Atypical Male

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Warning: brief language

I am currently reading Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown. The subtitle is kind of important because it gives you an idea of what the book is about. The chapter I just finished deals with understanding and combating shame, and it’s the single most in-depth discussion of men and shame that I’ve seen in the three books of Dr. Brown’s that I’ve read.

She discusses the difference in feminine and masculine attributes that her research uncovered. While I wish I could find where in the chapter she folded in the attributes for women as a comparative tool, the section that I completed today discussed the attributes for men. The researchers identified the following: winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, playboy, self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, disdain for homosexuality, and pursuit of status. For the sake of comparison between the two genders, the book summarizes:

“These feminine and masculine norms are the foundation of shame triggers, and here’s why: If women want to play by the rules, they need to be sweet, thin, and pretty, stay quiet, be perfect moms and wives, and not own their power. One move outside these expectations and BAM! The shame web closes in. Men, on the other hand, need to stop feeling, start earning, put everyone in their place, and climb to the top or die trying. Push open the lid of your box to grab a breath of air, or slide that curtain back a bit to see what’s going on and BAM! Shame cuts you down to size.”

(She describes women experiencing shame as “a sticky, complex spiderweb of layered, conflicting, and competing expectations” [e.g. be perfect, but don’t look like you’re striving for perfection] and men experiencing shame as a box, where “[y]ou spend your life fighting to get out, throwing punches at the side of the box and hoping it will break … [o]r you just give up. You don’t give a shit about anything.” She goes on to explain that she imagines men being issued a shipping crate at birth labeled CAUTION: Do Not Be Perceived As Weak. As a toddler, there’s a lot more wiggle room in the box, but as men grow older, there’s less and less room in the box until it becomes suffocating.)

I took a long, hard look at those masculine attributes and compared them to myself, and realized just how atypical a man I am in some aspects. I like to win at things, but I’m not usually upset that someone else gets the glory where I don’t. That one applies to me to a degree, but it’s not something by which I define my masculinity. Anyone who knows me much at all knows that I don’t really exercise emotional control to the point of unfeeling and very often I can’t really control my emotions at all. My wife calls me her “big weepy thing.” I’ve never been much of a conventional risk-taker, although I tend to to be an emotional risk-taker. By sharing what I feel and experience on a daily basis in this blog, I make myself vulnerable to judgment and criticism from others (something I’m happy to say I’ve never yet received). I’m neither violent or domineering. I used to be an incorrigible flirt but I’ve kind of lost the knack and the need over time, and I’ve never been the party type, so “playboy” doesn’t really fit. I am far from self-reliant, but that’s part of the reason I’m in therapy. Primacy of work is becoming more of an issue the older I get. I used to not care that much about primarily identifying with my vocation or lack thereof, but nowadays it is bothersome that I’m not in a successful career or making considerably more money than I do through my disability check. I don’t think I’ve ever wished to exercise power over women or disdain for homosexuality; I’ve thought those two things to be the complete opposite of how I feel, and if that’s what it takes to be a “typical male” then I consider myself very proud not to fall into that category. Pursuit of status is an on-again, off-again itch that I occasionally feel, but ultimately it’s not really something that I obsess over.

So of the 11 attributes, I feel that I halfway hit three of them, but can’t fully relate to any of them. I guess that makes me an atypical male, according to those researchers. But I’m very okay with that. In these aspects, I’m proud of who I am and the person I’ve become, and while I’m not where I want to be in life right now, I’m okay with where I am.

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Who Am I?

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Last night my wife introduced me to a meme based off a Tumblr post and its response. The original post was “I don’t think people realise how hard it is to re-discover the person you were before depression or even try to remember your own personality.” The response was “And if you’ve had depression since early childhood you don’t even know if you have your own personality. You didn’t have time to be a person before depression, and it’s scary having no idea who you are.”

I thought about this and then realized how much it fit my own life. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 15, but my journey began when I was six, after I threw a plate of spaghetti into a fellow student’s parent’s face. My parents thought I had a problem at that point, if nothing else an anger problem, and so I went to see my first psychologist. (I didn’t learn the reason for my first visit until this morning, incidentally.) I remember after the first few visits telling my mother that I wanted to go see someone that knew what they were doing – because I’d read the words “practicing psychologist” on his office door. I remember very little about those early visits. If we had what my doctor called a “good session,” we would play chess or he would allow me to play the very basic little Star Trek game on his TRS-80 computer for a few minutes after the session was over. I never did understand what made a “good session,” though, and to this day I remember little beyond the chess and the computer. (It’s those sessions with Star Trek that fueled my lifelong love of computers, something that I never quite managed to convert into a career, sad to say.)

There was another psychologist that I saw between the first one and the diagnosis. Again, there wasn’t really much that I remember about this guy, other than it was fairly common for me to come in, fall asleep, and have him wake me up to tell me the session was over. In retrospect, I don’t think the guy was a good psychologist, since I kept going and falling asleep, and he evidently never told my parents about it, because I’m sure they would have been appalled to hear that they were paying for me to take a nap. I only saw him for a couple years, though, and still at the time had no idea why I was going to see anybody.

