Men and loneliness

Something few women realise is the sense of loneliness that many men carry with them. The sad part is that even men themselves are not fully aware of their isolation, at least until they are affected by a crisis and realise there is no-one they can really talk to about it.

This is because they may have no friends they feel comfortable in opening up to about personal matters – after all, men are brought up to compete with other men. Even with their wife or girlfriend they may have avoided disclosing fears and anxieties, preferring to present an image of ‘everything’s fine – I can handle it.’

In western Europe and North America we live in a society that encourages girls to express their feelings and, as they grow up, they seek emotional support from other women. Men get the message that ‘boys don’t cry’, that they need to be independent and self-reliant.

At the risk of gender stereotyping, there may also be an inherent aloneness or feeling of separation in the male condition. This aloneness is an archetypal masculine quality, by which I mean an ancient pattern within the human psyche that has traditionally been more associated with men than women.

In earlier cultures boys and men experienced rites of passage, initiations and sustained contact with older men in the community. This helped them feel connected. We have lost most of these traditions.

While there are clearly many benefits for men in developing self-reliance and independence, there is also a price to pay. An obvious cost is that, not having the same support network that many women enjoy, men find it harder to adapt emotionally to crises such as bereavement or divorce. They are also three times more likely to kill themselves than women.

As a therapist, many of the men I see both as individuals and in couples seem very alone in their struggles. They may be carrying some very challenging emotions, such as sadness and grief, but find it hard to acknowledge these feelings or to know what to ‘do’ with them once they have recognized them.

Author James Hollis in Under Saturn’s Shadow writes about the shame that many men have been made to feel when opening up emotionally: ‘Every man will recall times when, as a boy, as a youth, or even last week, he dared to reveal himself and was shamed and isolated. He learns to stuff that shame, to mask it in male bravado.’

The first step that men need to take is to acknowledge their loneliness and isolation and to experience the pain of their deeper wounds. This may be faciliatated with a therapist or it may be with their partner or a mentor.

There is something powerful and potentially healing in acknowledging one’s feelings, whatever they are, and in this way a man can begin to come into relationship with his deeper self. By becoming less alienated from himself a man becomes less lonely, although he may still feel a sense of aloneness at an existential level.

From this exploration other questions will flow: how am I living my life? Is my work genuinely fulfilling? Am I being open and authentic with myself and others? It is in struggling with these themes that a man can feel more connected and more in tune with his deeper desires.

Discussion Individuals

The power of vulnerability

When we were children we used to think that when we were grown-up we would not longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…to be alive is to accept vulnerability.

–       Madeleine L’Engle (novelist)

I’m often aware how difficult, how very hard it is, to acknowledge my own vulnerability. After all, being vulnerable means being open to physical or emotional wounding. But when I do acknowledge this part of myself, and show it to someone I trust in an appropriate way, it is extremely powerful.

That would seem to be a contradiction – how can dropping one’s familiar protection actually be powerful?

I think it’s because vulnerability is what can connect us, at a deeper level, to others and help us feel less alone. It is also an acknowledgement of reality and of our humanity – that even though we try to, we can’t control our lives or control others.

There is a difference, however, between being in touch with one’s authentic vulnerability and being over identified with it.  People who are over identified with their vulnerability are often extremely sensitive and find it hard to protect themselves and get their needs met. They are often regarded, and see themselves, as ‘victims’, always been taken advantage of or exploited.

Authentic vulnerability is less about blaming others and more about just being open about one’s deeper feelings – such as sadness, distress, loneliness or anxiety.

I’m thinking of a couple going through problems I was seeing, in which the man allowed himself to cry at his fear the relationship may not be saved. His partner was moved emotionally and it enabled them both to show a deeper part of themselves to each other.

But vulnerability is regularly devalued in our competitive and materialist society, which values ‘masculine’ qualities like strength, fortitude and mental toughness.

Because of this many people, particularly men, have an understandable reluctance to show, or even allow themselves to feel, vulnerability. To them it can feel like weakness and it intensely scary, especially for those who were shamed by parents when they showed vulnerability as children.

Because of the large number of people who were shamed as children for feeling sad or distressed, showing one’s own vulnerability to others is something to be done cautiously. Otherwise we can be re-shamed if someone sees our vulnerability and tells us not to behave ‘like a child’.

But there is also a high price to pay when we protect our vulnerability too rigidly, as these defences can become barriers to connecting with others at a deeper level.

In my therapy work, with both individuals and couples, I am constantly struck by how hard it is for people to be seen in their vulnerability. They shield their face, look down or even try and make a joke.

With a couple, I will try and express appreciation at the risk one of them has taken in showing true vulnerability. I will also try and make sure that the other partner does not squash or dismiss what has been said.

This is because it is these moments of vulnerability between partners that offer the prospect for deeper connection and healing. To show vulnerability is to let go, even if only for a moment, the desire to be powerful and to be ‘right’. Instead, it opens a small space for the other person to be moved and to connect.


The danger of wanting our children to be happy

When I think about what I want for my children sometimes I feel I should be more pushy – get them to apply themselves more, learn more, aim higher. At other times I’m able to take a more relaxed approach – let them find their own passions and interests and let me support them in this, I say to myself.

At these times the over-riding feeling is often, ‘I don’t mind what they choose to do when they grow up – as long as they’re happy.’

On the face of it this attitude seems commendable for many liberal parents, especially those whose own parents had very fixed ideas about ‘acceptable’ jobs and careers.

But underneath the apparently supportive and progressive stance there can be a more subtle, unspoken, pressure. It is something like, ‘Do what you want to do, be who you want to be. But don’t let me down by being unhappy, even if that is what you are feeling.’

Novelist James Runcie, son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has highlighted the problem when discussing his own experience of being a parent. Saying you don’t mind what your children to as long as they are happy can actually be a very controlling message to give your children, he argues.

This is because it only makes them feel more unhappy when they realise they cannot live up to your unrealistic expectations.

Even with young children there is a danger that they will get the message that it is somehow ‘wrong’ to feel unhappy, upset, angry or lonely.

When my six-year-old son says he is sad because no-one would play with him at school my first reaction is to try and reassure him – ‘I’m sure you’ll find someone to play with tomorrow – let me talk to your teacher in the morning.’

It is much harder for me to simply listen to him and to acknowledge his feelings. There may also be a role for reassurance and practical help, such as helping him develop more social skills.

But if I try to immediately rescue him from his painful feelings too quickly he is less likely to confide in me in the future as he will not have felt genuinely listened to.

It is only when our children feel they are not failures if they are unhappy, upset or sad that they can more authentically experience happiness and fulfilment.

At a deeper level perhaps we need to accept that we cannot control our children’s happiness and that apparent symptoms of unhappiness are not necessarily problems to be ‘fixed’. Instead, as psychologist James Hillman argues, a child’s ‘problem’ of tantrums, shyness or sadness may be expressions of that child’s ‘calling’ or destiny and have some meaning connected to their development that we are unaware of.