The Tao of Men’s Emotional Health and Childhood Education
David James Lees, Guest Writer
A recent report commissioned by UK charities Relate and Men’s Health Forum highlighted how men are often ‘in the dark’ when it comes to emotional and relationship difficulties in their life, the factors which cause them, and how to effectively deal with them.
The report shows how this ignorance can lead to much worse outcomes for men in relationship and emotional matters, not only for them personally, but also for their partners and families, especially, if a relationship finally does break down. Statistics within the report indicate that men are less likely to engage with, or benefit from, the support of a network of friends and family to help them through any emotional and relationship problems, and that men are also at greater risk of suicide in the aftermath of an emotional or relationship breakdown.
From my personal and professional experience I can wholly concur with these findings.
So why is it that so many men find themselves in this position?
Historically men’s emotional health has been at best overlooked and at worst ignored completely. Indeed, only in recent years has it become more acceptable for anyone, male or female, to openly discuss problems with their mental health and wellbeing, yet the stigma still holds firmly in place for many people and particularly for men.
For too long our society has perpetuated a myth, or what I like to refer to as a ‘misunderstanding’, in relation to men’s emotional health and emotional education. This centres around the idea that somehow a man should be stronger and more unflappable or robust when it comes to dealing with emotionally testing situations compared to their female counterparts.
In my opinion this misunderstanding has its roots in childhood emotional education, or should I say ‘mis-education’. This is when, as children, boys and girls have different expectations of emotional behaviour placed on them, and when boys are often considered or encouraged to be less sensitive or more hardy to emotional situations, and so are offered less emotional support than girls.
This misunderstanding can be particularly apparent during a family crisis point such as divorce, parental financial difficulties or work-related problems, family bereavement and illness etc. All too often in these sorts of situations, the amount and quality of emotional support offered by the adults within the family to the child are often based on gender rather than the emotional abilities and needs of the individual child.
This misunderstanding in a male child’s emotional education means that as adults many men struggle to tackle emotional issues in a healthy and authentic way. This ‘avoidance’ or ‘blocking’ of their emotional energy will in turn have a serious negative impact on their life, and I have many male clients struggling with crises of confidence, relationship difficulties, and issues of alcohol or substance misuse, gambling or financial mismanagement, anger, violence and a general lack of self-control. All of these have profound repercussions for them and their family’s general health, well-being and potential.
So how can we begin to address this situation?
This may seem pretty obvious but if you have not received a sound emotional and spiritual education as a child, where on earth do you learn the skills to deal with challenging, volatile and extremely distressing emotional situations and their resulting feelings, as an adult?
The long-term solution to this situation must address the root of the problem: childhood emotional education. In essence, a parent or carer should always tailor their emotional support and guidance to the needs of the individual child and NOT their gender. By encouraging and supporting a child to develop an ‘emotional toolbox’ which is unique to them this will not only serve them well in childhood, but into adolescence and throughout the whole of their adult life.
If you have a child please teach them to sit with, and calmly explore and work through (or what I call ‘hold’) their emotional feelings, no matter how tempting it is for you to jump in and protect them from the feeling or take the emotional hurt or discomfort away for them. By rushing in to placate a child and remove their emotional feelings as quickly as possible you are only teaching them avoidance and deflection strategies, which is actually the opposite of what you should be teaching them!
Please support them, love them, but above all else emotionally educate them, no matter how uncomfortable or painful the emotional feelings may be for them or you. Holding and confronting the emotional feeling allows both them and you to work through some techniques to calm their emotions and then to examine their cause, so that you can both understand the lesson being presented by the situation. Teach your child to separate their emotional and physical feelings from their thoughts and beliefs; reinforce that feelings are always the result of thinking or beliefs.
As this blog is focusing on male emotional issues, do not fall into the trap with your boy of saying things like: “you must be strong”, “boys don’t cry“, “stand up for yourself”, “don’t be a sissy“, “give as good as you get”, “Be a MAN!”. All of these, and other old-fashioned and out-dated phrases I still hear being used today, have never and will never successfully deal with the emotional challenges and situations at hand.
