December 10, 2015
Adolescent Boys: Knowing Fear, Knowing Courage
Therapists spend time and energy with individuals of any age, and maybe, especially adolescents, helping them feel, recognize, name, and express their emotions. The boys who spend time at Second Nature experience a wide array of struggles. Their treatment plans are customized for them as individuals while employing group dynamics to let them see how productively they have been responding to those struggles, and then to try out and practice new, more effective responses. Learning how to better express one’s emotions (rather than acting them out, or in) is a universal aspect of Second Nature for each student. Part of the reason for this is the socialization of outdated gender roles in our culture. Regardless of how enlightened your household is, we can all see how stubbornly ideas such as, “act like a lady,” (which means “don’t be angry,”) and “boys don’t cry,” (which means, “don’t be sad,”) hang on in our society. To some degree we were all taught that it is okay to show some feelings, and not okay to show others. This becomes especially problematic when a person who is not yet clear on their own identity experiences natural and normal feelings that they believe to be “bad.”
Some of the boys I work with are quite willing to express their vulnerable emotions. We help them recognize their feelings and teach them an emotional vocabulary. This enhances their therapeutic work in other areas. Yet many boys are not willing to express, much less experience, a vulnerable feeling because they equate vulnerability with weakness. This misconception is validated, as it is the individual’s belief. It is then, of course, discussed, explored, and held up to scrutiny. Over time, the guys in the program develop trust with their therapist and field instructors. The newer students are encouraged by the older students to use the tools they are learning. Something happens away from the din of society, in the solitude of the forest, around a campfire, beneath the stars, in the emotionally safe community microcosm that is a Second Nature group; adolescent boys try something different, and they let themselves feel. They access their emotions the way that most people do when learning how to feel, by talking about them.
As students practice awareness of their emotions as they feel them, they find that their emotional state does not have to dictate their behavior, and they realize the difference between feeling a strong emotion, and acting on it. A few weeks ago, during a new student’s impact letter group, the guys had the coolest discussion about fear. One boy spoke of his unwillingness to acknowledge feelings that he perceives as negative, as a form of emotional perfectionism. The guys were on a roll, and they mused about their own experiential avoidance. They all could see that with experiential avoidance, out of a fear of disapproval by peers (remember we are talking about adolescents here,) fear of conflict, fear of rejection, or fear of embarrassment, it isn’t just the disapproval, rejection and embarrassment (that are hypothetical and have not happened) they are avoiding. They are avoiding the fear of those things, which is real, and happening in the moment. They were seeing through one of the double binds that the world puts on them – be courageous, don’t be afraid. We all laughed about this, as courage is such a celebrated trait, yet it requires fear to even exist. If we are not scared, how can we be brave? “Who would have thought,” one guy said, “it could take so much courage to just say that I’m terrified.”
A person that does not honor their upset feelings when they have been wronged is unlikely to advocate for him or herself, or work to rectify a correctable injustice. These are the fears that keep a young person from taking a certain class, trying out for a team, or asking someone to dance. Courage is when we feel afraid, and we act according to our values in the midst of that fear. Experiential avoidance of uncomfortable emotions fuels passive aggressive behavior, kills spontaneity, and erodes self-esteem. Most students are relieved to learn that they can shed this tyranny of principle, until they imagine returning to society at large, where such incorrect ideas and beliefs are still perpetuated. So for everyone’s sake, let’s not pretend that there has ever been a person who did not feel scared, lets acknowledge to ourselves, one another, and especially to young men and women, that feeling fear is natural and healthy, and avoiding or denying it creates the problems. And please, let us never say, “don’t be afraid.”