Picture a 24-year-old adorable, intelligent, but anxious and insecure young man. Joe, as I will call him, often feels frightened. If he were to pause for a moment and check his physical state, most of the time he would feel his heart beating in his chest and a subtle full-body vibration. Sometimes he has a pit in his stomach, and his appetite for food disappears.
These are all common physical symptoms of anxiety. Sensations like these are at best annoying, and at worst upsetting, debilitating and scary. Joe wonders why he feels anxious so often. Thoughts like, “What’s wrong with me?” come often preoccupy him, which of course makes matters worse by adding anxiety on top of anxiety. This experience is all taking place secretly inside him. To the rest of the world he seems fine.
Tonight Joe is going on a date. He wants to feel relaxed and happy. He wants to feel calm, confident, connected and clear in his thoughts — to be “in his C’s.” He’s nervous and wants his date to like him. This, of course, adds pressure and increases his nervousness. How common is this? Completely universal! Yet, for many of us, it is not necessarily cool to discuss or confess how we actually feel.
When a person, man or woman, can be real and authentic about feelings in the presence of an accepting, caring, nonjudgmental person, anxiety is immediately reduced and closeness created. Pretending to feel one way when you really feel another consumes valuable energy. Plus, pretending you are something you’re not is isolating — it creates shame.
Our culture teaches us, particularly boys and men, to act tough and confident, not to be seen as sensitive. However, tender feelings like sadness, fear, anxiety and shame are universal to men and women. The truth is that all people suffer from core emotions such as sadness and fear, and inhibitory emotions such as anxiety, even if they cover them up. It is curious to me why talking about such tender feelings makes others uncomfortable.
Let’s imagine Joe starts off his date by sharing what he truly feels at the moment. “I feel a little nervous. Dating doesn’t come so easily to me,” he says.
As you read this, whether you are a man or a woman, imagine someone saying this to you on a first date. How do you feel hearing this? What does it evoke in you? Does the openness and vulnerability turn you on or off? Do you see it as strength or weakness? Does it draw you in or push you away? Do you feel, “Me too!” What would you say in response? Are you stuck for a response? Just notice without judging yourself.
Ideally, Joe could be honest, authentic, and share his fears about dating, or anything else, for that matter. Ideally, he could admit to being dysregulated and in an uncomfortable emotional state. Ideally, he could talk about feeling insecure and anxious. And, ideally, his date would say, “I understand. You’re human.” Then he (and she) could relax a little bit more and enjoy getting to know each other.
Men and boys don’t typically feel free to be this honest and authentic, with good reason. The culture in which we live dictates that males have to be strong or else they are not men. Many men, as well as women in our culture, are unkind to men who own or admit to tender feelings such as fear, anxiety, sadness and shame. They judge such admissions as signs of weakness. It shouldn’t define a man because he admits to having tender feelings.
Core feelings of fear and sadness are universal in men and women, as are inhibitory feelings of anxiety, shame and guilt. Men have these feelings, but are just hiding them. Covering up feelings causes depression, chronic shame, aggression, and addiction. Why do we perpetuate this inhuman standard for men?
Names and details have been modified to protect patient privacy.
Worried guy photo available from Shutterstock