Invisible Men … Who Are You Kidding?!
The title of this book may make you wonder, "Invisible men … who are you kidding?" Everywhere we look we see men's lives. On television, in sports, in politics, at work, and at home, men are anything but invisible. At the same time, most men's inner lives remain hidden from others and often from themselves. For centuries, men have been taught that their uncertainty, their pain, and their fear are not for public consumption; how a man really feels about his marriage, his job, his child's sickness, or himself should be kept extremely close to the vest, except under the most unusual circumstances. The bottom line is that a man's masculinity is measured in large part by his ability to make his public accomplishments widely seen and heard, while keeping his inner life silent and invisible.
This book is about the wide range of problems created by the silence and invisibility that often surround men's inner lives. These problems affect not only men but also women, children, communities, and our increasingly global society. To some degree, the feminist revolution of the 1960s and '70s raised our awareness of the damaging effects of traditional masculine roles. Yet despite this awareness, very little has changed; when emotions are running high, many men still leave the house, go on long walks, or head to the nearest bar; wives still implore men to talk about their feelings, only to be told "not now," "later," and "this is not the time."
The expectation remains that men should not get sad. They should get angry, watch sports, or drink, but they should not share their feelings. Research shows that many men who experience depression and anxiety have tremendous difficulty seeking help. For most men, admitting that they are suffering internally is more difficult than admitting that they are an alcoholic or a drug addict. After all, it is more socially acceptable for a man to be a "drunk" or a "grouch" than to suffer from what society deems a "women's issue." Thus their inner lives remain silent.
For this, men pay heavily. Recent studies have shown that conforming to traditional gender roles predicts aspects of men's functioning as diverse as a decreased sense of well-being following prostate cancer surgery, lower levels of health-promoting behaviors, higher levels of health risk behaviors, and higher levels of drug and alcohol abuse. Men still die five to seven years younger than women, and they far surpass women in rates of substance abuse, anger, aggression, and violent crime. Recent estimates suggest that 6 to 8 percent of men will suffer an episode of major depression in a given year, and 13 to 19 percent will experience a major anxiety attack. Although women are twice as likely as men to attempt suicide, men are four times as likely as women to actually take their own lives.1,2,3 It is quite likely that these problems will grow worse in the coming years unless something is done to break the shroud of silence that surrounds men's vulnerability and pain.
ENTERING THE TERRITORY
I have spent the last ten years researching, writing, and talking to men about the problems in their lives. All of this work has convinced me of two things. First, men have a lot going on underneath the surface. Second, under the right conditions almost all men are interested in sharing what they are experiencing. This happens much more easily when both men and women understand how the silence and invisibility that surround men's inner lives operate.
Once you begin to open your eyes you can see the pain in men's lives everywhere you look. Sometimes it exists on a grand scale. Witness, for example, the increasing rates of suicide among returning veterans from the Gulf wars.4,5 Other times, it occurs more locally, and the veil over men's pain is considerably more subtle. The following story illustrates just how common it has become to ignore the realities of men's lives.
I recently stopped by the local coffee shop near our university and ran into one of the staff members. I knew him reasonably well. We'd exchanged greetings and had brief conversations about the Red Sox every so often for over ten years. On this particular day our conversation went like this:
"How's it going?" he asks.
"Fine," I say. "How about you?"
"Can't complain," he says. "Work is work. You know?"
Then he grinned with that familiar mixture of 70 percent suppressed anger, 20 percent irony, and 10 percent real visible pain. Of course, being a psychologist, and being interested in men's well-being, I tune in to the anger and the pain immediately. But being a man, I know my options for how to respond are very limited. I certainly am not supposed to acknowledge his inner pain directly. I am not going to say something like "You seem really stressed; how are you doing?" We simply do not go there. So instead our interaction goes this way:
"Yep. I hear you," I say. "Friday can't come soon enough."
"Oh, yeah," he replies. "I'll be heading out on my boat and knocking back a few."
I say, "Sounds good to me. Have a great weekend."
"Yep. You too," he says.
On one level, this seems like a pretty normal casual conversation between two men. And you may be asking yourself why I am making such a big deal out of it. After all, you are not going to dump an enormous load of personal information on another guy whenever he says, "How's it going?" especially in a coffee shop. Plus, guys do not talk about that stuff. Everyone knows that; it is one of the great gender truths.
But here's the thing. Although I do not know this guy well, I know him well enough to know that he has two young kids in school, one of whom has a severe learning disability. I know that he struggles financially and that the boat is probably an excess he really can't afford. I can tell from the way he walks that he has back trouble that must cause him chronic pain in his line of work. I know all of this because over time I have paid attention to subtle cues, and I have asked the periodic personal question. I know that when he says "I am fine," that's a way of saying "I have not lost it. I am still competent. I am holding it together." And when he says "I can't complain," that's a way of saying "What am I going to do about the pain in my life? You take what life gives you."
Here's what I think is going on. Millions of men are silently struggling on the inside, and they do not have a way of talking about it. Millions of men and women are aware that something may be wrong with the men they know and care about, but they do not know how to talk with men about it. As a result, we've all tacitly agreed that "Doing fine. Can't complain" is one of the few appropriate responses to the question "How's it going?"
