It may seem odd for me to suggest that in New Zealand, a society in which men have always been able to freely express themselves, that many men hold back from expressing their true feelings. This is not uncommon and is something I experienced for many years.
The seeds of this were sown when, as a young boy, I noticed the love and tenderness that I could feel within me was not always reciprocated when I interacted with other people. It also became apparent that boys were not encouraged to express their feelings or what felt true for them, but instead were told to ‘toughen up’, ‘get over it’ or to ‘take it like a man’.
Reflecting back on these times, I can see how such a response affected me as I was growing up. I began to feel that being my natural self wasn’t good enough and in order to fit in with society’s expectations of how boys and men should act, I had to override what my body was telling me and harden so as to not feel the impact my actions were having on me. An example of this was refusing to wear shoes to primary school in winter, opting instead to walk without footwear to school over frost covered ground so as to appear tough and to not be seen as different from other boys.
This desire to fit in with those around me meant that I began holding back in how I expressed. This played out in ways such as: not acknowledging if I was being hurt in some way by other boys in the games we were playing; not acknowledging if the playful banter with friends was becoming quite hurtful to my feelings; not acknowledging the pain I often felt at being left out of an activity my friends were doing or not being invited to a friend’s birthday party; not acknowledging that the manner in which someone spoke to me or that the tone of their voice felt condescending and disrespectful. I had to hold the hurt I felt inside me when all I really wanted was to be heard, acknowledged and accepted for how I felt and perhaps given a hug.
In order to cope with these feelings, I often withdrew into silence thereby verbally communicating and interacting less with people around me. It was something I unconsciously did to protect myself from any further hurt. If I felt mocked or ridiculed for something I had said for example, then what better way to protect myself from feeling rejected again than to withdraw and not say anything? People often interpreted my lack of verbal communication as being because I was ‘shy’, however it was a way that I had some control of the situation as well as a way to avoid being hurt. Withdrawing in this way became an ingrained pattern of behaviour for me and while it may have offered some form of protection, it often denied people around me the opportunity to see the real me.
Holding back was something that happened in every area of my life – whether it was at work (in which I would hold back from putting myself forward for job advancement), socially (in which I would avoid group situations) or amongst family. I can recall often holding back my expression amongst family members when I was growing up as it was often difficult to get a word in with four older and louder siblings. My contribution to the conversation was often minimised and made fun of and this resulted in me feeling that I didn’t have anything worthy to contribute.
Having grown up conditioned by the belief that men didn’t express their feelings, I often found it difficult to share with my wife (Anne) feelings of being hurt or rejected, particularly if it related to something she had either said or done. In these cases, Anne was often completely unaware that her actions or words had triggered an old childhood memory of mine in which I could feel the hurt of being rejected. Unfortunately, I usually took Anne’s actions/words as a personal attack and went to my ‘go-to’ response which was to withdraw. This caused her to react and invariably a rift developed between us that could last for several days. While we would eventually come together again and ‘move on’, the cause of our rift was never dealt with and so this pattern of behaviour continued. Repeating this behaviour was very damaging as it often tested the very foundations upon which our relationship was based.
It has been through a process of acknowledging and letting go of past hurts as well as becoming more open about my feelings, that I have been able to break free of the constraints that society’s expectations of men have had over me.
Two of my greatest teachers and ongoing source of inspiration in this regard have been my two sons (Josh and Ben). I was fortunate to have been able to remain at home with them in the role of stay-at-home dad when they were growing up. This gave me the opportunity to freely express the love and tenderness I naturally felt within me which was something I had previously felt to hold back from doing when around other people. This felt a natural way to be, however I sometimes experienced a conflict within myself regarding the example I was setting for them (particularly around other men). This was because the way I was with them was often at odds with society’s expectations of how boys/men should be. An example of this relates to the public display of affection. I never held back from showing my affection towards the boys but cuddling a child in public always seemed more acceptable than embracing a young man affectionately. Josh and Ben helped me (unknowingly) break free of this ridiculous belief as they never held back from expressing their affection towards me and would often put their arm around me while walking down the street.
Breaking free of the ideals and beliefs I had grown up with regarding how a ‘real man’ should behave has been a gradual process and it has taken time to allow myself to be more open with expressing my feelings. It should be remembered that while boys (and men) are not encouraged to freely express their feelings, particularly if they have felt hurt in some way, the pain they may experience is still very real for them and often remains undealt with in their body.
I can recall examples of still holding in my body the hurt I had felt from the way Anne had spoken to me in a moment of anger several years after the incident occurred. What helps me now in these situations is the ability to show my vulnerability and express when I feel hurt. This is something I had held back from doing in the past as it was often deemed to be a sign of weakness for men to show their feelings in this way. Holding back the expression of these feelings however, can often cause a tension or frustration to build up in men and if they have no outlet for this tension, then over time it’s possible for it to build up and manifest in ways such as anger, violence, depression and possibly even suicide.
A common source of frustration for me was often feeling less as a man because of my role as a stay-at-home dad rather than being in the traditional bread winner role. While I enjoyed being at home with the boys the role itself didn’t fit with society’s expectations of the type of work men should do, and it also challenged the contemporary view of a man’s role within the family. When people learnt about what I did they would often assume that it was temporary until I got a ‘real’ job. This sort of response irritated me as it highlighted how little society valued a man being the primary caregiver of his children. I not only began to feel less than other men when in social situations, but I began to believe that fulfillment as a man came through having a ‘successful’ career.
I internalised the frustration I felt and carried on as if nothing was wrong. I was only fooling myself, however, if I thought that Anne and the boys were not affected at these times. They could feel my withdrawal from them, my change of mood, my lack of fun and playfulness, an abruptness to my expression, the tone of my voice and a lack of true connection with them. I am sure that they wondered why I didn’t share my feelings and I can appreciate Anne’s frustration with my reluctance to do so.
Over the years with the support of my family I am now opening up to others especially when I need support, and this has been a big learning for me.
I have learnt that true strength does not come in the form of physical prowess over another or stoically carrying on when you are struggling emotionally, but rather from being able to show and express our vulnerability and not holding back from making this a natural part of our everyday lives.
(Published with the permission of my family)
By Peter Campbell