James rolls into Planet Fitness every morning at 5 am. That’s what he tells us during our introductions. He gets his workout in early. Right away, I notice that his shoulders are bowling balls and his biceps occasionally twitch beneath his black long-sleeved Nike shirt. I give him a subtle head nod when he walks in–nothing too flashy. This here is a man’s man. The fluorescent lighting gleams off his bald head as he tells us about his hobbies. Lifting. Basketball. Table tennis.
We’re in the partial hospitalization (outpatient) program. It’s James’s first day–my last–of the fifteen sessions. This is a place where people come together to learn about new strategies to cope with their anxiety or depression or addiction.
A few minutes later, in group therapy, James is holding a balled-up tissue to his eye. “I’m not saying I’m giving up,” he says, pausing when his voice cracks. “But what you guys are doing here—I can’t do it.”
We were just talking about our weekends. Jessie had shared that she was feeling ashamed about how unproductive she was. She’d meant to catch up on work, but instead, she smoked too much weed and played video games. Meghan was stressed about finding a new place to live when her lease was up. I shared that I was anxious about my wife Emily’s health (she’d been checked into the hospital with heart issues just a few days after Genevieve was born). “I can’t identify my feelings,” James says when it’s his turn. “I’ve spent too long avoiding them.”
If I ever came across James at a Planet Fitness, I’d duck my head and go straight to the stretching room. He’d continue benching 90lb dumbbells and I’d find my way to a dimly lit corner to do my 10lb curls in privacy.
If James and I were both approaching the last parking spot at the Green Hills Mall, I’d wave him in. That’s how massive James is. He doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who cries often. He’s rugged, good-looking, and his voice is straight gravel. I’m surprised when I see the tears begin rolling. It’s like seeing your well-groomed professor wearing pink bunny slippers at the grocery store. It feels oddly voyeuristic. Like something I shouldn’t be witness to.
As kids, we learn about the consequences of our emotions around the same time that we learn to walk. Throwing a fit gets you sent to your room. Reacting to bullies adds fuel to their cause. And that’s right, we all hear it: real men don’t cry.
For boys, the message is reinforced at every turn. Big feelings are evidence of weakness, so emotions are to be suppressed if you want to survive middle school and make the football team and have friends or whatever. Your anxiety keeps you from asking that girl out. Your fear of failure keeps you from applying to the best colleges. Your anger gets you grounded.
Feelings are the enemy.
So what does a highly emotional little brat like myself do? He shoves those feelings so far down into his chest that he can barely see them anymore. He puts a mask on them, tosses them into a cage, and throws out the key. He runs from himself.
At some point, between childhood and adolescence, he learns to survive the same way we all do, by trial and error, navigated the world he’s born into. And if he’s anything like James or me, survival means simply saying no to our emotions.
But, as I’m sure you already know, feelings have a way of showing up anyway, no matter how averse you are. Anger becomes aggression. Fear resembles cockiness. Sadness becomes apathy. Until it’s all a whirly, confusing storm with us at the center just trying to get our first job or pass our calculus test or win a basketball game.
The problem with masking your feelings and locking them away is that you never get to know them. Which means you never gain the self-awareness needed to manage them, to accept them, to live with them. Your goal inevitably becomes avoidance. But your feelings stay just out of view, controlling you in ways you don’t understand.
“I’m a cutter,” James says, pointing at his arm. “I do all this work to take care of my body. I eat clean. I go to the gym every day. I get pedicures for christ’s sake. I take so much care of my body, and then I cut. So what’s up with that?”
The therapist struggles to answer his question. What’s up with that? She’s thoughtful and gentle with her words when she finally finds the ones she’s looking for. “We all find ways to deal with our trauma,” she says. “I hope that by being here you can identify some alternative, healthy coping strategies.”
But for many of us, we need more than a packet full of strategies. We need to start at the beginning. We need to name our feelings, to identify them accurately. And that sometimes feels impossible.
My first time in therapy was exhausting. My tears were the most trigger-happy they’ve ever been. One mention of my lovely mother or my deceased grandfather or my fear of failing and the release was flipped. I’d pour those tears all over my poor therapist’s couch, refusing to use the tissues on the end table as if not accepting them proved that I was still in the driver’s seat. “What are you feeling right now?” she would ask. “I don’t know,” I would say.
This exchange happened often.
I recently wrote a blog post about finding yourself through curiosity, and I’m beginning to think that self-exploration is one the most important skills we humans can develop. Nonjudgmental curiosity about ourselves unlocks something magical. It allows us to name our feelings. It gives us a new perspective. A new lens through which we can observe our actions, our emotions, our experiences. It gives us objectivity.
Nonjudgmental curiosity allows us to identify our anxiety without fearing it, to see our envy without resenting it. It allows us to feel angry without reacting from it. And most importantly, it leads to grace.
For a lot of men and boys, our feelings are wrapped up in shame. We believe there’s something wrong, something that needs to be fixed. So rather than digging deeper, we push away our fear, our hatred, our envy, our sadness, our anger, refusing to confront our belief that we are somehow faulty or broken or unworthy. After all, we might find out that it’s true.
I’m here to offer you some good news. Humans have emotions. And you’re not faulty goods. Feelings exist to keep us safe, to teach us about ourselves, and to educate future decisions. They’re good. They’re a gift from God. And you know what, they don’t define you. The you who felt depressed yesterday is the same you who’s on cloud nine today.
Learning to identify your feelings isn’t easy, especially in a world that punishes you the moment you reveal them. But it’s a necessary step on the journey to wellness. It might seem like you’re scraping away at an open wound. But it gets a little easier, and the wound gets a little cleaner, every time you do it. This is one of those rare instances when it’s not about the process, it’s about the result. It’s about feeling safe with yourself. It’s about discovering who you are and forgiving the worst parts. It’s about bringing your best pieces into the light and appreciating them. And it’s about learning to love the whole thing.
It’s really our only option. We’re all we’ve got. As Jake tells Cohn in The Sun Also Rises, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” Maybe it’s time we stop trying.