Now more than two-and-a-half years ago, when I first started leading bi-weekly men’s depression support groups, I had serious trepidations about what I was getting myself into. Stereotypes abounded: Would it be ten stone-faced men sitting in a circle on uncomfortable folding chairs, vacantly staring at each other, saying nothing? Would it be two hours of unbroken complaint about nagging wives and unappreciative kids? Would it take a Herculean effort on my part to keep the conversation from constantly drifting back to sports or cars or hunting or just about anything that didn’t have to do with feelings or emotions? I was prepared for any and all stereotypical male behavior.
But on that first late November Thursday night, by the time we had made it around the circle with introductions and a brief “story” about what brought each of them to the group, I knew this wasn’t going to be anything like I had imagined -- or feared. From the very outset, the men were candid, sincere, and spoke from the heart, revealing inner worlds that, almost to a man, were worn to a nub from the accumulation of years of denying, avoiding, or hiding their pain. Depression is like throwing rocks at yourself all day, is how one group member described his experience of depression. Another talked about feeling like [his] legs had been cut off and he was stuck in one place, unable to move. Other members descriptions included: feeling trapped in an abandoned house; being alone at the bottom of the ocean; and being stuck under a pile of wet, heavy blankets. Some recalled the feelings starting in childhood, while, for others, the sensation was a more recent occurrence, the result of a job loss or a significant relationship ending. Though they shared symptoms, everyone’s experience was uniquely individual.
With only a few exceptions, the men who found their way into the group were in mid-life, anywhere from 40 to 65 years of age. These men were the real-life embodiment of the recent statistical trend identified by the CDC of white males in Western societies between the ages of 45 and 63 outpacing any other race, gender, or age demographic for completed suicides.
Over the course of the next many months, the men talked about having no idea about what they felt or wanted or needed; of having no idea, really, of who they were -- yes, husband; yes, father; yes, son or brother; yes, employee or boss -- but what did any of that mean? For many, these were nothing more than the roles they played to get them through their days. Who were they underneath? Most had no idea.
Feelings of isolation were a constant theme -- the day-in day-out weariness the men felt of having to push things down, keep things hidden, of having to show up at home and work, with family, friends, and co-workers, acting as if everything was under control, everything was all right, all the time feeling like a stranger in a stranger’s body.
But more than anything, there was the constant nagging weight the men carried with them, like losing lottery cards, of shame and guilt: guilt over not being enough, of never being fully present, of never being the men they had hoped to become; shame over who they were, who they’d become, and, often tearfully, over the damage that repeated bouts of depression and unmanageable anxiety had inflicted on those closest to them.
And because of the shame and guilt, self-loathing, self-contempt, and their first cousin once-removed, self-pity, became the emotional termites we did battle against week after week, only to have them return each and every time with fresh supplies and an army of comrades. But the men kept at it, supporting, encouraging, and humoring each other; learning to forgive themselves by forgiving each other, teaching each other grace and compassion by the simple act of bearing witness to each other’s pain. Oftentimes, it seemed, my job was just to step out of the way and let the men speak. If it was helpful for me to provide some direction, or insight, or perspective, or ask some leading question to keep things moving, I would, but because what seemed to be most effective about the process was letting the men use and find their own voice to express their feelings, I did my best to stand clear.
We worked hard to translate the honesty and vulnerability the men were able to experience and express within the safety of the group into their relationships and every day lives. Men would report back to the group like explorers returning to civilization from the wilds, regaling each other with tales of risk and adventure, triumph and defeat. “I told my wife that it hurt my feelings when she rejected my advances and that I had a lot of shame around nobody ever wanting to date me in high school and college,” one man reported, as if telling the other group members of a recent weekend spent skydiving into shark-filled waters. “How did she respond!?” “What did it feel like to do it!?” The men took vicarious pleasure in each other’s high risk-high reward behaviors: with each story serving as a potential launching point for another member stepping outside of his comfort zone into deeper connection, or a white flag cautionary tale furthering a member’s retreat into isolation, the stakes were always high.
I think what most struck me over time was how trapped the men felt (whether knowingly or unknowingly) by the limited range of possibilities they held for themselves in terms of what was and what wasn’t all right for them to think, feel, say, or do. It was like they had spent the better part of their days shooting down unwanted or unacceptable feelings like clay pigeons the second they rose up and crossed their interior landscapes. It was no wonder the metaphors the men used to describe their depression were about feeling trapped, suffocated, or self-annihilating. And no wonder their minds felt weary and exhausted -- it was hard work rejecting a substantial portion of who you were on a daily basis!
Clearly, more than being “fixed,” these men just needed a place to breathe. They were literally suffocating under the weight of their own oppressive, oxygen-starved atmospheres. And whatever the origin of that oppression was -- be it social, cultural, familial, or personal (and it was most certainly all of these) -- once the men realized that the atmosphere in the room was safe to breathe -- the atmosphere they themselves had created by their willingness to be trusting, honest, and vulnerable -- they swallowed it in like underwater divers breaking the surface for air.
And yes, it was a slow, often three-steps forward one-step backward process, whose challenges, frustrations, and set-backs can’t begin to be captured in the span of these few quick paragraphs. But once the men were able to make the changes within themselves -- to fundamentally change the relationship they had with themselves -- they were able to change and transform the relationships they had with the people and worlds that surrounded them. In the end, it wasn’t about sacrificing their manhood or somehow being less of a man to become happy; quite the opposite, it was about expanding what “being a man” could feel like and mean.
