I had a session over the weekend with a client whose brother was diagnosed with leukemia. In it, she told me how it affected him and, in particular, how it affected his choices. Before its inception, he was a typical, macho guy, spending most of his days in a martial arts gym, training to become a professional fighter. If you were to ask his loved ones, they’d tell you what those close to anyone like him would say: he was a pretty quiet guy. For, male, emotional expression is still taboo in many cultures, including my own. Essentially, healthy expression equates with none, and each relationship suffers substantially.
In contrast, after he was diagnosed, her brother decided to attempt to override his fear by telling some of the people he loved that he loved them. And, the subsequent response was unlike that which he was conditioned to expect to receive. As kids, some boys are taught the distinction between strength, which is good, and weakness, which is bad. Strength entails aggression, dominance, assertion, and provision. Conversely, weakness constitutes fear, caregiving, sadness, and dependence, whether emotional, financial, or physical. So, if you’re a woman, it’s just often assumed that you’re weak, but that’s okay because biology dictates it.
My client’s brother grew up with that mentality and, unfortunately, my client did, too; as in her family, every member was expected to exude strength. And, as you likely expect, most of her psychological issues can be traced to shame and avoidance, which is the inevitable outcome of a parenting style which teaches that feeling, let alone expressing, one’s emotions is weak. So, my client’s brother expressed love in indirect ways, fearing the judgment he was sure he’d experience.
All of us, to some extent, are creatures of habit, forming predictions based on the past. And, ensuing phobias, specific fears about particular consequences (such as a dog bite), sometimes, only require one incident. But mostly, in order to make mental associations, such as between criticism and emotional expression, you really only need what’s called intermittent reinforcement, meaning that if someone is only sometimes criticized for expressing her feelings, she’ll eventually develop a fear of verbalizing them. And, if the criticism is internalized, she may even fear having them.
In a nutshell, this was the plight of my client’s brother. I can’t say for sure whether, deep down, he really wanted to express himself before he developed cancer, but I think it’s a safe assumption based on his subsequent choice. The best part of her story was her telling me how uneventful the outcomes of his revelations were. He not only discovered that catastrophe didn’t follow his words but that his love multiplied, producing more of itself. In those moments, he wondered, how could I have spent so much of my life failing to produce the thing I wanted most? In them, his regrets symbolized ours as he epitomized us. And, I thought, how could I have spent so much of my life failing to produce the thing I wanted most?
Few things terrify heterosexual men more than their feelings. But, as with any other phobia, it takes time and commitment to extinguish it, or at least make it more manageable. My client’s brother was only able to say what he felt because he was certain of death, and was stunned when told that he was going to live. It’s a shame that his shame precluded him from fostering intimacy for most of his life. And, it’s a shame that he had to wait until he believed he was going to die to assert what others could so easily say. We want to be loved but for all of the wrong things. Thus, I’ve often been critical of culture on the whole and this is one of my main points of contention.
I’ve suffered as much in silence as did those who weren’t sure of my love but desperately wanted it. And the kids, like my client and her brother, with similar upbringings struggle as much. As I began to express myself in writing, I learned that the line between strength and weakness was blurred in reality, because one is actually strong in expressing his weakness. And in that reality, the universe cries out for both. Like the changing seasons, our internal voices lead us in different directions depending on context. My problem, as that of many others, was an inability to adapt, to project strength in its multiple forms, to simply say: I love you, too.