For many years I thought I was broken, like something was wrong with me. I saw other people in my life, mostly woman, who seemed to so easily experience great states of both deep joy and grief. My experience felt flat and dead by comparison. I was jealous. I wanted to feel deeply. I wanted to show great love, care, and affection for others and joy for life. And more than wanting, I needed the relief of breaking down and sobbing in a loved one’s arms, of expressing my great pain and anger. But that was not my experience. For years I lived without. I struggled, I maintained, I was happy sometimes, sometimes I was sad. I had emotions, but they were muted, stifled, and contained.
I discovered peer counseling through a friend who had been involved for years. She was excited to share the tool with me. I knew it was what I needed, but I was nervous and unsure as we walked into the strangers house. Nervousness and uncertainty, I discovered, were just right. This was a place where I could feel and express that nervousness along with anything else that was alive inside me. Here, I would finally discover how to do show myself more deeply by interacting with people who were honest and open-hearted.
The basic format of peer counseling is that two people take turns listening to each other. In the process each person gets a chance to express themselves and their emotional experience. The idea is that most of us, in some way or another, have been discouraged from honest emotional expression, and we can benefit from relearning how to be with ourselves in that way. The two peer counselors are part of a community of people learning together. Pairs and groups meet up regularly to trade time and learn the theory and skills of the practice. Over time trust develops in the group and individuals are able to experience healing, growth and authenticity.
I found a safety and freedom to be myself in peer counseling that I had never experienced before. I shared things about myself I never had, and never thought I would. Things that I felt tremendous shame, guilt, and fear about. Things that I had convinced myself that if others knew they would shun me and disdain me. I dove into sharing experiences of feeling stupid and incompetent because of my difficulties in school, of constantly feeling alone like no one was really there for me. I was relieved and inspired that not only was it ok for me to share those things, but that people appreciated, respected, and cared for me all the more for it.
I know now, after working with men for many years that the things I felt ashamed of, the numbness, confusion, and sense of inadequacy, are in fact really common for us. We have been taught to suppress the parts of ourselves that feel deeply. We have been told that showing emotions is for women and that in order to be men it is not okay to be scared sometimes, to be sad, to be hurt. We have been taught that men are strong, confident, and in control always, and we learn to where these like masks. In some ways I got good at putting on and wearing these masks, at being the man I was supposed be. In other ways I felt like I was always falling short.
Peer counseling has been a powerful tool in my life. It has become a magical time and place where I get to take off any masks I might be wearing and show my true self to another. It is often difficult and scary. Sometimes the masks that I wear are there, at least in part, to cover up overwhelming pain, terror, and rage. It makes sense that we would want to keep these feelings contained, but I know now that these powerful parts of myself are going to come through one way or another. The question is, am I going to use them consciously, proactively, and for good? Or am I going to unconsciously let them come out sideways and wreak havoc on my life?
What space are you creating in your life to take your masks off?
I know now that my happiness and well-being–as well as the daily experiences of my partner and those close to me–are deeply impacted by how I answer this question. Luckily, there is so much I can do to tend my emotions in a responsible, healthy way.