It’s Okay to Have Feelings!
I think that might end up being the name of my next book. It’s such an important thing, and it’s stunning to me that I didn’t know it until I was 40. Is it just me? I don’t think it’s just me. When I look at the way men act, especially men between the ages of 15-50, I’m pretty sure a lot of them don’t know. If they did, they wouldn’t work so hard to hide their emotions. And I know, it’s not just men, but this is about combatting toxic masculinity, so that’s where I’m pointing the spotlight.
Feel: A 4-Letter Word
Human beings do some ridiculous things. As a species, we make irrational blunders, ignoring facts and reason and acting instead on feelings. But at the same time, we try very hard to pretend we don’t have feelings. This becomes a paradox over time. We have a multitude of feelings about everything, and the older we get, the more things there are for us to have feelings about. At the same time, we’re trying to maintain this façade of being tough and cool and implacable, and the void between the internal experience and the external façade gets bigger and more unstable, and harder to maintain.
Living a lie is exhausting. You always have to be “on” to keep anyone from realizing that you might be a fallible human being with emotions and shortcomings. When you make mistakes, or the façade slips, you have to come up with yet another cover story, another diversion, another lie. And for what?
No one thinks about you as much as you think they do
How much time do you spend in your day thinking about other people? Especially people you admire? Probably very little. As in, zero to one minute. That’s right. We spend all this time and effort trying to manage how other people perceive us, when the reality is, no one is thinking about us for more than a passing second. Everyone is too busy thinking about themselves, just like you and me.
I spent most of my life drawing my self-esteem from what I thought other people thought about me. Did I look to the people who approved of me for that? No, I looked to the people who could never show me approval, like my dad. And when I became an adult, I found other “tough guys” who didn’t approve of me, and I used their disdain as further proof that I wasn’t worthy. And so I tried harder and harder to get that impossible approval. A vicious cycle.
The truth is, those guys, to include my dad, didn’t spend any of their time thinking about me. It wasn’t that they actively disapproved of me, it was that they were so wrapped up in their own shit that I wasn’t even on their radar. I kept doing more ridiculous things to show them how tough and manly I was, and they kept ignoring me, but it had nothing to do with me. I just didn’t realize that for a very long time.
Stop trying to be a rock
I grew up thinking that a man never cried, because big boys don’t cry. I learned from the kids at school that boys don’t write poems for girls they like, cool kids don’t get good grades (only nerds), and that tough guys are impervious to insults. I came to believe that he who cares the least gets the most. And that girls like assholes. And that never being under the power of anyone is the only way to be a real man, because real men don’t get dominated.
And I wasn’t any of those things.
I felt all the feelings, and when I compared myself to the cool kids, they didn’t seem to have any feelings at all. The only feelings my dad had, as far as I knew, were anger and exasperation. So where did that leave me? Alone.
By the time I was 25, I was certain there was something seriously wrong with me. I had worked tirelessly to transform myself into who I thought everyone else expected me to be. I was an asshole, I talked shit to people, I had loud exhaust on my truck so everyone would know I was tough, I rebelled against my boss so he would know that I wasn’t going to be dominated, I was drinking alcoholically, and none of it was working. I still didn’t get the approval I needed so desperately. What was I doing wrong? Why was life so horrible to me?
It’s not about what others think of me
Here’s the thing: Everyone in the world could line up and tell me how awesome I am, but if I don’t believe that I’m awesome, I’ll still feel bad about myself. I could have all the muscles and tough guy stuff, the big truck, the loud Harley, the money, the sexual attention, all the supposed signs of being good enough, and still feel bad about myself. Because it isn’t about any of those things, and it isn’t about impressing other people. Feeling good about myself is an inside job.
I have to like who I am in order to feel good about myself. And for that to happen, the inside needs to match the outside. No more façade, no more fake front, no more pretending to be someone else. I know, it’s scary. But once I got there, it was so unbelievably freeing!
I get to do what makes me happy, and I don’t have to worry about what other people think. It doesn’t matter what they think, for starters, and really, no one is spending much time thinking about me, anyway. And sure, there will be people who don’t like me. Guess what? That’s okay! There are a lot of people that I don’t like, and that fact hasn’t ruined their lives.
So there it is. I have feelings. I have a LOT of feelings. I’m sensitive to criticism, which is a remnant from my poor self-esteem days that I’m still getting past. I have self-doubts. I like artsy things like painting and writing, along with outdoorsy things like hiking and working on my farm with my tractor. I like writing songs and playing them for my wife on my guitar. I like making deep emotional connections with people, and sometimes I cry when things get intense. I’m a long way from perfect. And at the same time, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me. I accept myself, I love myself, and I’m proud of myself. And none of that is based on the opinion of other people.
I urge you to give it a try. It’s not easy, and it took a lot of therapy for me to get here, but I wouldn’t go back to the way I used to be for anything. Oh yeah, I guess I should mention that, too. I had to have help to turn my ship around. I didn’t know how to do it by myself. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Therapy is awesome!
So, suck it, toxic masculinity. The only thing I ever got from you was self-loathing, and you can have that back.