Boys and Self-Loathing: The Conversations That Never Took Place

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Mark Greene explores how being deeply unhappy, even in the past, is not a story men are encouraged to share.

 

As a teenager, I carried such negative internal narratives that they resulted in actual physical responses of tightness and nausea a dozen times a day. These sensations of self-loathing would wash over me, creating a prickling sensation that raced across my skin, followed by a wave of heat resolving into a physical pain in my chest. It was like being shocked or hit. For me, it happened when I interacted with others or even imagined myself interacting with others. It happened when I looked at girls, spoke to my friends or simply saw myself in a mirror.

The internal dialogues of teenagers are the result of every interaction; every conversation they have ever had or witnessed. In his remarkable post, Confronting the Devil on Your Shoulder, Thomas Pluck talks about the process of digging out of the crippling negative messages many kids internalize from an early age.

The roots of my self loathing were both circumstantial and biological. They included my parents’ acrimonious divorce, an absent father, an explosively volatile and physically abusive older brother, a jarring relocation and a very late puberty. But events alone are not what holds a child back. It was the lack of communication about these events. It was the silence.

I grew up in a time when talking to your kids about their feelings was about as likely as joining the Bolshoi Ballet.

I grew up in a time when talking to your kids about their feelings was about as likely as joining the Bolshoi Ballet. My parents were born during the great depression. My life as a child was a cake walk compared to what they had to endure. My father’s stories of his childhood are a powerful evocation of grit and resiliency, but I don’t think he had a lot of conversations with anyone about how he was feeling. The blinding white flash of the back of this Step Father’s hand, yes, but not a lot of chit chat.

So, he and my mother took us as far as they could. And as much as I respect their journeys, mine is not made invalid by comparison. It is often said that we parents always want something better for our kids. But there is a larger truth at work here. On a meta level, we all simply can not live good lives without connection and communication. The central role of connection and communication in parenting is that it helps children process and frame the joys and challenges in their lives.

As a child, I needed help to parse the complexity of the world. I needed connection. I needed to talk to someone who could help me make sense of things. Instead, I was left to construct a world view on my own. This is not a job any eight year old should have to do alone. Though I had conversations with my peers, they were in no position to help. And those kids were not my primary focus. I spent my time tracking the kids who were a direct threat.

My strategy for creating safety was to play the feisty little guy. I took up smoking at twelve. I brown-nosed the bigger guys on my block. I always had a compliment for them. I was always ready to give them a cigarette. I formed what alliances I could. At one point, I landed a free-period job working in the Assistant Principal’s office. His name was Mr. Wooten. A tall sullen man who walked with a limp. Someone said he had suffered polio as a child. From an educational perspective, he was not the carrot. He was the stick.

They would close in on him in the dark back corner of the locker room as the rest of us squirmed past to the relative safety of the well lit gymnasium. I always felt sick with guilt that he was back there, wide eyed and supremely puzzled behind the wall of thick bodies.

When the school toughs would get sent in for misbehaving, I would stamp their forms and send them back to class, without their ever visiting Mr Wooten. Before they left, I would open the confiscation drawer in big grey file cabinet and hand them a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.

This bought me some immunity during recess, in those terrible moments when the bullies would scan the ranks of the geeks and pick the guy who was going to take the beat down. Luckily for me, I had some sense of style. There were a number of boys who simply didn’t get it. A guy named Edward who literally had a pocket protector. I recall deep pangs of sympathy as savage abuse rained down on him. He was like the cow that was driven in downstream from the herd, to attract the piranhas. They would close in on him in the dark back corner of the locker room as the rest of us squirmed past to the relative safety of the well lit gymnasium. I always felt sick with guilt that he was back there, wide eyed and supremely puzzled behind the wall of thick bodies. To this day, my gut boils at the thought that no one in the school administration gave a shit about Edward.

But to save my own skin, I was happy to scoff at Edward as loudly as the rest. To make him the butt of the kind of vicious jokes that leave you feeling filthy forty years later. To push him in downstream from me and race across the river. Edward and Larry and Jack and all the rest who haunted the nearly abandoned chess club, picking absently mindedly at their pimples. Sacrificial sheep to the young alpha adherents of directionless masculine savagery.

