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Helping Boys to Heal

boy_2First a disclaimer. There are some men and boys who are not only able to talk freely about their emotions but also enjoy doing it. We don’t want to generally portray them as being totally different from women in the ways they do their processing. There are some men who really enjoy support groups and talking face to face with others about their situations. We need to honor these men just as we honor others that might have a different path. Our job is to see how the men and boys we love are unique. Does he enjoy to interact and discuss emotions face to face?  Does he emote freely? If so, then we have found his safe place and need to be with him in a manner that fits his nature. We talk about it. This is a win. Most men who enter therapy are able to talk about their emotions just fine. But they tend to have different ways to get there, even on a verbal level. Many men and boys, and some women and girls find this interactive mode more difficult. It is this population that this article seeks to address. These are the folks that have been misunderstood for too long. They have ways of processing that are significantly different from the default and it is our job to see if we can determine just where they do feel safe and offer them that safety when they need it. What we need to do is be as conscious and aware as we can.

It is also worth noting that there are very few people in our culture who are interested in listening to men’s emotional pain. Very few. The men described above who are more interested to process things verbally will often have to find and pay a therapist to hear them out. Even in therapy men’s pain faces discrimination with many therapists showing a bias towards listening to women’s complaints and emotions far more often then doing the same for men. Men are simply not accustomed  to others being sincerely interested in their emotional pain and will often assume that no one wants to hear it. This is often difficult for women to understand since the people in her world have likely been more open to her emotions and worries. With this in mind it calls us to understand that a part of the problem is our own lack of concern and our lack of practice in hearing a man’s, and boy’s emotional situation. Think about yourself. When was the last time you actively listened to the emotions of a man you love, asked open ended questions and just listened in response without judgement?

Let’s get to the topic at hand. How do we find a person’s safety? Let’s tell a story to get us started.

When my children were young I had the opportunity to watch very carefully the ways they found safety and then told their story.

When my daughter was little she would come to me and say “Daddy, I need special time.”  I knew just what that meant. She needed both a safe place and my attention. We would find two chairs that would face each other so we were face to face and she would proceed to tell me her stories.  “Oh Daddy, Suzy said I was fat.”  I would simply say, “Oh Julia” in a supportive tone.  Then she would switch to another dilemma.  “Daddy, Jill said she would never, ever, play with me again.”  Again, I would offer her a supportive “Ah Julia.”   After about 5 or 6 “Ah Julia’s” she would say, “Thanks Dad” and run out the door to play some more.  What was Julia doing?  She was setting up a way to feel safe, to get my attention and then to tell her story as I listened.  Very wise for a youngster and very effective. She knew how to get a safe place and then process her story.

Did my son do that?  Absolutely not.  Luke had a very different strategy.

When Luke would come to me and say “I want to wrestle” I knew that meant the same thing as Julia saying “Daddy, I need special time.” I would tell Luke that he better be ready for me. He was just a little guy of maybe 6 or so and we would both posture and huff and puff and then the wrestling would commence. He would have me down and then I would have him down and back and forth it would go. At an unexpected moment he would raise his head up and say something like, “Jimmy got beat up today at school.” I’d say “Was it bad?” And he would respond that it was that Jimmy had blood on his shirt. Then back to the wrestling as fast as we had stopped we were back at it again. Then a moment later Luke raised his head and said “I miss Grandaddy.” My father had just died a few months back and I would respond that I missed him too. Then as fast as we stopped we were back to wrestling.

Can you see what Luke was doing? He was telling his story, a very intimate and sad story, in his own way and it made it that much easier for him to tell it as we were wrestling. It’s important to note that there were many wrestling matches where he never opened up about something of great import. It wasn’t like wrestling was a feeling machine. No, it was just a time when it was easier for him to tell his story, a story that might be difficult to tell under other circumstances. By my wrestling with Luke I was giving him that safety. He could then choose to use it or not. It was up to him.

So our job is to keep our eyes open and see where our children or our loved ones find safety, a safety that allows them to open up and tell their story.

Where are these safe places for boys? Let’s have a look at a couple of them.
One example of a possible safe place is when young boys go to bed. When a parent is present to tuck him in it’s as if you are on the same team. He has the covers pulled up and feels all tucked in and likely feels safe. It is this moment that sometimes boys will tell you what is on their mind. Things are quiet, no one else is around, they have a sense of safety and all of these things create a safe place for him. He may not say a thing but then again he might. As parents we want to be there at times like this and be ready and open if he is interested in bringing up issues or problems that he is facing that he might usually not talk about. Be very aware of the possibility that he may bring things up in a very indirect manner. He may not start by talking about himself, he may start by talking about a friend who has problems. Listen closely and ask open ended questions.

Boys5A time that is similar to this is when boys come home from school. If you meet them as they come in the door and have a snack ready you are providing a safe place. I have seen this repeatedly. When boys first hit the door as they come home they will tell you everything! But you must be there the moment they come in. Ten minutes later and it won’t work. Most parents don’t have that luxury but if you can swing it I think you will find a time where he feels safe and will be more willing to tell you the stories of the day. Another thing to keep in mind is that boys will rarely want to tell the same story twice. If he opens up to dad when he comes home from school he may not want to repeat the same stories again. Dad will likely have to relay the stories directly to mom.

Yet another potential safe place for young boys is riding in the car. This one is much more tricky since there are a number of boys who find the car to be less then a safe place. But there are many boys who will tell you many things when just the two of you are riding in the car together. It’s a place they may feel safe. Think of your own son and whether this may or may not be the case with him.

