- If your child is upset, share with them a time when you felt upset and just sit with them, without trying to fix their problem
Say “I love you” to your spouse or partner while making love.
Sing along to a song you love no matter who’s watching.
Ask your partner or spouse what you can do for them to make them feel good.
Dance to a song, alone or with someone, that moves you.
Call your Mom.
Tell your (grown) sibling a story you remember from your childhood that is embarrassing for you.
Play with your dog at the park.
Buy someone’s lunch for them.
Listen to someone’s hard day, and offer them a hug afterward.
Blog posts from the first-person perspective, about the company, some aspects of therapy, and some of the challenges of being a client and being a therapist.
"(When) we tell our children 'don't express emotions' what we're basically doing is limiting their ability to form relationships." - Mark Greene, author/filmmaker, Remaking Manhood
A theme that has shown up in my work over the past few years is one that I think has not only gone on long enough, but also one related to the current state of things in the US, with the recent outbreaks of violence. Specifically, it's related to working with men and their ability to express their emotions. And more specifically, we (as men) are terrible at doing this - but it's because we're taught to.
Men being unable to express emotions isn't a new concept; in fact, it's pretty much become a cliche. In his film Remaking Manhood, author and filmmaker Mark Greene examines the culture of masculinity in the US, and how it stifles the natural expression of emotion, particularly in young boys. Here's the perfect example: this video making the social media rounds right now is of a boy in kindergarten who already knows that he's not supposed to be sad, even though he obviously feels sad. A girl he likes is hanging out with someone else, and you can see and hear the heartbreak, but he's clearly embarrassed and doesn't want to cry about it. And he's in kindergarten! At age 5 or 6, he's already been socialized to choke down his emotions and not to show them. In his film, Greene pulls together a panel of experts that talk about what it means to "be a man" in American culture: not to cry, not to be vulnerable, to "be tough" and to "fix" other people's problems, and not to have any of your own. And how, ultimately, this is doing significant damage to the emotional health of our communities, and our country.
A study done by the AARP shows that between 1999 and 2010, suicide among men aged 50 and over rose by nearly 50% - think about that: fifty percent MORE middle-aged men, over the course of 11 years, took their own lives than previously. Our culture says that men at that age should be well-established in their careers, have a spouse and family, perhaps children/step-children of their own, be thinking about retirement, even have a close cadre of friends with whom they do things outside the home. They should be stable and happy and fulfilled. The reality? So many men are not. They've divorced several times over, and many live alone or without a spouse; they've moved or changed careers several times and have peaked in their careers, not attaining what they hoped to attain; they've abandoned their friendships because of the pressures of raising children or for the sake of their marriage; some are even questioning their sexuality. They feel like failures, they are in mourning for their youth, they're in debt, they're lonely - and in spite of all this, they're only supposed to be able to show happiness or anger. They're not allowed to hurt or be sad. It's not "manly" to for them to say they're lonely or isolated. Hence the ol' "double-bind": they're damned if they do, and damned if they don't.
This is a lot of what I see in my work; men who are in that bind, who have spent their lives not being able to express themselves fully, unable to be vulnerable and connect with others, all to the detriment of themselves, their relationships, and their families. And I am ONE therapist. There are hundreds of thousands of mental health professionals in the US, and I can safely extrapolate that their experiences must be similar. So what does that mean? That there are probably tens of MILLIONS of men out there who feel this way. Vulnerability is how we connect with others, and if we can't connect, we feel isolated. Isolation leads to depression, suicide, drug use, and, you guessed it - violence.
This is why I believe the "culture of men" in the US is related to the violence and the "unhooding" of racism as of late. The significant hatred and racism we're seeing is related to men's inability to express emotions. Too much of a leap for you? Here's the logic: when we encounter something that we don't know about, that is unfamiliar or perceived as new, our brains engage our "fear" response. Fight or flight, you've heard that before, I'm sure. The same thing happens when we've been told, or conditioned to believe, that someone or something is dangerous and we are presented with that. Fear of something often engenders hate, because hate feels like a powerful weapon to use against fear. Hate is also easy to access for most men, because we are conditioned to express anger before fear. So instead of saying "I'm afraid" or something like it, the most "acceptable" male response to something unfamiliar is "I hate that". So from that perspective, racism and hatred is born (at least in part) out of ignorance, out of fear of the "other," out of an inability to safely express a difference of opinion, and it's erupting into violence.
So many of the men I know, myself included, grew up in a culture that didn't allow for tears, for uncertainty, for vulnerability - but being vulnerable with someone is exactly how we connect. It's where friendships and love starts. When we can show someone that we hurt, that we can love, that we can be real, our natural response is empathy and a desire for kinship with them. Connection is our deepest need as humans - it's what we're built for! So that begs the question: how can we expect the atmosphere of violence to subside if we don't allow ourselves the space enough to feel and express those more vulnerable emotions?. I typically don't deal in absolutes, but this is one that I lean on frequently: we all desire love, and we all desire connection. The "culture of men" needs to change so that we are not so emotionally stifled. From that stifling comes anger and habitual disconnection, and it is helping create a culture of violence in our communities. We've got to allow our young men to be free to be themselves, for the sake of our families, our communities, and our country.
It never fails: every time I do relationship work with someone, or two someones, or three someones, etc. I can’t help but hear the echo of that work in my own head – sometimes while it’s happening – about my own relationship.
A bit of backgrounding: I’m a 40-year-old gay man, in a relationship for 7 years now with my partner, and in that time we’ve been very happy with each other. I’m the more creative, outgoing, insightful type; he’s the more introverted, by-the-book, steady-as-she-goes type. It works because he’s my rock, and I’m his…muse? Well, maybe that’s not the best description, but regardless, we love each other and take care of each other, and the balance we both desire works itself out over the course of the longer term, which is satisfying for both of us. We haven’t made getting married a priority for several different reasons, but the conversation seems more relevant these days, and now we’re starting to make plans.
