Is male intimacy limited to the bro-hug and “how you doin?” Whatever it is, it scares the crap out of us.
Men talk about sports, work, and beer, but talking about feelings is not what they want, right?
He shocked me. I’ve known him for over twenty years, and Gord (not his name) is not the type to talk about his emotions.
We were at a Christmas function and after dinner, I took a risk and told him that I have been depressed for the past three months. He took the bait and shared about his own anxiety and depression, how his meds are effecting his sleep and his thought life. During our conversation, his eyes looked a little like a wild deer. He builds houses and spends most of his time alone. When he does talk to other men, he swears like a trucker. Having to navigate the world of emotion seemed to freak him out.
Today, it’s been about a month and I should call him. That’s what friends do. So far I haven’t called him because it scares the crap out of me.
Male Vulnerability and the Wild Eyed Deer Moments
Our culture tells the story that men are distant and unemotional. But is this reality? I know men from a variety of age groups and walks of life, yet they share a few things: They are willing to open up and be vulnerable but we each have our own wild eyed deer moments.
In the past few months my conversations with men have included themes like the health of our marriages, addiction and how it affects the family, angst over mid-life career change, job stress, questions about the ongoing value of religion, what kids need from their dads, personal health and the depths of our depression and anxiety.
Yes, these conversations are pretty personal. Scary intimate.
Confessions of an Intimacy Avoider
Honestly, I avoid intimacy with other men because it scares the crap out of me. I have narrowed it down to a few things. The first two are practical and the third gets to the heart of it.
- First, vulnerability is never on the agenda. Men talk about sports, vehicles, vacations, work, family and parenting. It can be awkward to insert a few comments about your health in between the vehicles and the vacations. Vulnerability is not one of the usual topics on the male agenda.
- Second, you have to pick your moments. If you manage to find a way to be vulnerable, your environment may do you in. When you hang out with a guy at a bar or a movie theater, you have to shout if you want to be heard. Shouting about your mental health or your stress is not how most of us want to spend an evening. Volume levels and privacy need to be a consideration.
- Third, you have to work through the fear of saying too much. You wonder, if you say too much, will you cross the invisible line and be seen for who you really are: Unlike the rest of the pack. Male shame issues explode when you get sidelined and the fear of rejection can drive our reluctance to open up.
Another side of this fear is how the hell do you get there without sounding too serious or too needy? I can’t tell you how many conversations I have left in the past few months wondering if I said too much.
Some men kill their fear with beer. Alcohol is cheaper than therapy and if you say too much, you can always blame the booze.
If Vulnerability is So Difficult, Why Bother?
The definition of what it means to be a man has changed. Being real, sensitive, arts minded and aware of our mental health is not as much a dead end as it used to be.
By now, you may be asking, Why go through all of this trouble? If most men seem content to be quiet about what they think, why expect anything else?
Four compelling reasons to be vulnerable with other men:
1.Men want to talk. In my experience, men want to open up. We all face life head on and it can be very stressful. No matter how strong a man is, he can use a friend to help sort things through. Strength is the ability to talk and work through things rather independence and power. You are stronger because you have someone to watch your back.
2. Most men just need a little help to get started. Often men prefer indirect routes. I learned to use what I call vulnerability flags, making statements about my depression or anxiety, my father’s alcoholism, stress in my life or even the general topic of men and mental illness. These flags can be overlooked (accidentally or on purpose) but if they are well placed, many men will use them as a doorway into a deeper conversation.
It may seem obvious, but loud, crowded social gatherings will make most of us think twice before opening up. Choose situations like driving together before a game, going for coffee or other one to one times.
3. Love has been hijacked. Love is a commodity. It is used to sell wedding rings and clothing. Sadly, we have lost our understanding of brotherly love and we mistake love as something reserved for romantic relationships. How can a man love another man if love is limited to romance?
4. Not talking is affecting our mortality, compounding our stress and adding to our losses.
“Loneliness, a social emotion, can reach into our bodies and rearrange our cells and our genes.” Judith Schulevitz
Mortality risks: Loneliness Can Be Lethal
Half of adults over 45 experience chronic loneliness, up from 20% just ten years prior. Judith Schulevitz brilliantly demonstrates how loneliness can be lethal:
“Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer – tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”
Stress and pessimism
Loneliness puts the nervous system into chronic high alert, resulting in a flood of stress hormones and a mindset that is pessimistic and negative. If you need to take the edge off, it is relationships, not alcohol that can ease our our stress.
“Deprive us of the attention of a loving, reliable parent, and, if nothing happens to make up for that lack, we’ll tend toward loneliness for the rest of our lives. Not only that, but our loneliness will probably make us moody, self-doubting, angry, pessimistic, shy, and hypersensitive to criticism.” Judith Schulevitz
Mark Greene writes about how losing boyhood friendships can create a lasting sense of loss for men. Many men, says Greene, experience the sting of deep loss that haunts them even though they are engaged in fulfilling romantic relationships, marriages and families.
Even with a loving family, guys need close relationships with other guys where they can share personal stuff.
Can you be a man without other men?
I don’t think so. Building closer, more honest relationships will save my life, but I still have wild-eyed-deer moments. It helps to remind myself that vulnerable conversations mean that we are reclaiming what it means to be fully a man. Terrifying, but hell, life can be like that.
Good men, vulnerable men, are having a conversation that no one else is having at the Good Men Project. We need your voice in the conversation.
Keep it Real
Article first appeared on the Good Men Project.