We can expand our examples a bit by looking at where boys feel safe in an active mode. Often boys will feel safe doing something together like playing a game of catch with a football or throwing the frisbee. The focus of the event is the frisbee or the football. Just toss it back and forth and if a conversation pops up you take his lead. If not, then just enjoy the game of catch and the opportunity to do something together. I am sure that your list is getting longer with various activities like taking a walk, a back rub, doing yard work together, or just about any other shoulder to shoulder activity. Any of these can be a safe place for a young boy.

One more place that needs to be mentioned is video games. Boys generally love to be playing and striving to get to the next level. The world disappears and they become immersed in a new world. All too often his love for gaming can become a family struggle with the basic theme being that he is neglecting his school work and just about every other thing in his life. So how can this be leveraged as a safe place? In an interesting way. Ask him to teach you his game. I have recommended this tactic to many parents and even moreso to grandparents. They find that the boy is more then willing to help them learn the game and as he teaches it gives him the experience of being the expert, of being the one who knows, the one who is listened to and asked for advice, the one who is in charge. This is often a new role for the boys and they love it. Think hierarchy. He is now on top and you are on the bottom. His skills are valued and sought after. When boys feel they are at the top of the hierarchy they are much more likely to open up about what might be bothering them. Even if they don’t open up the experience for boys to be on top and have their opinion valued is a huge plus in his development
fortAnother idea for younger boys is to build a fort. Take the couch cushions and prop them up to make an enclosed space. Get inside the fort with him. It is very likely he will like this experience but it does more then just having him like it. It gives him a space with you where he feels very safe and contained. Bring a little snack into the fort. You might even get him to tell you a little story about your fort and what you and he are doing there. Is he protecting you? Is he the Commander of the fort? Get him talking about his story and through his story you will learn all about what he is thinking and feeling. Listen carefully.

The basic idea is to avoid the face to face talking, but instead go out and play catch, shoot baskets, take a walk, go fishing, anything that he enjoys doing that is active, moving, and shoulder to shoulder. Make the focus be the activity and the talking about things a side issue. As you are shoulder to shoulder ask questions that are indirect and not specifically about feelings. In other words, don’t just say, “How are you feeling about…” That sort of question might work well for a woman or a feminine type but it will tend to shut down the masculine. Much better to ask about what he is DOING.   Keep in mind that even the best question may not open things up for discussion and keep in mind that the purpose of your activity is to be together shoulder to shoulder. Talking about things would be a bonus.

By creating spaces where boys feel safe and boys feel valued you are building up the probability of his opening up about what might be bothering him. And if he doesn’t open up you have had some fun in the process and had an experience that you both will likely remember.

 

 

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Tom Golden, LCSW has written two books on the way men heal and has co-authored a third. Tom’s work has been featured in CBS Evening News, CNN, ESPN, The NFL Channel and many others. His latest book “The Way Men Heal” is available now at amazon as a kindle book. He offers online consults for women seeking to get closer to the men they love.  golden@webhealing.com

 

 

 

 

 

Ladies – How can you get emotionally close to the men you love?

This article is the first in a series of articles geared to help women get closer to the men and boys they love.  If you want more info on this topic you can see Tom’s new kindle book The Way Men Heal now available at amazon. Articles to follow will focus on the reasons men’s emotional pain is invisible, tips for getting close to men, getting close to young boys, and getting close to adolescent boys.

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pathLadies, how many times have you been frustrated to not be able to connect emotionally with the men you love?  Want to learn how to do that?  Keep reading.

The first thing to know is that there are a multitude of ways we deal with emotions.   What we want to guard against is the idea that “our” way is the “only” way.  If we get stuck in that sort of thinking we are in danger of not seeing the many ways that others might use.

What sorts of things help us when we have emotions? How do we help ourselves find balance? Many people, especially women, find talking about their emotions to be a top strategy, others see talking as something to be avoided. We know about the origins of this difference from the research of Shelly Taylor, PhD of UCLA. Taylor has helped us greatly in understanding that men and women have very different ways to deal with stress. She found in 2003 that nearly all of the previous research on stress had been done using male subjects.  Given this obvious bias, Taylor decided to find if women might have a different way from the standard “fight or flight” mode.  What Taylor found was that when stressed women don’t usually fight or flight, they instead, will “tend and befriend.”  When stressed, women are much more likely to move towards people and towards interaction. This is a remarkable difference and starts off our understanding of how men and women might have different ways to process emotions.  Taylor helps us see that women will be more likely to talk while men will be less likely to do so.

Why is it that talking and interaction helps many women heal?  The bottom line is that this is where they feel safe.  Those people who use the tend and befriend mode will usually find help in talking and interacting because this is where they feel safe. Think of your way.  When you are upset, do you look towards others for support? Are there certain people who help you feel safer and more likely to open up?  Are there certain places that help you feel safer and open up with that person?  The more you feel safe the more likely you will feel free to open up, right?  You will be sensitive to your own safety and seek interactions that fit your safety needs. When you find that safety you will talk about your problems and difficulties. This is a win.

Men are no different but their safe places are indeed different. Most men simply don’t find the interactive tend and befriend mode to be so safe.

In the late 1970’s when I first started working at a counseling center my clients were mostly men. I started finding that the things that helped women didn’t seem to go over so well with men.  I was taught in grad school to sit and face my clients and make good eye contact.  Worked like a charm with women.  It seemed to help them feel safe.  With men?  Not so much.  Rather then help them feel safe it seemed to be making them more tense.  It was only later that I found that eye contact for men (especially with another man) had the tendency to increase tension rather then help them feel safe.  Eye contact for men means something very different.  For men eye contact often  means competition or confrontation.  Think about it.  Hockey has a “faceoff,” boxers face each other, when men compete they “face” the other team.  it took me some time to realize this and also to see that men feel considerably safer not in a face to face mode but by being shoulder to shoulder.

