There is a code of silence around the phenomenon of hurt, particularly what it does to men and how it affects communication. Talking with my Namaste this morning – I read an article describing how Men respond to their wives when they experience their disappointment or disapproval. To give a quick thumbnail – Guy does A, thinking that it will be pleasing to her.
And it doesn’t work. She doesn’t like the gift, she hates his choice of restaurant…the flowers he brought are ‘um…nice’…but she was really hoping for a different flower than the kind he purchased, and it shows on her face and in her choice of words.
When this happens, a few things occur almost immediately, much of which is below the emotional ‘water line’ of visible responses from him. First, he goes through a range of complex feelings in an instant; surprise that the ‘gift’ of whatever wasn’t received well, the pang of pain that she’s not happy, and probably irritation at having failed at pleasing her. If she picks up on his disappointment, as shown in his face or in his energy she may attempt to soothe him by trying to educate him on what he could have done differently. This scenario is fraught with tension on both sides and in the face of the tension, one or both parties may be on the lookout for a quick escape. He’ll withdraw internally, relying on the masculine skill set of masking pain with careful neutrality…he begins to go internal. Even though he’s still present physically, from an energetic place he’s not really a full participant in the encounter going forward- having retreated to ‘safety’ inside his head, he is now observing his life from his own internal ‘observation deck’.. Sure, you nod in the right places, respond with a half smile to something you’d normally consider hilarious…you contribute just enough energy to the conversation to keep things moving along. You are partly present, but most of your attention is directed internally. Above all, you absolutely DONT want to make things worse by triggering some sort of ‘what’s wrong’ type question from her.
Men thrive on acceptance and respect – and from birth we have been socialized that making women happy, especially OUR women (girlfriends, wives, moms) happy is essential to our own feelings of emotional well-being. As a result, when she expresses that she isn’t pleased, he doesn’t feel good. Additionally, her rejection of his efforts to please her and the subsequent ‘correction’ from her indicate to him that she doesn’t respect his ability to make decisions. As a result, many men come away from these experiences either consciously or unconsciously declaring an emotional ‘no fly zone’ over the area of the disagreement. How does this show up? – Instead of buying the ‘correct’ flowers – he might stop buying her flowers entirely, or he will buy them, but it will never be a surprise – he’ll ask for her input and will avoid inserting himself into the creative process. Instead of being adventurous and trying new restaurants with her, he will instead rely exclusively on her picking out where they are going to eat and looks to her for direction in an effort to avoid future disappointments.
All of the above are symptomatic of something else entirely, which is the fact that he was both disappointed and hurt by her response to his offering. The worst thing? He never communicated anything about how he felt. Being hurt, experiencing hurt is an experience that is largely internal for most men. We rarely admit to hurting about anything and as a result the emotions associated with ‘hurt’ are something that we teach ourselves to ignore, press down, minimize. Admitting hurt is also to be vulnerable – we don’t want that. The women in our lives don’t associate it with us either, as a result the concept of emotional hurt becomes one that has been gender identified as being almost exclusively female in experience and effect. When discussing this with my namaste, I was very surprised to find out that although in my mind I had experienced and communicated things that I felt hurt by any number of times, in the over 10 years that we’ve known each other, she could only recall TWO times in over 10 years that I’ve actually vocalized that I’d been hurt by something, a situation, an action that was taken by her or something that she had said.
Two times in 10 years.
I was shocked. I consider myself to be an emotionally mature person and one that is reasonably proficient at expressing myself, in using words as a bridge between my own internal emotional landscape and the world around me, particularly in talking about how I feel in our relationship. As I thought about what she said, I realized that over the years I’ve been really, really good at keeping my hurt hidden from view. When I’ve attempted to communicate how something hurt me, I’ve rarely if ever copped to the feeling – the emotion of being hurt – instead she’s understood my hurt through the lens of my irritation, my anger or some altruistic appeal to an ideal of ‘fairness’ e.g. “I don’t ever say X to you, why would you say that to me?” Which is completely different from a direct statement of; “when you say X to me that hurt”. I apparently have feelings – but why is it when the issue of communicating those feelings comes up I resort to the use of defensive tools like anger, irritation or blame instead of actually OWNING my own feelings? They are mine, after all.
