April 20, 2016

The Male Emotional Suppression Cycle
and Human Volcanoes

I'm sitting in a boy's high school group across the circle from a young guy whose eyes are darting around the room. He is unconsciously biting his fingernails, and his right leg is continuously bouncing at a ferocious pace. Let’s call him Joe. Looking at Joe, it feels to me like I’m watching a wild animal that has been backed into a corner. I’ve known that kind of agitation as a teen and recognize what’s underneath. For the first few weeks of the group, whenever it was Joe’s turn to speak, he’d usually say there's nothing much going on in his life. We see a lot of guys like Joe.

Looking at Joe, it feels to me
like I’m watching a wild animal
that has been backed into a corner.

So much of what happens in the group is about working against the male stereotypes that say, man up, be tough, don’t show your pain, and just play hurt. It’s those messages that are at the core of Joe’s limited ability to really understand and work with his internal emotional life. More about Joe at the end of this post.

Teenage males like Joe have no choice but to live through the often difficult challenges of their home life, complex and mystifying social relationships, academic demands, and the multiple losses that are a common part of a young man's adolescence. Without a safe place, permission, and support to risk emotional expression, the internal pressure can only build. With no positive avenues for release, they become emotionally pressurized like Joe, a kind of human volcano. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see impatience, restlessness, anger, bullying, explosive violence, or the even the darker side of unexpressed feelings, hopelessness and depression.

With no positive avenues for release,
they become emotionally pressurized like Joe,
a kind of human volcano.

Mark Greene is the Executive Editor at The Good Men Project (GMP) and the author of a great new book, Remaking Manhood. In an article for GMP Mark offers us a beautifully simple graphic which begins to explain the trap in which young guys like Joe and so many men, are caught. It describes how, starting from early childhood, boys are taught to suppress their emotions and narrow their range of expression. Mark calls it The Male Emotional Suppression Cycle (MESC).

Some real life examples of the costs of The Male Emotional Suppression Cycle for men come from an article and video recently published in the UK HUFFPOST Lifestyle section. In the article by Kenny Mammarella-D'Cruz, titled Man Up!, he describes the wrenching emotional impact of a significant loss in his family life when he was a young man, how poorly he dealt with it, and the costs to him well into his adult life.

Kenny was also one of the men profiled in a powerful four minute documentary on BBC3 Online titled "It's Tough Being A Man." In the short video below, thirteen men describe the pressures they faced to be silent in the face of trauma in their lives, and why for them, it's tough being a man in Britain today.

If this clip doesn't show up use this link.

I'm hoping you're beginning to understand the importance of helping young men like Joe to get an early start on developing an emotional vocabulary and the ability to be vulnerable enough to use it in the right places.

You might be happy to hear Joe has continued to attend the school support group. It has taken weeks for him to learn to trust the men and other guys. The stories others have shared helped him to know he’s not alone in what he’s facing. Over time, Joe has given us a peek into his world. Gradually we’ve learned about his absent parents, his need to be always on guard in his violent neighborhood, and the very real fear he carries for his safety and that of his little brother and sister. Joe has started to unpack himself, decompress a little, and in the process, developed some allies who understand and care.

If guys (of any age) can find their way to a safe, non-judgmental, and supportive group where emotional truth is shared, there is enormous normalizing and healing power available. When that happens, men and boys no longer have to be alone with their fears, traumas, or shame. As a bonus, they also find a place to celebrate their joys and successes. I'm pretty sure there's a group like that near you if you can find the courage to go looking.

And then, how about showing up for the Joes in your world so they don't have to wait until mid-life to unpack themselves and find good adult male allies? If you’d like to talk about how to start a group for young guys, send me a quick message. All it takes is the courage to take the next step in that direction, and you just might find yourself making a big difference in some male lives. You can be sure the young men are waiting for you to show up!

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