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June 13, 2020

Why Men Struggle to Hold Emotional Space (& How to Break the “Fixer” Mentality).

Men, we suck at listening.

Before you get all triggered and offended, hear me out.

Raise your hand if you find it uncomfortable to listen to someone’s problems. It’s okay—me too.

Or maybe you wouldn’t identify it as feeling uncomfortable…but if you find yourself wanting to fix them, talk them out of how they’re feeling, or change the subject to something “less heavy,” then chances are you are, in fact, feeling uncomfortable.

This is normal.

As boys, many of us were shut down, avoided, or bombarded with tactical suggestions for positive change whenever we expressed our emotional experience to those we trusted. When we got hurt, we were told to man up and get over it. We were told that we’d be okay, whether we believed that sentiment or not.

When we felt sad or scared, we were often isolated until we “got over our drama” or completely ostracized for having feelings at all.

If this is how our tenderness was handled when we were children, it’s no wonder we have a hard time sitting with the discomfort of others as adults.

As men, we feel a certain sense of deep-rooted responsibility to care for those around us through the provision of strength and stability. In most of the 20th century, this manifested as men providing the home, the income, and the rules. Now, as tides are turning, many men aren’t quite sure where their value lies, if not inexplicably linked to material structure. Yet many of us still desire to provide those things, whether material or otherwise.

The problem is, most of us don’t understand the critical role emotional strength and safety can play in our relationships, because we were never shown firsthand how good it feels to be held in the depths of our sorrow without demand or expectation for recovery. No man ever gave us that growing up, so we don’t know what we’re missing, and we sure as sh*t don’t know how to provide it.

So when a loved one comes to us in pain, we find ourselves exceedingly uncomfortable. From this discomfort, we often find ourselves repeating the same hurtful patterns which were enacted against us as children, thus perpetuating the cycle.

If you’re reading this, though, my guess is that you recognize that there’s something beautiful to be had in learning new ways to address this discomfort which strengthen your relationships, rather than harming them.

Navigating highly emotional conversations can be immensely challenging for us men. Our default pragmatism is useless against the emotional ravages of pain. Our logic does serve us, though—just not in the ways we thought. Through it, we can begin to understand our own discomfort and illuminate the subconscious patterns which make us mostly terrible listeners.

Here’s how it works:

First, just listen until you are asked for your input. 

Wait for an invitation to speak, because if your input has not been solicited, it’s likely not desired.

Then, before responding, ask yourself at least a few of these questions in order to provide real, grounded, heart-centered responses that build the conversation rather than destroying it:

  1. Am I feeling uncomfortable about this conversation?
  2. Have I listened to understand them, or have I been counting the minutes until they’re done talking so I can say my bit?
  3. Do I need to ask more questions to fully understand what they’re going through?
  4. Is my input aimed at helping, or am I mostly trying to avoid the discomfort of witnessing their pain?
  5. Am I okay with the fact that, probably, I won’t be able to actually fix their problem?
  6. What does this person need most from me right now? Not what do I want to tell them…what do they need?
  7. Am I irritated that this problem is being brought before me? And is it possible that irritation stems from me feeling obligated to fix it? Do I realize no one is telling me to fix it?
  8. What would happen to my discomfort if I stopped viewing this as a problem to be fixed, and instead, a part of their journey which will resolve itself?

If you reflect upon your own visceral reactions to hard conversations before responding, you are much more likely to offer something of value. It’s important to begin to uncover our inner process around listening, because our own future fulfillment depends on it.

No one likes to navigate life alone. Yet, big feelings and trauma can make us feel isolated. In reaching out, we are often trying to show ourselves that, in fact, we are not in this alone.

When others come to us with their problems—whether big or small—they’re often not wanting us to fix them. Rather, they’re subconsciously testing us to see if we’re strong enough to witness their struggle and continue to walk beside them.

In jumping immediately to solutions, we fail that test. We’re showing them that in order to be okay, we have to fix their problems, or we need them to.

But when we listen well, ask good questions aimed at gaining clarity, keep our own insecurities in check, and approach the conversation as an opportunity for deeper understanding, rather than marching orders to fix something broken, we give ourselves the chance to deepen our relationships.

It is in this positive, open, quiet listening that we once again find ourselves, as men, able to provide safety and structure and security, whether we are the primary breadwinner or not.

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