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I got myself elected to the student council by drawing endless election posters. My opponent was a girl named Louise Bone.  My opponent’s polite drawings of her name and the world “elect” (I’m thinking maybe she included some flowers?) took a back seat to my drawings of a grinning dog with a bone in its sharp teeth.  I can only imagine what it was like for her to see my posters all over the school making fun of her name. It would not surprise me if the phrase “Don’t pull a boner” was invoked. I don’t recall. For me, getting elected was my ticket to getting out of P. E. for the final year of school, and I didn’t care who took a beating in order for me to escape that place. My caustic campaign struck a chord with my peers. I was elected.

The first girl who ever agreed to be my girlfriend was named Anne. Initiated by the delivery of the words “Would you go with me?” scrawled in my nervous hand on a piece of lined notebook paper. Anne was on the student council with me. So, we decided to form an alliance. To become boyfriend and girlfriend. We sat together at lunch and passed notes. We did not kiss. We did not hold hands. We simply assigned each other the titles and were therefore free of the stigma of not being with anyone.

I had no sexual urges to speak of. I was still physically a child. Puberty was a year or more away. I recall the physical agony it caused me to try and give Anne a kiss on the cheek. All I had to do was lean over in an unguarded moment and give her a little peck. I knew that this was necessary. I knew I needed to validate my role as the boy. The pressure to do so was almost unbearable. But I could not do it. No matter how hard I tried, the thought of putting my skin in contact with her’s was physically impossible. The best I could manage was brushing the back of my hand against hers as we walked. An accidental touch. But kiss her? Impossible. As if in order to lean over to her, I would be pulling against some massive personal horror bolted firmly to the world itself. Meanwhile, I clearly understood that kids my age were rolling around on this one particular sweaty mattress in this one particular neighborhood garage. Feeling what, in god’s name, I couldn’t have guessed.

When it became clear to us that neither Anne nor I were inclined to fumble around in the alarming realm of physicality, we were left feeling like relieved failures, or at least I was. It ate at me because off all the bragging sexual dialogues swirling about. I didn’t care about sex. But I wanted to be able to brag about it to someone. anyone.

Not one of my finer moments.

Once, toward the end of my painfully courteous relationship with Anne, we were sitting side by side in the lunch room. My older brother took up a position facing us at a nearby table. He spoke to his buddy in a loud voice about how I couldn’t even bring myself to touch my girlfriend. He carried on this conversation so that kids for tables around could clearly hear him. In that moment, I fought to reach across and simply touch Anne. On the shoulder, or arm or hand. I couldn’t do it. I was acutely aware that I simply didn’t care to, making my inability to touch Anne embarrassing as both a prospective lie and a failure of manhood in the same moment. Shame flooded my face red. And hatred. I can still remember my brother laughing. “See?” he kept saying over and over. “See?”

We internalize the negative messages we get as children. When we hear them in our adult relationships they seem so familiar that we let them slip in again. It’s a cycle of grief and pain that can only be broken through human communication and thoughtful self-care.

By the first year of high school, I had only barely entered puberty. I was years behind my peers in qualifying for the attention of girls. My voice was still quite high. I giggled hysterically. When I discovered beer, I drank and then poured out a ceaseless stream of self pity stories. Girls walked off in droves. It took ten years to get myself on track, to build any kind of baseline of self esteem. As Thomas Puck puts it, to Confront the Devil on My Shoulder. And learning to forgive myself for not doing better as a sad and frightened eight year old somehow remains an ongoing process. We internalize the negative messages we get as children. When we hear them in our adult relationships they seem so familiar that we let them slip in again. Its a cycle of grief and pain that can only be broken through human communication and thoughtful self care.

But I will say this to men and women alike. You can’t let other people tell your stories for you, or censor you, or shame you. If you get a hint of that from someone who purports to care about you, go somewhere and rethink that relationship. Immediately. And if it continues long term, leave for good. And don’t bother looking back.

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Being deeply unhappy, even in the past, is not a story men are encouraged to share. When we talk about what has happened to us, we feel pressure to construct a narrative that has us overcoming our troubles. Its embarrassing to admit that we’re not done with our old business. That old slights and old wounds still pain us, sometimes more deeply than we can express. But men need a space to grieve what has been lost. We need to advocate proudly for our right to grieve.  Because honestly, many of us have never had our funerals. We never have been granted the retelling of our lost battles and weary retreats. And because of this, they remain with us, long after they should have been dead and buried.