Before we go a step farther we need to back up a bit.  The differences that Taylor found and others that we will discuss in just a minute are not black and white.  For many reasons, including both social and  biological ones, there are some men who process things more like women and some women who process more like men.  We are called to not pigeonhole either.  We are all very different and each person needs to be understood for their own unique paths.  I have found that about 20% of men are going to process things more like women (tend and befriend) and about 20% of women will likely process things more like the men.  There are, of course, many people who are a blend of the two.  It’s not a simple split.

With that said, it is more likely for women to tend and befriend but what about men? Where do men find safety?  If we knew that we would find it much easier to enter into their safe space, right?  After working with grieving and traumatized men for over 30 years I have slowly come to see some of these differences.

Exercise one — Think of the man you love. Where do you think he finds safety?  There are three basic places that people will find safety, Interaction, Action, and Inaction. Most of us will use all three of those but one will usually be primary and be more helpful than the other two. When he is stressed does he want to talk about things? (interaction) Does he move towards doing something? (action) Or does he isolate himself and get quiet? (inaction) Think of his way. You may want to talk with him about this when you see him. Just ask him where he feels safe and see what he says. You could even tell him what you do and where you fell safe when you feel stressed and ask him if that sort of thing works for him. It could prove to be a valuable conversation.

Men move towards action

In general, men tend to move more toward action or inaction but each man (and each woman) will be different and have different ways to find safety. We also know that men will find being shoulder to shoulder to bring more safety then being face to face. Men tend to get close to one another when they are on the same team and working towards a common goal. This is where men tend to relax and develop friendships especially if the situation is somewhat dangerous. Think of men who become close to each other, war time buddies, policemen who are partners, firemen who are at the same firehouse, players on the same team or even fishing together in a fishing boat all day. These are all places where men are shoulder to shoulder and taking part in an action together with a common goal. This is where men begin to feel close and it gives us a powerful clue about how we can get closer to them.

Once someone finds safety what is the next step? Think of what happens when you find your close friend, you have a safe place and you have time to interact. What happens? It’s obvious. You tell your story. There is something about telling the story that is healing and fulfilling. When you can get that story out and someone hears it you feel differently. Often we feel affirmed. These are the basic elements of healing that can be seen clearly in therapy or even a support group. Both therapy and support groups are built to help people feel safe and to then tell their stories.

path-oregThese two elements are the basics to how people heal from very strong grief and trauma. It has been my experience that these elements are also used for everyday sorts of emotional bumps and bruises but on a smaller scale. The human mind is built to listen to and tell stories and this is for good reason. Doing this helps us stabilize and find our center. People find safety and then they tell their story within that safety. When I first started working with men I assumed that everyone felt safe sitting face to face and that everyone would benefit from verbally telling their story. I was wrong. It took me quite some time to realize that the basics of safety and story were the same for both men and women but the specifics of safe places and the way the stories were told were very, very different. I began to realize that men often found safety in their action and then would use that action to tell their story. It was right there for me to see but I missed it due to my assumption that everyone healed in the same manner.

I can hear you now saying, “Wait a minute. How can anyone tell their story through their action? How does that work?” I can really understand this question since I struggled to understand it for years. Let’s take an example.

I worked with a man once who experienced the death of his teen son in a car crash.  The man was stunned and reeling. What he eventually did to deal with the chaos of such a massive loss, was to begin to write a book about his son.  He interviewed his son’s girlfriends, ex- girlfriends, teachers, friends, religious leaders, coaches and anyone he could think of that had contact with him.  After interviewing each person he would write up the interview as a section for his book.  The conversations the man had with his interviewees were not unlike what some others might have in a support group, or in therapy, but this man had the conversations as a part of his action, the action of writing the book.   The project was meant to honor his son and his son’s life.  The project also pulled the man into the future: should he have an index? How will he get it printed?  Distributed?  Who should he interview next?  The entire project became a way for this man to tell his story of his son, and his loss.  But rather then simply talking about it, he told his story through his action, the action of writing the book.  it was an action that honored his son and pulled the man into the future. During this action and interviewing his sons’ friends and talking about his son’s life how could he not experience the emotions of this loss? By honoring his son with his action he was telling his son’s story and his own story and experiencing the emotions that were a part of that loss.  How could he not?

Now, imagine you are this man’s wife.  How do you get emotionally close to him?  Would it work to simply sit with him face to face and say, “Honey, how are you feeling about our son?”  Probably not.  Much better to simply ask how the book is going. It’s a very good bet that he will be very willing and even interested in talking about the book. The latest thing he had discovered about his son from the son’s friends etc. Better yet, how can you help him with the book?  “Honey, maybe I can round up some pictures that you could use in the book?  Would that help?” Men sometimes deeply appreciate someone taking an interest in their healing actions and working with them shoulder to shoulder.  That is where men tend to feel safe.

I can hear you saying, “Well Tom, my husband does not write books.” And you would be correct. However, it is likely that your husband uses some type of action to tell his story and if you know how he does it you will be in a much better position to both understand him and connect with him. But how does he do it?

Exercise 2 – Think of the man you love and remember where he finds safety. Now think of what he does once he finds that safety. It is likely that he will move into one of four spheres, creative action, practical action, thinking action or inaction. The men I have worked with will generally have one of those that is their primary path to tell their story.

