I sat in the circle of patients and family members on a dreaded family day in the alcohol treatment center. Spouses were there to tell the addict how their behavior had hurt, harmed, and humiliated the people they said they loved. The counselor’s attention turned my way, despite my efforts to hide in plain sight. “How are you feeling,” he asked. I didn’t know what I felt. I knew I felt something because I could feel the energy churning within me. But I could not identify or describe the feeling or separate the cluster of emotions.
Alexithymia is the inability of a person to identify and articulate feelings. Dr. Ronald F. Levant wrote in Masculinity Reconstructed “Men don’t realize it, but to live life incapable of feeling and expressing emotion is to live life in isolation—alienated not only from those they love but also from themselves.” The day I sat in that circle with other alcoholics and our loved ones, I felt alone and alienated from the people around me and estranged from my feelings and also from my values. Under my calm and stoic exterior, a volcano boiled. Men are taught to not feel most emotions. Our humanness should not be a defect.
The group worked on me, gently as I recall. They asked questions and I responded quietly. A nurse seated on my right began to cry. She reacted to something I said, and she told a story of how she felt when a child. I watched, like I was outside of myself, as my right hand reached out and covered her hand as she spoke. Her authenticity made me feel accepted and understood. I knew her in a moment–we connected.
I felt a surge of joy and optimism. I looked at the counselor and said, “Can I hug my wife?” The counselor said, “You can do whatever you want to do.” I got up, walked across the circle and hugged my wife. What happened was like an out-of-body experience–my first spontaneous action in a long time. I came alive. I reconnected with myself and with others; I would never again lose that capacity, and from that moment on intimacy would be as important to me as achievement was.
My treatment experiences, now more than 40 years ago, began my journey into the complex world of emotions. I set out to learn how to manage my emotional world well. I make no claims to have yet reached that goal.
I read that baby boys are born more expressive than baby girls but mothers, fathers, and peer groups along with the unwritten rules of the larger culture soon begin to teach boys to repress emotions–especially “softer” feelings–to deny pain, and to cover their emotions with toughness and a stoic demeanor. Not experiencing their emotions robs men of their aliveness and traps them in a mechanistic set of habits, assumptions, and false beliefs about masculinity.
My primary goal in life is to feel alive. To feel alive, I need to feel the wide range of emotions that life offers—the sad feeling that brings tears, the tender and caring ones that show vulnerability, the angry and scared feelings that motivate us, and the high energy emotions of excitement and enthusiasm and all feelings in-between.
If men want to feel alive, we first must learn to feel.