June 12, 2014
Men: The feeling-wound
By popular request I am republishing this series on men,
The Four Wounds, which first appeared here four years ago
and elicited the most comments of anything published
in Monkeytraps. Third of four parts.
So the typical man loses his mom, and then he loses his dad.
And these losses leave him with a pile of painful feelings.
And, if he remains typical, he probably carries these feelings around inside him, unhealed and unconscious, for the rest of his life.
Because of the third of the four wounds.
Loss of feelings is the wound most obvious to therapists. Most men arrive in my office unable even to identify what they feel, much less express it.
But they don’t come to therapy for help with feelings. They come the way you go to a dentist when a toothache gets intolerable. Their symptoms — anxiety, depression, addictions, ruined relationships, chronic anger, a pervasive sense of despair or bewilderment — have simply become too painful to bear.
And then there are other problems that flow from the same wound.
~ American men, on average, live for five years less than women do.
~ They have twice as many vehicle accidents, twice as many fatal heart attacks, three times as many deaths from injuries, twice the deaths from liver disease.
~ Over 90 percent of convicted acts of violence are perpetrated by men, and men account for over 70 percent of the victims.
~ Over 90 percent of prison inmates are male.
~ In schools, 90 percent of kids with behavior problems are boys, as are more than 80 percent of kids with learning problems.
~ Men and boys commit suicide at five times the rate of girls and women.*
Despite all this pain, it takes real courage for a man to enter therapy. He’s been taught since boyhood that needing help means he’s failed, somehow, at manhood. (He is not taught that such failure is inevitable.)
Loss of feelings is the main complaint women make of men. I could retire tomorrow if I had a nickel for each time I heard a wife or girlfriend complain “He never tells me what he feels.” But most women misunderstand the problem. They seem convinced that men know what they feel, and simply choose to withhold it. They don’t realize that the blank look a man gives you when you ask how he feels isn’t dishonesty or secrecy. It’s ignorance.
The fact is, most men wouldn’t know a feeling if it bit them on the butt. Ask a man what he’s feeling and he’ll tell you what he thinks. Poke through his answer for some hint of one of the four basic emotions — mad, sad, glad, scared — and most of the time you’ll end up as clueless as when you began.
But he’s not lying. He’s not even hiding. He’s numb.
He learned to numb himself long ago, in self-defense. Maybe it began the first time he got hit in the face by a basketball, and his eyes filled with tears and his teammates saw the tears and giggled. Lesson 1 for all boys is: Bite your lip, suck it up, or you’ll be sorry. You learn this fast if you want to survive boyhood.
But if you hide your feelings regularly enough, eventually the day comes when you forget where you put them. So many of us go through life in a state of emotional numbness.
And others of us can identify one feeling only: anger.
Now, men’s anger has legitimate roots. Behind all anger is pain, and men’s wounds produce plenty of that. But being forbidden to acknowledge (even to recognize) emotional pain as such — or to relieve that pain by grieving or crying or talking — leaves many men condemned to a sort of chronic, lifelong pissed-offness.
This, of course, has other consequences.
Many men misunderstand why they’re so angry, and unfairly blame their jobs or their wives or their children. Often their anger scares away those they most love, increasing their loneliness and desperation. Finally, they may believe they have no right to be as angry as they are, which leaves them guilty and trying to conceal it.
As a result most angry men face a lose-lose choice: (a) act out your anger (and risk ending up isolated, divorced, fired or arrested), or (b) hold it inside (and get anxious, depressed, drunk, stoned, or workaholic).
A song lyric reminds us, You have to be carefully taught. Most men are carefully taught to never answer the question of feelings.
Most of us are taught to never even ask the question.
Next: The freedom-wound
ed by Bill Moyers for the documentary “A Gathering of Men.”