Recently I was working with a couple about to go through a major life change, and they were seeking some counseling to better navigate this change. I was really enjoying working with this couple; they were invested in the work, they used their time well in session, they even went as far as implementing changes at home on their own – a stellar couple of clients, to be sure. However, at one point we started talking about the fears each one of them has going forward with the relationship, and that was when I started to hear that echo: my partner and I aren’t married, so maybe we’re *also* afraid of moving things forward?
Here’s something you should know about a therapist doing couple’s work: it’s precarious. Precarious in the sense that the therapist has to navigate two people’s wants and needs and try to get them to listen and learn to talk to each other in a way that they’ll both hear, or they might break up, because couple’s work is often the last step before a couple will break up because they waited so long to come and see you, because of the stigma around mental health – big breath – but also precarious because any little issue you might have been ignoring in your own relationship can get highlighted and causes you to, well, write blog posts to reflect a little deeper on your thoughts. But, this is also the beauty of doing couple’s work, because as a relationship therapist I have the chance then – if I take it, of course – to use those reflections to open up those previously ignored issues, and to try to resolve them before they become larger issues.
Does my partner love me? Yes, of that I am sure. Am I afraid that he doesn’t love me sometimes? Yes. Gosh, yes. Every time I forget something important he’s mentioned, every time I make a mess, every time we have a bad day and say thoughtless things, I think: am I enough for him? Did I really hurt his feelings this time? Is he falling out of love with me?
Do I love him? Without a doubt. Do I question that sometimes? I would be lying to myself, and to him, if I said I didn’t. And here’s where couple’s work gets tricky: what’s our “definition” of love? Without getting all syrupy and gooey about it, or over-simplifying it, love is, for us and for many others, a relationship where safety, appreciation, and intimacy exist without question, and where we commit, to each other and to our community, to continue to work at our relationship so that we are both happy and fulfilled. Is that a perfect definition? Well no, and most of us who work with relationships will say there isn’t one, because love is a living, breathing emotion, just like all the others. It is different things at different times, because it has to be. Sometimes it’s holding each other in the dark after a terrible week; sometimes it’s letting the other go out with his friends because he needs to “reset”; sometimes it’s listening to the same work story for the 30th time because you know she just needs to vent. So yes, yes, I do sometimes question my love for him, but only because I question my own resolve to continue to love, because I know I am imperfect. Love is a commitment, it is effort, it is showing up every time they need you – and as humans, we falter. It is our nature to falter, to make mistakes. Just as is it in our nature to find the good, and to face our fears, to forgive, and to keep on loving.
I’m about 5 years into private practice work, a youth in the work – but not in life. I have an old soul; an existential, empathic, artistic soul, that revels in the real wonders of the work I do – and I don’t think it will ever get old. I get the chance not only to listen to and share stories with other human beings – a therapy that has been around since the dawn of language – but I also get to learn about myself and examine myself in the process. And when I stop and appreciate that for a moment, then the little kid in me is like what? That’s amazing! More, more! and the adult in me recognizes yes! That’s important, nice job. And of course, the therapist in me feels healed and healing and grateful I get to be there, so many times over. And in the end, I know that the work I do on a daily basis continues to facilitate an awareness and an understanding of myself, my partner, my relationship, and the many relationships I continue to work with - and that it will continue to make me and the work stronger for years to come.
Something I learned early on in my career that has stuck with me over the years is that the relationship between therapist and client is the most important aspect of doing therapy. My graduate school professors framed it for me like this: many times as a therapist, you ask your clients to reveal parts of themselves that are so bruised and broken, so sad and painful, so difficult to even acknowledge, that it takes real trust of the other person, and courage in yourself, to do so. And as students we were asked, would you do that with just anyone? Really, would any of us? Of course not. We have to believe that our therapist has our back. For us to relax, to breathe, to feel secure, we need to trust in our therapist so that we can explore those parts of us that we keep locked away, medicated, or otherwise hidden from ourselves and our loved ones, so that we can heal. And so from the very beginning of my career, I learned to make my relationships with my clients sacred above all else.
And as I started to grow as a therapist, I was able to lean on this, too. When you're new to the field and you feel the pressure of responsibility to help someone because they've sought you out, and you have only a "newbie's" understanding of the process, you sometimes feel this pressure to perform, to give something to your client. And that's where the relationship comes in. When I felt as though I wasn't enough, I relied on the relationships I formed with my clients to help them stay safe. I trusted the the connections I built with them, the caring I conveyed, to be the beginnings of healing. That is how healing begins, with a therapist you feel connected to and can trust. And that is how it continues, too, once the bandages come off.
Northwest Arkansas has a lot of therapists; by some websites' counts there are 19 schools in the state offering some kind of psychology degree, so there are more every year. So as a consumer of mental health services, you have dozens, maybe hundreds, of therapists and counselors to choose from. However, I started Bentonville Counseling to create a place that puts an emphasis on the relationship you have with your therapist; your safety and trust in the therapy process are of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, not every mental health provider does this, to the detriment of their clients. And if you don't have the right fit with your therapist, you won't trust that person to help you grow and change. So let Bentonville Counseling be the provider you trust, and benefit from the best mental health care that Northwest Arkansas has to offer.
Thank you for thinking of Bentonville Counseling in choosing a mental health provider. While our business is new, our experience stretches over several years and has helped dozens of folks with many different kinds of issues. Whether you're from Rogers, Springdale, Lowell, Little Flock, Fayetteville, Pea Ridge, or one of the many other wonderful nearby towns, Bentonville Counseling is here for you, providing top-notch services at reasonable prices.
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