Harden up, don't be so irrational.
I often work with people who have a keen intellect and bring a high level scepticism with them to a session. These are “my people” in general. It’s not unusual for these clients to have a partner call to make the appointment for them first. Having someone to point out our blind spots is often our saving grace. Keen intellect or not, no one escapes socialised norms, including professionals like myself. As such the Australian-Male standard of stubbornness erodes the mental health of us all. Having some education about these issues I am at an advantage, but socialised norms work subconsciously and I’ll just find myself down the rabbit hole of self-sabotage before I know it. It is only after being thoughtless with my wife or careless while I’m driving that I recognise the complex web of rationale I’ve spun. It seems so water tight and convincing at the time. No one likes to admit they’re wrong, but if you come to a psychologist looking to change, you have to face that it’s likely you’ve misjudged a variety of things.
The masculine motto of, “I can work this out on my own” kills men regularly. Suicide is the highest killer of people in Australia between the ages of 18 and 44 ('Causes of Death’, 27 Sep 2017, Australian Bureau of Statistics, http://www.abs.gov.au/Causes-of-Death). The most effective relief of this issue is being able to open up, particularly to a professional or someone you trust. So the argument that “we didn’t talk about our feelings and we turned out OK” is a serious case of Survivor Bias. Survivor Bias refers to the phenomenon that the people that say “we turned out OK” are all the people that didn’t die. One of my more favourite recent quotes from Twitter User “Regular Gem” (@choplogic) is “These kids today are coddled and soft. When WE were young we never discussed our ‘feelings’ and WE turned out weirdly manipulative, short-tempered and resistant to self-examination”. It’s meant as a joke, but we are at a time in history where surviving doesn’t have to be the only goal, let’s make our society a more compassionate place.
A central focus that I take with men who struggle with expressing their own emotions is understanding their resistance to other people expressing themselves. We need to understand that being criticised or complained to is not the end of the relationship but a negotiation for a better one. Better than that, it’s the start of the process rather than just a negotiation. Outside of that active listening, we need to take more attention to the emotions within us. Don’t immediately shift the attention to the person that we claim caused that reaction. Emotions do not need to be defended against. Let them in, let them teach you something about your own vulnerabilities. Emotions are not managed if you ignore them. For example, if you’re angry then it is possible that that it is a secondary reaction and thereby a defence against someone making you feel vulnerable. You may have learnt to defend yourself from feeling at all. This helps us to avoid any change that might come from that vulnerability.
The idea of hardening up suggests taking the hard road, that accomplishment always involves suffering and that suffering is noble. Here’s a heads up; managing your emotions is far more difficult than ignoring them. Sitting within your own anger but still understanding that someone else’s perspective is as valuable as your own can feel like a monumental feat. It involves shutting your mouth and listening to the other person. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re losing power, or becoming a door mat. In some circumstances you can listen to someone, believe them and not do anything about it. However, if you can find the kernel of truth within their perspective and use it to change your behaviour and improve your life, then you are truly doing the hard work.