TRANSCRIPTION: At St Eugene’s school in Yonkers there were two 7th grade homeroom classes you could be assigned to. There was Mrs. A—the science teacher, fun, laid back, personable. She rang the physical bell between classes so we’d know when to go to the next room and I admired that power.
I was not placed in Mrs. A’s class.
I was put with Ms. Blanchard (name change to protect the innocent). The new teacher. She didn’t know us, we didn’t know her. She tried way too hard to be liked by us. She had these huge red glasses and would tell us stories about how she’d read the psalms in the park while bees would collect on her leg. We didn’t think that was badass. We thought that was weird. And dangerous.
I didn’t want to be seen one-on-one with Ms. Blanchard. I was already an unpopular, awkward, lonely twelve-year-old. But because I didn’t have a lot of friends I never really wanted to go outside with others during recess. Also, recess at St. Eugene’s basically took place in a parking lot. So I would often make an excuse to stay in the classroom after lunch to read or get a jump on home work—I was also pretty nerdy.
Mrs. Blanchard was often there too.
Hiding My Worrying
On this particular day I had been worrying. I spent a lot of my childhood worrying. And spent a good deal of time making sure that I was hiding how worried and anxious I was all the time.
Usually, I did a damn good job at hiding how scared I was. That’s been confirmed as I’ve heard from kids that knew me years later that I often came across as judgmental—that seems to be how I hid my vulnerability—just found fault everywhere else.
Well on this day there was a conversation with Mrs. Blanchard who brought up the thing I was most worried about: high school. I didn’t want to talk about it. It scared me. It made me very anxious and Mrs. Blanchard did something Mrs. A never would have done:
As she sees me getting really nervous and uncomfortable does one of those adult attempts at compassion: cocks her head to the side, half frowns and says the worst thing you can say to a twelve-year-old boy: “Justin, it looks like you’re about to cry.”
It took less than a second for shame to fill me and all I could do to save face was to say with all the control I had that I was not crying.
Discomfort As Self-Care Can Heal
I was reminded of that moment a few years ago when I was at a funeral where a man had just lost his mother was giving a eulogy. During it, he stopped to reference his young daughter, reassuring her—daddy’s just sweating.
Well, I had to convince Mrs. Blanchard that I wasn’t crying either. If possible, I was less convincing than that guy at his mom’s funeral. And I did what I did with vulnerability at the time. Blamed her.
Because we are taught to be ashamed of these vulnerabilities. So we spend life finding ways to avoid it and it ends up hurting us and others. This is happening a lot now—I’m talking to a lot of men, particularly white men, who are reading and talking about the death of George Floyd and the protests and working hard to “understand” it and assess what is right and wrong. Avoiding the pain, and the rage, and sadness that many People of Color are expressing. But this still ends up harming us as well as other people. When we step away from the feelings and over think, intellectualize, sometimes we even start to somatize—when our feelings become physical symptoms.
Who Do We Look Up To?
As a kid, I remember very inspired by Jack McCoy on Law & Order.
Jack McCoy was the DA. He didn’t have a gun. He wasn’t getting into any fights. But he got in criminals faces and said, “You will not intimidate me.” And he didn’t look scared. He didn’t cry. He didn’t show that he was worried about anything. That seemed heroic to me.
Of course, as a kid I didn’t realize that Jack McCoy was an alcoholic, was incredibly unhappy, and might have fooled himself, but he was plenty scared, and vulnerable—he just didn’t let himself know that. So this was an incredibly misplaced hero for me.
Guys get a lot of these heroes—one of the first Soprano’s episodes has him talking about Gary Cooper–strong, silent type. But I wanted that strength Jack McCoy seemed to have. I wanted that invulnerability. I wanted to communicate that no one, school bullies, high school unknowns, and certainly not Mrs. Blanchard, no one was going to see me sad, or scared. Others have similar stories, and I’ve worked with a ton of guys who don’t let themselves feel sadness, or fear, or guilt, or uncertainty. Some not even anger—the one acceptable emotion for men.
So this is self-care that doesn’t feel good. But it’s necessary. For our health and for others. I tell all my clients that things may feel a bit worse at first before they start to feel better because we are going to be looking at all the issues that you’ve built up a lot of defenses around.
And if I could just get in a time machine and cry more about high school in 7th grade I could have saved myself a lot of internal bullshit that I had to spend my adult hood trying to undo. And if you’re looking for ways to work against racism, don’t forget to start with yourself. We need to relearn how healthy it is to first not feel better.
Want to talk a bit more about getting in touch with these feelings? Reach out for a 15/20 minute free consultation.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been providing counseling for men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.