"I just know I'm the only one in the world who feels this way!" Somehow, the feelings of guilt over your (real or imagined) failures, the confusion and fears that haunt you over decisions (big or small), the barely-controllable urges to run away or get drunk or high or just go wild, all conspire together to convince you that nobody else could possibly understand how you feel. Being with family or friends just makes things worse, doesn't it? Both their joys and their sorrows make you feel even more disconnected, separate, alone. Once again, you're the only one who could appreciate how you feel.
If you were to go even deeper and really notice what was going on, you'd discover that even you don't appreciate or accept what you're feeling. Either you try looking around at people who are ‘worse off’ than you, and that makes you feel like you're making a big deal out of nothing. Or, you start counting your blessings to remind yourself just how fortunate you are (especially compared with those who are less fortunate than you); this just makes you feel like you're being ungrateful. So now, on top of feeling alone, you either feel guilty that your feelings are so strong, yet your problems are so small, or you feel ashamed that you feel so bad while you've got it so good. Once again, you're absolutely, positively the only one. You're terminally unique.
How do you go about bridging that seemingly insurmountable gap between you and the rest of the world? Even if you had the words to describe with any semblance of adequacy the feelings you've got tightly packaged inside, would there be anybody out there who could possible relate? How would you find even one person who could say to you, “Yeah, I know. That's how I've been feeling"? You couldn't risk saying something and being thought of as a chronic whiner: that would only add to your inner devastation. If you heard, even once more, ‘Buck up and get over yourself, ’ you'd scream and throw something. After all, haven't you been telling yourself the same thing, over and over again, for a long time? It seems that, regardless of how you try to ignore the feelings, or to escape them, they keep showing up and often at the worst possible times.
I'll repeat here what I've said a number of times before in other places: pain is simply something trying to get your attention. For many men, midlife can be a very painful time. The pain derives from the fact that midlife represents a giant invitation to do something that nurture and culture working together insist that men should never do: reflect, contemplate, question themselves and feel. When midlife challenges your most deeply-held assumptions, if you're a guy, you may find yourself in virgin territory with few tools at your disposal to do the necessary work. In addition, your isolation makes you believe that you've got to re-invent the wheel and to do something that nobody you know has ever done before. Furthermore, from both internal and external sources, you're told that you're not permitted to ask for help. That, after all, might show that you're incapable of being a ‘real man’ mightn't it?
These are all reasons why I believe that guys suffer more in the midlife transition than women do. Not that the pain or complexity of the transition plays gender favorites, but women have more of an opportunity to bridge the chasm of isolation that only aggravates the pain. When women share with one another, they may discover - somewhat more readily than their male counterparts - that, in fact, other people do feel the same way they're feeling, and they survive it! As they say, ‘misery loves company’ and people do get some sort of perverse enjoyment out of sharing their aches and pains. Yet, for many men, sharing aches and pains stops at the threshold of the emotions. Self-doubt seldom emerges from the lock box of taboo subjects in the male world.
Just talking about these things here, out in the open, may make a difference. At least no one can read this and still honestly think that no one else knows what they're feeling. I think it would shock a lot of people to discover just how many others can (and do) ‘feel your pain. ’ Women have a natural pathway toward the answer to this painful conundrum: even if you're not (yet) ready to ask another person for help, it's still an important first step to realize (not just hope) that other people actually do share your feelings. Actually, in their broadest strokes, our stories are all the same: only the details differ. What a gift it is when we can genuinely recognize in another person another self - it's the doorway out of that Twilight Zone that we experience as terminal uniqueness.
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown