demand for absolute clarity and begin accepting the fact that genuine emotional expression is messy work.
With that in mind, I want to offer a basic template to help us men sort through the mess. But before I do so, a quick message to women: you deserve credit. The structure of your friendships is much better suited to satisfy your emotional needs. Although there are some biological factors at play, it still takes courage to be vulnerable. I admire that.
Okay, back to the template…
First, ask yourself who in your life is willing to listen? If you don’t have anybody, consider talking to a counselor, pastor, or joining a support group. It’s not easy to reach out, but it’s worth it. This first step is often the most difficult. Just figure out a way to break the ice, and like most things, it will get easier with time.
Second, talk about talking. Discuss what it might be like to start expressing your feelings and how to do so at the right pace. Advocate for your needs too. What are you looking for? Advice? Someone to vent to? It helps to be clear about how the other person can be useful to you, especially if they are not a mental health professional. A lot of times, it’s instinctive to jump in and try to fix someone’s feelings, but if this isn’t what you need, make that known up front.
Third, stumbling and fumbling is normal. This isn’t a performance art. It’s real life. I have found that if people give themselves the permission to be imperfect, they generally function better. And this is certainly the case with expressing feelings. So drop the ego. It’s imperative to create space for trial and error. Your ego will only distort this path.
Lastly, remember that men have real grievances too. Our culture tells us that our pain is trivial and that we really have nothing to complain about. Come on, that’s ridiculous. It’s the type of mentality that can lead to tragedy. The truth is we can still be masculine, still be tough, still be a man, and also pursue emotional health. We just have to run the experiment to find out for sure.
This is not intended to be political. I’m not trying to earn your vote or approval. I don’t care what your party affiliation is. I just want to address something that’s been on my mind and will likely be on more minds as climate change worsens.
Let’s first start with some facts. According to science, global temperatures are rising, oceans are warming, ice sheets are shrinking, glaciers are retreating, oceans are acidifying, sea levels are rising, extreme weather events are increasing, AND 99% of scientists agree that this is primarily caused by humans.
I don’t consider myself an alarmist or a conspiracy theorist or a doomsday prognosticator. I’m just a curious dude who likes to learn, and I can’t help but acknowledge this theme in the scientific literature: we, as a species, are in big trouble.
In addition, I’m also a counselor that wonders how climate change will impact our mental health. Afterall, so much of this is out of any ordinary person’s control, which our brains don’t like. Think of it like this: in order to have a chance at limiting the damage associated with climate change, humanity needs to be unified on a global scale around clear-cut, enforceable policies that lead to energy renewability and long-term environmental stability.
Unfortunately, as of now and for the foreseeable future, there is no unity, no clear-cut policies, and no realistic options to adequately address the problem. Not saying we are totally screwed, but time is running out.
The world is kind of like the Chiefs in the Superbowl, down by 10 in the fourth quarter, third and 15, without Pat Mahomes at QB, and significant disagreement on the play call and whether the scoreboard is accurate.
Again, the brain doesn’t like such uncertainty, especially when strategies are limited. Yeah, we can ignore the problem. Ignorance is bliss, they say. We can also join environmental groups, make life style changes, run for office, or educate ourselves and others. Clearly those are better strategies. But it still leaves us with a dire environmental forecast– one that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
If you’ve read some of my other posts, you may think, “but wait Scott, you’re the guy that writes about hope and staying in the moment and trees that withstand STORMS for heaven’s sake!” Yes, I’m still that guy. But this is a different kind of problem, and I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t at least a little rattled.
I won’t give up on mental health, though. That I can promise. Climate change may rattle us at times, but it also provides us with an opportunity to put our minds together, to think about our character, and to allow our better colors to shine through. Now this is a meaningful challenge.
I’m a big believer in the idea that mental health is not so much dependent on the situation as it is about how we respond to the situation (a central component in numerous psychological therapies). Sure, climate change is a beast of a situation, but the fundamentals of mental health remain the same. We respond to the situation with genuine concern and curiosity, not excessive worry and closed-mindedness. We control what we can control and embrace small victories along the way. We stay poised in the midst of chaos. And lastly, we don’t give up.
Maybe we solve this thing, maybe we don’t. But one thing is for sure; how we respond to the climate crisis is going to say a lot about who we are—as individuals, as a culture, as a species. So let’s orient ourselves towards progress the best we can, and do so with confidence and strength. Then, we stay in the moment, engage where we can, and see how far we get. Now that’s mental health, the best I can know it.
Philosopher Alan Watts once said, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” Watts was talking specifically about psychedelic drugs when he made this statement. His point was that these drugs don’t seem so bad, until they do. And when that happens, it’s time to shut it down.
What’s ironic about the quote above is that Alan Watts died at the age of 58 due to to alcoholism. This goes to show that not all drugs give us the same loud and clear message, which makes it difficult to know when to hang up the phone.
BUT if we listen more carefully, we might be able to hear the whispers. So let’s take a look at how the process often unfolds.
A major reason why people use drugs is because they work–at least for a while that is. Administer the substance however you choose, and usually within a relatively short time-frame, you at least feel different. And in most cases, you feel better for awhile. It’s nice if things would just remain that way, but that’s not how it works. As the high wears off, the desired effects become more difficult to attain, and undesirable effects become easier to attain.
There comes a point when our relationship with these chemical pleasures needs to be reconsidered in order to attain better health and wellbeing. Some users may have felt as euphoric as they are ever going to feel. Then, on top of that, a Mike Tyson hay-maker full of responsibility hits you square in the face. Damn, that punch can hurt, especially when you realize your favorite coping mechanism is no longer tenable.
