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We are long overdue for an upgrade on our concept of masculinity.
When I came home from Europe last summer, I was overwhelmed by the number of news stories about men, primarily (but not exclusively) white American men, who had difficulty experiencing their feelings—often with disastrous consequences.
On July 10th, 2015, state trooper Brian Encinia pulled Sandra Bland over for the most minor of minor traffic violations. He wrote her a warning, and when returning to give it to her, asked her to put out her cigarette. That was where the trouble started. Bland was not overflowing with respect for the policeman: you could hear it in her voice. The problem was that Encinia had no way to deal with his emotions. Just a flicker of feeling disrespected threw him into a vast chasm of unmet feeling. Within seconds, he was out of control, dragging Bland out of her car. She died in jail three days later.
More or less the same thing happened to University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing. He pulled over Sam DuBose for a missing license plate. But the same story unfolded. DuBose was friendly, not violent in any way, guilty only of not bowing down to the this man’s fragile sense of self-importance. So Tensing did what so many other men like him have done before: he shot the man, who he felt was disrespecting him, in the head.
Then we were all introduced to the strange world and psyche of Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. Besides drilling teeth, Palmer is fascinated by wildlife. He loves to travel to far away countries, like Zimbabwe, and to seek out exotic and majestic animals—like Cecil the Lion, the pride and joy of the Hwange National Park. When faced with an animal with this much beauty and grace, Palmer shot and wounded the lion, then stalked it for 40 hours. Cecil limped through the savanna in excruciating pain, before Palmer finally killed him, cut off his head and removed his skin.
I was a little stunned when I read this story, because there is nothing I can find within me that could possess me to do anything like this to another living being. I had to ask myself, what would somebody be feeling, or experiencing, to possess them to act in this way?
Then the answer hit me fair and square: Nothing. These men were unable to truly feel.
You can only do something like that if you have completely lost your capacity for feeling. A man who has become emotionally numb must go to greater and wilder lengths to try and feel anything at all.
And finally, in a brazen and very loud display of masculinity in desperate need of an upgrade, we were all presented with huge doses of the Donald. He was everywhere, screaming insults at Latinos, war veterans and women. Nearly a year has passed and he is still screaming those same insults. The only difference is that now, he is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
When a man cannot feel what is going on inside himself, he also cannot feel what is going on inside other people. The result is a total lack of empathy or sensitivity. Just imagine for a moment, the damage that could happen if a man like that became the leader of our country. Just imagine.
John Gray, the author of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, and I have just completed a new book called Conscious Men. It’s all about the upgrade to a different kind of masculinity. All of these news stories have reminded me just how timely and welcome this upgrade is. Here is an excerpt from the new book, all about what happens when a man restores his capacity to feel:
The greatest barrier that a man carries to opening his heart and loving deeply is the wounding left over from his past. Probably the most relevant relationship that a man has to deal with is his relationship with his mother. She may not have paid enough attention, ridiculed him for his achievements, been emotionally abusive, out of control, or terrified him as a child. All of those things will affect not only the way he relates to a woman later in his life, but it will affect the way he relates to the world in general. Whenever a stimulus arises that in any way reminds him of these old and forgotten situations from his past, it will reactivate them, and then he shuts down.
The key is awareness. Whatever affects you from the past, that you are not aware of, will run your life. If your mother was emotionally erratic, or even alcoholic, and went through a huge emotional roller coasters that terrified you, you learn to shut down, to freeze and protect yourself. Later, if your wife or a co-worker expresses strong out-of-control emotions, you will instinctively freeze and restrict your freedom for appropriate generous action, for doing the right thing. When we become the kind of man who freezes or isolates himself in the presence of strong feelings, we become weak and afraid.
The Conscious Man has to relearn that feelings pass quickly. They appear briefly, and then they are gone. Most of us, as men, not only carry feelings from the past, but we also carry conditioning for how to deal with these feelings. Your mother or your father may have given you messages like, “You shouldn’t feel that… Big boys don’t cry… Well behaved boys don’t get aggressive… or revengeful. Happy healthy boys don’t get moody…” Equally, either parent may have tried to buy you out of what you were feeling. “Don’t cry, son, let me give you an ice cream.” Either way, most men did not adequately learn that when they don’t get what they want, feel sad, frustrated, angry or disappointed, that those feelings will go away very quickly.
A man who has lost his capacity to feel, moment to moment, will inevitably have a limited capacity to empathize with what other people are feeling as well. Hurt people, who cannot feel their pain, tend to hurt other people. When a man is not aware of what he is feeling, he tends to diminish it, to ridicule it, to put it down and then to seek for action-oriented solutions, instead of simply feeling the feeling and allowing it to pass. The more he is not aware of his own pain, the more difficult it is to hear the pain of another. He wants it all to go away quickly.
As men and women have come to blend the traditional roles from a few decades back, this is now a much greater challenge for men than it is for women. When a woman is under stress, some studies have shown that she has eight times more blood flow to the emotional part of the brain. The limbic system is bigger in a woman. So she has a much greater capacity to feel and to express feelings.
This can easily lead to a ping-pong match of distrust. If a man has a limited capacity to feel, he tends to also diminish or ridicule his partner’s feelings. As soon as a woman senses that she is not welcome to express what she is feeling, she loses trust. She becomes critical. The man then seeks to defend himself against the criticism, to argue with the logic of what she is saying. She hears this is a further invalidation of her feelings. She becomes even more critical, he becomes even more defensive. This is how most conflicts erupt between a man and a woman: they egg each other on in a spiral of distrust.
As soon as you even begin to learn, as a man, how to recognize what you are feeling, how to label it and communicate it, it breaks the cycle. Your ability to feel cuts through the need to take action, or to defend yourself based upon logic. When she criticizes you, you can experience a fleeting sensation of deflation, take a breath, and let it go. There is no need to invalidate what she is feeling, you can listen, and accept it as it is. Arguments last for a few minutes, and quickly turn into laughter, instead of a painful standoff that can last for hours or days. As soon as you begin to learn how to feel again, pain becomes a motivator for transformation, it becomes a positive loop. The more you can feel, the more your pain informs you of what you need to adjust in your life, the more you can put your life in balance, and the less pain you need to face.
Sounds good? It is.
Author: Arjuna Ardagh
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Image: Iwan Wolkow/Flickr
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