Let’s take just a second to observe these four types of healing action. It’s easiest to start seeing these by observing what men tend to do following a very strong loss. Here are some examples:

PRACTICAL ACTION – This is probably the most common path where men use some practical action as a vehicle to tell their story. Some men might dedicate their work, others might build a memorial or start a trust fund, still others might dedicate themselves to better parenting. Think of the NFL when a player on a team dies. What do these men do naturally and without direction? They honor their fallen comrade with an insignia or patch on their uniform and they dedicate their season (their action) in honor of the lost friend. Their play is now connected to their loss and the future becomes a way to remember this friend and to tell your story. But all of this happens through action, not just sitting in a circle and talking.

CREATIVE ACTION – Many people use creative action to tell their story. You can see this in men who use actions like painting, singing, sculpting, writing music, listening to music, and a host of other creative paths. How many symphonies have been written by men that were in honor of a loss?

THINKING ACTION – Some men write like the man in our example. Some journal, some study grief, some dedicate their learning, some philosophize.

INACTION – This is simply telling the story internally, in our own heads, by ourselves. Some will do this before going to sleep, others while driving, and some others while taking a walk. It can happen anyplace. You simply won’t see it unless they tell you about it. They are likely telling this story over and over again in their heads. Like the other three types of action this one is basically invisible. You can’t see it.
It is this invisibility that kept me from seeing the way men used action in order to heal. Men are very good at making their healing paths invisible. It is likely that you don’t know the first thing about how he does this. The next article will be on how men try to keep their healing invisible and the reasons they do this. When we can understand this basic idea we will be in much better position to see more clearly the healing actions they are taking.

Here is a summary of what we have done thus far:
1. Men feel safer in a shoulder to shoulder mode on the same team
2. Rather than interaction, men often use action or inaction to tell their story
3. Rather than the past, men use the future to tell their story
4. Honoring and rebuilding are the tools that are used

Tom Golden, LCSW has written two books on the way men heal and has co-authored a third. Tom’s work has been featured in CBS Evening News, CNN, ESPN, The NFL Channel and many others. His latest book “The Way Men Heal” is available now at amazon as a kindle book. He offers online consults for women seeking to get closer to the men they love.  golden@webhealing.com

Tips for Helping the Men You Love  

This is an excerpt from Tom’s ebook “The Way Men Heal.” This is a part of the section on tips for helping men. Links to purchase can be found on the right sidebar.

Entering His Space

800px-Bassboat1The first thing to keep in mind is to find some alternative to the traditional face to face talking about things mode.  Think about where he feels safe.  Maybe going for a walk together, or shooting baskets, or going fishing. If you don’t know how to shoot baskets or fish get him to teach you.  Going to a game together.  Simply doing something shoulder to shoulder. Being with him.  Women who are grieving like it when their friends or loved ones simply give them a place to interact.  Maybe the grief doesn’t even come up but the opportunity to interact is there and is appreciated.  Just as some women may not discuss their issues of loss in a conversation some men may not bring up their grief as you are doing something shoulder to shoulder.  Remember, two men can stay silent all day in a fishing boat shoulder to shoulder and at the end of day feel very connected and close.  They simply enjoy and are affirmed by each other’s company.  Keep that in mind as you join him in some shoulder to shoulder activity.

Honoring His Loss


You know now that those who heal in a masculine way are likely to use honoring as a preferred way to heal.  Just as you respect him by being with him in a shoulder to shoulder space you can now experiment with healing in a similar manner.  Find ways to honor his loss. If it was his father who died, it could be as simple as donating some personal money to a charity that the father loved.  Let him know you have made the donation. It’s very likely that he will deeply appreciate it and will let him know that you and he are on the same team, working towards the same goal of honoring his father.

Honoring can take many different paths.  You could tell him, “Hey!  I want to take you out to dinner in honor of your father” and go to his favorite restaurant.  He can then decline if he needs to.  It may be too much for him right now and that would be fine.  Honor his choice.   Or he can accept.  Allow him either way. But he now knows for certain that you are interested in honoring his dad and that will likely resonate with him.  If you do go out it can be an evening to honor his father.  As you eat you can enjoy each others company.   Stories and the associated memories about his dad may come up.  But keep in mind that the focus should be on the dinner and enjoying yourselves, not on the conversation about his loss.  If he chooses to talk about his loss that would be gravy.

You could do the same thing by going to a sports event.  “Hey, I am taking you to Friday night’s playoff game in honor of your dad.  I know how much he loved the game and we could enjoy it in his honor.” Be sure that the game is the focus and not try to make it into a therapy session.  Just enjoy the game together and if the topic of his dad comes up the all the better. Think fishing boat.

Being The One To Open Up


Remember that honoring can be an everyday experience.  It could be something very simple like:  “You know, I was thinking of your dad yesterday and remembering how good he was with the kids.  I do miss that and miss him.”  In this scenario you are the one who is opening up, you are the one who is taking the risk. and he can just listen.  By being the one to bring things up you offer him a certain safety. He can choose to respond or not to respond but no matter which he chooses, he will likely be touched by your honoring his dad.

Another variation on this theme is to tell him a story about the person who died.  This makes it safe for him to just listen.  Men tend to appreciate stories like this and as the story is told his own memories are coming up and being healed.  “I was just thinking the other day about the time your dad and I went to the… ”

When you tell the old story you are the one who is opening up.  This gives him a safe way to hear what is happening to you and to let that resonate in his own psyche.  Rather than pummel him with questions you simply talk about the way you are feeling.  This offers him a model and also allows him to not say a word but to simply listen.  What I have found is that when we open up, it gives the man more of a safe place and the likelihood of his joining in with the conversation goes up.  But even if he doesn’t open up he will likely benefit from simply hearing the story.

