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Man Talk.

"So do men like... I don't know... talk to each other about what they're feeling?" My father-in-law from the Deep South that is Meridian, Mississippi, burst into laughter. Like from the gut, how-is-that-even-a-sincere-question type of laugh. He had just gotten back from a hunting trip. I mean I don't know, I can only assume there will be whiskey and a fire burning at some point. He had shared stories of the old days and smoking peyote out in West Texas. The man has some soul to him. Surely some sort of depth conversation would arise. Instead, I might as well have been asking about how his tap-dancing lessons were going. 

WTF do men do with their feelings? Seriously? I was raised with two older brothers. All 3 years apart,  I was raised right: on Nirvana, sarcasm, and an epic ability to cram my emotions down into the ground. Just bury that crap down into the earth, ya know? Next to the dead hamsters of our childhood. It took me ages to figure out how to sort through my emotions and talk about them in a healthy way. I literally didn't have a clue how to do that. I think it's partly why I got along better with men in my younger years. We were awesome at having fun and avoiding the intimacy that comes with emotional openness. That thing that requires, UGH... vulnerability. At most we might get to a "hey, we cool? Ok cool." I remember asking my husband what he thought about vulnerability. He hated it. "Isn't that the same as weakness?", he asked.  "NO", I blurted out in a Tourette's-like fashion through sadness, anger, and welled up eyes. It is most definitely not the same thing as weakness. Is that what our men think that is? This was getting too f*cked up for my liking. Tap dancing... Where do the feelings go?

I decided to take my investigation further. I asked the two closest men to my office. "I'm doing research on men and feelings." After having to clarify my request: yes, I did mean men AND feelings, I got down to some pretty prime answers: "Drunk?" I don't think that counts as an emotion, no. "I don't have emotions" was my other favorite response. I asked my husband about his feelings and he broke down my doctoral training in about 5 seconds flat: "happy, sad, horny, angry." I don't even think he took his eyes off of the Formula 1 race on our flat screen TV. He was actually not that far off at all. Our most recent research points to four basic emotions: Happy, sad, afraid/surprised, angry/disgusted with a plethora of emotions that stem off of this core. If we were to give our men 4 basic emotions that cut across all of humanity, we set them up for two, MAYBE three of these to be expressed. Anger would be a primary one and that's partly because anger is what happens when we bottle our emotions - all we can see is hot, ambiguous red. That's INSANITY. I feel about a thousand different emotions before I'm done with my Cheerios.

"Honestly, I try to talk about [my feelings] in a logical way but sometimes it just feels futile after a while."

 

I asked one of my male subjects with a sincere and overwhelming curiosity, "what are you feeling right now?" "Sweaty," he says with a wise ass grin. I smiled. It was a warm day I'll give him that. I tried again. I asked about what men do with their emotions. "Honestly, I try to talk about them in a logical way but sometimes it just feels futile after a while." It started to reach a what's-the-point barrier. I hear this kind of thing a lot from my men in therapy. They say that they try to communicate how they feel but they don't feel like it gets received well from their partners so they just shut down or as my other subject states, internalize. Crap. Is it possible that they're actually making more of an effort to show up than we're realizing? One thing that's played out in my own world is that I'm the one with all the feels. With few emotional needs being expressed on my partner's side, I recognized how easy it was for me to take up room for my own feelings. It was tempting as hell to bypass his emotions when they weren't in plain sight. It fueled a dynamic that didn't really suit either of us for the long term. After all, we're two happy, sad, horny, angry people. 

One of the men I was speaking with shared similar reflections after a serious romantic relationship came to an end. It made him think. "I realized my emotions were dictating my behavior and I just didn't want that to be the case anymore." The logic in this response made we want to explode on the inside with a mighty YES. "Did people talk about feelings in your family?", I asked. More laughter. That was a no. He learned from trial and error. His life experiences helped him learn about himself and it assisted him in prying it out of his (now) wife when she would use similar tactics. If only we could just shove our emotions in a jar and live in peace, right? 

"It's actually pretty hard to talk to other men about feelings. I don't know why. It's hard to explain."

