About a decade ago, there were two men I dated who taught me why every man needs a therapist, or a place where he can feel fully free.
Let's call the first guy Rick (his name was not Rick). Things he really, really cared about: his 'personal brand'. His projected earnings for the following quarter. That I was suitably 'impressed' with his knack of picking out only the fanciest date spots. Rick ate only the best 'authentic' sushi, drank only the most expensive wine, noted only the most 'impressive' CV details about anyone we bumped into.
Things Rick did not care about: how my day was. That I wasn't sure what do to about a sick relative. That a friend had said something a bit hurtful and I was feeling kind of dejected about it.
No, in Rick's world, everything was a performance, he was the star, and he needed a bright shiny supporting actress alongside him. Like other women he dated, I had to be 'on' 24/7 -- on brand, on form, on my best behaviour! Figuratively and literally, there was never a bad hair day allowed.
Let's call the second guy Quinn (not his name). Quinn was as chilled as Rick was not. Quinn and I ate McDonalds in our pyjamas on more than one hungover occasion. Quinn didn't know what a personal brand was. I tried to explain it to him once and he still didn't get it.
Quinn not only asked about my day, he could predict how I might have reacted to certain things that might have happened. He didn't care about my friends' CVs. Sometimes we talked about money but in a logistics way, like how long we'd need to save up for a six-month trip.
I cared about them both. I'm not arguing that Rick was a bad guy and Quinn was good. Quinn simply felt more like home: he made me feel protected as opposed to pressured, he wasn't afraid of his heart, and that made him a great listener and cheerleader.
Rick craved love but had a distorted worldview that functioned like a self-sabotaging emotional prison. Whether it was depression, anxiety, or toxic beliefs about how he fit into the world -- it culminated in a trap of knowing who he was only through the eyes of others.
The more I dated, the more I learned that this was not uncommon among men. While my girlfriends are pretty much the same person around their family, friends, and colleagues -- the men I've loved have turned out to be such different people behind their masks.
Rick reminded me that men are conditioned to perform. This internal pressure men put on themselves to perform their identities starts as young as childhood, culminating in a much more solitary emotional journey.
We all experience feeling wounded. Yet women tend to verbalise and process pain much more efficiently, as women have each other to confide in. Women are also 'allowed' to feel emotion, whereas men are socialised to be 'tough' and to push away any pain, instead of acknowledging it.
What does this do to a man over decades? Seeing Rick perpetually campaign for the approval of an illusory audience reminded me that during a eulogy, people never discuss bank account or salary. They celebrate the person you were, what it was about you that made you uniquely you, the stories and quirks they'll miss in your absence.
Therapy can rewire distorted thinking to celebrate that concept. This doesn't have to come in the form of a psychologist -- it can mean nature, music, prayer -- whatever takes a man out of his head and into his heart and reminds him that life is bigger than he is.
Without that outlet, men can become so disconnected from how they feel that they end up feeling nothing. When a man has no therapeutic vehicle through which to experience his inner world, he can end up hollow -- no sense of right and wrong, no principles, no happiness nor sadness. There is just a big empty wasteland of nothingness.
This puts inordinate pressure on any woman to then 'rescue' him-- to connect him to his emotion, to save him from himself, to be a two-dimensional martyr as opposed to a three-dimensional human. When a man allows himself to be three-dimensional, he allows the women in his life to become three-dimensional too.
When men can be compassionate to themselves, they can be the same way to others. When men are mean to themselves, they're harsh to those around them, and they isolate themselves then wonder why they're lonely.
Rick taught me that flawed does not mean worthless. He showed me that feelings point to meaning: without an emotional radar, nobody can find their way home.
Read more by Adele Barlow here.
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