Remember that men like to keep some of their father’s possessions, particularly some of their clothing.  They wear it in his honor  and in some ways are bringing his memory into the future.  It’s a part of healing from loss and men tend to not make a big deal over it.  I have seen the mistake too many times of the woman saying something like “Why are you wearing that tired old hat?” This is shaming and condemning his effort to honor his father.  A much better statement might be, “Every time I see you wear that hat I think of your father.”  Feel the difference?

Talk About His Action, Not His Emotion

A friend of mine named Martin Brossman experienced the death of his father.  Both Martin’s father and grandfather were also named Martin Brossman making him Martin Brossman III.   After his father’s death Martin put up a Facebook page titled “The Three Martins” and used the space to honor his father and his grandfather with writing and videos including his eulogy he gave for his father.  If we were to want to check in with Martin about his healing would we ask him “Martin, what have you been feeling about your father’s death?”  Or would we say, “Martin, how’s the Facebook page coming?” It’s easy to see that asking about the Facebook page would give Martin lots of options on how to respond.  He could choose to focus on the page itself,  talking about the latest comments or the latest editions, thus keeping the conversation light. Or he could talk about his own emotions as they relate to the Facebook page and his father.  Talking about the Facebook page would make it easy for him to adjust the depth of the conversation.  This would offer him a great deal more “safety” then a direct question about his emotions.

In general, when you want to be of assistance to men who are healing you are better off  asking them about their actions rather than directly questioning their emotions.

 

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Tom Golden, LCSW has written two books on the way men heal and has co-authored a third. Tom’s work has been featured in CBS Evening News, CNN, ESPN, The NFL Channel and many others. His latest book “The Way Men Heal” is available now at amazon as a kindle book. He offers online consults for women seeking to get closer to the men they love.  golden@webhealing.com

Why and How do Men Keep Their Emotional Pain Invisible?

Why and How do Men Keep Their Emotional Pain Invisible?

For a much more detailed version of these natural paths for men and to see how they do actually heal and deal with their feelings you might want to check out my new and very inexpensive ebook The Way Me Heal.

Why is it that men’s grief is so invisible? What do you think?

mensbloginvismanThe first element that makes men’s grief invisible is the fact that our culture expects men to be independent and punishes men for being dependent. A dependent man is not seen as a “real” man. Is it any wonder that men avoid open expression of emotions? Here’s a quote from Peter Marin from an excellent article he wrote titled “Abandoning Men: Jill Gets Welfare–Jack Becomes Homeless”. Marin says: “To put it simply: men are neither supposed nor allowed to be dependent. They are expected to take care of others and themselves. And when they cannot or will not do it, then the assumption at the heart of the culture is that they are somehow less than men and therefore unworthy of help. An irony asserts itself: by being in need of help, men forfeit the right to it.” Exactly right Peter!

The second element that makes men’s grief invisible is how men are locked into their dominant sex role of provide and protect. When you provide and protect others, who is providing and protecting you? No one. You better tough it out and do it quietly. If you don’t, shame is coming your way.  The provide and protect role pushes men to help others but not think of  getting help themselves.

A third element that makes men’s grief invisible is our overall cultural taboo on men’s emotional pain. A man’s emotional pain is seen as a problem while a woman’s emotional pain is seen as a call to action. People tend to avoid and disdain men’s pain.  No one really wants to see it or hear it.  Men are acutely aware of this and act accordingly.

Try this short exercise to see if you may have some of this bias:

Imagine you are being seated at your favorite restaurant. As you are walking toward your table you see a woman at a corner table crying with her head in her hands. What is your first reaction? I have asked this question to thousands of people  in the workshops I give. The most frequent response is “She’s upset” ”Poor dear” ”She needs support.” Think of what your own response was. Think too of your raw gut reaction to seeing this woman crying. Now erase that image and start a new image. You are walking into the same restaurant and as you are being seated you see a man at the same corner table who is crying. What is your first reaction? Most people respond that they are very leery of him: “There’s something wrong with that man” “He must be drunk” or other phrases conveying the sense that this man needs to be avoided. How about you? What was your response to the crying man? What was your gut reaction? What was the difference in your reaction to the man and the woman?

A fourth element that makes men’s grief less visible is that men tend to live in a dominance hierarchy. We are all aware of the dominance hierarchy of the Big Horn Sheep with their head butting but few of us are aware that human males are now being seen as living within a similar hierarchy. Within this hierarchy the males strive for status in order to improve their reproductive success. Usually this is done in niches and small groups where males compete but it can manifest on a national or international level. The important point here is that men will strive to portray their best sides in order to insure the best possible placement within the hierarchy. Of course this also means that they will have ample reason to want to conceal “weakness” and “dependency” and that of course includes their more tender emotions.

Women may scoff at this since they don’t have the same experience in this sort of hierarchical arrangement….except for one spot, attractiveness. Women will tend to compete with each other in a hierarchy of attractiveness. Ladies have you ever tried to hide or conceal a part of yourself that you see as less attractive? If so, this is very similar behavior to men not wanting to publicly emote.

The last element that makes men’s grief less visible is their unique biology. The impact of men’s hormones and their likelihood of having a “masculine” brain both play into men’s processing of emotions. Men have about 10 times the testosterone as their female counterparts. This seems to play a role in the processing of emotions by limiting emotional tears and diminishing the man’s ability to articulate his emotions as he is experiencing them. Both of these qualities have been badly misinterpreted with men all too often being seen as cold and unfeeling.

