men's psychology

Happy Triggering

The holiday's are upon us.  For many this involves not only HIGH high's, but also LOW low's.  Like it or not, family is a bright red button, waiting to be pushed and trigger an explosive response.

 Our family of origin is also usually the original cause of most of our relational issues, the place of our primal wound.  That can translate into a deeply upsetting, and emotionally disturbing experience, especially during the holiday's--when we're hoping for a little cheer and goodwill.

When I was a kid I felt like holiday’s were magical and sparkling. I loved them! I was the child who was MOST identified with the wonder of the season, in my family. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that the time actually produces an intense sadness, and sometimes even a kind of anxiety that grips me. Thanks to some solid mentoring in my life I’ve been able to identify what was going on…the holiday’s—with all their wonder—are like heavy lifting for my soul. Big payoffs…but also a lot of self-punishment and pressure. In fact this time of year, and especially around my family of origin, I start to shut down just a little. I get…GRINCH.

I’ve come to realize, I’m hardly alone. In my work with men I’ve discovered that for many of us the holiday season is filled with pressure to perform, painful memories and triggering interactions. Men tend to underperform in this setting. I commonly hear men say that they shut down, they hide, they sedate or numb. What’s the turn into? More often than not, just the feeling of being used—throwing cash at the kids, while inwardly hiding.

But things don't have to stay toxic.  Actually the holiday's and the potential of trigger's coming up make it the best time to explore the hurt that's lying underneath.  We can settle into an experience of "ourselves" and the basic goodness of life, so that when the buttons are pushed, we don't explode.

I'll freely admit that family, especially my parents, but also my siblings, and my own children, trigger me to no end.  But, in doing this, they help me become who I really hope to be, and actually am.  By directing my attention to the hurting places when the pain occurs, my family unknowingly, allows me insight into where the work needs to be done. As the old saying goes, "the wolf that howls is the one that got hit." The hurting parts of our selves are the places that need to be attended to.  From the place of healthy ego-strength we're able use these frustrating moments to identify and address the underlying pain--fragmented, and tender.

When we realize that our relationships can act as mirrors, instead of writing people off, we can actually come to a place of gratitude, where we thank them for such provoking behavior or attitudes, because we can deal with the unfinished business needing work.

So--from this strength position, we can welcome the holiday's as an opportunity to do the work, to grow, and be shaped by deep truth.  Imagine the healing that could come from this shift of attitude.  That's something to be thankful for.

A Step By Step Guide

  • Take the hit—step one is literally this…just STOP. Fucking pause. Freeze your body. Don’t move. Don’t say a word. Don’t do a single blessed thing. Just stop. Breathe. Get the air conditioning going….respirate.

  • Feel the feelings—you don’t have to try and control them, modulate them, or distort them. Just notice them: who, what, when, and where. See if you can locate the PHYSICAL SENSATION that occurs when Aunt Glady’s says that annoying as hell comment, or your child shrieks for the thirteenth time that they need help, or your dad refuses to acknowledge you are your own man. Where do you feel that on your body? What’s happening in you?

  • Observe the impulse— again, there’s no need to act on this. You don’t have to go to the store on the 5th errand just yet (come on—we all know that you’re just going to smoke an unplanned cigarette that you allegedly quit anyway). You don’t need to bite off Uncle Frank’s head. Don’t do it. Just notice. Log it in your invisible anthropology journal (I like to play the anthropologist game in my imagination where I pretend to be observing myself like an alien might. “The human is now feeling his blood boil….the human is having the impulse to explode…etc…”). Just notice.

  • Name the feeling—put the sensation in your body, together with the impulse you just observed and give it a name. Believe you me, this is harder than it sounds actually. Sometimes you think that its anger—when really its fear. Sometimes you imagine its love, when its lust…etc…You sort of have to actually go to the root. And lets face it—most men just want to move forward. Do yourself (and us all) the favor and wait…really get to the root of it and name the feeling, cool?