 

The other problem was there was less of an opportunity to talk about emotions. Period. We give our women a bajillion more opportunities for expression. Mix that with hormones, societal norms, and neuroplasticity and you have two very different outcomes between men and women in the realm of emotion. My male subject continued, "it's actually pretty hard to talk to other men about feelings. I don't know why. It's hard to explain." The reality of this stinks in the worst way. I could give two craps about whether or not men get their emotional needs met via hunting, hashing it out in a journal, or what as long as they do it and do it in a way that brings real resolve to processing their experiences. They deserve that.

If you're a human, it's in your best interest to know what you're feeling so you can make your best decisions and avoid unnecessary frustrations. Emotional intelligence also makes us more resilient so we not only make better decisions, we also bounce back faster. We learn to respond rather than react. In session, my men are absolutely amazing. They don't show their internal world to everyone but they are seriously incredible and if I'm being fully honest, it feels even more special because I understand how dang hard it is for our men to have a space for themselves to open up, get deep, and evolve at an emotional level. It's hard to grow in the dark.

>>> The things that helped these men open up about their feelings to others? A genuine desire to understand their experience and open-ended questions as opposed to criticism. They emphasized the criticism.

 

So how else can we help out our dudes? I got a big wake-up call when reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. I can't remember it word-for-word, but what I took from it was this powerful image from Wizard of Oz. When our men finally pull back the curtain and do open up, don't just hop in there with your opinions, criticisms, or judgments. I've heard it from numerous men in my world. Their vulnerability means giving up a lot of power. It's an honest to God piece of who they are and they don't want to have it thrown back at them. I remembered my "NO" moment when I asked my husband about vulnerability and what that means to him. Was I inadvertently shaming my man when he finally opened up like I asked him to? Huh. Pinning that one on the board for further reflection on my part. The last thing I would ever want to do is invite my man to share more of himself just to come down hard on him. I watch my reactions more carefully now and don't make a big deal of things when he shows up. I validate and try to better understand where he's coming from. It's helpful for both of us.

The author of Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel (video here), also had some interesting insights. GOOD LORD I LOVE BEING A THERAPIST. We read the most fascinating things. When our men get such few forms of emotional expression in our society, the outlet of sexual expression can be a big one. Particularly as a female, my focus has been more on empowering women rather than men when it comes to sex. Sexual expression is a nonverbal avenue to show up, be vulnerable, and intimate with their partner. It's also why therapists explore underlying emotional disruptions when sexual dysfunction occurs. A lot of psychological baggage can manifest down under. Expectations abound and so do all of the pressures that come with performing. I hesitate to leave things there because sex is such a huge topic for all genders, but for the sake of focus here, vulnerability can show up massively in the bedroom and everyone's trying to figure out how to navigate that. The bedroom is a great place to create security and safety of expression. Stroke that vulnerable ego (or whatever) and ask for what you want too. Intimacy is intimacy.

To the men out there: don't get left in the stone ages despite all of the ridiculous ways we set you up for it. There are more ways to deal with emotion than bottling things up, video games, or "stuffing it down with brown" at the bar. Making room for emotions will help you refine your own capacity to understand yourself and your relationships. It will help you in your happiness, in Love, success in business, and other personal areas. For the record, vulnerability is hard. Otherwise we wouldn't be burying our emotions. It might seem counter-intuitive, but understanding and sharing your feelings will actually help you be more in control and not dictated by the things crawling around in the basement. To the women and loved ones of men who struggle with emotional expression: your man isn't uncaring and you're not alone. It's just that the struggle is real. Let's do a better job of supporting each other. 

Warmly,

Dr. B

 

Let's Not Figure It All Out At Once

"I hope you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom." - Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Life is a beautifully complex, miraculous, bastard of a thing. It's funny. When I was in my early 20's it was my assumption that adults had things in order. After however many years on the planet, surely they had a grip on things. Right? I was mellowing into my well-adjusted 30's and discovered the truth: we are still learning the things. My 40-year-old friends insist that they are also still learning the things. They still experience episodes of cluelessness. Bouts of existential sadness and anxiety that wakes them in the darkness of the night. There are still chapters of their lives that are best titled Beautiful Disaster. Well, that's hopeful. Just when you think "oh yeah, I got this" and laugh in life's silly face, you get reminded: adulting is hard. 