Men’s grief is simply less visible. When people start to understand these differences they are in a much better position to not judge men unfairly. All too often men are expected to emote and process emotions in the same way that women do. Women are seen as the default and men who fail to compare to that standard are deemed deficient. We need to see each person as an individual and avoid the trap of expecting them to be like ourselves. We are all different. Viva la difference!

 

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Tom Golden, LCSW has written two books on the way men heal and has co-authored a third. Tom’s work has been featured in CBS Evening News, CNN, ESPN, The NFL Channel and many others. His latest book “The Way Men Heal” is available now at amazon as a kindle book. He offers online consults for women seeking to get closer to the men they love.  golden@webhealing.com

Understanding Boys

leaninpondBoys face a very different world then their sisters.  We are all aware of the socialization that goes on even today that encourages boys to be a certain way.  William Pollack did a great job of laying out the many ways we socialize our boys in his best selling book Real Boys.  Be tough, be strong, don’t cry, never hit a girl and on and on.  Girls simply do not get a similar message.  Ever heard someone say to girls “never hit a boy?” I would bet not.   Slowly many people are starting to see this sort of sexism and are working to be more fair in their messages sent to boys.  Even with this, the tide is very strong.  Thoughtful parents may be able to control some of this at home but our boys are still getting this sort of message in public.  Not only that, there are other messages that we give our boys that many are not even aware of.  Here’s one.

 

SOCIALIZATION

It’s called the first separation from mother.  At about 2-4 years old the boy goes up to mom and puts his hand on her breast just as he has been doing for as long as he can remember.  But this time she takes his hand off and tells him not to do that!   The boy is dumbstruck.  Mom says “You can’t touch me there.” And he says back “But Suzie touches you there.” Mom says, “Suzie’s a girl.”  This doesn’t make sense to him. Simply because he is a boy he has been denied access to  his mother. He finds he can’t take baths with mom or even be in the bathroom with her.  He can’t do the stuff he has previously done to get close to mom.  He is cut off. This is a confusing time. He is now more alone and has to find new ways to get close. Most boys are disoriented by this but in time start developing skills to be close to mom.  He likely says to himself, “If I can’t be close by touching I will try something else!” So he starts a new strategy that centers around working to impress her somehow or even to protect her. He learns to come and go from mom and he learns to be more detached.  In some ways this is the beginnings of his striving for status that will be seen more clearly as he gets older. He seeks to impress mom in hopes of being close and being accepted and feeling like he belongs.  It is these very behaviors that come into play later in his life when he strives to impress his girlfriend, and later his wife. By impressing her he is repeating his old strategy and is increasing his chances of closeness and, of course, his reproductive success.

Think of how this experience socializes the young boy.  Does it link his actions and his success with his closeness and intimacy?  How does it impact his future intimacy? How can we find ways to alter our treatment of him in order to adjust for this experience?

 

BIOLOGY

These are all questions beyond the scope of this article.  The point here is that socialization is a powerful force that impacts our boys in a profound manner and sometimes even in ways that escape our awareness.  But there is more to what makes boys unique.  Biology.  We are living in a culture that ignores the biological underpinnings of our sexual differences.  In some ways the biology helps us understand the related socialization which only makes sense when we realize the automatic social cues we offer are actually in harmony with his biology.  Could it be that socialization and biology are working together to try and give our species the best shot at survival?  Maybe so.

Take the idea of big boys don’t cry. We have all heard that over and over but guess what?  There is some truth in it.  When boys start to grow at puberty and their testosterone levels go through the roof what do you think happens?  We now know that this increase in testosterone limits his emotional tears.  He cries less due to the fact that he is now getting 10 times the amount of testosterone as girls.  So in some ways, big boys don’t cry is simply restating what is already happening to the boy biologically.  Like it or not, we can’t change his biology.  Little boys are more likely to cry than big boys and big boys are less likely to cry then their sisters. Keep in mind also that the adage didn’t say big boys don’t feel.  It says big boys don’t cry.

Testosterone has a large impact on boys long before puberty. Before any socialization occurs our boys are meeting this powerful change agent. In the womb at about 2 months in utero boys  are flooded with testosterone.  This flood creates profound changes and alters his brain into what some scientists are calling the male brain or a “systemizing” brain.  This male brain is more likely to want to find patterns in systems and build them, dismantle them, or seek to understand them.  Think legos. The lack of a testosterone flood creates brains that are being dubbed feminine brains or empathic brains.  These brains prefer people  to systems.  Faces to things.  Importantly this flood of testosterone does not occur only for boys.  It is being estimated that about 17% of girls also get this experience and these girl’s brains then become “systemizing” just like most boys.  There is also about 17% of boys who don’t get this same testosterone flood and their brains are more the empathic brains.  Keep in mind that this is not a black and white difference.  Girls with empathic brains can still systemize and boys with a systemizing brain can still be empathic. But the male brain has the advantage when it comes to systems and the female brain has the advantage when it comes to empathy.  What is important for us to note is that even prior to birth our children are impacted by their biology and this impact plays out in their brain types and has profound impact upon their later post-natal psychology.

This testosterone flood also plays out in a number of other areas.  Those children (mostly boys) who experience this flood are more likely to be involved in rough and tumble play after they are born, their gender identity is impacted as is their sexual orientation.  Boys with this testosterone flood are more likely to not like girlie things.  Girls who get this testosterone flood also are less likely to like girlie things and these are the girls who have traditionally been called “Tomboys.”  These things are all happening prior to birth.