  • Decide what would be effective—You know what you want to do…but is it effective? Is it really worth it? Is it actually the justifiable action? These are valid questions. They deserve real responses. An action urge is justified if the emotion is legitimate. For instance the urge associated with SHAME is to hide. So you have to ask the question—do I really have something I SHOULD be ashamed of? If so, then you’d need to ask if that’s actually effective to do? Would hiding yourself, or withdrawing actually accomplish your long term goals? (And by the way—some time’s the answer is totally YES!) The same would go for ANGER whose accompanying impulse is to fight back, to retaliate, or to push through. Is the anger justified? Is a goal really truly being blocked, or do you just have a short fuse? Etc…then—even if it IS justified—would it be effective to actually hit Uncle Frank? You get the idea.

  • Act and bear the consequences—This is that moment when you get to do what your highest and best self has counseled you to do. This is exciting! You get to take it on. And just notice the difference. It genuinely feels better. Doesn’t it?

The Gift of Being Triggered

Our thoughts, feelings, and intention-making capacity are littered with trigger points.  All it takes is the wrong person to set one of them off.  The truth is that usually it takes someone special to detonate one of those.  That makes sense right?  Our entire lives we've built up emotional armor to protect ourselves and prevent getting hurt.  The folks we let in are really the ones who have access to those incredibly tender spaces--where most of our explosive capacities are hidden.

So our spouse gets blasted with a wall of quiet rage.

Our children are hammered with our need for control and our frustration at being OUT of control.

Our best friends take the majority of our inner critique and then our over-compensating sense of blind-loyalty (which as a side note is as detrimental as being judgmental).

You get the idea....

The reason is because our deepest wounds are most accessed by those closest to us.

When we're triggered, when something in our thoughts or feelings or choosings is detonated, and we switch into fight or flight mode--it becomes an opportunity to see exactly where the wound is--where we are broken, and defensive of.

These places of reaction hold within them the capacity to become a road map of our psyche--showing us exactly where we need to be transformed next.

We are tempted to withdraw from relationships when triggered too much, and in the cases of abuse or mental or physical harm this is absolutely appropriate. But for most of us, we simply become disillusioned with discomfort and run, rather than realize the gift of such spaces. We will experience transformation to the degree that we allow our relationship with others, and most of all the failures involved within them, to be SELF revealing.

It's always about us...but will we be awake enough to notice?

This holiday season, why not allow those trigger points to become moments where you notice who you are and what your armors are. It’s time to put the child aside, and become the man.

The Weaker Sex

Listen to the main stream media today, or an activist gender’s studies professor, and you’ll quickly be slammed in the face with the idea that the current eco-system of culture is one dominated by men, and male oppression. The good ole boy’s network and rape culture are synonymous with simply being a man in the world, it is said.

Once, I taught a grad school class of would be counselors on the topic of male psychology. They were mostly females, consistent with the general trend in that field. I asked them to explore the stereotypes that came to their mind when they thought of men and boys. Without much thought the board was populated with words such as “bully” “oppressor” “hero complex” “broken” “asshole” “liar” “scary” and “violent.” These were the views that they had downloaded and developed across six years of college and graduate school. I was stunned. While I had anticipated some negative perception, I hadn’t considered that the overwhelming majority would be characterized by this. Now remember, this class was less than a year a way from becoming your sons next mental health counselor. These opinions are  those belonging to the now-gate keepers for what is deemed “mentally healthy” or “normal” in our society. For them, as for many today, being born a man is something akin to the old religious concept of “original sin,” a hopeless and fated destiny to violate and victimize, but without the accompanying vision of necessary redemption. Whatever religion once was, at least it offered a way for redemptive justice. Post-religious and secular society simply punctuates their sinners with an eternal damnation. Why? Because there is the notion that in fact men are the stronger sex, the ones benefiting from a rigged system, and the ones in complete control.

To be honest, I get that. I really do. At first blush it could appear that way.

However, the landscape of what it means to be a "male" in the United States is changing. People unfamiliar with the research and the actual numbers may completely miss that it is Men who are somewhat on the decline.There are actually many researchers who say that it's not just men in the US, or even human's alone, that are experiencing a decline in the Y chromosome. One scientist stated that species wide the Y genetic marker is literally disappearing! Yes that’s right, from bullfrog’s to elephants, their Y is shrinking. And even if that's not the case, when we scratch beneath the surface its apparent  that worldwide something is truly changing. The surge of differing opinions on the cause points to a remarkable complexity about where this is all coming from, but the simple fact remains, in a truly sublime reversal: Men have become the WEAKER sex.

Consider the Facts

  • Males are more likely to be born premature, blind, autistic, color blind and develop early hearing loss.