Many years ago, I was told by a master clinician of anxiety and depression to never ask a client to do anything I wouldn't be willing to do myself. I honestly don't know how hard he lived by that, but his words embedded themselves into the sternum of my ribcage. I have lived by them ever since. Therapists are people too. We Love, we hurt, we try, we fail, we fuck up hard, we try again. As far as I'm concerned, it's part of my unwritten job description to live like hell so that it can best inform me how to attune to my clients' experiences in the world. I need to know life intimately if I'm going to do a lick of good. I need to bury my hands into my life and knead it into something I can be proud of. I need the self-awareness of a ninja. The kind of thing that can only be cultivated by life experience, intention, and an excellent therapist. 

I went to the Lumineers concert the other night. Kaleo opened up the show and they were absolutely epic. Knocked my socks off. I wasn't quite prepared for what the Lumineers brought. Like a surge, a flood of memories arose that I associated with particularly difficult times in my life. Times of loss. Times I've stumbled through my own mess. Times I've feared losing the things that mattered most in my life. Times I've suffered in a painful silence that high functioning people know all too well. They sang and I shivered in my seat as the words rang through my bones.

"don't hang your head, love should make you feel good"

A couple of girls danced in the pit; clearly having drank too much. They danced with a youthful freedom and clumsy innocence. I could recognize parts of myself in them. They looked like such happy little fools; suspended in their tiny world. My chest grew warm with compassion and sadness for the less wise parts of myself that had to learn some lessons the hard way. I looked at them with well wishes on their path as they danced in the dark like tonight was the only night that existed.

"Make your mothers proud"

I was sitting with someone close to my heart the other day as she sat in a pool of tears. She was in the middle of a time of growth - which is often cloaked in bad life choices and paired with things we didn't know. Things we couldn't have known until now. She ached for the clock to heal her heart. To get the learning over with already. Wisdom hurts and awareness isn't cheap. We've all paid the price. I thought of the liver spots on my therapist's hands. The way he adjusts his hearing aids in session as he leans his ear towards me. I wonder about the stories he's lived through. The wisdom he carries. The Life that he's lived in all its mystery and surprise. I wonder if his learning of the things has tempered now or if he still has moments when the tectonic plates of his mind shift in new perspective he never had.

"I was blind, now I see"

Dear reader, we come into this world blind. Life unfolds slowly. Be compassionate with yourself as you move through the world and learn the things. Listen intently to what your life is trying to tell you. Give yourself some time to reflect and choose your next step wisely. And for the Love of Pete, don't figure it out alone. If you're going to be a ninja at life, you're going to need a someone that knows the path well. Someone who has the skills and know-how to help you see. Someone who nods with an empathy of a life well lived.

Warmly, your fellow life traveler,

Dr. B

Let Your Darkness Speak

I bent over and leaned my elbows on the desk. I nibbled on the back of the pen in contemplation. It was a simple enough task. 1) Write your name on this name tag 2) Name one moment that drastically changed your life. I have such a hard time with this kind of thing. The answers that immediately came to mind didn't seem socially appropriate. Oh hey, I'm B. Nice to meet you. I was forever changed the day my mom died. It was slow and sudden and it split me in half. It's a beautiful day, right? So I picked something that was both true and safe instead: Hey, I'm B and my life was changed the day I kissed that boy. I pressed the little sticky tag to my shirt and went about my way.

The room was filled with visitors within moments. We were hosting an event held by Creative Mornings. It was this past Friday at HumanHQ, my other work home. If you aren't familiar with this organization, you need to change that on the immediate. I have attended CM talks at every opportunity. This dedicated group hosts speakers from various fields (generally creative) to share their story with the aim to bring insight into their process and inspire. I will never forget my first talk. It was from a recognized, award winning cinematographer by the name of Ryan Booth. The advertised photos of him were spectacular. He looked like such a badass and was clearly rocking it out in a way I could only dream of. He walked up to the crowd and adjusted his mic, surrounded in eager gazes. I can't recall what he said word-for-word but it was something along the lines of, "Hai. So.... I don't know what I'm doing most of the time." What followed was an incredibly honest story of vulnerability and the willingness to transcend the ego for the sake of empathy: the place we create our most honest work. People. I fell in Love. I left that talk feeling warm with humanity. 