The testosterone is having what researchers call “organizational” effects on the brain. It is setting the brain up to react in certain ways and also to react to later hormones in different ways.  One of those ways is what scientists are calling “testosterone priming.”  This flood of testosterone apparently creates a greater sensitivity to later levels of testosterone. It seems to “prime” the brain to be more responsive to testosterone after birth.  Those who get this flood will be more sensitive to the “activational” effects of testosterone in the bloodstream later in their lives.  Some are thinking that this heightened sensitivity is connected to the reasons for boys being more active and moving in their first 12 years even though their testosterone levels are similar to the girls.

And what does testosterone do?   Well, in addition to what we have already discussed  increased testosterone has been shown to reduce fear, lower sensitivity to punishment, increase risk-tasking, encourage a striving for status, and enhance attention to threat.  All of these things have a fairly large impact on our psychological natures.  The world is far from a blank slate that is only related to the socialization we receive.  It is a very complex interplay of our biology and our socialization.

This sort of  information on testosterone in utero has been known in scientific journals for many years.  We have known for a long time but our academics and our media has failed to publicize these facts.  This lack of education has left many of us ignorant of the nature of the differences between men and women.  This is especially critical when it comes to boys.  All too often in today’s world people expect boys to be like girls when it comes to emotions and talking.  The assumption is that if our differences are only due to socialization the boys should simply learn a new way to talk about their feelings just like the girls do.  But this article starts to offer reasons why this is simply not going to work.  Boys and girls are different and it is a beautiful thing.

It’s worth noting that it is very rare that men are the ones to tell boys they are not dealing with their feelings.  Ever seen that?  Not usually.  The men have all had the experience of having been a boy.  They know.  They are much more willing to accept the boy as he is and not expect him to talk about his emotions.  The women however have no experience of growing up a boy and have been led to believe that their boys should be able to do things just like the girls if only they really wanted to!

 

SUMMARY

Let’s summarize what this series has said about boys (and some girls) who have gotten the testosterone flood:

    • Boys are less likely to want to talk about their problems.
    • Boys are more likely to connect their intimacy with action.
    • Boys are hierarchical by nature and want to always appear to be on top.
    • Boys want to appear independent.
    • Boys are likely to disparage “girlie” stuff.
    • Boys prefer competitive and rougher play.
    • Boys get close to those on their same team.
    • Boys prefer a shoulder to shoulder connection.

In the next article we will be looking to apply some of what we have learned and see how this can impact the ways we can be helpful to our boys.

Healing Through Our Strength, Knowing Our Weakness, Part 2

twitter-HammockI was walking through the woods the other day, completely merged with the sound of the wood thrush, when suddenly my left foot twisted under me as I stepped on a root jutting out in the path. I felt it starting to twist and relieved it by taking all of my weight off that foot, thereby tumbling unceremoniously to the ground. After a slightly bruised pride and a few choice words, I was once again enjoying my walk. Ever since I broke that left ankle years ago, I have had to be especially careful and gentle with it. I am aware that it is one of my weak spots and demands my special attention.

Most of us are aware of the weak spots in our bodies. Maybe it’s an ankle or wrist or some other part, possibly sensitivity to the sun or cold weather or maybe to a certain food. We all have weak spots in our bodies, but did you know that we also have weak spots in our psyches?

Imagine the psyche as a rope hammock. The grid of rope varies in different places. In some spots it is a tight mesh and in others there may be larger holes. Our weak spots are where the large holes are, where things flow in and out with ease. This is not such a bad thing. If we had no weak spots we would be too defended, too tight. You might think of an infant who has very few defenses. Their hammock is pretty loose. As we grow, our grid gets tighter, but hopefully maintains some of its original flexibility. Maturity requires we use both tight and loose in the right places.

When a strong bout of grief strikes us, there are times and places where we have very little control over the outflow of our grief. It comes spontaneously-of its own accord, without any invitation. When we experience a strong grief such as this, our hammock grid of loose and tight becomes clear to us. We can begin to see where things will pour through. The spots where things pour through are what I call weak spots.

Unlike other paths we use in healing ourselves, these weak spots require no safe place for expression. They could care less where you are or what you are doing. The grief will spill forth wherever and whenever it wishes. There are no ropes in the grid to hold it back.

Weak spots can be many and varied. For some folks they may be associated with a sense like hearing, taste, or smell. Often, people in grief will find that one particular sense will be a channel for floods of grief. For some, hearing certain songs or the sound of the person’s voice on a tape or video will have this power. For others the sense of smell may be the source of the grief pouring through. For some people, a weak spot may be seeing a certain item in the grocery store.

A friend of mine whose daughter died found that the song “Amazing Grace” was a weak spot. Every time he hears this song, the tears flow and flow. A couple whose young child died unexpectedly have this same type of reaction to the smell of roses. When they smell roses, they are transported to a place where the intensity of the loss pours through.

For some people it may occur when they are involved in activities that they don’t like, tend to avoid, or feel inadequate while doing. For others it can occur when they are doing something practical like vacuuming or cooking. Still others might find it related to their thinking activities, planning their future, or daydreaming about possibilities. For many people the weak spots are associated with the areas in their life where they tend to play and have fun.

Everyone has a different vulnerable place, and most of us are not limited to one. If you think back to the early stages of your loss when the pain was fresh and highly unpredictable, you may remember the places your pain flowed through without any warning or intention. It may have had to do with being around people or possibly with being alone. Think of your own experience and remember the places for you that brought floods of grief. Knowing these places is not simply an academic exercise. By knowing these spots, we can help protect ourselves when we are most vulnerable. We can have at least a small degree of foresight that we may be bombarded through this particular place. Knowing these areas can also hopefully give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and a more forgiving response to these floods. By knowing our nature and the paths where floods of feelings may flow, we can prepare ourselves.

