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This is the second article in a four-part series. Read part one here.
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” ~ Mary Oliver
Men experience body shame, too. We just hide it behind false bravado, anger, and avoidance.
Growing up, I was shy—embarrassed by my body, mind, speech, and expression.
I hid from the world, not wanting to be judged, excluded, or ostracized. I felt safer either alone or going with the status quo, hiding in the crowd.
Being of Greek and Italian descent in an English-speaking country was also challenging. I grew up in Greece. I missed my family after returning to Australia when I was about five. Mentally, I clung to my uncle (my father’s brother), as he was my hero. He treated me with love, affection, and sincerity. I remember this softening my father a little, but never enough to feel completely safe.
School was difficult for me. I sought attention and approval from my peers by bringing gifts and food from home.
I felt I had to try hard to be liked, to be seen, to be appreciated—I had to buy love.
It’s a pattern I learned and continued to express as an adult.
I remember our Christmases being so full. My father would buy our love to satisfy his guilt. And, for a split second, all the pain was simply forgotten. In a moment of bliss, toys became my gods and I felt a brief reprieve from the violence, aggression, and the ignoring of pain that were my norm.
Behind my outward mask, I cultivated the sense of isolation and tension I felt within, taking them with me into my teenage years. I was confused and misplaced without the reference point of a present, healthy male to learn how to be in this world.
No child should ever have to experience feeling unsafe. But, as I type this—recalling some of these painful memories, tears welling in my eyes—I am simultaneously grateful for the teaching, wisdom, transformation, and commitment to my current path that my pain has brought me. These lessons have been profound gifts.
Entering my teenage years, I felt uncomfortable, awkward, self-conscious, and out of place. I was uncoordinated, overweight, unpopular, bullied often, a late bloomer (other kids were sexual and I had barely kissed a girl).
I began to project and blame, not taking responsibility for what I was feeling, and taking on more of my father’s negative character traits. I was uncertain and could not make solid decisions. I wanted others to choose for me, for I did not believe in myself. I was neither vertical in posture, nor confident in my being.
I did not know who to ask questions of, who to look to for guidance when it came to the physical changes I was experiencing. I had my mother and my grandparents, but there were language, age, and cultural barriers there.
I just wanted to understand myself through the lens of a healthy man.
This transition is crucial for a young man. If he doesn’t have a sense of healthy masculinity and male role models, he will suffer. He will struggle to develop a sound sense of self, overcome challenges in meaningful ways, and cultivate self-confidence. He won’t learn how to revere women and relationships, or how to relate in an empowered way to other men.
Often, men will take this pain out on their partners. They will lash out at those they love to test their loyalty. There is a part of them that is pushing in order to prove their own sense of value. If a man can hurt others and they stick around it says something about his worth: “I am worthy.” But then that voice needs more and so the loop plays out and it just becomes more and more intense.
During this time, my brother was also suffering. Though I loved him dearly, I suppressed my feelings, withdrawing, and isolating myself from him as he turned to distraction in the form of violence, uncontrolled aggression, and drugs.
As he began derailing his own life, I buried my head in the sand, despite feeling deeply concerned. I was so frustrated that the action I did take would often be aggressive toward him and so we danced the dance of projection and frustration that brothers often do.
Rather than being bullied, I became the bully.
I began to work on my physical body—going outward, but not in a healthy way.
I became aggressive, abrupt, rude, violent, loud, and disconnected from my core. Not proud of this, I attacked others physically, verbally, emotionally. I was taking out on others what was done to me. The helpless, hopeless victim in me found a voice and I lost control in many ways.
My brother and I became distant. My father began to age and became even more detached from his responsibility as a parent. Once again, I stepped up and into the role of a surrogate parent for my younger brother of five years. This did not go well. Communication between us was rough and rude. Violence became our language.
I felt the pressure of so much responsibility. Do this. Be that. It was too much.
Growing up, I never wanted to be home. I found friends in my neighborhood who I could play with, ride bikes with, go to the beach with, and just be with. They were my refuge; they were my escape from home. As we became more disconnected, I didn’t want my brother with me, even though he wanted to be there and sometimes was. We were drifting apart. Whilst this saddened me, I wanted and needed my space.
Despite this, I know that if we hadn’t moved through this intense period, my brother and I would not be who we are today. Now, we are each other’s best friends. We have a bond that has been solidified in deepened intimacy through the challenges. To say I am proud of him and inspired by the man and father he has become is an understatement.
Convincing my father that my friends were “good people” was a challenge, but I was able to so in order to spend more time away from home. I began to explore myself and the world a little more. What I did not know then was that my friends, whilst providing a safe and beautiful escape for me, were also reinforcing unhealthy values and norms that would further shape my adult relationships: how I continued to give and receive love, and how I treated myself and others.
Since teenage boys want to be loved and to impress their peers, they will do and be things that will often remain with them for life, particularly in terms of how they relate to their partners.
I was emotionally unintelligent and not present to my inner needs and the needs of others. I just wanted to be accepted. So, I began to mix with other men who were involved in distributing drugs and other shadow activities.
I never personally consumed drugs. I was just involved with people that moved in the shadows who sold, dealt, and were involved in crime (ultimately, a reflection of my own scattered inner world).
I sought adrenaline. I stole. I was aggressive. I was rebellious. I was lost.
My brother went deeper into taking drugs, being aggressive, and being distant. I was also full of so much anger, frustration, and emotion. I did not know how to temper this—fighting more with my brother and on the street, being obnoxious, being rude, and feeling entitled.
My relationship with my brother worsened. I began to segregate myself from my family. I was not interested in school, although I was intelligent and had an aptitude. I just wanted reprieve—structure was suffocating and I needed an outlet.
From about 16, I began to drink heavily. I consumed copious amounts of alcohol on the weekends. I despised the taste and the after-effects, but the escape was worth it. I was developing another unhealthy masculine trait: drinking foolishly as an escape, a way to “push through the pain” and “man-up.”
I leaned in to further disconnect from facing my inner pain. Although I was becoming more expressive (I could cry if I was upset), I could not contextualize that crying, so it quickly turned to aggression and intense frustration.
I was becoming my father and I could not see this at the time as I felt so tense in my nervous system.
I found it difficult to not judge others, critique others, and engage in varied ‘isms. It was all I knew and my negative inner voice also became so much louder. I would judge myself harshly. I was cultivating an attitude of perfectionism that I could not meet. I was projecting this onto others, hating myself and hating others for not meeting my unrealistic expectations. And, later in relationships, I would judge my partners just as harshly.
Parts of me were explorative—excited about life and being in the world, experiencing freedom (away from my family, my father, my brother, my problems)—but all I was doing was polarizing myself and my life.
As I began to approach adulthood, I still did not know what I wanted.
I was 17 and, unlike most of my close friends, I still hadn’t had sex. This made me feel even more isolated. I could not talk to my father for fear of being judged. My friends were not so judgmental, but I was simply embarrassed by who and where I was.
In part three, I go deeper into the shame around my first sexual experience, how that changed my life, and what that did to my ego and my soul…
What part of my story so far has been applicable to your life? Please share in the comments and follow me on Elephant for a heads-up on part three.
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