The point is that I had six years of my life to define who I was before my symptoms started manifesting to the point that I went to seek help, and that’s not much time at all to determine who you are. So I very much sympathize with the response to the original Tumblr post that opened this entry: It’s scary having no idea who you are.

For a brief period of about a year, I knew who I was and was confident in that knowledge, even though I was still suffering through some of the worst times my symptoms ever handed me. Then I moved out of state and I quickly lost all confidence in who I’d worked hard to become. I regained a modicum of that person a few years later when I became fairly symptom free, able to easily counter the nagging self-doubt that I was experiencing, but that vanished after a period of several months. I haven’t ever been both sure of who I was and able to combat my symptoms, and that is eventually the goal.

The good thing is that between those two experiences flirting with self-knowledge and self-confidence I know who I want to be. But that’s going to take a lot of work to get to that point, since it’s going to require me returning to the workforce for that to happen, and I’m just not there yet. That’s the end goal, however, and it’s time I stopped dealing with the here and now and started delving into the deeper issues that are holding me back.

The questions for now are: Do I need to figure out who I am before I can become who I want to be? Is it important to know who I am in the interim? Should I focus on being before becoming?

I have a therapist’s appointment tomorrow. I can’t think of a better time to kick off this new focus. I’m sure I’ll be writing about that in tomorrow’s installment. Stay tuned …

Taking Ownership

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I went to see my therapist today.

It was an odd session, in that I almost immediately became drowsy and stayed that way throughout. (Come to think of it, I did just wake up from the second of two naps I’ve had today, so I guess you could say I’m still drowsy.) We talked briefly about my success in completing my homework from last session, and we talked much more at length about the episodes that I had between sessions.

We discussed how episodes of irrationality tend to trigger when I’m already feeling down, and that one of the biggest causes for me feeling down is feeling lonely, something that can happen even in a room full of friends. The later it gets, the lonelier I feel, and the more prone I am to depression and resultant irrationality.

We also discussed my double standard that exists all the time at some low level but comes to the forefront during periods of irrationality. It came up that I compare myself in ability to others that don’t have physical or mental limitations like I do. My therapist asked me at one point if I have a best friend, and I told her no, my wife is the closest that I have. (While it’s true that my wife is also my best friend, I don’t have anyone else that I consider close enough to fill that role in addition to her.) She (my therapist) then asked me if I held my wife to the same standard that I hold myself, of having no limitations whatsoever. I immediately and definitively answered no, that my wife has many of the same mental diagnoses that I do and that it isn’t fair of me to compare her to someone that doesn’t have her challenges.

And then my therapist asked me why it’s okay for me to be considerate of my wife’s limitations but not okay for me to be considerate of my own. And I didn’t really have a good answer.

My therapist then suggested that I start treating myself like my own best friend, that I should do things that make me happy and be understanding rather than critical of myself when I have an off day. Then I mentioned something in passing that I had done, and gave credit to the situation rather than taking credit for myself. And that led to my homework for the week.

She noted the subtle change in language (I’m paraphrasing here, because I don’t remember the exact statement I made)“it was a good thing” rather than “I did a good thing.” It was a positive experience and I was quick to deflect the credit to nothing at all rather than accept my role in the experience.

My homework is to take ownership of situations that I would ordinarily deflect, but that only hints at a bigger issue, something that I didn’t really realize until I sat down and started writing this post.

When my wife apologizes for something, I’m very quick to say “it’s fine” rather than explicitly accepting her apology. In my mind, accepting the apology is the same as acknowledging that she made a mistake, and I cannot abide anyone else accepting blame for anything that I could possibly put on my own shoulders. “I accept your apology” absolves me of responsibility in the situation; “it’s fine” leaves the issue of blame open to interpretation. This is something that we’ve discussed recently, and have agreed to meet in the middle – my wife will try to remember that I mean “I accept your apology” when I say “it’s fine,” and I will try to remember that she really needs to hear those exact words rather than my facsimile. It’s a compromise that we’ve put into place to give me time to make the change in my language that my wife needs me to make.

But now I’m freshly reminded of another subtle language difference – “it was a good thing” instead of “I did a good thing” – that hints at an overarching problem: my self-talk is pervasively negative in subtle, insidious ways that I don’t even realize, even when I’m having a good day.

Last month I wrote a post that touched on The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. In that post, I focused on the Fourth Agreement, “Always do your best.” But it seems that I have a lot of work to do with the First Agreement, “Always be impeccable with your Word.” It’s not my interactions with others that I’m being disingenuous with, it’s how I talk to and about myself both to myself and to others.

So my second homework is to become more aware of what I’m saying and what it really means, especially when it regards my self-perception. This isn’t anything that I’ve discussed with my therapist, it’s an organic by-product of this blog post.

I can’t wait to share this with her next week.