Be mindful that emotions and the resulting feelings can not only be painful, but also complicated. So whilst giving them the time for thoughtful reflection and deliberation that both the situation and the child deserve. Don’t think you always have to step in and come up with the answer immediately – children actually enjoy the process of working through challenges and problems and finding their own solutions with your loving support.
Don’t encourage them to think that emotional feelings, no matter how painful, are their ‘enemy’. They are exactly the opposite – they are their ‘best friend’! Our emotions tell us we have a situation or problem that needs our calm, balanced and authentic attention. Similarly, don’t use emotive, frightening or scary words to describe an emotional feeling – words or phrases such as ‘panic attack’, ‘anxious’, ‘it’s NOT fair’, ‘poor you’ for instance. These are not only an incorrect description of emotional and physical feeling, but they also increase the intensity of the feelings and misdirect them away from dealing with the challenging situation.
At this point I’m reminded of an ancient Taoist teaching:
“The beginning of all wisdom, is to call things by their correct name.”
This teaching is particularly important with sensitive children. For them you cannot start this emotional education process early enough as most sensitive children develop their emotions far in advance of their cognitive reasoning.
These teachings will give your child the emotional tools they’ll need and will use for the rest of their lives. It will be the most profound, empowering emotional gift that you can give them. It’s like dropping a pebble in an ‘emotional pond’ – the waves will continue to radiate outwards through the generations.
One of the main reasons why this emotional education isn’t carried out by many parents is because it’s very challenging and complicated. Often it’s not taught by parents as they too probably never received these lessons in their childhood. And so it is that many parents simply pass on poor beliefs and emotional coping strategies given to them. As a spiritual and emotional counsellor and coach I work with many men at Peak House Practice who are today suffering because of poor or inadequate emotional and spiritual teachings in their childhood.
So how can you spot it this emotional-miseducation in a man?
The most common sign is what I call ‘avoidance’. This can often take the form of procrastination or and running away from situations (including going down the pub!) and making a habit of not taking personal responsibility for things by making excuses and so on.
Paradoxically, more confrontational ways of being such as aggression, anger or violence are also learnt strategies for avoidance that are used as a means of getting rid of and not ‘holding onto’ or facing up to any emotional feelings. They allow the individual to avoid having to authentically deal with any challenging or difficult practical or emotional situations in their life.
Other signs of such emotional difficulties include:
- Perceiving only the extremes of situations as ‘black or white,’ ‘right/wrong’ etc.
- Always wanting to be emotionally ‘strong’ and unflappable, or aspiring to be ‘the rock’ within a relationship
- Not engaging in meaningful emotional or difficult personal conversations
- ‘Flying off the handle’ when upset or sulking and withdrawing too readily.
‘Running away’ from situations or excessive or aggressive forms of confrontation are essentially the yin and yang extremes of the same energy. All these types of emotional extremes are not sustainable and, rather than avoiding the feelings, it only exacerbates them.
Many men find themselves caught in this sort of confusing and negative emotional circle, almost like drowning in a sea of emotional feelings without the tools or expertise to save themselves and swim to the shore. Often they can feel so overwhelmed by their emotional feelings they do not understand what on earth is happening to them!
So, how can a man begin to address and rebalance any misunderstandings from their childhood emotional education?
The first step is that they must wake-up and take full responsibility for their own mental and emotional health – it’s never too late to change. Often this can mean asking for help and guidance, the very thing they may be trying to avoid. For many men, understanding and accepting that ‘false pride’ and their ‘emotional- mask’ has never and will never serve them well is essential.
They need to accept that
- Emotions and emotional feelings are not a sign of weakness
- Sensitivity is not a sign of vulnerability
- Caring does not mean you will be taken advantage of
- Loving someone does not mean you will always face an emotional disaster or you will be hurt.
