He Seems Approachable and Fun To Be With!
Was that your first thought when you saw that photo? If so, we are so very different. I'm terrified of snakes. Just looking at them or thinking about them creeps me out. It was even hard to put that image on the page.
Although I've long been afraid of snakes, it occurred to me today after a conversation with my coach that I've been just like that creature pictured above for a lot of my life. Just like a snake, I've isolated myself for long stretches of time, and only allowed myself to operate from a limited set of emotions. I could digest things whole that you wouldn't believe. And when cornered, I could be very dangerous.
(Wait a sec ... did he just make reference to snakes having emotions?)
Ok, So, Even Snakes Have Emotions
The publication I linked to above from the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University starts off by saying:
"Generally, reptiles do demonstrate basic emotions."
To which I'd add:
"Just like men."
Ok, I'm joking just a bit. But let's be honest, our society does not promote emotional expression for men. We keep it pretty basic. But while that's a pretty grand generalization, I ask you to play along with the analogy for a moment and see if you can think of someone - yourself even - who fits the mold.
What does a limited set of emotions include? Well, it starts with fear and aggression. Know any men who live in that zone exclusively?
They also say, "The idea of bonding with such creatures may seem creepy, or even impossible, yet some people insist that their reptiles know them and enjoy being with them." I definitely know guys like that. (Sorry, I had to add in that joke. It was too easy.)
The team at Texas A&M also notes, "they may also demonstrate pleasure when stroked or when offered food." Starting to see the parallels yet?
Here's one more quote from that article:
"A more controversial emotion in reptiles is the concept of pleasure, or even love. Many feel that they have not developed this emotion, as it does not naturally benefit them. However, most reptiles do seem to recognize people who frequently handle and feed them."
How many men do you know who shelter their need for love, because it's "too soft" or "shows weakness"? Maybe they'll let in the people who "frequently handle and feed them" just a little bit, but in all their other interactions they lay low and keep to themselves. Like a snake, even.
The Corner I Built
I am a naturally loving and emotional person, as I believe most humans are from birth. However, I spent many, many years hiding from that identity, coiling up and growing more and more tense over time. Instead, I took on the identity that I thought I was supposed to have as a man.
I created a story from my early childhood - my mother would be enraged when father would occasionally miss child support payments - that when men don't provide, they are bad.
I also learned from my father that a man's emotions "weren't a thing", as the modern expression goes. This was not an explicit message. I'm still trying to decide if I want to call it one of silence or absence, and I suppose they're both true.
What I know for sure is that I concocted a set of lessons for myself, a map of how to be a man, that was based on absorbing whatever was necessary to be a strong provider, and to never, ever allow the emotional impact of life to show.
[As I write those words, the expression that seems most appropriate (pardon the language) is: Holy Fucking Shit!!]
No wonder I ended up feeling cornered. I was constantly on guard for something that felt threatening (emotionally) and needed to always appear strong (to provide for others).
Here's a picture of me processing my emotions during that period:
[Photo by Sabine Urbach @ Roaring Earth.]
The Cost of My Corner
I realize that I keep making jokes in this post. I am sure it's to stave off some of the pain - and because I like to make jokes as often as possible. But what happened as I stayed in my self-imposed corner was no joke. I lost a lot.
The "nice part" of my corner was an identity that I cherished. I was married to a good woman and had three beautiful kids. We lived in a nice house in a great little city, socialized with our friends regularly, and went on lovely vacations to beachside spots in both summer and winter. According to the map I had for success in my adult years, I had it all.
Yet as I sat in my emotionally starved corner, coiling up ever tighter, I became someone entirely different. All I could access emotionally were fear and aggression, passive as it may have been. I was not developing new friendships. I was dropping my hobbies. Life was becoming a game of survival. And providing for others - always for others. Similar perhaps to the snakes studied by Texas A&M, I was able to "recognize people who frequently handle and feed them", though just barely and not quite enough.
I was - pardon the overly obvious pun - living a very constricted life.
Eventually, my defensive and isolated nature precipitated the end of my marriage. Having failed to build any of the skills I needed to connect with other people meaningfully, I felt completely lost. I dove further into work, because I still knew how to PROVIDE!!! And I quickly burned out - multiple times.
What I thought would save me - keeping my feelings in check and providing for others - became my downfall.