It is obvious that when we are acutely surrounded with grief it can be of help to know these pathways of grief. At these times we need ways to keep our heads above water and find anything stable to hold on to. Knowing these paths may give us a little more stability.

There are other reasons to know these weak spots. It is not uncommon for people later in grief to experience periods when there is a need to emote, but the emotions simply will not come. People feel the pressure of the grief, the dark moods that hover when we are burdened with a great deal of unexpressed grief, but cannot find a way to funnel the emotion out of the body. It is at this time that knowing these weak spots can be of extreme help. This is the time for my friend to play “Amazing Grace.” He can now choose to play this song, consciously and intentionally entering into his weak spot. By doing this, he will allow the emotion to be released and therefore bring him toward transformation and healing.

Knowing our paths where grief flows easily can be used to our advantage. We can make conscious use of our “weaknesses” in order to release the emotions that otherwise seem quite stuck. Our previously mentioned friends might want to go and buy some roses. The smell, which formerly may have brought an unwanted wave of emotion for my friends, may at this time help them in connecting to emotions that are stagnantly waiting to be released. Others might want to vacuum.

What would be helpful to you?

Grief is Blind to Time

 


Grief is all too often blind to time. It is rarely a linear process and tends not to chime on the hour. Rather than being predictable and “healed” the grief tends to orbit around us. The old idea of grief being “healed” is presently seen as being very limited in its accuracy. Here’s an example of why that might be. Think of a person who had their arm amputated. We would all have a great deal of compassion for such a traumatic and life changing loss. Now imagine approaching this person a year or two after the amputation and asking them “Are you over that yet?” The question can easily be seen as being absurd. You don’t get over an arm being amputated. It’s something you learn to live with. It is something that demands you live your life differently and also demands that you transform from the person you were to a new person who relates to the world in a much different manner. That is often the way of grief.

Much of the confusion about grief comes from its being associated with the medical model which assumes that healing has a beginning and then an end. You can think of examples like the flu or an abrasion which have an onset, a lifespan, and then they are over. There’s the cut or scratch, it bleeds, it scabs up and then it leaves a scar which fades with time. This is the way it is for issues when we seek medical treatment and often because of this, medical professionals, psychotherapists included, will think in the linear model and expect a clear beginning and an end to grief. This is frustrating for those who are bereaved because they are all too aware that grief is just not that simple. Especially when it comes to time. It can be a powerful force years down the road or it can seem to vanish right after the loss. It’s rarely simple and rarely linear.

Most of us are aware that grief is not really a medical problem. Grief is the normal human reaction to a difficult loss. Keep in mind that the medical model wants to find “the problem” and then get rid of it in order to make us “healthy.” The reality is that if you think in these terms you will be harming those who grieve since they don’t need the grief “removed” they need it “heard.” This is why grief is more often transformed by others who have had a similar experience and can offer compassion from that perspective. They understand the power of telling one’s story and of being acknowledged and heard. This is the power of a support group or a group like the Compassionate Friends who provide a safe place for those having experienced the death of a child or sibling. A safe place to tell their story. Others who have gone through the same loss will be more likely to have compassion and understanding.

A good safe place is hard to find.

Tom Golden

http://closetosons.com

@closetosons

 

Love Fuels Grief

twitter-lovefuelsgriefWithout love our grief would all but disappear. The essential fuel for grief is love.  Each tear you shed is connected to the love. We can contrast this with our cultural assumption which seems to think of grief as more a nuisance and a meaningless nuisance at that. Oh, how we have that wrong.

I once met a man from the Dagura tribe in Africa. He described his shock and disbelief when he first arrived in the USA, about the lack of open grieving. He couldn’t believe it. His culture sees grief as essential and life giving. In fact they see the tears of the bereaved as fuel for the grieved person to find their way in the afterlife. They would literally try and grieve as much as they could in order to aid their loved one. Imagine his confusion when he came to this country to see the way that grief is ignored and devalued. His tribe, the Dagura, saw the power of grief and also connected the grief with meaning. It meant something to the people of the Dagura to grieve. It was an important task that had meaning. When he came to the US he saw a culture that firmly believed that grief was meaningless! He realized right away that this assumption that grief was meaningless was hurtful and unhealthy. We are truly living in a crazy place.

We can learn from the Dagura. Our grief indeed has meaning, one reason among many is that it is connected to our love.

Sadness Has a Bad Name in our Culture

twitter-sadOne of the things that makes grief so invisible in our culture is that sadness has a bad name. People think of sadness as something that needs to be hidden, something that others shouldn’t see. It wasn’t always like this. In Chaucers time if you ate and drank “sadly” it meant you did it with gusto! The definition of sadness at that time was “fullness of heart.” You know, that feeling you get in your chest just before the tears come? It’s a certain fullness. What a great definition. In fact, one of the roots of the word sad is sate or satisfy. We have taken sadness and turned it into something that it is not.

With this widespread inclination to hide sadness we who are bereaved are left with an abundance of sadness but very few places to put it. The sad fact is that we are living in a crazy place. Our present day culture passes judgment on the emotion of sadness and this leaves many of us backlogged with grief and so few places to process the contents. This is a huge problem since it is grief that brings us a deeper sense of compassion for others and an often profound increase in maturity. The Persian poet Rumi said it best when he said “Grief is the garden of the heart.” Without grief we are all too often left with a heart that is less than open and understanding. The very thing that brings us depth is what our culture is trying to hide and avoid.

We are truly living in a crazy place.

Tom Golden

Webhealing.com has been serving the bereaved on the web since 1995. It is the home of the internet’s first memorial page, the Place to Honor Grief and also sponsors grief forums including forums for the death of a child, the death of a sibling, death of a loved one and others.