THE LOGIC OF GOING THERE: MEN AND EMOTIONS
Have you had a Michael Monday? Boy, are they good for the Soul. Basically I’m talking about a good old-fashioned cry. They don’t have to happen on Mondays; that’s just the day a client of mine named Michael had his routine weekly appointments. Michael taught me what most every male client, gay or straight, has taught me over the last 15 years of being a psychotherapist: The logic of going there.
Michael would walk into my office, plop down on the couch and peer out at me through the eyes of a 10 year old boy that just so happened to be currently carried around in the body of a 30 year old, hyper-masculine, fully gym-bodied gay man. In order to avoid dealing with his sexual orientation in high school, he played football, ran track and wrestled. In what can only be regarded as drastic measures, he enlisted in the army after high school in a further attempt at not being gay. He then became a fireman and married a very nice young woman with whom he had a son. The perfect picture of a masculine man of the late 1990’s, until it all came crashing down around his biceps when his fellow fire fighters discovered that he was gay and drove him from the station house. After his divorce he spent 4 years drinking and tricking until his masculine body was as battered from denial as the sweet little gay boy inside him.
After years of stigma avoidance, Michael decided he was ready for therapeutic help, but wasn’t quite ready to buy into it all the way. “I just don’t feel comfortable losing it,” he would say when we would talk more directly about the need to explore his feelings. He had all the insight in the world, but feelings made him bury his head in the sand. “Michael, you have been a fireman and a soldier,” I said. “By all accounts you have conquered the fear of physical pain, why are you afraid to feel emotional pain?” He responded, “I guess I just don’t see the logic of going there.”
Men struggle so valiantly to be what they believe is a “real man.” Real men don’t cry, get confused or feel vulnerable. Real men kill things and drag them back to the cave to feed the family. Real men compete for success and can only win if another man loses. The culture drives home the “boys don’t cry” code of living so thoroughly that men don’t even know what emotions may be lurking under their chronic irritation or empty feelings. In other words, men have been suckered into being less than fully human. Michael was no exception.
"Michael, you are able to relate stories from your childhood when you felt different from other kids; when you felt lonely and alienated. You remember the time when your father, intent on divorcing your mother, left the house when you were five years old. You remember how scared you were that he might never come back to you and you thought it was because he didn't love you. You felt abandoned. You even remember times when it was your mother who told you to stop crying. Remember when she dropped you off at kindergarten for the first time and you felt scared to be left alone with out her? Your father had just left and she told you it was time to grow up and be a man. You were five years old for pity's sake and all you wanted was some sense of security. You told me all these stories because you made the connections that they may be relevant to how your life is going in the present. But you tell me these stories blankly, like you are your own personal historian. How do they make you feel?"
Shifting nervously on the couch, Michael would stare at me impatient with both of us. "I just don't see what the past has to do with the present, it's not like I can go back and do it over. What's the point of crying over these things now?"
I can feel Michael's sadness as clearly as I can see how blank he experiences his internal self. Now it is my turn to be impatient; not with Michael, but with myself. Here this man has been traumatized about his emotions, all he needs is some wise ass psychotherapist beating him up because he cannot access the painful feelings associated with some of the worst times in his life.
After scolding myself for being so thoughtless, I remember that I too am only human. And in my humility I turn to one of my psychoanalytic heroes, D.W. Winnicott. Winnicott tells us that which we are most afraid of has already happened to us. This is heady stuff! When we are children, our emotions are less modulated by more mature defense mechanisms. They are quite dramatic and lead to equally dramatic fantasies of being abandoned or annihilated. As adults we look back and know we were never truly in any danger and so we forget how traumatizing it was as a kid. However, early trauma cannot be rationalized away by an adult assessment of past realities.
To understand the blankness Michael and others feel we have to understand the concept of "multiplicity of the mind." This ten-dollar phrase made up by those in my profession who wish to make it as difficult to understand as possible, are really obscuring a very simple human reality. It just seems to be the case that we are all made up of parts. Freud postulated 3 parts; Id, Ego and Super-Ego. More contemporary thinkers believe we may be made up of many different parts, maybe even hundreds. Think about a time when you wanted to see a movie and said to someone "part of me wants to see an action-adventure movie, but another part of me wants to see a drama." This language speaks very eloquently about the fact that different parts inside of us may want or feel very different things all at the same time.
In psychotherapy, I believe that every age we have ever been lives on inside of us as parts. Thus we have an infant part, a toddler part, a child part, an adolescent part and so on. When these parts got what they needed from their parents or the world, which is too say they were supported and validated, they then become integrated into a more cohesive self. We are then able to maintain a sense of continuity of who we are as we act in the world, as opposed to constantly being pulled to and fro by various parts in need of attention. When more fully integrated, we can call upon our various child selves when we need to play or let our imaginations run wild. We can also call upon our adolescent self when we want to question authority in a healthy way. However, when we experience trauma as children, those parts of ourselves freeze up. They do not have the adult ability to accurately gauge the real level of threat or to muster the necessary defense mechanisms to keep from feeling overwhelmed with fear, shame, confusion or terror. These parts stay frozen and do not integrate into the more cohesive adult self. Instead they stay split off and remain frozen in fear or shame even as the rest of the self grows into an adult.
Here, then, is the logic of going there. No rational adult would allow a young child to go on crying in fear or shame without trying to comfort that child. Yet, that is exactly what we do every time we ignore our own internal children by doing all we can in an effort not to "lose it." In reality, when we turn inward to our internal children and nurture them with a quiet, loving embrace, we have not lost anything. Rather, we have found our Self/Selves at deeper levels and are afforded the ability endowed in all human beings: the ability to self-heal. Just as an adult may soothe the hurt feelings of a child, we can soothe our own hurt children with psychic hugs by allowing ourselves to empathically feel their feelings. When we cry, they are allowed to cry in the arms of a caring, supportive adult. To cry, then, is to love our selves.
With this understanding it is easy to see the folly of telling young male children that boy's don't cry. To cry is to be strong enough to weather the slings and arrows of existence in a healthy way. And when we feel the depths of human pain, we also open ourselves up to the heights of joy as well. The kind of all encompassing joy we might see in the laughter of a young boy at play.
Eventually, Michael courageously scaled the wall that separated him from his hurting child parts and learned how to empathically connect with them.
Boy, did he cry.
He worried he would never stop.
In time, however, he discovered that not only did the tears start to come much less often, but he had gained a new, healthy sense of play in his life. No longer did he drink and trick as if it were a matter of life and death. Instead, he learned to play like there was no tomorrow. And while he continues to work out, it has ceased to be a way of avoiding the stigma of being gay by creating the outward appearance of masculinity. It is also no longer part of the deadly serious game of attracting men. It is a fun past time and a way to keep him connected to the healthy aspects of athletics. Now when he plays it is more about the joy of playing rather than needing to win to avoid the literal agony of defeat.
And speaking of men; my man Michael has also found love. It seems his outward masculine shell only served to keep him from really connecting with another man in truly intimate ways. Now he can cry in his lover's arms and allow himself to be comforted by another man, as well as be the one who comforts when his partner is sad. During his last session he told me how strong his love was for this man. How they wrestle like school-boys and goof around like kids, but also how they have committed to an adult relationship where truth and love bind them together. Michael has found a man with who he can be a man and a child. Michael has found himself. I couldn't be more happy for him.