THE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION
How can men, as a group, be so audible, so visible, and in such positions of power in society, and yet, as individuals, feel so disempowered and experience vulnerability and inner pain that remain silent and invisible?
This book is concerned with answering that fundamental question. The more you can understand about the causes of men's hidden suffering, the more you will be empowered to do something about it. The time has clearly come to take action. The first step is actually seeing and hearing the pain that so many men keep silent and invisible.
FRAGILE VERSUS BRITTLE
In 1988 I went to graduate school at the University of Washington to work with Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. At that time Marsha was one of the very few clinical researchers in the world studying the causes and treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). BPD is a severe disorder that affects a person's mood, his or her relationships with others, self-esteem, and many other parts of life. Marsha has theorized that the core problem in BPD is difficulty in regulating emotions and that many of the additional problems (e.g., frequent attempts at suicide or other forms of self-injury) are attempts to cope with emotions that are experienced as more severe and out of control.
Over the years I became more and more interested in the psychology of men, and Marsha and I lost touch. However, a few years ago our paths crossed again. Apparently Marsha had begun working with people who met criteria for BPD and were also chronic drug or alcohol abusers. It turns out that a greater percentage of these people are men (compared to those who have BPD but do not abuse drugs and alcohol). Marsha got in touch because she had heard about my work in the psychology of men. We got to talking, and I ended up inviting Marsha to give a lecture to a recently formed special interest group from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT.org) on men's mental and physical health. Marsha said she would be happy to give a lecture, but she was concerned that she really did not know that much about the psychology of men. "That's OK," I reassured her, "just be yourself, and it will be great." I was confident of this because Marsha is known as an incredibly creative thinker with a tremendous amount of natural intuition about human suffering.
Marsha came to the meeting and spoke to a packed audience about her experiences working with men. During the question-and-answer part of her lecture, one audience member asked, "If you had to say one thing about the difference between men and women with BPD, what would it be?" Like all good scientists, Marsha was reluctant to generalize too much without sufficient data to back her up. But she eventually succumbed to the pressure to identify a difference between men and women, and she said: "In my experience, women with BPD come across as very fragile. There's something about them that seems like they are barely holding it together beneath the surface and they really need my help. The men seem less fragile and more brittle. I am not sure what that difference is exactly. But with the men it seems like if you reach out and touch them (metaphorically speaking) they might just crack entirely."
I have thought about Marsha's statements several times since then. I have often wondered about the difference between fragile and brittle and what it may have to do with the silence and invisibility of men's inner lives. I actually think that Marsha's generalization now applies not only to people with BPD but to many women and men who are struggling with painful emotions in their lives. When I think of something being fragile, I think of needing to handle it with care. I also think of it breaking easily, but also being able to be repaired or put back together. When I think of something or someone being brittle, I think of strength and resistance up to the point of cracking, and then total disrepair. I'm not saying that men can't be helped when they have problems, or that they will inevitably "crack" if we reach out to them. What I am saying is that men's vulnerability often seems more "brittle" to themselves than it does "fragile." And if you thought that you might literally crack if you let go of your efforts to hold yourself together, wouldn't you keep things quiet and hidden?
It is important to understand that for many men the fear is not necessarily of cracking and going "insane." As one participant in our research said to me, "I do not know if I am that worried about going nuts. I mean, if I was really nuts, I probably wouldn't even know it! But it is the idea of not being able to hold it together that I can't stomach." At first I didn't understand what he was saying. But I slowly realized that he was making a very important distinction: for many men the idea that they would not be able to hold themselves together, to be in control of their minds and their emotions, is scarier and more potentially shameful than actually "going crazy." Most women know that "breaking down" and sobbing for a while does not mean you are crazy; it simply means that you are unleashing a lot of emotions. Yet for many men, keeping their true inner lives silent and invisible is not a game or really even a choice. It is a highly ingrained way of life; a survival strategy learned early on that has helped them to avoid the torrent of shame that often rains down on young boys (and men) when they let their vulnerable sides show.
It is not just men who are harmed by their own silence and invisibility. Children and families can also be negatively affected. When men keep excessively quiet about their lives they are more likely to grow distant from those who love them. As many readers are undoubtedly aware, it is hard to feel close to someone who keeps everything bottled up inside. Children need to feel close to their parents. Silent and invisible men are not only affecting the quality of their relationships with their children, but also teaching those children, particularly young boys, how to handle problems in life. This is one of the major ways that the cycle is passed down from generation to generation. Work productivity can also be hindered by men's tendency to keep their real lives hidden from others. It certainly makes sense not to blurt out all your personal problems at the workplace. However, when excessive silence leads to increased depression and anxiety (as it often can), productivity decreases. In short, when men remain emotionally stoic and withdrawn, everyone suffers. Have you or someone close to you exhibited any of the following patterns of behavior?
• A man suffers the loss of a loved one and never grieves. Over the years he slowly becomes more withdrawn, has difficulty sleeping, and doesn't enjoy things as much as he used to.