While there is a popular assumption that women are asking for us to connect in more emotional ways, our intimate partners can often be repelled by male vulnerability.

To tell our stories of grief is to be vulnerable. And vulnerability is the third rail of male expression. Put simply, to go there can get you erased, gone, killed. While there is a popular assumption that women are asking for us to connect in more emotional ways, our intimate partners can often be repelled by male vulnerability. This is because there are so few spaces in which vulnerabilty to framed as an asset, as a pathway to strength. So few spaces where it is even visible at all. So, on some level our partners can not be blamed for turning away from displays of vulnerability.

But vulnerability is the key to living a fuller life.

Whenever I see an aggressive man, I see a man who is taking with force what he can not devise a way to be freely offered. It is the opposite of being vulnerable. While there is ample evidence that our human side, our stories and our vulnerability can create more significant connections in our lives, we, as men, often hide. Because we have seen those who rely on us for strength withdrawing at signs of uncertainty or worse, sadness. So, we struggle as men with the double bind. To be expressive can heal our souls, to be vulnerable can open up the doors of self awareness, but society and often our most intimate partners are not prepared for those dialogues because they can be immense.

And so there is a lot of hidden grief in the world.

♦◊♦

More than once I have been asked the following question about my writing. “What do you think about your son or his friends reading this?”

It is a complex question. At what age? I don’t think I want him reading it in the next five minutes, but are we all to hide our stories until our children are grown? Stories that I believe add in crucial ways to the changing ideas about what it is to be human? Are we all to hide our stories generationally? To be released half a century later like some declassified cold war documents splattered with redacted details meant to protect still virulent state secrets?

Inherent in the call for keeping our stories private is the assumption that we should be ashamed of them.

Silence is shaming. Inherent in the call for keeping our stories private is the assumption that we should be ashamed of them. Brené Brown in her ground breaking TED talk, notes that people have a simple fear. That if people find out enough about us, we will not be worthy of connection. She goes on the say though that the happiest people she has met prioritize vulnerability and authenticity. Brown writes: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

We live in a society that asks man to whitewash their narratives and keep a lid on their emotions. This is both killing men and damaging the boys coming along behind. The varied and rich private stories of men and women and the conversations those stories invoke are part of the greater narrative of being human. If we are struggling in life, it is not because we have shared too many stories. It is because we have shared too few.

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And then there is this: our children are creating their stories right now. They are parsing out meaning and creating the frames that will define their view of the world and of themselves. How can we as parents invite them to share those stories with us? How can we help them develop rich complex conceptual skills, such as creating multiple frames for any challenges they may be facing? How can we help them feel safe, confident and most of all free to share their experience of the world?

The telling of stories and the conversations that result is generational. Our kids need us to hear their stories and engage them in conversations about life and living, helping them learn to thrive and find their own joy in our vibrant world of complexity, uncertainty and change.

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Please note: The names in this article have been changed to protect the individuals in my past. My recollections and my interpretations are my own.

Follow Mark Greene on Twitter: 


 Read more by Mark Greene:

Men! Stop Trying to Control Other Men! (Like the Met’s Daniel Murphy)
“Every time you do this, you become less free. A rat in a cage. A dog on a chain. A prisoner.”

Why Men’s Friendships Can Feel Empty

Cruelty, Perversion and the Boy Scouts: A Personal Recollection

Touch Isolation: Insisting Boys Learn Independence Creates an Isolating Trap for Men

The Man Box: The Link Between Emotional Suppression and Male Violence

The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer

Naughty-Hand-Title-Page2

 

Want to Teach Your Little Ones About Gentle Platonic Touch?

By Emmy® Winning Animator Mark Greene:

The Naughty Hand, a fun and entertaining children’s story book for iPad, is designed the help parents talk to their little ones (age 4-7) about how and why its good to be gentle when we touch others.  See page samples here. Includes link to free sample download on iTunes for your iPad!

