Picture a twenty-four-year-old adorable, intelligent but anxious and insecure young man. Joe, as I will call him, often feels frightened. If he were to pause for a moment and check in with his physical state, at most moments in the day he would feel his heart beating in his chest and a subtle full-body vibration. Sometimes he has a pit in his stomach and his appetite for food disappears.
These are all common physical symptoms of anxiety. Sensations like these are at best annoying and uncomfortable. At worst, anxiety is debilitating, paralyzing, and undermines confidence. Joe wonders why he feels anxious so often. Thoughts like, "What's wrong with me?" come into his mind and often preoccupy him, making him feel worse by adding shame on top of anxiety. This experience is going on secretly inside him. To the rest of the world he seems “fine.”
Tonight Joe is going on a date. He wants to feel relaxed and happy. He wants to feel calm, confident, connected and clear in his thoughts -- to be “in his C’s.” He’s nervous and wants to be liked by his date. This, of course, adds pressure and increases his nervousness. How common is this? Completely universal! Yet, in our cultures, it is not necessarily cool to discuss or confess how we actually feel. So we pretend.
When a person can be real and authentic about their feelings in the presence of an accepting, caring, non-judgmental person, anxiety is immediately reduced and closeness created. Pretending to feel one way when you really feel another takes valuable energy. Plus, pretending you are something you are not is isolating—it creates shame. Our culture teaches us, particularly men, to act tough and confident, to NOT have tender feelings or sensitivities. However, tender feelings like sadness, fear, anxiety and shame are universal without exception. The truth is that all people suffer from anxiety even if they cover it up. It is so curious to me why talking about it makes others uncomfortable, so they judge.
Let’s imagine Joe starts off his date by sharing what he truly feels in the moment. He says to the person across from him, "I am very nervous. Dating doesn't come so easily to me."
As you read this, imagine someone saying this to you on a first date. How do you feel upon hearing this? What does it evoke in you? Does the openness and vulnerability turn you on or off? Do you see it as strength or weakness? Does it draw you in or push you away? Do you feel, “Me too!” What would you say in response? Are you stuck as to how to respond? Just notice your thoughts, emotions, and impulses, without judging yourself.
Ideally, Joe could share his fears about dating or any other feelings for that matter. Ideally he could "confess" to being dysregulated--his body “upset” to an uncomfortable emotional state. Ideally he could talk about feeling insecure and anxious. And, ideally, his date would say, “I understand. You're human.” Then they could both relax a little bit more and enjoy getting to know other things about each other.
Men don't typically feel free to be emotionally honest and authentically vulnerable for many good reasons. Our culture still dictates that men have to act "strong" or else they are not men. Many “bros” as well as women in our culture are unkind to men who own or admit to tender feelings like fear, anxiety, sadness and shame. They judge these admissions as a sign of weakness. But, feelings are not for the weak, they are for the human! And it takes courage to be real.
If we know that emotions are universal regardless of sex or gender;
And if we know men experience tender feelings, but bury them to maintain a myth about what it means to "be a man;"
Then why do we perpetuate this unattainable and unhealthy emotional standard for men?
Check out the FREE resources and articles on emotions scattered throughout this website. And for an easy, accessible emotion education, with stories and exercises that teach how to work with emotions, check out the book, It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect With Your Authentic Self (Random House & Penguin UK, 2018)