• A man loses his job unexpectedly and becomes increasingly angry and bitter about life. Although he works hard to find another job, at home he seems less and less satisfied with life. His consumption of alcohol increases, and his wife and children worry more and more about him.
• A teenage boy begins to experiment with drugs and alcohol. He spends more and more time alone in his room or out late at night with friends. His grades suffer, and his parents worry about him every day. Despite their attempts to talk with him about it, he insists that nothing is wrong and nothing has changed.
• As the stress levels increase at work or school a man develops several debilitating physical symptoms such as recurrent headaches, backaches, or stomach pains. He angrily rejects the notion that he might benefit from counseling. Instead, he insists that he is not depressed, that it is "just stress," and he copes by drinking more alcohol than usual.
SILENCE, INVISIBILITY, AND THEIR SYNONYMS
It is important to understand that silence and invisibility do not always appear in literal form. In other words, men do not always physically keep quiet or hide their feelings from others. I use the terms silence and invisibility metaphorically to describe a wide range of ways in which men's inner lives are hidden, obscured, or otherwise inaccessible to individual men or those around them. Silence and invisibility are simply shorthand ways to describe a whole list of different ways in which men's true inner lives are hidden from view. To get a sense of what I am talking about, see the accompanying box, which provides a list of synonyms for silence and invisibility.
Shut up, hushed, shushed, hidden, unseen, undetectable, muted, noiseless, restrained, tongue-tied, unheard, zipped, concealed, covert, disguised, ghostly, masked, obscured, veiled, screened, shielded, shrouded, clandestine, off the record, cloaked, covered, clouded, cryptic, in the dark, screened, shadowy, underground, stealthy, under wraps, cloak and dagger, furtive, camouflaged
It is also important to understand the difference between what behaviors look like and how they function. The same behavior can have different consequences depending on when and how it occurs. Literally not talking about problems in your life can be a way to avoid painful feelings and may promote depression or other mental health issues. Alternatively, not talking can promote intimacy, as when couples sit quietly together and communicate by sharing an experience without necessarily talking. One of the goals of this book is to help you recognize when silence is a problem and when it is not. Doing so requires you to raise your awareness of the many different ways that silence and invisibility can operate in a man's life. This is easier to do when you understand what it feels like.
THE THREE P'S OF SILENCE
Men's silence can occur in at least three different ways. The first is personal silence. This is the sort of silence that occurs when a man himself does not even know that he is in pain. It has been suggested that most men are raised in such a way that they develop a mild version of a psychological condition known as alexithymia.6,7 The term literally translates as "without words for mood." In other words, on average, men may have difficulty putting what they are feeling into words.
You may wonder what it feels like to experience personal silence on a regular basis. In the book Masculinity Reconstructed,8 the psychologist Ronald Levant and coauthor Gini Kopecky tell the story of a man whose son canceled a father-son outing to a hockey game. The man had been looking forward to the outing and was obviously distressed when relaying the series of events to Levant. Levant asked the man how he felt when his son canceled, but the man couldn't answer the question. All he could say was, "He shouldn't have done it." This man was entirely unable to describe what he felt internally. It was only after Levant showed the man a videotape of himself describing the situation that the man was able to logically infer that he must have felt disappointed. This is a classic example of personal silence; a man's inner life is so silent that even he can't hear it.
You might be thinking that ignorance is bliss. After all, if you do not even know that you are feeling something painful, how painful could it actually be? Maybe those people who are often personally silent are actually happier than those who tend to know what they are feeling. Unfortunately, it doesn't usually work that way. Clinical psychologists have long noted that people who tend to be largely unaware of what they are feeling still express it in other ways, many of which can be equally or more troubling than the original feelings themselves. Unexplained medical conditions, for example, can often emerge in response to significant life stress. At a very basic immunological level it is clear that too much stress puts us at risk for a wide range of health problems. All of this is at least workable if we know when we are stressed. We can put the stress into words, perhaps share it with others, and do things to mitigate the effects of it. But what if you don't even know when you are unhappy? What do you do then?
I once worked with a man named Doug who had gotten divorced, lost his job, and moved away from his children all within the span of one year. Doug was referred to me by his primary care physician, whom he saw initially because of headaches, back pain, and difficulty sleeping. His PCP did the right thing by running some basic tests, and also inquiring about potential stressors in Doug's life. As you might expect, the medical tests revealed nothing wrong, so the PCP suggested that Doug might benefit from talking with a psychologist about some of the stresses he was facing.
When I met with him I acknowledged that Doug had been through quite a bit in a short period of time and asked him how he felt about it all. Our conversation went something like this:
ME: How do you feel about all of this?
DOUG: I don't know. Bad, I guess.
ME: Do you feel depressed at times?
DOUG: I don't think so.
ME: How about anxious?
DOUG: I don't know. I am not sure what that feels like.
ME: When you are sitting at home thinking about your kids, the divorce, and other things, how does your body feel? What do you notice about it?
DOUG: I'm not sure. Sort of tense, I guess.