Because, as the data suggests, men are much less likely to seek help to resolve psychological or emotional distress, one of the questions I get asked the most is whether men are somehow different than women when it comes to feelings and emotions. From my experience, the problem is not that men lack the capacity to experience feelings and emotions deeply and profoundly, it’s that they were never socialized to manage or express them. As long as vulnerability and need are defined as weakness, and weakness is seen as being unworthy or unlovable, the only option for many men is self-loathing, or self-destruction. Helping men find constructive and empowering ways to express their inner worlds is the lesson I carry forward from the men in my groups who taught me so much.
Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. --Parker Palmer
Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. ― Brené Brown
Draw a circle big enough to fill an entire piece of paper. Now start filling in the circle with all the different parts of you. Don’t just put in the good or easy parts. Make sure you get everything; even the things you wish weren’t a part of you – whatever you find most embarrassing, most despicable, most regrettable, most wrong; whatever it is about yourself you most wish you could change – and oh yeah, don’t forget the really good parts too. Most importantly, don’t leave anything out. Because everything in that circle is who you actually are.
It’s no problem liking the parts of ourselves we see as good, worthwhile, or even lovable. It’s all the other stuff that’s the problem. And when shame is a part of the equation, as it is for so many of us, it seems ‘the other stuff’ is the only stuff we’re able to see. Whether it’s a compulsive or addictive behavior we can’t seem to overcome (drinking, smoking, gambling, over-eating), a less than gracious disposition (jealousy, intolerance, rage), or an internal emotional struggle that leaves us feeling chronically disconnected (overwhelming anxiety, guilt over past behaviors, a depression that refuses to subside), it often seems like the possibilities are endless. As a dark-humored friend used to joke when standing in front of a mirror: “So little time; so much to dislike.”
So what do you do with the parts that aren’t so great, aren’t so lovable? And what about the parts that are just plain mean and ugly? Do we spend our days playing whack-a-mole each time one of these pops up? Is it just a matter of exerting our will -- putting the bad parts of ourselves in a choke-hold until they finally give up? Life would be a heck of a lot easier if we could just cut the bad parts out or have them surgically removed, like a boil or a cancer. Unfortunately, at least at this point in time, surgery isn’t one of our options. Sadly or wonderfully – depending on your point of view – the one rule of being a human being is that you can never be anything other than exactly who you are. Unlike a shirt, hairstyle, or job, with life, you can’t pick a new one.
The truth is, we’re made up of lots of different parts -- some good, some bad, some lovable, some not so much. The first step to change is acknowledging all of them -- good, bad, and otherwise. Learning to live with rather than against the parts of ourselves we find unacceptable, unlovable, or even painful is an essential first step to healing. The more energy we put into fighting off, denying, or repressing unwanted parts, the more those parts hold power and sway over our lives. In fact, the fighting against is a great deal of what fuels and sustains them. And though it may seem counter intuitive to not attack and defend against the things that cause us distress and pain, it is, in fact, the radical acceptance of these neglected and rejected aspects of ourselves that allows us to begin to cultivate the self-compassion, forgiveness, and love necessary for real healing.
Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances ....
In your head, of course, the evidence is clear. Whatever the problem is you feel that you are never getting out of it and that it will never get any better. The evidence is so strong that you have no problem shooting down anybody who suggests it could be otherwise. In fact, you believe that nobody else but you truly understands the dire and unchangeable reality of your circumstances. After all, you have two kids to support/a mortgage/your car needs a new transmission/you pay for your mother’s nursing home/you can’t afford time off from work/you need back surgery but can’t afford it. The list goes on and on.
It’s not to say that these things aren’t all true and absolutely real – they most definitely are. But, again, no matter how powerless, overwhelmed, hopeless, or buried under the weight of it all you may feel, it still comes back to the choice you make about how you’re going to perceive these things. Buddhism has a parable about the two arrows: The first arrow is the pain or difficulty we encounter; the second arrow is the story we tell about it. In other words, it is never what it is, only how we see it. And that’s where the power is. That’s where you always have a choice.
And a choice can be as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or as profound as looking at something from another point of view. Just the act of making a choice in the first place can spell the difference between feeling defeated or hopeful. In fact, as long as the action’s not destructive or self-defeating, even a misstep can be helpful. It’s not about results. It’s not about effectiveness. It’s not even about the size of our choices. It’s about the not doing that does us in.
Newton has a law about it: An object continues to do whatever it happens to be doing unless a force is exerted upon it. If it is at rest, it continues in a state of rest. And sure, making choices and taking action may come more easily and more naturally for some more than others. The good news is that doing something as simple as walking around the block or picking up the phone could literally be enough to change your life.
Start to think of yourself as a survivalist: choices are your food, fuel, and warm clothing. You can never have enough. Choices are what will get you through the long winter.
Write a list of choices and carry it in your wallet. If the first six don’t work, try the seventh. If the seventh works today, it might not work tomorrow. The important thing is to keep trying. Think of the choices as playing cards. This is your chance to cheat at solitaire. Keep flipping until you find your ace.
Please reach out to schedule a first session and see if we are a good fit. My contact information is email@example.com or 612-360-2016.