 

 

 

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Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Mark Greene

GMP Senior Editor Mark Greene is an Emmy Award winning animator and designer. He blogs and speaks on Men's Issues at the intersection of society, politics, relationships and parenting for the Good Men Project, the New York Times, The Shriver Report, Salon, HLN, The Huffington Post, and Mamamia. You can follow him on Twitter @megaSAHD and Google.
Click here to read more GMP articles by Mark Greene. Get Mark's fully illustrated children's book FLATMUNDER for iPad from iTunes about kid's fears and the power of play. For kids ages 4-8.

Comments

  1. Great article, Mark. We can never live a life free of pain or regret, but we can teach a degree of openness that saves us from suffering our pain in secret. Aggression has its uses; it exists, like violence, because it works. Like violence, it should be the last resort in an intelligent and civilized discussion. It is the person who speaks loudest to make their point, who interrupts, who cuts the mike like a coward.
    It takes strength to show vulnerability. It isn’t a puppy showing belly in submission, it is knowing you have the emotional strength to fall back on and defend you from those who see your honesty as weakness.

  2. Megan Sailsbury says:

    “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

    Our culture is past the point of crisis. Those who can survive in the madness around them are full of self-loathing, and the rest demonized as insane. We can’t let this go on. Our survival hangs in the balance.

  3. Thank You.

  4. Thank You.

  5. Beautiful article.

  6. David May says:

    Thank you. My parents grew up during the Great Depression and I experienced much of what you did. Nacent Puritans, our family is not known for being expressive (though this has improved dramatically with our generation) and I was considered the “emotional one.” When I was seven I was overcome one after with a profound melancholy and couldn’t stop crying. Because I couldn’t say why I was crying, I was sent to my room and told to stop acting like a baby. The melancholy passed as quickly as it arrived, but I knew to never dicuss or express it when it returned (as it often did, without rhyme or reason) while I was growing up — eventually learning to distrust my emotions. This is the first time I’ve told anyone this story outside of psychotherapy — because until laying on the couch and staring at the ceiling, it was an episode I couldn’t remember without shame, let alone be able to talk about.

  7. David May says:

    Thank you. My parents grew up during the Great Depression and I experienced much of what you did. Nacent Puritans, our family is not known for being expressive (though this has improved dramatically with our generation) and while we were growing up, I was considered the “emotional one.” When I was seven I was overcome one afternoon with a profound melancholy and couldn’t stop crying. Because I couldn’t say why I was crying, I was sent to my room and told to stop acting like a baby. The melancholy passed as quickly as it arrived, but I knew to never dicuss or express it when it returned (as it often did, without rhyme or reason) while I was growing up — eventually learning to distrust all of my emotions. This is the first time I’ve told anyone this story outside of psychotherapy — because until I was laying on the couch and staring at the ceiling, it was an episode I couldn’t remember without shame, let alone talk about.

    • Man, David. Does that ring true. And so familiar. It seems like shame is one thing our culture dispenses freely. And yet, it only can be dispensed if we, in our ignorance accept it when offered.

  8. Thank You.

  9. Outstanding article. We’ve shared with the MaleSurvivor community. Thank you for your sharing your voice and your story with us all.

  10. Bravo…!

    Someone once told me that he could never look in the mirror at himself…it started at a young age after a traumatic event….I never really understood what he was talking about….thanks for helping to fill in the blanks….

  11. Mark,
    I love the line “I don’t think I want him reading it in the next five minutes, but are we all to hide our stories until our children are grown?”. This is so very true. Very powerful piece of writing Mark and thanks for sharing your story.

    Our narrative isn’t written. It’s a fresh page each day and that’s the message I want my sons to always remember.
    Cheers,
    Alan

  12. Being deeply unhappy, even in the past, is not a story men are encouraged to share. When we talk about what has happened to us, we feel pressure to construct a narrative that has us overcoming our troubles. Its embarrassing to admit that we’re not done with our old business. That old slights and old wounds still pain us, sometimes more deeply than we can express. But men need a space to grieve what has been lost. We need to advocate proudly for our right to grieve. Because honestly, many of us have never had our funerals. We never have been granted the retelling of our lost battles and weary retreats. And because of this, they remain with us, long after they should have been dead and buried.
    Its a pretty clever method of getting us to internalize such anti-male (dare I say misandric) values.