ME: Do you think the stress you are experiencing could be creating the physical problems?
DOUG: I don't know. Isn't that what you're supposed to figure out?
I worked with Doug for several months, and over time he began to be better able to identify the emotions he was experiencing, including guilt, sadness, and fear about the future. Working with him was not so much a matter of "therapy" in the traditional sense of uncovering childhood traumas, analyzing dreams, and so on. It was more about simply teaching him a vocabulary to identify and express what he was experiencing privately. Given that his life had just been turned on its head, he had a lot going on.
As Doug's ability to verbalize his emotional experience increased, his physical symptoms decreased. He was also better able to communicate with his children, and to share with them his feelings about the recent life changes that affected all of them.
I think about his story whenever I am reminded of the tremendous value that emotions offer to human beings; they are powerful messengers that tell us about our relationship to our environment at any point in time. If things are going well, we tend to feel good. If not, we tend to feel bad. But if we can't know what we are feeling because of excessive personal silence, it can be very hard to know what to do when we are not quite getting along with the world, so to speak.
If personal silence is about not knowing what is going on inside of you, private silence is about knowing what is going on but choosing to keep it private. Private silence is of course very useful and appropriate under the right circumstances. We all know people who tend to keep things to themselves; it's a common character trait in both men and women. On the other hand, private silence can become a problem when it is not a choice but a default setting that rarely if ever changes.
Mike was a sixty-two-year-old working-class man who responded to a newspaper ad our research group had placed. We were looking for men who were experiencing so much stress that it got in the way of their lives, and also men who preferred to handle problems on their own. Mike arrived at our interview dressed in denim shorts, a baggy T-shirt, and a John Deere baseball cap. When I asked what led him to respond to the advertisement, Mike took a deep breath and then told me the story of his daughter, who had recently returned home after serving three years in the military in Iraq. Mike took great joy and pride in their relationship. They were extremely close and talked openly about their love for each other.
However, after returning home, Mike's daughter spent the majority of her time in bed and watching television. Eventually she became so withdrawn and depressed that she stopped speaking. Mike could not understand what was happening, but he felt his daughter's pain acutely. "It was like watching a part of myself fade away, and knowing there was nothing I could do to stop it," he told me. When he said this, I thought of my own daughter and what it would be like to lose her; a thought that was too terrifying to entertain for more than a second.
If that weren't enough, what Mike told me next made me want to flee the room. One morning Mike went to check on his daughter and found her dead in bed. Her heart had stopped beating for no apparent reason. I asked Mike how he had been coping with such a traumatic experience. He only said, "I try to go on. Try to remember what a good person she was." I then asked Mike if he talked with his wife about their daughter's death. He said that the subject was too painful to discuss. When I asked if there was anyone else he had shared this with, he said, "Nope. No one, at least until now." I asked Mike what it was like to talk about it, and he began to cry. "It's OK," he said. "Kind of good actually to get it off my chest."
Part of my research with my colleagues involves developing ways to help motivate men to share their struggles with others and to ask for help when necessary. Mike and I began to discuss the pros and cons of talking to more people about what happened with his daughter. Some of the pros included getting things off his chest, being able to share positive feelings about her with others, bringing some closure to the situation, and simply being around others as opposed to being isolated. Some of the cons included having to experience painful emotions and facing the possibility that others wouldn't be supportive. As we talked more, it became clear to Mike that the potential pros far outweighed the cons. Still, I did not push him in any particular direction, and he made no specific plans.
When we met one week later, I asked Mike if anything stood out about our interview the previous week. Mike again mentioned that it was good to get things off his chest, and then he told me that he had called his doctor to see whether some medication might help with the depression he was experiencing. He also called a close friend of his and asked if they could get together and talk. When Mike told his friend about his daughter's death, the friend hugged him and asked him why he hadn't brought up the subject sooner. He also told Mike that he would always be there for him if he wanted to talk.
Mike found the interaction with his friend to be an enormous relief. He told me that it was difficult to make the call because he did not feel like he was justified in asking for his friend's help; in Mike's mind his problems were not bad enough to warrant reaching out to others. But what Mike was able to do was to respond differently to his own inner life, dark and troubled as it was. Rather than continuing to keep things private, he shared them with someone close to him. And rather than assume that he alone was responsible for coping with the pain he was feeling, he took the chance to seek help from someone else.
When I asked Mike how he was able to make such a dramatic change, his response said it all: "Sixty-two years of this stuff is enough. Enough of the tough-it-out, go-it-alone, soldier-on stuff. It never really worked for my father and it wasn't really working for me, so I decided to try something different."
Mike's story highlights several pathways to change that I will explore in part 2. First, old dogs can learn new tricks. It is never too late for men to change, and in fact research has shown that as men approach retirement age they often become more interested in family relationships and in developing connections with others. At the same time, rates of depression increase as men age. As a society, and as individuals, we must reach out to older men and let them know that we are interested in their lives.
