Tuesday 1 May 2018

On Masculinity & Refusing to Seek Help

This is the second part of an ongoing series describing my experiences with learning about psychology and going into therapy. Here I talk a bit about how old ideas around masculinity can prevent men from seeking help.

Asking for help was fundamentally incompatible with the identity I had drawn up for myself

I'm not going to go into detail about my childhood (but yes, I'm afraid a lot of it does come down to your relationship with your parents, school and peers), but I'm going to say that it was a fairly traditional masculine environment, by which I mean a culture which explicitly embraces the moral philosophy I highlighted in the previous post as problematic. A culture which denies the validity of feelings and the fundamental equality of people. A culture where the moral ideal is the strong, competitive, stoic male; and the inverse is the weak, the emotional. This dichotomy sets up a further moral ideal that encompasses the other two: the ideal of winning over the world.

Here is how I see it sometimes. We people can do two kinds of thing: we can fight and we can love. We need them both. But sometimes one side gets the upper hand, and we forget about the other. This is what has happened in many masculine environments, especially in the schools that my old man and I were sent to. Childhood in those schools can be a battleground. You're told it's that from day one. And then you learn it's true the hard way. You show vulnerability and it's taken advantage of. So you learn not to show the vulnerability, and to attack those who do (which is of course attacking yourself). You spend your childhood doing that, then you go out into the world figuring it's all like that. And then you try to fight the world. And let me tell you (as if you didn't know): you can win a fight and gain some rungs in the pecking order amongst a few hundred school kids; but you can't beat the world. It will tear you apart if you try. But that's okay, because you needed to be torn up to turn a new page.

So, those of us that don't somehow have it all worked out non-linguistically already (and I've met so many wonderful people who seem to 'just get it') can wind up forming an almost impregnable and narrow image of who we really are. This sense of self is carefully, albeit unconsciously constructed to be publicly admissible and internally consistent.

Years of conditioning in this way made me almost entirely oblivious to what I was feeling and why. The knock on effect was that I was also oblivious to what others were feeling, and equally dismissive of it. I'm not the only dude who has butted up against this affliction.

To illustrate, one therapist asked me how I was feeling, right now (a common trick of theirs). I answered the question three different ways before he said 'Tom, everything you just said describes thoughts and actions, I want to know how you feel.' I promptly launched into a (sort of correct but missing the point) philosophical argument about how feelings don't really exist and are merely propositional attitudes! When pushed I said 'I don't know. I feel normal'. I had spent the entire session bawling my eyes out.

To bring us back to the point, here it is: because I was unable to express how I was feeling even to myself, the thought of going to therapy and speaking absolutely truthfully about what was in my head was an impossibility. It simply was not who I was. It was not a thing I did. Not I thing I could do.

But I knew there was something there. I read the other day that some vast proportion of people in the West dream about making radical changes to their life. In the old days I would have said that was normal. Unavoidable, even. To some extent it is. But more so now I believe it's the way our system tells us we're not living as we want to. We may dream about living on a Caribbean island, but usually the island is just a metaphor for the personal freedoms we really want. It's this feeling that there is some truer, freer way of life that we are denying ourselves, or being denied to us. The feeling that there is nothing whatsoever stopping us from doing just exactly what we want to do, and simultaneously that we absolutely cannot do it, and best not look at it too closely. The forbidden fruit.

(The older I get, the more interesting interpretations of that biblical story I find. You can read it as being the authoritarian, patriarchal kind of morality writ large: do as I say or else. But you can also read it as a much more subtle undermining of that very philosophy. The story sets up two possible worlds. One is where Adam and Eve stay in the garden and do as they're told. Everything on the surface is perfect, and will remain so forever. But what actually happens - the moment the story actually becomes interesting and beautiful - is they break the rules and eat the forbidden fruit. The world they choose for themselves is the world of sin and danger (and excitement). The only thing stopping them is an old dude with a beard telling them they're naughty kids for reasons he can't explain.)

The thing with emotional and psychological dishonesty (or denial) is that it has a tendency to render the thing you are hiding immoral and corrupted. Why else would you hide it?! It's bad, and you're bad, and your suffering is the deserved result.

Another way to look at this problem is through the lens of necessity. Nothing in this world is necessary except 2+2=4 and its bedfellows. Yet for our own defence we form these necessary rules. 'I must never show emotional vulnerability'. 'I must make this marriage work'. 'I must keep my Michelin stars'. They can be useful in guiding us towards a desirable outcome; but perhaps at least as often they prevent us from doing what we really want to do.

All my life I knew there were people who talked about their most intimate thoughts and feelings. I was, in fact, in awe of them. And, I'm sure at times, I attacked them for it. Being the cool people they were they probably took it in their stride. All my life I knew there were things I was denying myself because I was unable to talk about them, and I knew rationally that there was no reason things had to be like this. I knew that all I had to do was start talking. I dreamed about it. And I could not for the life of me bring myself to do it.

I am here to say that it's hard, but not necessarily so.

How I Got Over It

Here's the really good news. For all of this talking, what really enabled me to break the cycle and make a (radical) change was entirely outside of my control, entirely non-linguistic.

There is a wonderful movie called 'I Heart Huckabees' which is an astoundingly precise metaphor for the therapeutic process. It begins with Jason Schwartzman seeing the same person in three different places for no apparent reason. The sort of thing that most people most of the time would never even notice. But he is uncontrollably beset by the belief that these coincidences are no accident, and by accident he finds a business card for holistic detectives (the therapists in this metaphor) promising to solve coincidences. He goes to their office building where he finds a labyrinth of corridors which he explores seemingly at random. He's been told what time he ought to be there and he's late, so he starts out in a hurry. Then he slows down and starts looking for clues around him. Finally he catches a glimpse of what looks like a future version of himself and follows it to the correct office, where he insists that he wants his coincidence explained, and is appalled when the detectives tell him the coincidence is intertwined with everything else in his life and they're going to have to go the long way around.

Life, from my perspective, is like that. We rush about trying to meet everyone's expectations, and it seems like it's working, and then something 'accidental' happens that we can't explain and which forces us into action. We reach rock-bottom and start grasping for solutions. Sometimes we locate the problem in this one arbitrary location, be it substance abuse or relationship issues or seeing the same person in three different places - but it's always interconnected. We become more sensible to the patterns which are always all around us.

It took some kind of catastrophe for me to break the cycle. For me it might have been the death of a loved one, or a terrible guilt over the way I handled a relationship, or the abuse I endured as a kid. In the end it was going on a date and breaking into floods of tears in a crowded restaurant for reasons I couldn't entirely understand. In retrospect it was all inevitably leading me to that precise moment.

Years of knowing that I wasn't living in accordance with my own philosophy wasn't enough to push me off the cliff. In the end my system found the perfect and most poetic possible way to tell me I needed help. It was like my life was a story and I was both actor and audience. To cry in front of a stranger in a public place was as far as I could possibly be from the stoic male I had pretended to be. It was cast-iron evidence that something was wrong. A thing I could write on paper, justify and say 'That's out-of-the-ordinary and needs addressing'.

(My date was super cool about it and recommended therapy - everything is where it's meant to be).

Next time: What actually happens in therapy?

Oh, and if you're considering therapy, remember: these therapists have seen everything, and they are therapists because they believe that no matter what you've done or thought you're not a bad person. You really have nothing to lose but your hangups (and time and money and stop thinking about it already).

If you're considering exploring therapy you can find the NHS page here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/counselling/ . Going private will cost roughly £50 per hour (best money I ever spent bar none) and you can find an accredited counsellor here: https://www.bacp.co.uk/

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