    We aren’t just taught that emotional expression is bad. No we are taught that emotional expression is an antithesis of being a man (and no thats not necessary becoming a woman either contrary to popular belief). Add this to the supposed “rewards” of being a proper man and you have a pretty nice traps where a man is willing to kill himsefl (figuratively and literally unfortunately) in order to stay in that acceptable narrow range of manhood.

    So, he and my mother took us as far as they could. And as much as I respect their journeys, mine is not made invalid by comparison. It is often said that we parents always want something better for our kids. But there is a larger truth at work here. On a meta level, we all simply can not live good lives without connection and communication. The central role of connection and communication in parenting is that is helps children process and frame the joys and challenges in their lives.
    I’m not a parent but I do think there is a bit of a flaw in the thought that parents want something better for their kids thought. Well not so much a flaw as a limitation. I think that “better” is commonly meant to only cover economic and financial improvement.

    If you look at a lot of usage of that term its often said by parents who want their kids to not have to work outrageously long days for tiny wages or have to raise kids in a world torn apart by war or that when the kids grow up they don’t have the same tough times as their parents.

    But I don’t think this is an intentional limitation. I believe this limitation came as a result of economic and financial status being such an immediate and pressing need that all other needs were kinds left on the wayside. Or maybe (for boys/men at least) leaving out things like healthy emotional expression were left out for the sake of financial and economic security?

  13. generatrix says:

    Thank you for your article. I am a single mom raising a son, and I am glad that there is so much emphasis on the self-esteem of girls these days, but it all seems so reactionary, like the nonprofits and media campaigns are saying “it’s the GIRLS’ turn now!”, but there don’t seem to have EVER been any real attempts to address the self-esteem of boys. My interpretation of feminism says that the mission is to help everyone get out from under the heel of patriarchy, boys and men included! It is so refreshing to read a thoughtful article on what a boy in this society might need to be okay on the inside, and thank you for pointing out that boys have inner lives that are just as fraught as anyone’s.

  14. Noah’s article that went up today, and this article, remind me why I keep coming back to this site. Thanks Mark.

  15. I identify a lot with this. Thank you!

  16. Thank you for this , Mark. I’ve been lucky enough to have written on this website a few times, and I’m so glad to be part of a community that cares. At 24, I’m working hard to unwire the intense self loathing that’s been a part of my life since I was 10. I was lucky to have loving and Progessive parents, but still existed under their thumb and weight of high expectations. I was also a South Asian kid reaching adolescence in the wake of 9/11, and acutely aware of how much American media and society disregarded (and still disregards) the humanity of people with brown skin. Some of my clearest memories from that time are of listening to hard rock and just feeling hate run through me. I’m not so unhappy now, but it takes work to unpack that before you get better. Hopefully we’ll reach a point where kids can grow up without parents, peers, or society making them feel so hateful towards themselves. I don’t want children, but maybe your kids’ generation will be the ones to get it?

    In any case, lovely article. Your writing never ceases to provide great insight.

  17. It always amazes me that people can bring up their childhood and recall specific incidents with such clarity. I suppose it turns some people into terrific writers. I have a relative who can summon every feeling or hurt she suffered as a child, and she still cries over things that happened to her 40 years later (e.g., “he got a bike, I didn’t. He broke my music box,” etc.). I guess that’s why everybody is different. Some don’t get over unpleasant situations, while others simply forget. Our brains truly work differently.

  18. Great post! Except for the details of the examples (and a bunch of other stuff), the feelings you express are incredibly close to my experience. It’s great to have an award-winning author write one’s story.

    These quotes in particular really resonated with me:

    “…events alone are not what holds a child back. It was the lack of communication about these events. It was the silence.”

    “… vulnerability is the third rail of male expression. Put simply, to go there can get you erased, gone, killed.”

    I have struggling to find that voice of authenticity for several years – decades even. I tapped into it via sex, drugs, and rock’n roll about 30 years ago – but that turned out to be a dead-end avenue of pain and more self-loathing. Then, through some spiritual awakening and career success, I found a level of contentment I’d never experienced, but towards the middle of my 40s, that too began to fade. Now, as a man in my fifties, with young kids, I wonder, how did I end up just like my parents.