Second, men must be supported in coping with grief. Divorce, loss of a child, loss of friends and family members, and even loss of a job are powerful experiences for all human beings. Unfortunately, as a culture we have not been tolerant and supportive of men in grieving these losses. Friends and family members need to ask how men are doing and not be deterred by an initial, "fine" response. Men can hear and feel love and support from others, even if we can't always express it. A simple "I've been thinking about you; let me know if you ever want to talk" can send a very powerful message to a man that his inner life is no longer off-limits. It is then his choice whether he wants to share it with others.
Third, major societal and cultural events can have a powerful effect on our openness to seeing and hearing men's inner lives. Were it not for the war in Iraq, Mike's daughter would probably not have been in the military, and thus would not have developed the severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that went unrecognized, untreated, and ultimately led to her death. As veterans return home, suicide rates are dramatically increasing; recent estimates suggest that one veteran from the Iraq war is committing suicide every five days. As a result, we are seeing more openness in the media to recognizing that men do indeed suffer from traumatic stress, and that something needs to be done about it. Similarly, in the weeks directly following 9/11, we saw policemen and firefighters shedding tears over the emotional devastation they were experiencing. These images and stories help to normalize men's pain. The more we see it, the less shocking and stigmatizing it becomes.
As it turns out, excessive private silence can create substantial problems for people. And, not surprisingly, it tends to be more common in men. Research has shown that men are much less likely than women to discuss problems with others.9,10,11 This includes not only friends and acquaintances, but also family members and other loved ones. In addition, it is well established that having others close at hand to confide in is associated with positive health benefits, both physical and mental. In other words, people who are excessively private tend to have fewer people in their networks of support, and therefore fewer people to turn to in times of trouble. These same people tend to be at greater risk for mental and physical health problems as a result. Let me be clear here. I am not saying that sharing everything in your life with everyone in your life is healthy. What I am saying is that excessive privacy is just as unhealthy as excessive "dumping" on others.
Before they reach adolescence, young boys are often remarkably free of excessive personal or private silence. They share their fears and worries with parents, express loving tender feelings toward friends and family, and are capable of having a very rich emotional vocabulary. At the same time, knowing that adolescence is just around the corner, the parents of a young boy may already begin to mourn for the potential (and perhaps likely) loss of their son's honesty and sensitivity.
Adolescence is a time characterized, among other things, by huge waves of public silencing in boys' lives. Public silence occurs when people in your environment let you know, in one way or another, that they do not want to hear about your vulnerability. This can happen in ways that range from subtle (changing the topic) to flat out in your face ("Dude, I don't know what you're whining about, everybody's got problems. Suck it up and move on"). It's not hard to imagine how the experience of public silencing can lead to greater levels of personal and private silence. Many of the men I have spoken with in our research describe early painful and often traumatic experiences with public silencing. As a result, some have chosen to remain privately silent in order to avoid similar shameful and humiliating experiences in the future. For others it is not really a choice. They have simply stopped paying attention to what is going on inside of them and are personally silent as well.
Public silencing is not limited to adolescence. In fact, it is alive and well in the lives of many adult men who might otherwise risk exposing their need for support during difficult times in their lives.
Several years ago I headed down to the local nine-hole golf course on a beautiful sunny fall day hoping to join up as a single player with some others for an afternoon of relaxation and fun (as much as golf can be relaxing!). I was fortunate to meet up with three other men, none of whom I had played with previously. Each of them appeared to be well past the usual retirement age, and I had the sense that they had known each other for a very long time.
As it turned out, I was right. They ribbed each other after poor tee shots and missed putts, congratulated each other when things went well, and recalled many shared golfing adventures together. I found them to be an enjoyable group and was relieved when they began to welcome me by making fun of my inevitable blunders on the course. (I have since quit playing golf after recognizing that one need not spend large sums of money to become frustrated and self-critical for several hours. But that's another story…)
The fourth hole was a long par three over water, and we waited on the tee while the group ahead of us finished. Because we were not directly involved in playing golf at that moment there was an opportunity for a bit more sustained conversation. At one point, Fred turned to Sal and started the following dialogue:
FRED: So what is new in your neck of the woods, Sal?
SAL: Well, shit. Nothing you wouldn't expect, except maybe I had a prostate biopsy last week.
FRED: Oh yeah [laughing], was it good for you?
SAL: What? What the fuck are you talking about?
FRED: You know [turning to the rest of us], they've got to get up there somehow. At least that's what they tell me. But not me. I won't even let my doctor put on a rubber glove [laughs].
SAL: You guys are sick. You think I like this?
FRED: I don't know, what do you think, guys? I've wondered about Sal, haven't you?
SAL: Like I said, you guys are sick.
Where to start? First, it is remarkable how quickly Sal's vulnerability was shut down by Fred's response to Sal's disclosure that he had had a prostate biopsy. Fred's jokes made it very clear to everyone involved, and especially to Sal, that this was not to be treated as a serious topic. Second, the transparently homophobic nature of Fred's comments served to shame Sal for even bringing the topic up. As we will see in chapter 2, boys and men use homophobic threats as a way of policing other boys' and men's behavior. The message is clear: if you act in a way that is considered inappropriately masculine (in this case, talking about your prostate), you will be punished by being accused of being gay or feminine.
