Man up

by | June 15, 2015

“Feeling crushed. It’ll pass, but I’d love to hear your best ‘man up’ self-talk. Fresh out, here.”

A friend of mine posted this on her Facebook wall. Putting aside the implicit sexism in the phrase “man up,” I have a few thoughts to share, which are universal to anyone feeling disappointment, frustration, or grief to any degree.

In the past I would have lectured her with typical motivational thoughts.

But I’ve recently discovered much deeper, more useful truths in the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is defined as the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts, and sensations occurring in the present moment. It is seeing and accepting what is, rather than trying to impose what we want to be on reality. It is practiced formally through meditation, though one can practice it informally any time.

I’m but a beginning student of mindfulness, so I offer my thoughts not in the spirit of “I’m the guru with the answers,” but rather, “Here’s my limited understanding of what mindfulness would say on the subject.”

Life is really, really hard. Excruciatingly, heart-wrenchingly, incomprehensibly hard.

Safety and security do not exist. Everything is in a state of constant flux; we can depend on nothing to stay the same. Disease, disaster, death, divorce. Abuse, accidents, addictions. Torture, slavery, oppression. Chronic pain and injury. Birth defects and handicaps.

There is no end to the list of agonizing tragedies and forms of suffering we all face every moment of every day.

It’s a wonder we don’t all collapse and curl up into the fetal position at the sheer terror of this life.

And forget the big tragedies — all the little daily disappointments add up and take their toll as well. Locking your keys in the car. Stubbing your toe. Missing your flight.

We don’t curl up into the fetal position, but we find infinite ways to do the equivalent — anything to avoid and escape the pain, heartache, and uncertainty.

We escape into alcohol, drugs, gambling, and pornography. We escape into TV, materialism, and partying. We escape into workaholism and obsessively climbing the corporate ladder.

We very often escape into depression. Depression isn’t a true emotion: it’s an escape mechanism, a self-imposed fog we shroud our true emotions with because we can’t handle their pain. It’s a form of trying to control and numb our true emotions. (I say this as one well experienced with depression.)

In short, we do anything and everything but allow ourselves to face reality and feel our real emotions.

Then, we make things even worse by shaming ourselves. “Man up. Men don’t cry. Be tough. Get over your first world problems. Grow up.”

(Think about that last one. Who handles grief and disappointment better: children, who cry quickly and move on as quickly, or adults, who desperately try to stifle the pain in an effort to be tough?)

So now, not only are we burdened by the original wound or frustration, we have the extra burden of our inner judge shaming us for our feelings.

My favorite mindfulness teacher is Pema Chodron. Her phenomenal audio CD, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality, which I can’t recommend highly enough, is the most counter-intuitive and profound man up speech I’ve ever heard.

To put it simply, her answer would be to stop moving away from the pain, and instead, move toward it. Face it. Allow yourself to feel it. Only then can you truly deal with it for good.

We get stuck in life every time we move away from and try to cover up, ignore, and numb pain, frustration, heartache, and disappointment.

In fact, the traditional sense of manning up isn’t being tough at all — it’s yet another escape mechanism. Ironically, it’s not a form of strength, but rather of weakness. Instead of just sitting with our pain and negative emotions and allowing ourselves to feel them, we avoid them.

My father manned up for years because he couldn’t face and handle his pain from the trauma he experienced as a child, and his stifled pain emerged in the form of hurting his own children. (I say this not with judgment, but with deep compassion.)

I’ve manned up for most of my life because I’ve been too weak to face my wounds, and my pain has emerged as the shroud of depression, the veil of arrogance, the cloak of defensiveness.

Queen Karina recently tried to man up against her disappointment that her travel plans had to change. She started shaming herself for feeling disappointed (first world problems).

We had been discussing mindfulness on our daily walks, so she asked me what the mindful response would be.

I shared Pema Chodron’s thoughts with her: Instead of trying to move away from, brush off, or cover up the disappointment, allow yourself to feel it and allow yourself to grieve. There’s no shame in feeling disappointment when our expectations are not met.

Sit with the disappointment. Don’t feed it with discursive or ruminative thoughts, but simply acknowledge, observe, and feel it mindfully. It is — no matter how hard you try to get rid of it.

Life is tough. Shame doesn’t make that reality go away. In truth, nothing makes that reality go away.

So stop trying to run from reality and instead, face it. This is not a hard denial of our painful feelings, but rather a soft acceptance of them.

This is not ordering ourselves to be tough, but rather opening ourselves to be vulnerable. This is the most authentic and useful form of manning up.

The best advice for my friend, and anyone who has ever felt the same as her, is embedded in her own request: “It’ll pass.”

Yes, the feelings of pain, frustration, and disappointment will pass. But not by covering them up and allowing them to fester, but only as we allow ourselves to feel, accept, and face their reality.

(For more tools to learn how to process painful experiences, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

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