Shedding My Skin
Another super gross thing about snakes is that they shed their skin. They slither out of it, leaving a snake-shaped tube of skin lying around. Ick.
I mean, yeah, people shed their skin, too. But at least we evolved in a way that you don't see people-shaped skin-things littering the ground. Then again, maybe that would be easier, at least with this metaphor I'm working on.
See, it took a LONG time and a LOT of work to change my "skin". I didn't just slide out of the old me and into the new me - I wish!
I won't tell the whole story of how I evolved from the fearful, (passive) aggressive, unemotional person who was constantly backed into a corner. I wrote about that in my "decade in review" post recently.
I also wrote about how men build a trap for themselves by becoming overly reliant on one primary emotional relationship. So I won't go back over that ground, either.
I even wrote about how improv helped shift my perspective profoundly, and how it could alter the Male Provider narrative in important ways. No need to waste more pixels on that.
Instead, what I want to say here is that we aren't snakes. Thank goodness for that! Snakes are so disgusting. (Sorry, I can't help it.)
No, what I mean is that we get to evolve in different ways. We, as men, can uncoil ourselves and stop living in an emotional desert. We can stop isolating ourselves and fearfully holding onto our perceived power so we can provide for everyone around us without help.
(C'mon admit it! It's all about fear, guys. It is.)
((By the way, "they" don't need as much of our help as we want to believe...))
The Four-Letter "H" Word
So here it is.
Men will be better off when we truly embrace H-E-L-P as a way of life.
So will everyone else. When we coil up and pridefully stick to the ancient, unevolved notion that men can provide for everything they need without any real, meaningful help, we stay stuck in the corner. We're not fun. We're not approachable. We're not helping anyone thrive.
How do I know? I lived it. Here's that part of my story that came into focus today in the conversation with my coach.
Last year, after years of "shedding skin" and growing into a new person that accepts help, allows emotions, and connects with people all the freakin' time, I finally made a big choice to provide for my life in a new way. Leaving my cushy, six-figure corporate job in my late 40's, with three kids and a big child support commitment, I had a lot of people tell me what a big risk that was. I brushed them off - likely some old remnants of that fiercely independent persona coming through there - and kept working at building my business.
At no point did I consider altering my "provider commitments", even though replacing a six-figure salary just.. doesn't.. happen.. overnight.
And then I felt it again a few months ago. Fear. The corner. The savings I had earmarked to fund my business until I had gotten to sustainability was dwindling.
I was S-C-A-R-E-D, but I did something different. I allowed myself to feel it. And then I asked for help.
There were actually a couple of specific ways I asked for help, but one made all the difference for me. I sat down a couple of months ago with my ex-wife, this good woman who I remained committed to supporting, and who had "frequently handled and fed" me in many ways over the past two decades, even after our divorce. I told her what was going on for me.
She offered help. She let me know it was ok to provide less, to take the time I needed to rebuild my income. Want to know how that felt? (I know because I have feelings now.)
I felt seen.
I felt like I wasn't alone.
I felt like I could let go of the shame I was holding onto.
I felt like I had left the corner behind me.
Here's the other thing that changed: All of that invisible, negative energy that was draining me, all that time I was spending looking out for problems? I was able to redirect it into positive directions, into growth.
I kid you not that within a couple of weeks I started to have new business, really good business, show up on my doorstep. I began asking for all sorts of help! The floodgates were open!!! Abundance arrived and no corner could contain it!!!
Snakes Hunt In Packs
Oh goodness gracious, this is entirely terrifying:
Gah!!! First of all, why would anyone ever willfully GO INTO A PITCH BLACK CAVE FULL OF SNAKES AND BATS?!? Ok, I'm over it. (Sort of.)
Ultimately I appreciate what Vladimir Danets, the insane Cuban biologist who did that, taught us:
If even snakes - those vilest of all creatures - can seek out help, well, I suppose men can too.
Jim Young lives in Florence, MA where the snake population is safely within his acceptable limits. He is actively recovering from years of coiling himself up against the world, as well as from scanning for all of those pictures of snakes and reading those gawdawful stories.
In his new habitat, you can often find Jim helping others, in his role as a coach, to shed the old skins that no longer fit them.
Looking to shed a skin of your own?
Want to put those fangs away?
Need to de-constrict your life?
Send a rattle or a hiss Jim's way at firstname.lastname@example.org.