    I too believe the path lies in the ability to be vulnerable – but as you mentioned, this is very dangerous. People are drawn to success, arrogance, and pride – but they are repelled by the introspective man in the corner trying to find relief from the self-loathing that consumes him. I hear a lot lately about giving men permission to be vulnerable, however – it is not safe. (Here’s something I just wrote on that: https://medium.com/silos-of-isolation/e70a66595816)

    Thanks again for a great post!! I treasure your words.

  19. David Hache says:

    I loved this article! I took took up the strategy of the “small fiesty boy” (I truly was small, still am). Started smoking at 12, hanging out with all the “bad” kids. I never really had any enemies through-out my life.
    At a younger age, I would rarely even speak in the presence of strangers. I was myself with my close friends, but amongst strangers, I would raise a veil of silence and simply observe. I learned a lot of people, and of life in general. I listened, to young and old, to the wind, the trees and everything, with a sense of wonder.
    It is only at an older age (Late teens) that I discovered my parents (my father especially) to be my favored when it came to expressing my deepest thoughts. I would tell them everything. To the point that my girlfriend would get upset (I would talk to my dad of my sexual experiences even). I was truly blessed, to have such attentive parents, who had tried to give me the best that they could. And what I will say next shames me, because on all accounts, I should of been happy.
    But unfortunately, I wasn’t. As far I can remember, I’ve had a feeling of deep sadness, sometimes even anger. I remember crying myself to sleep as a child, almost every night. What I feared, no one could protect me from, no one had an answer. I was scared of dying, I was angry at life for allowing it. I was angry at my parents for trying to hide the truth from me, by telling me stories of faith and religion. I was angry at the world around me for ignoring this simple fact and instead going about their daily lives as if all was fine. I knew that everything wasn’t fine, at least I truly believed it. I was supposed to be normal, I had everything to be normal, but I felt as if I had the key to a horrible secret, and it devastated me.
    And like Mark mentioned in his article, the fact that I could not communicate this anguish, that no one could help me understand it, I buried it deep inside, and kept it alive for so long.
    It is funny how although a seemingly normal childhood, that was protected from all harm, still found that grain of darkness in the world. And don’t get me wrong, I still found so much beauty in life, in fact, it is because of this beauty that I was deeply pained. To throw away such wonders, to bring pain upon beauty, I could not comprehend, and above all, how selfish humanity seemed to me.
    Fortunately, with age, pain was subdued by a numbness, a sort of understanding. No matter how hard I fought it, I could not win, and so, I have yielded. I still have momentary pangs of deep pain when I consider the darkness that may or may not await, though I know better than to linger on those thoughts. In the end, I have found my peace in faith, a hidden and secret hope that our lives, the lives of all living things, will find a realm to live as they wish beyond death. Silly isn’t it?
    But I diverge, I am just glad to have shared this with you. And I hope, that in some way, we can all find a peace of mind, and pass it on to our children.

    -David, age 30

  20. While I agree with the premisis -and even need- of this article, I can’t help but keep thinking how much worse it must be / have been for the kids this author set up to “take the beating for him”, ACTIVELY taking part in their extremely negative experience.

  21. “our intimate partners can often be repelled by male vulnerability. This is because there are so few spaces in which vulnerabilty to framed as an asset, as a pathway to strength. So few spaces where it is even visible at all. So, on some level our partners can not be blamed for turning away from displays of vulnerability.”

    Thank you for saying this. I have trouble showing weakness not because I was taught by society, or instructed that it’s bad in some way. I used to have no trouble showing my feelings. However this leads to nothing but disrespect, to an extent from other men but especially a disrespect from girlfriends. It’s not an attractive thing at all. I think women are wired to be repelled from male weakness, as well as other men to be repelled by it, and this is at the root of the problem.

    I’ve always turned to music and writing to express these feelings. Just the other week I expressed a vulnerability and revealed that I was depressed to my girlfriend, who is a wonderful caring woman, and I felt it did nothing good at all. I’ve had to build out of it.

    So I think that while men have to express sad feelings in some manner, we also have to find ways of doing so that won’t make us appear weak to others. The easiest way is aggression… but unfortunately that’s horrible and damaging. Art I think may be one answer.

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