The good news is that during my years of practice the percentage of men clients have steadily increased. I don’t see this as a sign that things are getting worse but that it’s actually a welcomed improvement – it tells me that men are increasingly willing to share their emotions and talk things through. So let’s see if we can continue this encouraging trend.
So what if you know a man that fits some of the descriptions I have presented here?
If you want to help them there are also many things you can do – here are some suggestions:
- Try talking openly but calmly about your emotional feelings and what caused them. Discuss your personal techniques and strategies for coping. Demonstrate that emotions do not always mean shouting or crying.
- Perhaps discuss personal development books or articles you’re reading. Engage him in mature conversation and emotional debate on the points you agree or disagree with, almost as if he’s the neutral third party.
- Alternatively direct him to videos you’ve watched online on YouTube or similar websites, even if they’re on something you consider to be unbalanced or are incorrect their viewpoint, as this too can allow for a calm and interesting discussion. I personally enjoy the website http://www.Ted.com where there are many short videos on a huge range of topics, including personal and emotional development all delivered in a professional format.
This process is not unlike an ‘emotional evening-class’, but for someone who often does not know they need the education and also is very scared of returning to school! Although it may be very challenging and frustrating at times hopefully you’ll enjoy the process of working together on your man’s emotional education. This can be an extremely positive exercise for your spiritual and personal development as well as his. I believe the results of this learning will be amazing for everyone and if it’s for someone you care for there is no better gift of love that you could give them from your open and loving heart!
In conclusion, I would like to emphasise my Tao message for men…
Expressing and exploring your emotions is not just about ‘swallowing your pride’ or exposing yourself to potential embarrassment.
Your emotional education and personal development are your birthright.
This is not some ’mumbo-jumbo or ‘airy-fairy’ nonsense that doesn’t concern you. So please try and resist your Ego’s dismissive attitude toward this vital subject. If you’re unaware of any negative thoughts or self-talk you may have around the issue of emotions, or perhaps you think that the points I’ve raised here of NO relevance to you, why not discuss the whole subject of emotions with your partner or loved one and see if they agree? You may be surprised at their feedback!
It’s perfectly natural that at first you may find it extremely challenging to be honest with yourself and to hold, confront and work through your emotions. Please try to resist the temptation to walk away from the learning or get angry or frustrated with yourself or others.
Remember, although avoiding challenging emotions and situations may seem momentarily easier, or that ‘keeping the peace’ by bottling up your feelings may be beneficial in the short-term, this will NEVER be a successful life strategy, nor will it allow you to develop yourself and your relationships to their fullest potential. I cannot promise you that the first few steps along this emotional re-education road will be without its trials and tribulations, but the rewards will be immeasurable, not only for you, but also your family and all people within your emotional sphere.
So, share your thoughts and emotions with your partner, explain your desires, dreams and potential. Do this not only for yourself but for your loving relationship and all those around you. Then fasten down your emotional seat belt, never betray your self-worth again, and focus on the exciting journey to your emotional and spiritual fulfillment!
About the Author
David James Lees is a spirituality and wellness author, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner, counsellor, hypnotherapist, NLP Master, and a Member of the British Acupuncture Council. David has a lifelong interest in Taoism, Taoist philosophy and Qigong, and was first taught meditation by Chinese Tibetan Buddhist monks when he was 16 years old, which helped him tackle a profound stutter. After qualifying as a TCM practitioner in the UK, David trained for a number of years as a Qigong instructor with Doctor Shen in London and Master Wan Su Jain in Beijing, and was later ordained as a Taoist Master in the sacred Wudang Mountains in China. Today, David is a trusted advisor and broadcaster on emotional health issues and alternative therapies in the UK. You can follow David on his blog: www.WuWeiWisdom.com, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Soundcloud. For the latest information on David’s therapies, classes, workshops and special events visit Peak House Practice.
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