  • Boys are 3x more likely to be placed in special education or disability services.

  • Boys have lower GPA’s and lower test scores in every major subject than girls

  • Boys constitute 60% of highschool drop-outs

  • Women now earn over 60% of college degrees

  • As of 2008 men were the minority in Ivy League institutions

  • Men earn fewer than 40% of graduate degrees

  • Childless men earn an average of 10% less than women in 147 out of 150 major US cities

  • The median earnings for men has remained the same since 1970, compared to sharp gains for women in similar fields.

  • 50%of men of color between 16-24 are unemployed

  • 35% of men of color will spend time in prison

  • Health care prevention spending is double for women than men (an example is $394 million in prostate cancer research versus $710 million for breast cancer, with a higher projected number to be diagnosed).

  • The average life expectancy for men is 69.8 compared to 80.4 years for women

  • Men are twice as likely to die from a major disease than women

The not so subtle data seems to be pointing to a multi front shutting down, tuning out, and turning off of men.  Education, health, employment, are the big ones--but another set of major statistics jumps out at me.

Men’s Emotional Dilemma

  • 2/5 first time fathers report depression following birth of child

  • Men and women are just as likely to develop Bi-Polar disorder

  • Four times as many men commit suicide as women

  • Suicide is the leading cause in adolescent male death ages 16-24

  • Men stand a higher chance of being diagnosed with an antisocial, paranoid, schizoid or schizotypal personality disorders than women

  • 80% of alcohol dependency is male

  • ADHD in young children is far more prevalent in boys than it is girls

  • 69% of dependency on illegal narcotics is found in males

  • Twice as many men are diagnosed with PTSD than women

  • Men are more likely to be admitted in to a psychiatric ward

  • 67 per cent of suicidal young men say they have nowhere to turn for emotional help

  • The fastest growing population of suicidality is men over the age of forty.

Sam's Story

Years ago a gentleman named Sam came to me from a state hospital where he had been involuntarily confined due to uncontrollable suicidal urges. What I was so struck by the first moment I saw him was how "normal" he looked. This guy didn't look psychotic. He was square jawed, well dressed, even tempered and polite. I didn't beat around the bush--I asked him what the suicide attempt was about. Little by little his story unfolded. Years of abuse by both parents, chronic alcoholism, multiple marriages, estrangement from children--everything seemed hopeless. There's a saying that goes something like, "Truth comes out in trickles" and with Sam it felt like I was trying to draw water out of an empty well. He REALLY didn't want to talk about it. Finally I leaned in and said what I was thinking, "Sam, I'm wondering if I'm the first person you've actually told this to..."

Everything stopped...

He broke. A torrent of emotion poured out from him. He couldn't contain himself. His whole life he had been trying to deal with this on his own. He had been attempting to keep it together, largely with disastrous results.

There is an entire population like him. Men, keeping a sinking ship afloat. One of the most common observable traits about men is their "apparent competence."  This means not letting others know that they've gotten to him. Who knows how long that kind of behavior has been engrained--in fact scientists actually wonder if the "stiff upper lip" is a genetic marker found in males. A sort of predisposition to keeping calm and carrying on.

At any rate--it may be programmed in, but its NOT working for millions of men today.

Everything is Different. Nothing's Really Changed

The simple truth is that in this shifting society if men don't modulate with it they stand the risk of being left behind. Millennia old skill sets such as stuffing emotion and acting opposite of feelings (the will to power) only get us so far in a culture that increasingly values soft skills. 

I recently had the privilege of being with a large corps of United States Military high ranking officers. One of them confided in me that civilians often failed to understand their culture, and in fact did damage to their basic mission by attempting to impose our own ethical standards onto the military. I was intrigued and he explained, "Take empathy for instance... You say that's something I should develop as a human. But the truth is, I can't have empathy. I can't try to see through the enemies eyes or develop a sense of compassion for him. If I did, I couldn't kill him..."  I was taken a back but the power of his statement. While that is not how I view the world I could understand from his own framework that this made complete sense.

What's more is that I felt as though I was being allowed in on a window into primal male culture. Go backwards 500 years ago, 5,000 years, or 50,000 years ago. Men often served a unique function. Hunting, raiding, and warring. Our bodies were equipped for it in many ways. And our minds adapted similarly. We suppressed emotions, limited qualities such as connectedness, networking, empathy and compassion. These were, as the army officer said, liabilities in a time of crisis when hesitation meant death--and potentially annihilation for tribe and family.