As I watched all of this unfold, I was stunned. The part of me that is concerned about men's well-being wanted to take Sal's situation seriously and ask him how he was doing. Did he have the results, what did he know about prostate biopsies, and so on. But the part of me that is a man, and knows firsthand what public silencing can feel like, was ultimately stronger. The truth is that I was afraid that if I spoke up, the shame and humiliation would be turned my way. So I did what many boys and men do when they see other men going through this kind of thing. I stared at the ground, shuffled my feet, and tried not to laugh, even though I ultimately did when it became apparent that I was not joining in. Such is the power of public silencing in men's lives.
When we finally hit all of our shots and left the tee, I walked up to Sal and asked him how it was going after having had the biopsy. He brushed me off by saying that it was no big deal, but I persisted and asked if he had gotten the results. Our conversation went like this:
ME: Do you have the results yet?
SAL: No, I am not sure that I want to know.
ME: Man, that's a tough one. I'd have had a hard time focusing on my golf game, at least more than usual!
SAL: Yeah, it stinks all right. But what are you going to do? Hope for the best, try not to complain.
Again, "can't complain." Still, I had tried, however ineffectively, to give him a chance to express his vulnerability.
Imagine what it felt like to be Sal, out for a round of golf with his friends. After the incident on the tee he now had three problems. First, he had just had a prostate biopsy for which he did not have the results and about which he was understandably worried. Second, Sal had been humiliated and shamed by his friends for revealing his concerns. And finally, he now had to finish six more holes of golf (about two hours) with this same group of men while simultaneously
• coping with his own worry about his situation;
• coping with his own feelings of humiliation and shame following Fred's comments;
• laughing it off and being an "easygoing guy"; and
• trying to play decent golf to avoid additional shame and criticism.
I mentioned shame several times in relating Sal's story because shame is one of the major consequences of excessive public silencing. Shame is different from guilt. Guilt occurs when people disapprove of their own actions. Shame occurs when people experience a very deep and profound feeling of self-dislike, along with the impulse to run away or hide from others. When people feel ashamed they experience themselves as outcast, unworthy, and somehow having broken the norms of groups or individuals that are important to them. As we will see in chapter 4, many men experienced intense feelings of shame as children when they let their vulnerability be seen by others. The result is that perceived weaknesses, desires for help, or otherwise painful feelings tend to be kept private. This privacy only makes the feelings of shame about one's own vulnerability more intense, which, in turn, feeds the tendency toward personal and private silence.
Boys and men do not necessarily need to be publicly silenced directly by peers in order for shame to keep them from expressing their vulnerability. There is a tremendous amount of learning that goes on in a man's lifetime simply by watching what happens to others and trying to avoid a similar fate. Movies, television, and video games play a particularly powerful role in this regard. In their book Packaging Boyhood, the researchers Lyn Mikel Brown, Sharon Lamb, and Mark Tappan review decades of studies focusing on the impact of media representations of masculinity on boys' and young men's development.12 They conclude that the range of acceptable behavior in images of jocks, superheroes, nerds, and other iconic figures is very narrow. Particularly in teen movies (e.g., The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me, American Pie), boys who make the mistake of showing their real vulnerability are subject to, at best, mocking and, at worst, profound humiliation. Therefore, many young boys live with the chronic fear of being publicly silenced should they reveal their true fears, worries, desires for intimacy, or other vulnerable feelings.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER: THE CYCLE OF SILENCE
The invisibility of men's pain is continuously reinforced by a cycle of personal, private, and public silence. (See the accompanying figure.)
The cycle can start anywhere, but once it gets going it is hard to break. For example, when men keep their pain and vulnerability private, it is hard for others to know what is really going on. Others are then more likely to create the experience of public silence for men because they do not ask about men's lives (a sort of pervasive "don't ask, don't tell" policy with regard to men's vulnerability). When men experience public silence they are more likely to keep things private because it is safer that way. If they keep their emotional lives private for long enough, they may end up being personally silent, simply because they rarely if ever have the opportunity to identify and communicate what they are truly feeling.
When this cycle goes on long enough, it can begin to feel like an inescapable trap. In some cases, the end result is truly a crisis situation. One of my former students shared with me a graphic story that I will never forget, about a man she knew—we'll call him Eric.
Eric was working in a high-pressure financial environment; the type with all the cubicles, phones constantly ringing, and employees running their fingers through their hair. Over time the pressure mounted for Eric until he felt like he was going to break. This sort of intense pressure in the work environment is very common, particularly in the current economic circumstances. (Just like in the 1930s, the newspapers are increasingly filled with stories of men committing suicide due to what seem like insurmountable economic problems.)
Eric did not take his own life. Nor did he take the afternoon off, share his situation with friends or coworkers, or visit his primary care physician or a counselor. He kept the problems to himself. When Eric finally reached the point where he felt like he was going to explode, he got up from his desk, walked toward the front of the office, and hurled himself through a heavy plate-glass door. Needless to say, he suffered countless serious cuts and bruises and was taken to the emergency room.
