“Permission to Feel” by Marc Brackett, Ph.D. is a fascinating, revealing, personally resonant book. I first tried to listen to it on Audible with the author himself narrating it. I was unable to get beyond his speech patterns. To me, his odd pauses and awkward groupings of words was far too distracting for me to focus on the meaningful contents. So I bought the Kindle version of the book. I knew I needed to hear and understand Dr. Brackett and was not going to be dissuaded from accessing the contents, come hell or high water. It was a good choice. Throughout the book I found myself having conversations with the author. The book has confirmed many of my observations and it challenged me to continue to observe and appreciate my progress in learning to feel. It also inspired me to write the following and share it here. Maybe you can relate, maybe not. Either way, my hope is to encourage and, possibly, inspire you to take a look at the relationship you have with your own emotions and feelings.
The Struggle has Been Real - Being a Manly Man
I have long struggled with allowing myself to feel and experience my emotions instead compartmentalizing and deeply suppressing them.
At an early age I learned that, in order for me to fit in with the commonly held understandings, expectations, and molds of being a real man and acting like a real man, I needed to be sure not to show or express feelings. I learned, through observation of the idealized male characters presented on television and in movies, that real, attractive, sexy men were expected to be stalwart, always in control of everything, and without emotional responses. Through these mediums I learned that if a man responded to a situation emotionally or showed his feelings he was weak, not manly enough, and probably not worthy of his manhood. I took these characterizations of “ideal” men very personally. In response to these fabricated expectations, and in my attempts to be a gay man in a very manly society, I worked to push down my feelings and emotions. I thought this would allow me to protect myself from being seen as weak and, therefore, from drawing the wrong kind of attention to myself and becoming a target.
I did NOT do it well. But, I tried.
My observations also taught me that dealing with situations emotionally and showing or experiencing feelings was expected only of girls and women. In all situations females were to be saved from oppressors and, very often, from their own emotional, weak selves. Females were constantly characterized and portrayed as the “weaker sex” and shown as emotionally driven. They were, therefore, inconsistent, unreliable, and unable to do or take on difficult, MANLY jobs and tasks.
Due to the incredibly consistent examples of brilliant, powerful, and talented girls and women around me, I was able to see through those fabricated images and portrayals of females being “less than”. One thing that always baffled me was that females were treated completely differently from me. Just being male allowed me significantly fewer restrictions, lowered expectations, and an added layer of entitlement that was, well, just there. Females around me had to work harder. They had to be smarter and better at everything to get less and they were constantly forced to struggle to negotiate, work through, or navigate around the restrictions that were stolidly in place. Everyone understood that those restrictions were there to protect women and girls from the harsh, manly world around them. I did not understand the real function of those restrictions but knew they had no merit.
So, I struggled with how I was supposed to function as a person who did not fit into these strange, manly expectations. I enjoyed non-manly things as well as manly things. I was attracted to manly men but was not supposed to be. I struggled to find some sort of personal balance, and I often felt guilty knowing I was afforded opportunities and things just for being male and looking like me. I actively tried to figure out how to mold and change myself to be healthy, both mentally and emotionally, in this very manly world. I did not do well a lot of the time. Occasionally I succeeded and I got better over time. I continue to struggle with it every day.
Who Am I Today - or Right Now, For That Matter?
There was one aspect of my life that helped me in my attempts fit into the very manly world around me: being a performer.
As a performer I learned well how to be extremely self conscious, self-observant, self-regulating and self-controlling. I taught myself how to surgically separate my inner self from my outer self. No matter what was happening psychologically or emotionally inside, my outer self-portrayal had to be consistent and fit into whatever role I was playing at that time.
This bled fully into all aspects of my life and being.
It was, of course, confusing and frightening at times. This was especially true when I did not have a specific role to play as a protective layer. In those situations I had no idea how to act or, fundamentally, be. So, I played many, many roles and became very good at switching those roles as needed: professional singer, actor, model, paralegal, student, teacher, music director, instrumentalist, gay man, regular guy friend, partner, lover, and so many others. Throughout all of these roles ran a common thread of feeling in danger that someone might figure out I was not really that instance or version of myself. I felt like an imposter and was constantly suppressing my own personal, real feelings. It thought this was a way to protect myself from being found out, from exposing any weaknesses, and from drawing the wrong kind of attention to myself. I constantly worked to put what I saw as unproductive, useless feelings and emotions into closed little drawers. This allowed me to not be distracted by feelings and emotional responses and to focus fully on portraying the version of myself I thought I needed to be in any given moment.