Today this ability to suppress, repress, and shut off awareness of emotion, connection to others, and reaching out when helpless, no longer serves. There are few places where those qualities find application. Oddly, society seems to prefer this arrangement. We wish to have fire departments that take risks and demonstrate courage, militaries that demand precise aggression, strength and honor, and police departments that are swift in their punitive function. As long as they have the bases covered—the rest of us don’t have to develop these functions.

In fact, todays world requires the very opposite of the specific tool kit we men have been honing for thousands of years. The reality is that if we don't aggressively learn new skills we'll continue to see a declining role in culture at large.

A Balanced View

One of the men I've gotten to know across the past two years while working through my own intimacy addiction said it like this, "I wasn't good at sports. I wasn't good at school. Sex--intimacy, relationships (pleasing a woman)--that was something I could get real good at."  

I get it. And this isn't about being someone who lacks accomplishments. Its about finding value and worth anywhere you can.

Currently men are told that their inherent skill sets hardwired into them through 2.5 million years of hominid evolution, such as aggression, assertion, and activeness, are no longer needed. We are explicitly told this, and implicitly also. Every day we witness men who are aggressive be incarcerated, men who are assertive called assholes and power-mongers, and men (but especially boys) who are active are medicated with chemicals to reduce their restlessness. Even if there was not an overt dogma around the unwelcome reality of being a man culturally,  it would be easily deciphered by our actions. 

Men are told to change, but then are offered precious few rewards for such changes. While we are told to be "better men" in order to participate in society, the payoff for doing so is not only diminished but ideologically so. The implication is that "males had their chance" and now its time to move over and "let women have the steering wheel."  In other words--at best, all of our new found adaptation and suppression of instinct buys us a ticket in coach. We are now invited to be sight see-ers, because our "time is up." 

Some of these shifts are so healthy. The neanderthalic patriarch of the 1950's where "father knows best" is not only no longer needed--it probably never was. There was a power imbalance. It held so much ego. Men did not have to work on themselves, grow, or develop. They could simply be grouchy, sluggish, abusive or perverted--and it was ok.  But it shouldn't have been. The macho-jerk was little better than an animal. 

The Boomer's knew that. In the Vietnam War era they began to push away from the patriarchal archetype towards something new and "softer."  By integrating the Feminine, the goddess, into their psyche's men discovered the qualities of emotional expression, networking, and intimate connection. Several new generations of men allowed themselves to become allies and champions of the oppressed and identified as warriors of a different ilk. It was necessary, and powerful.

However--something was lost. 

The emotions most commonly reported to be experienced in men today are rage and shame. This is true for any number of reasons, but the primary one is that we feel voiceless and trapped. A changing world has left us feeling more isolated, less hopeful, and utterly powerless in knowing what to do.  We feel ashamed that we are out of line with the expectations of culture, and then in turn become aggressive as a way of compensating.  These two emotions split out into two different types of men.

I watch this play out in these two breeds of men: the overly macho jerk, beefed up, juiced up and wound out. The asshole. He's the worst kind of cartoon version of himself. And it's strange because these guys really do exist. But the other side is the cultural male who experiences shame over the millennia of patriarchy and oppression his gender have caused. Rather than feeling empowered to join in a shifting landscape, he feels minimized and desiccated. These caricatures are what men's worker David Deida called "the macho jerk and the new age wimp." I get it--I identify with both. And it breaks my heart because I know we've got to integrate the two.

There’s got to be something in between the Pro Bro’s and bonobo’s, something between The Animal and the Civilized person. Plato rather famously said: “He who is only an athlete is too crude, too vulgar, too much of a savage. He who is a scholar only is too soft, too effeminate. The ideal citizen is the scholar athlete, the man of thought and the man of action.”

Today men trying to regain their own sense of autonomy and authority in the world are quick to revert to a certain kind of macho stereo type. I don’t necessarily mean that they become Neanderthal dicks walking around smacking women around. I just mean that between the culture of “pick-up-artistry” that tells men that in order to be a man they need to seduce and destroy, or the culture of militant strength in which to prove masculinity men learn the skills of pre-industrial Europe (chopping wood, crawling in the mud, digging ditches, and throwing boulders), men are given a road map that’s antiquated. It will make you feel empowered for a moment, but you actually won’t make the strides you’ve been looking for. Such activity might tap into the primalness of movement, however it will leave the other parts—arguably far more ancient ones—untouched.

