Why men hide their truest selves

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This blog post is not for the faint of heart.  While it is not intended to offend, I suspect that it will make some folks uncomfortable.

The following video starts off with offensive language. It’s not cool. It’s a short video, though and if you stop watching it before the end of it’s 2 minute entirety, you will have missed an important message.

Never has a spoken word brought me from annoyed offensiveness to tearful compassion so quickly and profoundly.

The message of this video has been on my mind for days:

 (warning:  this video may be triggering for some)

This says something important about male sexual abuse.  It says something about sexual abuse in general (trust me, when I say in my experience, that the most painful part of any sexual abuse is the betrayal of the victims body as it responds to the unwanted touch in reflexive ways that are confusingly and horribly arousing and incredibly shaming).

And it says something important for and about men.

We live in a culture that when men acknowledge pain, they are also acknowledging weakness.

And for a man to seemingly acknowledge weakness…well that’s just about the worst thing a guy can do in our culture.
As a guy, if you want to fit in, you have to hide your pain. Quote by Andrew Bailey. Poster by Bergen and Assocaites Counselling in Winnipeg

Whenever my graduate students were going to do interviews with men, I told them to prepare for three things: high school stories, sports metaphors, and the word pussy.  If you’re thinking that you can’t believe I just wrote that, I get it.  It’s one of my least favourite words.  But as a researcher, I know it’s important to be honest about what emerged, and that word came up all of the time in the interviews. It didn’t matter if the man was eighteen or eight, if I asked, “What’s the shame message?” the answer was “Don’t be a pussy.”

Brené Brown,

Daring Greatly, page 92

Is it any wonder that many men who have had experiences of violation/woundedness of any kind in their past often don’t tell anybody?
  • sexual abuse/molestation
  • death of a sibling/parent as a child
  • a disengaged parent–alcoholism, workaholism
  • being bullied, made fun of, belittled at school and not accepted as “one of the guys”
  • being mocked or teased by their dad
  • __________ (insert experience here–I’m not a guy, and I’m not gonna pretend to know what should all be here)
Can you imagine what it would be like to carry the weight of a terrifying/violating/intrusive/excrutiatingly painful experience that feels awful to remember? Can you imagine what it would be like to contemplate telling that horribly painful secret to another and imagine that the anticipated likely response would be teasing/mocking/belittling?
Yeah, I wouldn’t tell either.
It’s not uncommon for men to see me for a few sessions about pressure at work, or to discuss how their wives have ordered them to counselling to “learn to communicate”…and then get to a point that is decision making time.
And decision making time is about deciding if they stop coming to see me…because to go any farther would inevitably mean talking about the deep dark secret they have held…the unspoken reason why they drown themselves in work, or why they won’t open up, or how it makes sense to go numb in front of one sports game after another with one beer after another.
Some guys simply aren’t able to open up about it, fearing judgement, criticism and labelling as “weak”. After all the cultural programming they have received for all their lives, I quite respect their decision.
Some guys go where they have never gone before.  They are brave and courageous and tell the stories, bracing themselves against what they fear…and finding relief in the telling that they love, but almost dared not hope for.  They fear that their stories won’t be compelling, that the therapist won’t get how painful it was, and they will talk against themselves in session doing the minimizing before the therapist has a chance to respond.
What a man can’t know, before talking to a therapist, is that we therapists have been given enough windows into a man’s world to understand the shame and humiliation men experience from their silent stories, and are aware of how many men spend enormous amounts of (conscious and/or unconscious) efforts trying (relatively unsuccessfully) to not have those stories matter.  And we are incredibly aware of the courage that must be called upon to share one’s deepest self with another. And we respect that.
Fact is, the effects of those experiences not only matter, they often threaten to hijack a man’s life through the length of the efforts made to avoid allowing those experiences to bubble up.
Men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak. Quote by Brené Brown. Poster by Bergen and Associates Counseling in Winnipeg
To struggle is to be human.  But all too often, to struggle is to be labelled as less than strong…i.e. weak. That’s not fair…because to engage in the struggle–to name it and lean into it requires courage.

It’s time to have conversations about how to create spaces that allow men to acknowledge their pain and vulnerability in a way that isn’t shaming.  In a way that acknowledges their humanity. In a way that connects them with others even when, or perhaps, especially when they speak of that which has them feel most vulnerable.

**Women…if your partner/husband/boyfriend pulls you over to read this, or emails you this link, know that it is his silent plea to ask you to figure out with him about how to create a space in your relationship for him to be real…for him to acknowledge his soft spots, his hurt spots, the hidden places of roundedness.  He wants to be more open with you, but first he needs to know that you will not abandon or reject him for being vulnerable, that you will continue to see him as a worthy partner, and that you won’t be repulsed or frightened by him acknowledging areas of struggle.

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