Sometimes people need a full on rock bottom experience in order to realize they need to make some life changes, such as homelessness, jail time, an overdose experience, etc. However, the vast majority of individuals ebb and flow. They may have moments where they say, “I really need to quit doing this, or life may not turn out so well.” But once the effects of the hangover subside, they’re back to it.
After several of these cycles, one may begin to feel confused and anxious. If this is how you feel, your confusion and anxiety are appropriate. It likely means that you want more out of life, but you have yet to properly address that most important endeavor. I don’t mean to get too morbid, but this is where the “deathbed technique” can be really beneficial. Imagine you will soon die, and you are spending your last moments reflecting on the quality of your life. How do you want to look back? Did you step up, make some changes, and work towards health, wellbeing, and fulfillment? Or not? The responsibility is yours.
That stated, I don’t mean to over-emphasize individual responsibility here. I agree that severe addiction often fits a disease model, and these cases should be addressed within this framework. Depending on the level of severity, some people may require a combination of replacement therapy, pharmaceutical interventions, inpatient treatment, and daily group meetings (AA/NA). Undoubtedly, the concepts of control and responsibility have significantly less relevance in these cases. My intention is not to undermine this reality, but rather, call attention to the situations where responsibility is a therapeutically useful tool.
Ideally, we just wouldn’t use drugs (yes, alcohol is a drug too). But the truth is that most of us are going to use substances at some point. Some people may be able to easily moderate, while others of us will struggle. For the latter group, the drug isn’t going to seem so bad, until it does. Then, things get real, and the big questions in life will start demanding more attention. Maybe it wasn’t quite clear before because, well, drugs can fool us. But now it might be time to address the problem and make changes. Yes, it will feel uncomfortable, but only for a while. Not forever. Embrace this challenge and get help if you need it. Your life is worth it.
Backstory: I have pages of writing– most of which I am unlikely to show anyone. I suppose that’s called journaling, and I’d highly recommend it. Well as I was reading through my old stuff (it’s really fascinating to track your ideas over time), I stumbled across a poem I wrote about a tree in my parent’s backyard that was hit by a microburst. Even though this happened when I was in high school, the image of this tree, of all things, carved out it’s own unique place in my memory. So years later, in the fall of 2013 to be exact, I felt the urge to write a poem for a little personal inspiration. Anyway, I thought it might be worth digging out of the archives (admittedly, with a few revisions) and sharing with others. So, here it goes. Enjoy.
The tree withstood the storm
yet appearance indicated otherwise
severed across the center
half of what it used to be
deep beneath the dirt
beyond the surface of the earth
its roots remained wise
relentlessly pumping nutrients
or any foreseeable direction
life would not be deterred
indeed the tree was broken
but it was also strong
like a sloth
possessed the illusion of stillness
its beauty need not return
for it was already there
the force of renewal
tested by a tempest
with an instinct to endure
the why lives in silence
just ask the tree
the tree that withstood the storm.
When I was in grad-school, I had a group therapy instructor who was from Taiwan. The course content was interesting in of itself, but what made the class even more fascinating was my instructor’s unique cultural perspective. I specifically remember her talking about how she had never heard of someone being concerned about “sounding stupid” until she moved to the United States in her early 20’s. For the first few decades of her life, it had never dawned on her to worry about how she sounded when she talked, nor did it occur to her that others ever did so either.
The whole idea of sounding stupid simply wasn’t a part of her cultural upbringing, and when she first heard it being expressed in the U.S., she thought there was some sort of break down in translation. But there wasn’t. The words could be translated literally, which baffled her. How terrible, she thought, to worry about whether you are sounding stupid, smart, or somewhere in between. Her approach was to say what’s on her mind, be willing to make mistakes, and be thankful for the interaction.
As an American, I was all sorts of twisted. I couldn’t believe that the fear of sounding stupid was a cultural construct. It seemed like it was a natural part of the human condition. Nope, not the case. It was a cultural message that I had picked up and internalized, and for the first time, I realized that if I happened to be born in a different part of the world, this fear may have never crossed my mind.
It’s probably been 7 years or so since I took that course, but I still think about that particular lecture from time to time. To this day, I really appreciate my instructor’s refreshing perspective about saying what’s on your mind and being willing to make mistakes, but in the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, I want to narrow the focus to that last piece of advice—be thankful for the interaction. In fact, I think this might be the remedy to the “sounding stupid” phenomenon.
It seems quite obvious to me that the fear of sounding stupid stems from performance anxiety, social comparison, and excessive self-criticism. No wonder why anxiety disorders are on the rise and people feel more isolated than ever before. But we can work through this. We just have to figure out a way to think about human interaction differently, which is where gratitude comes into play.
Consider this. Instead of being so concerned about how we sound, what if gratitude was on the forefront of our minds when interacting with others? To lead with a sense of thanks would fundamentally alter our social experiences. It would take the edge off and reduce our need to sound smart, be liked, or to make the perfect impression. It would help us listen more and free up mental energy so that we are more likely to say what we want, how we want.
All we got to do is be thankful for the interaction! Okay, maybe I’m oversimplifying this. Then again, maybe not. Some may wonder what there is to be thankful for. Here are some ideas: to hear someone else’s perspective, curiosity, the opportunity to express yourself, to learn about someone else, the sharing of minds, another human being taking interest in you, etc. The list could go on and on.
So, here’s an experiment to try. The next time you interact with someone, approach the conversation with a sense of gratitude, and pay attention to what happens. Does the pressure fall away? Do you feel less constrained? Or maybe nothing at all? Regardless, give it a shot. Just for fun. If it works, we might be on to something.