Men's Emotional Barriers: Why They Laugh at Support and Choose Silence
I'm currently reading Isaac and the Egg by Bobby Palmer.
On page 109 there's an incisive articulation of what happens when men don't communicate their emotions to the people closest to them.
The central character is Isaac. Early on in the book you learn he has been widowed and is struggling to keep it together.
But it unfolds that the problems Isaac is wrestling now didn't start with the death of his wife, Mary, but have simply been made worse by the tragedy.
"A trickle of guilt slides down the walls of Isaac's stomach.
He remembers Scotland, more recently. At his lowest point, still refusing to let her in. Isaac had laughed when Mary had told him he might benefit from therapy too.
Half an hour in the barber's chair with Tommy every few weeks was more than enough time to spill his deepest secrets. When he'd been ashamed of his struggles to make friends in a new town, or near-crushed by the weight of deadlines pressing down on his chest like an anvil, it was Tommy to whom he'd turned.
He'd never wanted to worry Mary. But in not wanting to worry her, he'd shut her out.
He'd been defensive, dismissive. She'd been hurt.
Isaac's lip trembles. He wishes he'd taken it more seriously. He wishes he'd taken her more seriously. He wishes they'd had more time."
Let's analyse three points from this little section of the novel, because it is such a good example of how men can often operate when it comes to their emotional literacy - laughing at support and choosing silence.
Then, I'll give you some tips on making sure you don't fall foul of each situation.
1. Men don't believe they can receive support.
"Isaac had laughed when Mary had told him he might benefit from therapy too."
The idea of speaking to a stranger about how you feel, and getting that stranger's input, seems laughable to many men. And when I say laughable, I mean ridiculous, absurd, unbelievable.
We laugh when we witness something contrary to social expectations; someone falls down when they should've walked forward, someone pulls a face when they should've stayed neutral. We laugh because the action in the situation disrupts our assumed reality, in a very delightful way.
For many men the idea of being able to be helped, in a clinical or personal setting, is similarly reality-disrupting, but not in a delightful way. And so, presented with that situation, they laugh: it is absurd, and unbelievable.
That's because it is contrary to the expectations and reality they have been raised with - that they cannot be helped, should not be helped, because they should be doing it all alone.
This reality does not create sustainable success, yet it's the one most men are living in.
(I go into this more in my talks on Emotional Literacy and Relationships).
Your action: If you're prone to laughing at suggestions of support from people close to you, reflect on what your expectation is. Why is it so laughable that you could get support to succeed, and benefit from that support? Ask yourself: What version of reality would I need to accept to be able to receive support, and how do I feel about that reality?
2. Men choose who they talk to carefully - often for negative reasons.
"Half an hour in the barber's chair with Tommy every few weeks was more than enough time to spill his deepest secrets."
In my field research interviews with men about wellbeing and personal issues, the majority of them said they had perhaps one or two close friends they turned to about their problems, but that was all. There's an assumption, perhaps, that those friends were "more than enough" to share issues with.
Similarly, just like in the novel, a barber or a barman a man knows well might take this role, particularly if that man is averse to in-depth discussion about his problems.
Because a barber or a barman is doing something else while you are talking to them; they are half-listening, half cutting hair or half-pulling beer. They're not really listening, not like a coach does for the purposes of reflecting back to you reality as you are defining it.
Which means it's easy to hide from the reality you are defining, even as you pretend you are spilling some "deepest secrets".
Your action: Think about who in your life you speak to about your "deepest secrets". Are those people really listening to you, and challenging your perceptions? Are you finding new ways to succeed through carefully choosing the people you talk to? Or are you opting for someone who is half-listening, so you can hide from your reality?
3. Men don't want to be a burden, but then become one.
"He'd never wanted to worry Mary. But in not wanting to worry her, he'd shut her out."
So this is the big one. As I teach in my ebook and webinar, Breaking the Silence, one of the reasons men often don't talk about how they feel is because they do not want to burden the people closest to them.
It's a good intention, with a bad effect. It goes like this:
You have a problem
You don't want to burden the people closest to you
So you say nothing
The people closest to you know something is up, because they know you
They expend energy trying to engage you in an emotionally-literate conversation
You deny that engagement
They feel shut out and tired
You therefore have another problem alongside the original one
This cycle is why your partner says "What's wrong? Something's up" or "I can tell you're not okay, what is it?" when you think you've got your best poker face on. They know you, they know something is not okay, and yet you are denying that engagement with your own emotions - you're denying intimacy as I define it.
Your emotions - whether 'good' or 'bad' - are not a burden, even if they feel like it at times. Emotions are the best guidance system we've got. And they are a gift that can bring you and someone you care about closer together.
Your action: Next time your partner or a very close friends says "What's wrong?" give yourself a moment and ask yourself "What's getting in the way of me telling them?". You could even make a list of those barriers: is it shame? Fear? Is it something more nuanced, like not believing they can handle it? Then take those to your men's coach to help you move past them.
This short section from Isaac and the Egg by Bobby Palmer gives us a concise lesson in the ways men laugh at support and choose silence when it comes to their emotions, and what happens as a result:
Men don't believe they can receive support, because that idea disrupts their reality and expectations of 'doing it alone'.
Men choose who they talk to carefully - often for subconsciously negative reasons which allow them to talk without really being heard.
Men don't want to be a burden, but then become one through denying emotionally-literate conversations.
And I suggested three action points for you to practise to avoid falling foul of these situations:
Reflect on why you push away suggestions of support: What version of reality would you need to accept to be able to get the support you need to succeed?
Think about who in your life you speak to about your "deepest secrets". Are you finding new ways to succeed through the people you choose to talk to ... or not?
List the barriers that get in the way of telling people closest to you how you feel, especially when they ask "What's wrong?". Remember, your emotions are a gift, not a burden.
As always, if you are ready to receive the support you need to succeed in new ways - especially when it comes to your emotional literacy - then book in a men's coaching consultation with me.
It's 20-30 minutes long and an opportunity to learn how taking part in high performance men's coaching could benefit you (and the people you love).