There’s a scene in the film It’s A Wonderful Life in which the protagonist, George Bailey, is about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. If you haven’t seen it, the sequence starts with his buffoonish colleague at the bank they both work at losing the savings of the people who live in the town, the night before Christmas. George reacts by storming home and shouting angrily at his family, getting drunk in a bar by himself and then off he goes to top himself. At no point does he tell anyone what’s happened or how he’s feeling.
Luckily for him, a guardian angel appears to talk him down and proceeds to show him what the town would look like if he’d never existed. He sees that everyone would be much worse off without him, and when he goes back home, the townspeople, who’ve heard about the misfortunate, heap money on him to bail him out, out of gratitude for the kindness he’d shown for them over the years.
To me, this is such a powerful story because it represents a reality which continues to this day. Men find it particularly difficult to express how they feel, and it drives them to anger, alcohol and suicide. In 2013, 78% of suicides were male and it is the leading cause of death for men between 20 and 34 in England and Wales.
I talked with a friend recently about how he felt that he couldn’t admit to anyone he was having to take time off work for stress because he thought he would seem weak. I think this is incredibly common. Men are really often too ashamed to say how they’re feeling when they’re not “fine”.
“Being a man” or “manning up” basically means not showing emotion. Don’t cry. Just button up and get on with it. In countless hollywood storylines the protagonist is a tough guy who never shows any emotion other than anger and the heroine is a feeble “overly emotional woman”, who just kind of gets in the way and is a bit silly but worth having around because she’s fit. That’s the model we’ve grown up with.
For a large proportion of my life it’s been really hard to tell people how I feel because I haven’t known myself. When I first started listening to mindfulness meditations, I would be asked to notice how I felt, and time and again I would just think “neutral”. Not happy, not sad, just neutral. How boring, I thought! Am I completely out of touch with my emotions?! I was asked to set an intention for the meditation and mine would usually be “to feel more”.
The way I understand how I was is that when we experience emotions we find difficult to process, one response is to shut off from them. When I was at school I was bullied for several years, and rather than absorb the negativity that was hurled at me, consciously or unconsciously, I shut off from the pain, rejection and isolation that they were provoking. I was too ashamed to talk to anyone about it. When you close off to unpleasant emotions, though, you also close off to the pleasant ones, and generally just feel less.
Mindfulness has allowed me to realise this. It’s also made me realise that, while that response may have served me at the time, being closed off to emotions is not how I want to be any more. After two years of practice I now feel immeasurably more emotion and sensation in my body, and I’m also getting much better at telling people how I’m feeling. It’s a very empowering and cathartic thing, although of course not always easy.
I became so enthusiastic about discovering more of my emotions that a friend once asked me how I was and I replied “I’m not fine, and I’m absolutely delighted about it!” I felt that at the same time as becoming more aware of difficult emotions, I was also learning the skills to deal with them. I now I make a living teaching people how to do the same. And I love it!
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