Library’s are lined with books about what men should do, and how they should do it. Dummy’s Guides to Masculinity. But men don’t need another set of rules to follow. Performance is, as I’ve said before, simply another trap. No, They need to discover their own souls, waiting—hidden, often scared and scarred—wanting to be found.

Just the other day I was walking down the block in my neighborhood when I was struck by how many men in their mid-thirties were just walking around with this glazed over, listless, expression. There was something hopeless I was encountering. It has a name: Despair. 

A job is no substitute for a vocation. A marriage partner is miles away from a lover and a co-warrior. Children aren't the only legacy we leave behind. And a vacation to Disneyland, a trip to the coast, or a massage aren't adequate compensation for the grueling reality of “a job that slowly kills you and bruises that don't heal” (to quote Radiohead)

Steps Forward For Men

You cannot build a life worth living without Purpose. Our deep need is to find a sense of calling, dive in fully to a feeling of mission and vision. Without those qualities we stagnate.

But how do you find your calling? How do you live on purpose and with intention?

First, it’s about finding your “WHY?” As Nietzsche reminds us, “A man will endure any HOW if he knows his WHY.”

To often we are given false motivations and values—The products of religion, the state, and corporate branding. It is rare for a man to actually know what he values, as so often he only values what others have told him is valuable. Indeed, if men are to find what is meaningful to them, they must first be willing to shed what has been meaningful to others. This is inherently a deconstructive process. It is not for the faint of heart. Truthfully most men will avoid this type of deconstruction as long as they can, preferring instead to cling to what mom, dad, teachers, preachers, and leaders have instilled in them. It often takes a significant fall from grace such as the loss of a reputation, the admission of addiction, the failure of a marriage, bankruptcy, etc, to push men to a place of dis-illusionment. But it need not be so. A far better alternative is an orderly process in which men can observe their own conditioning, and unwind some of the knot, in order to find the ground of their own highest values.

Finding your WHY, inevitably leads to the HOW. The best steps are small but confident ones. Goal setting, provided these are actually YOUR goals and not the conditioned effects of the world at large, is important. They must be challenging but attainable. In fact MASTERY comes when we set our aim on something difficult but doable, and then accomplish it! As we grow in mastery, our confidence grows, and we continue to take greater and greater strides. Yet herein lies an obstacle. Men like to take it ALL on…ALL at ONCE. This is an easy trap to fall into. But don’t do it. Set ONE priority—not many. Choose ONE value to allow to play out into your life in this moment. Build on ONE goal. Then move on. While this may be frustrating for a man who feels like his entire life is broken down, its actually the road out of hell—one step at a time.

Finally—men need a TRIBE. They must be seen, they must be heard. The great sense of isolation that we experience today is directly counter acted by a community of men urging us onward. Find a few other men, build on shared interests and common values. Choose a night and simply get together. Have fun. Read books. Laugh. And then, push yourselves to be authentic. Talk about what is ACTUALLY going on, and not only the surface. This is what changes us, and prevents the burn out that so often comes with manhood today.

Conclusion

I think my hope in working with men is that guys like Sam find a place to show up, to turn on, and to be fully engaged. Where we can somehow experience something exceptional, even for a moment, and know that somehow it's going to be alright--that there are alternatives and our lives aren't stuck in vain.

The truth is I have four children, and three of them are sons. I wonder what the kind of world they'll encounter will be. I wonder what role they'll play. That is the world I'm working to create--one where the masculine has a place, beyond shame and rage. I don’t believe men ARE the weaker sex. I just think we’re in a pickle—a real cultural moment—where there a few wins for us. Sometimes its as though the best we can hope for is to simply “be an ally” as the world of women now rises. That's important to champion, but so is having your own sense of passion, purpose, and mastery. As we, here at Evolving Wild, or through our podcast Lost Man Standing, continue to speak out, we are witnessing men begin to take ownership of their lives. To say, “I am I and you are you—and together we can achieve great things!” And I think that matters.



As men are