This time, the talk was a little bit different. We cozied up on couches and chairs. The candles flickered in intimate anticipation. Our speaker was Linda Geffin, a lawyer who spent a lifetime fighting against human trafficking and advocating for survivors. She shared her story about being silenced on a quiet and unsuspecting afternoon. At least they tried to silence her. She was beaten and left for dead on her kitchen floor. The room was still in collective breath for her. She shared about her struggle to feel safe in the world again. She read Victor Frankl's Mans Search For Meaning, one of my favorite books. It taught her about her own power. It taught her that no could take away her capacity to choose how she reacts. She had the ability to choose her attitude in any circumstance. It was something her attackers couldn't strip from her. So slowly, painfully... one step at a time, she entered into the world again. She left us with the wisdom she gained: At some point in your life, you're going to experience something that challenges you to the core and shakes you alive. You don't have to wait until something drastic happens to you. Start now. Be in the present moment. Make room for gratitude. This one moment is the moment we have.

I met up with her afterward and we shared a hug. I am always so taken by people's stories. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people name their darkness as their primary source of life fuel. We don't talk about it very much in the open. Hell, I felt it just hours earlier with my name tag. The hesitation. The flinch of my pen that said: you shouldn't go there. I'm not going to lie to you. When we talk about our darkness, it takes people to another place. It's deeper, and yes, heavier. But it's also because it's so rich with truth. It made me think about our relationship to the shadowy end of the emotional spectrum.

I was reading an article from New York Magazine this morning that proposed an interesting perspective on the darkness that is depressed mood. There is so much left to be discovered about the human condition in regards to depression. I'm a humanistic psychologist, so while I do believe clinical depression is a very real disease, I also believe that for the vast majority of us, we experience bouts of normative sadness that comes with living. I think it's in our best interest to use this as an opportunity to listen to what our emotions are telling us about our life. The article brought about the idea that evolution may have a part to do with depression (more scientific insight here). I'm not sure if you know this or not, but when you go into a period of darkness, it tends to lift naturally on its own with time. The idea is that maybe we're designed to experience moments of darkness so that we can enter into that state of introspection and gain renewed insight on our way out. The article quotes Iron John in this beautiful excerpt: one must "go through the door... immerse himself in the wound, and exit from his old life through it." I shared with Linda about my loss and how it's shaped my desire to create authentic spaces for people to feel something real. I'm a firm believer that the unexamined life is tragedy. Getting in touch with our internal world is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. It's where all the knowledge lies. It's where we come alive.

I took my time this Saturday morning. It was a warm day that begged to be experienced. I stepped onto my deck, feeling the warmth of the wood and its rough grain beneath my bare feet. I laid down on my back and watched the trees bend in the wind. I had gotten off the phone with my dad a few minutes prior. He reminded me that in a few weeks it will be 5 years since my mom's passing. I have this moment. This one moment. I could feel grief flush through my body with a gentle heat. My eyes welled with its brief, tearful visit. A bird soared high above me. And I smiled.

TOO BUSY TO LIVE: THE MODERN DAY STRUGGLE FOR PRESENCE

[original publication date 2016]

I was curled up on my couch reading Tuesdays with Morrie. It was one of those dark, drizzly kind of days that make everyone move slower but doesn’t keep you from going about your business. It’s a book about an elderly college professor with ALS and his weekly meetings with an old student of his. Each week they get together and Morrie discusses his philosophies on life as he endures his unforgiving disease. I had never heard of this book before and after hearing the “oh of course” tone in my grandmother’s voice when I mentioned it to her, it appears my age might be partly to blame. I was really taken in by it. It’s full of all kinds of life lessons. The stuff you know you should try to live by but it’s still hard to.

Morrie was talking about the concept of “presence,” truly being with another person and in the present moment. I believe wholeheartedly in this ideology. Mid chapter I realized that I was away from my iphone. It instantly pulled me out of the lovely moment I was having. It bothered me that it bothered me to be away from my phone. I normally wouldn’t care so much but I just started a new venture so I want to be connected when I’m needed. I fidgeted on the little part of the couch I had managed to settle into. I struggled but I stayed with it. After finishing my chapter I strolled into the bedroom where I found my little electronic friend waiting for me. 1 missed call. Life, you ironic butthead. Didn’t you know how present I was trying to be? This is how you repay me? I laugh to myself after returning the call and confirming that I was a little too late and lost a potential client.