As I listened to this story, I was shocked and horrified that someone could endure so much private pain that it would lead them to see no other option but to jump through a plate-glass door. I also could not help but notice that his actions were extremely public and seemed to cry out, "Look at me! I am in pain here and I need help!" But what really blew me away was what happened next. Eric returned to work after a few days, and no one said a word to him about what happened. No one asked how he was doing, no one expressed concern, and no one offered to talk if he needed to. It was as if the whole thing never took place. The message Eric received was ultraclear: what you did was so unacceptable, so shameful, and so weak that we will not talk about it. Now this man had two sets of problems: the ones that initially led him to cry out for help, and the fallout from breaking the silence, for he bore the scarlet letter of someone who couldn't handle the pressure and "broke."
JUST TALK ABOUT FOOTBALL
The effects of the cycle of silence are not always so dramatic. But they can still have powerful effects on a man's life at crucial times. And this is true not just for men who tend to have trouble with emotions. You would think that as a psychology professor—particularly one who studies men's lives—I would have this all figured out. Well, think again. I want to share the following story with you to show just how pervasive these processes are and how they can come into play at important times in a man's life.
My daughter was born September 28, 2001, just two weeks after 9/11. Needless to say, the weeks leading up to her birth were filled with uncertainty. In addition to the normal anxiety all parents go through during pregnancy and birth, my wife and I were experiencing the fear and uncertainty that affected all Americans following the tragic events of 9/11. Like many parents-to-be, we attended a series of birthing classes, and they continued until the day before our daughter was born. The classes occurred in groups of anywhere from four to eight couples who had no relationship with each other except for the fact that they were all expecting a child. The majority of the time was spent on the nuts and bolts of the birthing process. The instructor focused primarily on women's bodies and exactly how a baby makes it from the womb to the world.
Periodically, I would glance at the men in the room and try to gauge their emotional state. None of them looked comfortable. Most were sitting up in their chairs and staring straight ahead. And I was certainly not comfortable myself. The images of a child being born were terrifying; I simply couldn't imagine my wife's body doing that. And if it did, I wasn't sure I could handle watching it. When you combined this with the general fears about fathering that most men experience around the birth of their first child, it all added up to a pretty healthy dose of anxiety.
But we weren't talking about any of that. When we talked about the men in the room, it was about how they could be of help to their partners during the birthing process. In other words, we were reestablishing the "provider-supporter" role for the men, and in the process we all complicitly agreed that talking about what the men were experiencing was off limits. Don't get me wrong. The process of giving birth to a child is extremely stressful for women. It is impossible to compare it directly to what it is like for a man to participate in the process. I'm certainly not suggesting that men's fears are equal to women's. But I am quite certain that many, if not all, men feel very helpless and concerned during the process of labor, and they are given virtually no tools to deal with it. Encouraging their partners to "breathe, breathe, breathe…" only helps men by giving them something to do, and often it is of little or no help to their partners.
Toward the end of the last birthing class, the instructor divided the women from the men. The other men and I went into a separate room, where we sat in a circle and waited awkwardly for the instructor to arrive. We had never been encouraged to talk to each other for even a few minutes, despite the fact that we were all going through a similar set of extremely powerful experiences—most of us for the first time. So here we were, eyes shifting from one to another, not sure what was expected of us. In time, the instructor arrived. She asked us to spend about fifteen minutes discussing our fears and concerns about the process of having a child and to make a list to share with the women. Then, as she left the room, she put her head back through the door and joked, "Really, you can discuss football for most of the time and then jot a few things down at the last minute." We all chuckled nervously, looked quickly at each other, and proceeded to discuss how the New England Patriots were doing that season. What else could we do at that point? Then, with a couple of minutes left, one guy reminded us that we would look pretty dumb if we did not have a list when we rejoined the women. Unfortunately, we never got to it. But if we had, our list might have looked something like this:
• What if I can't handle watching the delivery of the baby and have to leave the room? Will my partner think less of me?
• What if the sight of my wife's body giving birth is physically disgusting to me and it affects how desirable I find her in the future?
• What if she is in so much pain that there's nothing I can do? What if I fail to help her?
• What if I do not feel love for the baby right away? What would that mean about me?
• What if my wife and baby die during the process?
These are the real fears, the silent fears. No one talked about them.
THE BOTTOM LINE: FLEXIBILITY IS KEY
Clearly it is not healthy to keep all of your problems to yourself, all of the time. And it is not helpful to "dump" every little problem you experience onto other people. On the other hand, flexibility and balance are probably the most adaptive strategies. There are times when sharing with others is a critical part of coping with life's ups and downs, and there are times when "sucking it up" and moving on is the right way to go.
