All posts by trg55

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.



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?



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!



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



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 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.

Using Thinking to Heal: Journaling

Similar to letter writing is journaling. Journaling is an intellectual act of simply keeping a record. Many people will do this following a loss. In some ways you are literally writing your own history. The act of journaling is a very intellectual process. We use our thinking to mark our situation. I have worked with many people who have used journaling as a way to tell their story and connect with their loss. Almost everyone I have worked with raves about the benefits of journaling saying that simply by writing things down there is some relief. By writing it down you are telling your story and when we are able to tell the story we move towards a place of transformation. So this heady and thinking-oriented practice helps in telling the story and in so doing also connects the writer with the emotions connected to the loss. Many times the writing is focused on the emotions and describing their strength and nature. Those who journal say that this is a boon since one can go back to any point in the written history provided by the journal and remember what was happening at that point in time. They say that simply by reading the words they can remember clearly the depth and nature of the emotion they were feeing at that time. This makes journaling a powerful and useful tool since grief is often so foggy and hard to contain. It sometimes acts like smoke, you see it and then in a moment’s time it simply disappears. By using your intellectual side you are marking your experience and telling your story in a way that can be of great help.