February 24, 2015

A Dead Horse and Young Guys Having Feelings

In our school circles, it always hits me hard to see the young men struggle to describe their feelings. The incredibly limited emotional vocabulary they have available is almost tragic and a very hard thing to witness. We always start our groups with a check in. In that round, each male gets to be heard saying their name, a feeling, and then answer a question about their lives. The feeling statement is the hardest for them. When trying to name a feeling, I often hear, "I don't know," "numb," "chill," "cool," "okay," or sometimes "confused," and way too often some version of being angry.

In one check in, a young man took the risk of sharing the story of how, on the previous night, he watched while his horse had to be put down with a bullet to the head. That story was a punch in my gut, and I could actually feel the sadness and grief in him needing to be released. Instead, looking down as he talked, he just kept shaking his head, tapping his feet, and saying how it really sucked man, and it wasn't fair man. His damp eyes and restless agitation spoke volumes, but he managed to keep the deep sadness bottled up inside.

On hearing his story, the rest of the group was in a kind of collective shock. All the suffering kid got back was nervous laughter and some verbal validation of how brutal and unfair it all was. The strangest thing was after the brief two minutes of hearing this powerful story, the group charged right on past it to the next young man's check in. I think in doing so, they were giving the grieving kid the message, suck it up, play hurt, and stuff all the hurt back inside.

. . . suck it up, play hurt,
and stuff all the hurt back inside!

It takes time to build enough trust in a container of men and boys before it can hold the larger feelings churning below the surface of young male bravado and behind the mask that says, I can handle it all. In the group that day, we did go back to validate the strength it took for the young man to witness his horse's death, to honor the love he had for the animal, and to give him (males) permission to cry about the loss if he wanted. When asked, most of the other guys in the circle were able to name major losses in their lives. Only tiny hints about the potency of those losses showed through their reporting. They also offered up some positive and some not-so-good coping strategies for dealing with grief. Along the way, we got to insert some new feeling words for the grieving process into the conversation. It was a hard circle for the guys, but we all came closer together for the shared intimacy. In the closing round, one young man actually said, Bless all broken male hearts.

Bless all broken male hearts

Alexithymia is the term for people who have difficulty in identifying, experiencing, or describing emotional material. Yet another other cost of a limited feelings vocabulary is a lack of empathy. That's the inability to really know what someone else is feeling because you've never experienced those feelings and simply don't "get it." I think it's why I "felt" the young man's deep sadness at the loss of his horse, and the rest of the group was so ready to just get on with the check in. It's not that they didn't care, but behind their masks, there were simply no emotional tools to understand that much pain.

Continually witnessing young guys in school circles struggling with their emotions keeps bringing me back to a couple scary thoughts. The first is a quote from Dr. William Pollack in his book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. Pollack, talks about boy's limited emotional vocabulary and the Boy Code. The code says, except for anger, showing any other big feelings means you're weak, and thus vulnerable. The cost for young men living up to that code is a tragedy we see on the news almost nightly. Pollack's quote rightly says, If we don't let our boys cry tears, they'll cry bullets. The second scary idea is that all school shooters are angry boys.

Another book on this topic by Dr. Max Wachtel is, The One Rule For Boys: How Empathy And Emotional Understanding Will Improve Just About Everything For Your Son. Dr. Wachtel is a psychologist who has worked with boys and men caught up in the justice system.

He has directly witnessed the damage a lack of empathy and emotional understanding can cause. His ‘one rule’ is, when boys are taught and encouraged to recognize and express their feelings, and to understand how other people feel―rather than being tough, unemotional, and clueless about the motivations of others―the world becomes a happier, healthier, and safer place.

I know the work we're doing in school-based support circles for our young men is making a difference. If you want to talk about how to set up a group to support the men and young men in your world, give me a shout.

Dr. Wachtel says, if we support them in the development of an emotional life, our boys will be:
. . . less aggressive, more assertive, have a higher quality of friends, get better jobs, get more chances to get into college if they want to, they are happier, treat women better, have better marriages and are better leaders.

Now there's a whole bunch of reasons to circle up the men and boys for some conversation!

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  1. Mike Patrick12:28 PM

    Thanks for posting this, Earl. It's a tough subject and I'm not sure exactly how to deal with it. I get similar situations and the boy often will not show his emotion because he perceives it as being weak and the other boys will laugh at him.

    I'm not sure how to deal with it other than to say each situation needs to be handled differently and appropriately for that particular issue.

    Young boys believe they are weak if they show emotion in any kind of a trauma. Losing your horse is like losing a family member. The students need to understand that and it is not easy to get past old stereotypes. It's a tough issue. Thanks for addressing it.

    1. Good men modeling and emotional life and giving that implicit and actual permission is a good start. I encourage men in contact with young guys to always see themselves as teachers, only because the young dudes are always watching.

  2. Brad D.11:06 AM

    A Dead Horse and Young Guys Having Feelings - Excellent!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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