People run into trouble when they are so committed to a single approach that they cannot adapt to the demands of the situation. One of the participants in our research, Ryan, stated emphatically that he saw no advantage whatsoever in "burdening" other people with his problems. From a very young age, Ryan had been taught by both of his parents that "people are responsible for handling their own problems. No one wants to hear you whine about yours." When I asked Ryan about the pros and cons of keeping things to himself all the time, he recalled several instances in childhood when he had discussed his personal life with others, only to later have his confidence betrayed. He clearly saw no upside to making his inner life more visible to others. Given that I had not known this man for very long, I was in no position to challenge him on the issue. I could tell that trying to convince him it was a good idea to open up more was not going to get us anywhere. As I thought about it, I realized that I was experiencing part of what it was like to be in a relationship with Ryan; the more I pressed him, the more he dug his heels in.
All of our research participants complete a survey about the frequency with which they seek help from various people in their lives. The measure is very specific and asks how often, and for how long, you have sought help from different potential sources of support over the last month. When Ryan completed the survey something very interesting happened. Ryan asked me where he stood in relation to other men in our research. He wanted to know how common was his approach of keeping everything to himself. "Do you have a guess?" I asked. "Well," Ryan said, "I've often wondered if maybe I am a little, or a lot, more private than most people." When we looked at Ryan's answers it became apparent that he was in fact at the lower end of the distribution in his tendency to turn to others when he faced problems in his life. "What do you make of that?" I asked Ryan. "Surprised, but maybe not so surprised," he said. "I guess I am kind of rigid about that." "How is the rigidness working for you?" I asked. Ryan's response to my question revealed much about the importance of flexibility in people's lives.
It keeps me from being disappointed, that's for sure. I mean, nobody gets the chance to let me down. Nobody gets the chance to tell me what to do about my problems, and overall it feels kind of familiar to handle stuff this way. On the other hand, I have to admit that I do get kind of tired of living in this bubble where nobody knows what is going on. Even my wife is clueless most of the time. I realize that I am probably the poster child for the silent type, and that's not really the way I want to be remembered.
Ryan is a good example of someone who learned a particular way of coping with problems early in life. That approach became so ingrained that he applied it to every situation in his adult life, regardless of the consequences. We all do this to some degree. But when we become so inflexible that we cannot adapt to the demands of different situations, we can run into problems. In Ryan's case, these problems included loneliness, estrangement from his wife, and the fear of dying almost literally "in silence." In talking to him further, I could see that Ryan's rigid pattern of keeping problems to himself was creating more problems than the ones he was initially facing.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
This book is about what you can do as an individual to change things for the better. My goal is to help you understand how men's silence and invisibility work, where they come from, and the problems they can produce. Once you understand these issues you will be in a position to make changes in the way you approach your own emotional life or the lives of the men you love.
Both men and women stand to benefit from reading this book. Women will learn how to better recognize when the men they love are struggling and what they can do to help. Exercises scattered through the book will help women understand their own attitudes toward men's inner lives, assess how silence and invisibility might be affecting their relationships with men, and develop more effective ways of communicating with men about difficult topics involving vulnerable emotions such as sadness, fear, anxiety, grief, and depression.
Women may also find that some, or many, of the descriptions of silence and invisibility in men's lives apply to them as well. This shouldn't be surprising. Both women and men are, first and foremost, human beings; they have much in common. Plus, as women continue to experience increased power and visibility in society, they naturally take on some of the roles, activities, and ways of thinking that have traditionally been considered masculine.
Men can learn a lot about themselves by reading this book. It does not provide an X-ray of individual men's minds, and I do not pretend to know the causes of individual men's behavior. However, I do have a few general road maps, and I've spent a long time surveying the terrain. I suspect that most men will see a part of themselves in the book and may find the road maps helpful for making sense out of some potentially complex territory. For example, men will learn why they are so prone to keep quiet when things get difficult, and how they can talk to others about what is going on in their lives without losing face, so to speak. The exercises for men will not only help them understand their own attitudes toward sharing their lives with others, but also provide opportunities to explore their beliefs about what it means to be a man, and how these beliefs might be helping and harming them in different areas of life. I also discuss methods for developing more effective ways of communicating what is actually going on emotionally during difficult or stressful times.
Finally, couples may wish to read this book together, and to share their thoughts about the exercises with each other. I never fail to be amazed at how common it is for partners in a relationship to think that they understand everything about each other's attitudes and perceptions regarding the major issues in the relationship. Of course, men's silence and invisibility are common issues in relationships, and I have seen countless instances of misunderstandings about men's intentions when they keep quiet, their partner's feelings about it, and so on. Working through this book together will help partners in a relationship to see when their take on things is similar, and when they are reading things quite differently. Some of the exercises are designed to help couples communicate more effectively about men's inner lives.
A PREVIEW OF THINGS TO COME
In the remainder of this book I will help you to understand how silence and invisibility operate in men's lives. I will also show you where the problem comes from and what you can do about it. In part 2 I describe the impact of men's silence and invisibility on well-being in the domains of physical health, emotional health, relationships, and friendship. In part 3 I move back to the bigger picture and consider how men can continue to be seen and heard when they face setbacks in life. The final chapter of part 3 focuses on larger societal changes that must occur if we are going to continue to open our eyes and ears to the realities of men's inner lives.
Copyright © 2011 by Michael E. Addis, Ph.D.