How fear and loneliness are wired together in boys and men.
On Friday, I planned to attend a conference, but my son’s school had a staff learning day. So I arranged to have my son stay at my mother’s house on Thursday night.
When it was time to go to grandma’s house, 7 year old Jett freaked out.
“I don’t want to sleep in that scary room all by myself,” he cried.
“Grandma will sleep with you,” I consoled.
“No, I’m not going,” Jett screamed.
When my wife intervened and said that Jett didn’t have to go, I flipped my lid.
“He’s 7 years old. He needs to be able to sleep by himself,” I yelled.
“You should have made better arrangements,” my wife chided.
Thoughts flooded my mind about how my wife enabled my son to be a wimp by sleeping with him even though he was in 2nd grade. I almost grabbed Jett in order to force him to face his fears at Grandma’s house.
At the workshop the next day, Dr. Paul Gilbert explained how fear and loneliness are often tied together. He showed an example of a patient who was beaten as a child then forced to sit in his room alone. When this boy grew up, he became depressed due to overwhelming feelings of fear and isolation.
Another example came from a suicidal patient who revealed that he had been forced as a child to sleep in the bedroom where his baby brother died. When he cried out at night, his mother locked the door and never came to him. Later, the mother admitted that she was comforted by his cries since they reassured her that he was still alive.
Fear doesn’t have to be suffered alone. Fear can often be a bonding experience. I think about looking for ghosts with my grandfather in the pitch black darkness near Hawaiian graveyards. Gripping tight to my grandfather’s hand and my brother’s shirt gave me a sense of safety and community. But if boys are forced to face fear in isolation, the effects can be horrendous.
One of my clients felt trapped by a “shell of fear.” This imaginary shell prevented him from connecting with others. He was struggling with commitment in relationships and intimacy with his children. While delving into the shell of fear, my client revealed that when he was 14, he cried in front of his father who ridiculed him for it. This event caused many of his feelings of fear and isolation.
Another client who was bullied in high school felt like he couldn’t tell anyone about his trauma. He was afraid of telling his parents or school faculty since he knew they couldn’t protect him, so he suffered the whole year alone.
Veterans with PTSD often feel the same isolation when they come back from duty. Not only do they experience the traumatic fear from combat, but they also feel alone since they are no longer with the only people who can empathize with them—their fellow soldiers.
Why do we force boys to face their fears alone? That is like taking someone to a scary movie and making them sit all by themselves. When boys who wire fear and loneliness together become men, they refuse to ask for help or share their fears and concerns. This leads to isolation, depression, and anxiety with no way out.
Thank God, my wife prevented me from forcing my son to face his fears alone. I’ve learned a powerful lesson: Fear demands connection. If we continue to force boys and men to face fear alone, we increase the likelihood of depression, isolation, and suicide in men–men like the veterans who commit suicide every 24 hours; men like Robin Williams; men like Elliot Rodger whose fear and loneliness turned to rage and aggression last year in Isla Vista.
I’m going to implement the Golden Rule. When my sons get frightened, I’m going to hug them and comfort them because that is what I would want someone to do to me if I was afraid.