Growing up in a military family in the United States, there were many complicated family dynamics and difficult circumstances which emerged for me; and knowing how to respond to these experiences felt very confusing. On one hand, I was experiencing anxiety, shame, manipulation, sadness, rage, and humiliation; and often wanted to weep and be cared for. But on the other hand, there were so many messages around me that told me how "a real man" would respond.
A "real man" would:
Toughen/harden up; and only show anger to assert some form of respect or dominance.
Displace any "bad" feelings into fueling performance in sports.
Prove that he can handle it.
I had a lot of different friends growing up who's parents were in the military as well, and I felt a sort of pressure, to think of my experiences as a sort of badge: "Look what I went through, and I didn't cry!" It felt good to be around other guys who saw me as tough. I remember one night where I explicitly thought to myself, "I can choose whether or not to be sad right now." From there on, I suddenly began feeling even more pride over my ability to be "emotionally tough." I would heavily identify with different characters in movies who I thought were like me too.
It felt good to be around other guys who saw me as tough.
And while all of this was going on for me, I was still feeling an enormous amount of anxiety, shame, manipulation, sadness, rage, and humiliation. But it became much harder to identify what my feelings were, because I was so used to muting them or pushing them away. The consequence-- these unresolved feelings started coming out in the form of panic attacks, chest pains, sleeping problems, dissociative symptoms, and significant depression.
I had been encouraged to try therapy for years, but I kept saying no. I felt like, going to therapy meant telling myself and others that "I couldn't handle it anymore." That, "I wasn't tough." And I believed I could still handle it; and I liked seeing myself as tough.
I ended up accompanying a family member to therapy, where I believed I was there as a support. But then the therapist kept asking me questions, and it caught me off guard because, it felt really good for someone to be actively interested in my experience. So, I ended up booking individual sessions with the same counsellor.
While this type of story is not exclusive to men, there is a particular pressure from our culture which seems to brand men as people who are respected for being tough, invulnerable, and never crying. But this is outdated. Being a "man" does not mean one thing. A far more compelling story, I believe, is one that encourages people to be who they are (which is a much harder thing to do, I'd like to add).
As a therapist, something that I've been pleasantly surprised by is the fact that a majority of my clients are men. Not only does this give me a chance to connect with clients who may have a more similar experience to me, but it tells me that our cultural story is changing. If you're a guy and you've ever been curious about your therapy, I want to encourage you to book a free consultation with me and try it out.
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