Here I Come to Save the Day!
This served me well in performing for a while. I understood my job as a performer very early on and always held a very, very vivid image of my job as a performer, in my mind. My job was to strive to reach into each audience member’s chest, remove their beating heart, show them that their heart is there, beating, alive, and so are they, and then put that heart safely back into their chest so they can experience it on the inside as well. My job was to help people feel feelings they do not normally feel safe feeling in order to help them glimpse, for just a moment, the breadth and depth of their souls.
I know, this was a huge job, a risky job, and an immense amount of pressure to put on myself. I took it on willingly, feeling as though this was my super power. I now understand the incredible irony here. I took on this job, with abandon, to help others connect with their feelings and emotions, yet I was so disconnected from my own feelings and emotions.
In order to succeed in doing this, though, I could not allow my own emotions to get in the way and play any part in the process or product. Instead, I approached this super power as a form of skillful manipulation. I discovered that my super power would fail every time I allowed myself to feel. I could not sing, or perform generally, when I allowed MY emotions and feelings to threaten to rise to the surface. I had no mechanisms to deal with my own, personal emotions and feelings since I always locked them away. If I began to actually feel, I was instantly overwhelmed, distracted, and torn away from my physical abilities to perform. I could not sing, at all, while feeling. I could not remember lyrics or lines when feeling. I simply could not function in my job as a performer when feeling. So, they stayed locked away and my ability to craft music in a way that touched others deeply, personally, and sometimes spiritually, grew.
A Broken Hero
This did not work well in my personal life, however. I felt fewer real feelings throughout my life. I became increasingly distant and unsympathetic. I no longer experienced empathy for others and felt disconnected and disengaged from those around me. On the outside I looked engaged, connected, and empathetic. I played that role so well that I was almost convinced that what I experienced were feelings.
They were not.
I played different roles every day, all day long. The role I played at any given time depended on what I believed others needed or what I convinced myself others needed or wanted me to be. It was a constant in my life and it was exhausting.
I had become uncomfortable when anyone around me displayed emotions or outwardly experienced real feelings. It fascinated me but was such a foreign thing that I felt awkward and unable to relate. So, in order to try to have even a modicum of understanding, I periodically tried to crack open a drawer containing a feeling and to look at what resided in there. Just a crack. I was curious to see if the contents could be useful in that moment of my life. But, as soon as I began to actually experience the contents, or if they threatened to try to become part of or possibly overwhelm me, I would snap that drawer closed. After many years of cracking open drawers only to slam them back shut, I chose to avoid most of them. They were just too difficult and scary to open.
Very gradually over the years I began to challenge myself with questions: What roles were healthy to play? What roles did I need to play for ME to be emotionally healthy? How many roles really were needed or wanted - either by others or myself? Where was the balance point, or middle ground, between playing roles for others and allowing myself to be a unique, true, wonderfully emotional, deeply feeling being I need to be in order to be more complete?
I did not know the answers. I did know that choosing to challenge myself and choosing to face the questions and search for answers was vital to becoming a better, more complete, and happier version of myself.
Choosing to Feel
And then I made the very difficult choice to learn how to feel. I chose to explore ways of unsticking those drawers. I chose to discover, observe, and interact with my emotions, one step at a time.
Little by little, I continue to choose to crack open drawers that have long been locked and neglected. It is a slow process. It is a difficult process and frustrating process at times. It is, most importantly, a process. My ongoing goal for all of this is pretty simple: choose to experience the process, choose to move through the process, and choose to continue opening drawers. One drawer at a time.
I now understand with my head and feel in my heart that it is worth choosing to experience those sometimes scary, painful, draining feelings in order to glimpse, explore, and better understand the depths of my emotional self and my soul.