I’ve heard this anecdote numerous times and I can’t stand it: basically, forget the whole “balance in life” thing. It’s a farce. Something is always going to give so if you invest too much in your work life, your personal life will start going to shit and vice versa. You can meditate and eat as much kale as you want but there’s no secret door called “balance” that will open for you. At least not for long. Soon enough you’ll be thrown back and forth into that struggle of time and energy again.

I was wondering about what to do about that as I ran out of my house 10 minutes late to meet a dear friend for coffee (presence problems). I paused at the red light, getting ready to turn right when I noticed an older man beginning to walk across the street from the other side of the road. I could have gone ahead but decided to sit there a moment instead. I still had Morrie on the brain so I took a deep breath and waited for him as he made his way across. He looked at me and smiled, offering a gentle wave my way. I smiled and waved back. A brief moment of human connection between strangers. I feel the warmth build inside my chest and thank Morrie for the sweet moment I would have otherwise missed.

The coffee shop is modern with a hint of hipster. I like it. There are panels of dark wood on the walls and modern fixtures hang from the ceiling with Edison bulbs. I order a cortado and take a seat when I get a text. My friend was running late as well. I generally have a book in my handbag because why wouldn’t I, so no big deal. I reach for my bag when I remember that I had purposely not put one in there because I was reading Morrie and had thought to myself, “you’re meeting a friend. What do you need to bring a book for?” Effing Morrie. I smile to myself. I take the remainder of my time to sit and just be.

There are macs everywhere. Some folks are having meetings. Others appear to be students. Many look like creatives and small business owners themselves. And then there I am. Present and hanging with Morrie feeling all warm and happy. I wonder to myself: being present, mindfulness meditation, all that jazz has become so popular within my field of psychology. My own interpretation of why this practice of being attuned to the living, breathing moment is becoming so big is because we’re losing our everyday capacity to engage in this way of being. I think we’re spiritually shriveling up as we lose sight of the importance of cultivating fulfilling, grateful moments. We get swept up too easily in another wave of work and life responsibilities. It becomes too tempting to be plugged into technology more than necessary for those moments in between. I think that’s why we have so many hipsters. We’ve gotten too out of whack with how we live so people are starting to grow beards, listen to vinyl, and blog about how horrible technology is. Case in point (minus the beard…).

Psychologists are now turning to mindfulness meditation to help treat depression and anxiety and the research is ridiculous in how effective this practice can be to our emotional well-being. The practice of being present in the moment can actually change our brain. It helps us break away from depressive thought traps and access these “present-moment” neural pathways better. Research findings indicate that it may even decrease the density of grey matter in the amygdala, a part of the brain that is implicated in stress and anxiety. These moments of connection, and more so, the feeling of connection with something greater than ourselves, opens the door for emotions that far exceed happiness and can lead us to feelings like joy and awe. So I’m thinking about all of this as I’m sitting with no barrier between me, my cortado, and the world. Present, alone, and engaged, I can’t help but think to myself: is this kind of creepy? I mean, like really. I’m just sitting here with nothing and no one and looking around at my environment completely fascinated. I wonder about our ever-evolving modern day culture. In our need for greater presence in our lives, is the approach in doing so going to become creepier and creepier?

Morrie didn’t write a chapter on that so I guess I’ll have to finish it myself. I’m thinking that we’re going to have to make an honest fight for our spiritual sanity. We’re going to have to actively engage and challenge ourselves to be fully alive and not caught in that in-between state too long as we run from task to task. And that might mean missing out on a potential client sometimes and it’s going to be totally OK. I would rather my headstone read “lived in the present moment” than “never missed a potential work opportunity.” Of course we will always be caught in the struggle between the two, but I know which side I will gladly err on at the end of the day. Plus, the more fully engaged and alive I feel, the better work I’ll be able to do anyway. So there’s that. I think I’ll stick with this whole presence thing, even if it does border on creepy sometimes.

 

Brain References:

Albom, M. (1997). Tuesdays with morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

Lu, Stacy (2015). Mindfulness holds promise for treating depression. Monitor, 46, 50-55.

Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. T. (2012). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guildford Press.