In the world of computer programming, a stack overflow situation occurs when a program attempts to use more space than is available (that is, when it attempts to access memory beyond the call stack’s bounds, which is essentially a buffer overflow), the stack is said to overflow, typically resulting in a program crash. I believe that many men experience a similar phenomenon from an emotional standpoint in relation to how we are wired to share our hurts. It is typically when we are said to be ‘truly hurting’ – when the hurt seems to multiply upon itself, when we literally run out of space to store pain internally and we are starting to crash, our literal ‘stack overflow’ situation happens to us and it is only THEN that we feel that we can allow our hurts to be addressed. Actually I think most of us aren’t ‘allowing’ much in that moment – for most, it happens that the situation is sufficiently serious that we can’t hide, we can’t hold it in. cant help it…we just erupt. If you’ve ever seen men caught in the grip of overwhelming tragedy or grief, you’ve seen this happen. We literally come apart with wrenching agony – undoubtedly painful to experience…. it can also be painful to watch. Our struggle to maintain the illusion that we do not hurt contributes to the wreckage in my opinion – in the face of the overwhelming, our safeguards crumble and because of our ’stack overflow’ we…crash. What makes it even more traumatic is that most of us attempt even in our most painful moments, to try and keep it hidden from view and it is usually our inability to hide it that is the alarm that alerts someone external to us to reach out in compassion and hold space for us.
Reclaiming our humanity
Effectiveness is the measure of truth, as the Huna saying goes – and to find out what will be effective I believe that we have a number of clear examples if we look at how women communicate. Have you ever noticed how women attend to someone who is hurt? Often in the case of disagreement or disappointment a statement of hurt given by the person that has been wounded results in an automatic ‘time out’ and a reassessment of what is going on. There’s an immediate cease fire at which time the hurt is addressed and then once the hurt has been addressed the two women involved then give themselves permission to go on with the discussion. It is often the case that the process used to address the hurt feelings unearths enough common ground that the disagreement can be resolved and there is no need to go back to the discussion again. In my opinion, there is something that we as men can learn from this example and it is a subtle truth.
Women in our lives are already sensitized to an expression of hurt, Im missing a beautiful opportunity to get closer to her when I hide my hurt from her. As a man, I need to get out of the Hurt Locker in my head and let her know how Im feeling, especially when Im feeling sad, upset, angry or hurt. I need to resist the temptation to only communicate during good times and to shut off and ‘go internal’ during times when Im hurting. Real Talk – my lack of emotional transparency turns out to be a negative, self fulfilling prophecy. Like attracts like – if I intentionally hide my emotions from the person that loves me, then I have to also hold myself responsible for the sense of isolation that is the inevitable result of my getting really good at hiding. Similar to the childhood game of hide and seek – being TOO good at hiding actually defeats the purpose of the game. Imagine her finishing the countdown and going to look for you – and never ever finding you! I can’t imagine a more emotionally traumatizing game of hide and seek! And yet, for many of us isn’t this how our relationships have evolved? – the male emotional epitaph reads years later..”and He was never heard from again!”
The word instigate is commonly used to mean initiate – but I believe there is an important distinction between these two words. Initiate means to be the first to do something, as in “I felt something hurt me and I opened the dialogue with her about it” Instigate is another word that means ‘to begin’ – but the energy it holds is different – it fundamentally means to incite others to do something, e.g. “I felt something she said hurt me and Im not going to just sit here and take it – we need to talk…..” Can you sense the difference between those two states of mind? You want to initiate conversation about what’s going on with you internally. That’s YOU taking the initiative – being the first to talk about how you feel. That’s owning your emotions…and sharing them. On the other hand, responding to a perceived hurt by instigating a fact-finding commission to establish blame is very different experience energetically. The blame game will not draw you closer together, in fact most of the time the hurt feelings on both sides after a round of ‘Who’s Fault is It!’ are often worse.
Understand that just like in the development of any sort of meaningful skill set, it takes a while before you get good at it. You’ve spent a long time not communicating effectively about many of your internal emotions – it may be harder before it gets easier, but stay with it. Most men’s ’emotional spice cabinet’ contain the equivalent of three basics – sugar,(pleased) salt (displeased) and pepper (angry), which are wonderful spices in their own right, understand that it will take a while to build up an inventory of spices that can be useful in cooking a broad variety of emotional ‘meals’. There are hundreds of different kinds of sugar, and thousands of varieties of salt and pepper, not to mention the thousands of other emotional nuances/spices that are available for your use. But you have to use them to get good at this. Be patient with yourself, but most of all its important to initiate. YOU need to be the person to bring it up FIRST, to start a dialogue on how you are feeling. A consistent lament we hear most often from female clients is their longing for the men in their lives to open up and to communicate with them about how they (Men) feel.
And that is a good enough place to begin. Want to instantly improve your relationship? Start working on opening up, owning your feelings and sharing what’s going on inside you with the woman that loves you – this one act will be rewarding in contentment and happiness in your relationship far beyond anything you could ever bring to her as a gift or the trappings of a special occasion. Letting her truly see you and taking the time to share with her how you truly feel inside, especially when you are hurting is a rare and special gift that she will always cherish. She will feel closer to you as a result and will open to you in response. And from a sustainability perspective – this opportunity is always available to you, truly a renewable resource.
Theres only one handle on the Hurt Locker – and its on the inside. You want out? Open up.