Apparently us men don’t ‘do’ emotion. Well, that’s a load of bollocks isn’t it? Either that or I am totally out of touch at this point and am out of the ‘man club’ (OK, I’m prepared to accept that this could be a possibility).
Men show emotion all the time. Go to any football match (if you haven’t been priced out of it by corporate greed) and you will see a whole range of emotions on display – joy, fear, anger, sadness (I’m from the North East of England where the last of these is particularly prevalent). These are displayed by players and fans alike and when stakes are high the packed stadia are often referred to as ‘cauldrons of emotion’.It’s far too simplistic to say that men don’t do emotion. Of course they do. Maybe the real issue here is which emotions are considered socially acceptable for men to show, and in which contexts they are permitted.
When we use the word ’emotional’ to describe someone’s behaviour, what we tend to mean is crying, upset, suffering and sadness – things that signify vulnerability which, in turn, can be seen to represent weakness. Being ‘soft’.
Especially to men.
Piers Morgan recently caused a stir with his comment that he was not convinced by the new trend of ‘male public soul-bearing’ (unless presumably it is taking place on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories and is good for viewing figures).
In fairness I’m bound to take issue with Mr Morgan aren’t I, and not just because he’s a massive twat. Let’s face it, I’m not exactly averse to a bit of male public soul-bearing myself. That said, even I have my limits. I’m certainly no fan of the commodification of emotional pain, of the cynical exploitation of suffering and heartache or the use of tears as a marketing strategy designed to tug at the purse strings as much as the heartstrings.
But such cynicism shouldn’t be used as an excuse to pack our very real emotions away into some socially acceptable hiding place, because in denying our difficult, hurtful and uncomfortable emotions – those that leave us vulnerable – we deny our very humanity. And that isn’t good for any of us.
I’d consider myself a caring, sensitive person. I’m not afraid to admit that I will tear up to E.T. (and so will you, don’t try to deny it). But there have been many times in my life when I should have felt emotional but instead I felt numb. Times when the depth of emotion that ought to have been there somehow wasn’t, in situations and contexts where tears were both socially acceptable and the most appropriate emotional response.
Family funerals are an example. I have delivered a number of eulogies and been told by people that they didn’t know how I was able to do it whilst keeping my emotions in check. Of course I’ve shed tears following bereavement, yet on each occasion I felt that I should be crying far more given the nature of the loss. I even felt a certain guilt that I didn’t.
Another example is the birth of my first child. She was two weeks overdue and her birth followed a long labour. Having waited so long to meet her the very thought of her birth made me tear up, right up until the moment she arrived; when the moment came… not a wet eye in the house.
It seems I would feel things but not really feel them to the point that they were emotionally expressed. I never really questioned this, I just figured my emotions were stilted in some way but that didn’t matter, there’s worse ways to be. Right?
A time when I did cry – a lot – was when I was suffering from depression. However I wouldn’t consider this any sort of emotional response, let alone an appropriate one. At my worst I felt utterly broken inside and tears emerged from a void of true emotion, the tears that bled from my eyes formed from pure anguish and despair.
I reflect on all of this now because things are changing. I am changing.
Since beginning counselling a few months ago the work that I have been doing has unleashed a ‘shitstorm of emotion’. It’s something I’ve never felt before and, as is my nature, it has prompted me to reflect on things. And, as is my nature, to write about them.
The shitstorm has been unleashed via tearing off long-standing emotional scabs and exposing the wounds beneath. Facing, accepting, feeling and expressing these emotions is necessary for healing to take place. And yes, it leaves you extremely vulnerable and extremely raw. But this, my friends, is far from soft. On the contrary, as I have highlighted elsewhere, this is hardcore badass terrain that is being traversed (https://lovelaughtertruthblog.com/2017/07/11/a-pause-progress-and-a-pat-on-the-back/)
…there’s no getting away from the fact that there is a huge amount of resistance that has to be overcome to face this, and not just because it is painful.
Such emotion can carry with it a heavy dose of self-recrimination, frequent chiding of our ‘self pity’, our ‘self indulgence’; questioning the validity of our feelings when others are facing far worse in their lives, and often in the absence of the blessings that fail to cut through our own personal pain.
But our feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. They can’t be denied any more than we can deny that Piers Morgan is a…Sorry, forgive me. They can be denied no more than the nose on your face. Should we try to deny them, to repress them, they will find their expression somehow, someway and at sometime. When they do, chances are it won’t be pretty and it won’t be healthy, for both ourselves and/or for those that happen to be in our orbit when the time comes. In fact, emotional suppression can be very damaging indeed. Denying our emotional selves the expression that we crave can be just as bad for us as denying our physical selves the food that nourishes us.
I believe that this denial of our emotional selves is compounded hugely by social conventions that are maintained by the attitudes of the likes of Morgan, and the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality that stubbornly clings to the collective British psyche. With suicide being the UK’s leading cause of death for men under the age of 45 it is vital that we challenge this attitude.Thankfully there is a growing recognition of this, perhaps most notably apparent in the brilliant work being done by Princes William and Harry via their Heads Together project. Prince Harry has spoken powerfully and movingly about the repressed grief he has endured for decades following the tragic loss of his mother, and its personal cost.
Painful, vulnerable emotions make us uncomfortable. They are uncomfortable to feel and many of us are uncomfortable in the presence of the overwhelming emotion of others. So how do we become more accepting of them?
With compassion and empathy, those emotions that will naturally arise when we open our hearts to the suffering of others, and ourselves, with acceptance and love instead of resistance and fear. A place from which we can acknowledge the validity and necessity of our emotion.
With empathy and compassion for ourselves and others comes the true gift of emotional vulnerability: a true, deep and authentic connection with ourselves and others. We can share our deepest humanity. In that lies beauty and love, and in our love lies our greatest strength.I’m not advocating that we all start crying into our Costa coffee to strangers on the train, but we need to feel more able to accept and acknowledge our emotional vulnerability to ourselves and those that love us. For only then can we fully embrace our humanity and access our deepest strength, and only then will we be able to live and love fully and fearlessly.
We need to develop a culture in which we can be more honest about this. Recent tragic events in the news have lead to mass outpourings of love, compassion and care that reveal the true beauty that is at the core of the human spirit. We need to feel able to show the same love, compassion and care towards the personal trials and sufferings of ourselves and others, for at any given time many of us will be fighting our own battles in one way or another and there is no shame, no weakness in admitting that.
I believe that my recent experiences are helping me to become a more emotionally developed, more emotionally well rounded man. I believe that this will make me a better parent and, one day, a better partner. And I want my son, my sweet, sensitive little boy, to grow up in a society where those qualities that I love so much in him will not be knocked out of him. Where compassion, empathy and true, authentic emotion can be truly embraced as the strengths that they are, alongside the more obvious and traditional strengths that we rightly admire in our sons, fathers and brothers.
If crying was OK for Winston Churchill – that enduring symbol of the British bulldog spirit and indomitable will who ‘loved a good blub in Parliament’ – I’d say it was alright for me. And for you too.
1000 Oceans – Tori Amos