The other day I was on a monthly call with a group of men who I have met over the past year or so. Though I have only met one of these men in person - and only one time, briefly, at that - I have come to cherish the time I have with them.
The focus of this call was on a topic we'd discussed a couple of months ago that serves the group's purpose: to provide one of us with support on some area in which they are moving through the challenges of growth. As it turned out, I became the subject.
Using a process from Otto Scharmer's Theory U, I was invited by the group to share an aspiration and its attendant struggles. What emerged in that process surprised me.
From Whence I Came
Like so many, I grew up a tender-hearted boy. Sensitive, caring, and kind, I simply wanted everyone to get along and be good to each other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this approach was not celebrated or welcomed by many of my peers. Rather it was a source of mockery and, if I'm being honest with my experience of it, bullying.
So I put up defenses to shield my tender-hearted self. I used denial a lot, since my real feelings were a source of external pain. And I adapted and adopted - picking up on messages I heard from my peers and mirroring them so I could fit in.
Little did I know that this was an act of "dis-integrity". (I made that word up and I like how it's both the opposite of integrity, as well as a recognition that my true self was disintegrating.) That act would cost me so much over the next several decades.
The implications of failing to integrate my true self would continue to spiral and tighten for a long time to come. They all ran from that same source - the abandonment of who I was inside - and they took all sorts of shapes over the years.
Most shockingly, I remember standing idly by, watching a kid I considered my friend get beaten up by some other boys whose acceptance I craved. I still look back on that day in horrified wonder that I could be so untrue to myself.
Later in life there were all kinds of mini-self-betrayals. Many of them centered around my attempts to fit into the homophobic culture in which I was raised. Joining in with the crowd mocking kids who weren't masculine enough? Yup. Using vulgar phrases to put those boys who allowed their tender hearts to be seen? Shamefully, yes, I did that, too.
Some of the most harmful acts were invisible. My unwillingness to show my hurt - to "suck it up" and "be a man" - led me to disconnect from not only my emotions and my pain, but also from relationships to myself and others. My tender heart, the driving engine behind who I am at my best, had become so obscured by the armor that I'd put up around it.
The Latest Reminder
Over the years I have reclaimed my essential self, the one who cares more about loving myself and others than I do of what the world thinks of me. It started, as these shifts often do, from a place of trauma.
My early 40s were my "burnout years". I was fully into denial about my accumulated hurts and was trying like hell to just tough it out. It didn't work. First, my marriage disintegrated. Soon after that I realized that I had to leave behind the career I'd spent 20+ years building before it ate me alive.
Rising from the ashes of these twin traumas, I slowly began to reconnect to my tender-hearted self. It took lots and lots of very small steps, day after day after day - plus a heavy dose of courage. And years later I arrived at a place were I felt like myself again. My real self.
Then an old reminder surfaced.
Back to That Call
The other day, on that call with my men's group, another painful truth revealed itself.
The aspiration I shared with the group was about an exciting (and scary) new phase of my coaching practice that will allow me to help hundreds of men, rather than dozens, overcome their burnout.
As we worked through the Theory U Case Clinic process I was invited to share the fears that I had about this aspiration. (Note: It's brilliant to be able to share your fears safely in a group of other men.)
My initial response was practical. Would I be able to sustain my business financially through a big shift in strategy?
Then the real fear - the deepest one - showed up: What would my old friends and family think of me?
I realized I have been hiding my work from people who have known me the longest, the people who know the old, guarded, "dis-integrated" me. I avoid sharing most of the details of the work I do, because deep down inside I worry about being taunted by them.
And I have good reason - my fears aren't unfounded. In fact, those reasons have been in my face twice in the past couple of weeks. In both instances, one of my oldest and closest friends attacked my genuine, tender-hearted beliefs.
In both cases, this man made mocking comments in a group text. (Courageous? Uh, no.) The first time, he mocked the work that I do in helping men reconnect to their emotions. In the second, he made the kind of homophobic "jokes" that he's been making since I've known him, even after I clearly stated that I do not stand for those comments.
I have felt a deep sense of both sadness and anger about these interactions for the past couple of weeks.
What Needs to Die?
This question, "What needs to die?", was posed to me by one of the men on that call the other day. He asked it in the context of what I might need to let go of to move into this new and exciting aspiration. I loved the question, yet I didn't know an answer in that moment.
So here it is: My false loyalty to the cloak of "dis-integrity" that shielded my true self needs to die.
Allowing that "death" could very well cost me a lost friendship or two. While it would be sad if it comes to that, I will be ok with it.
My tender-hearted self will live on and thrive in new ways.
Jim Young is a coach who helps men create the lives they truly want to lead. His new program From Burned Out to Balancing launches in the fall of 2021 and aims to help hundreds of men reclaim the lives they want to live.
Jim lives in beautiful Western Massachusetts where he co-parents three ridiculous teenagers, does live improv comedy shows, explores how to bring more love into the world with his partner, and continually seeks to integrate all of that (and more) into a big, happy life.
If you are a man (or know one) who wants to move from burnout to balancing*, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* - There is no such thing as achieving "balance" in our ever-shifting lives. Balancing is the way.