Boys Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves
With the boys in my group, I like sharing the poem There are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves by James Kavanaugh. It’s attractive to me as it evokes both questions and introspection for them. Most of them have worked really hard on convincing everyone how “tough” they are. Along the way they successfully taught people to walk on egg shells around them and a parent’s smallest attempt to hold a boundary can cause an explosive reaction, with punching holes in the wall, threats of self-harm, risky behavior such as speeding through the neighborhood, or taking drugs to ensue.
Boys who are depressed often don’t look depressed. They look angry. The bottom line is that many of my boys struggle with a healthy expression of their emotions. Society, culture, and social media have taught them what it means to “be a man” and they often hide or mask emotions they consider soft (i.e. fear, loneliness, hurt, and self-doubt).
In my group we spend a lot of time discussing healthy masculinity. My students learn that talking about their fears and hurts actually makes them stronger because it means that they are acknowledging and integrating parts of themselves they have pushed down or kept in silence for way to long.
I want to share an experience with you that happened not long ago in my group. A student had processed his mother’s Hopes and Intentions Letter, followed by another group member asking him what the story was behind a name that was mentioned in the letter. The student’s voice became a bit quieter when he shared that the name belonged to a stuffed animal. His parents gave it to him when they adopted him as a toddler from an orphanage in Eastern Europe. A little bit embarrassed, he shared that now, 15 years later, he still cuddles with this stuffy when he feels sad.
The group fell silent. They didn’t expect this “cool kid” who was here for substance use to talk about a childhood toy. But then one by one, each of the other boys shared about their stuffed animals. They joyfully talked about “Build a Bear,” a store in the mall that allows you to build your own furry friend and how much they enjoyed it, (just hoping that their girlfriends won’t find out). It was an incredibly bonding moment for the group as they acknowledged their need for affection, love, and comfort with each other. They all felt a bit closer to each other after that group, wishing each other good night with, “I love you, bro”.
The development of a strong and secure sense of self is widely considered to be one of the central tasks of adolescence. Males are much more self-conscious about their identity and how they are perceived by others during adolescence than at any other stage in their lives. Showing and accepting “softer” emotions, and learning to be vulnerable with each other without being judged, can foster a path away from self-harming and self-destructive behaviors and towards healthier expression and connection with difficult emotions.
Punching walls or getting into fights are often not looked at as forms of self-harm because the behavior is seen as aggressive rather than emotional. Punching walls until knuckles bleed can be a way of releasing anger at self or feelings of failure. A young man might well know he will be hurt, but will still enter a fight or an altercation when it is recognized that he will relieve the swath of emotions he is feeling. For boys, self-harm is often an inner and hidden coping strategy. This can look like taking Xanax or smoking weed nightly to bring sleep, or just to calm anxieties and fears. Furthermore, over-exercising combined with under-eating can also be symptomology that is overlooked in boys and inversely praised by a society that values driven athletes.
As a therapist, I strive to create an emotionally safe place for my students. I know that asking them to be authentic and vulnerable requires tremendous courage and strength. I have my own little furry friend that I bring to the field with me, and she helps me tremendously with the task of creating a safe space for my clients.
Her name is Betty Lou. She is a Bearded Collie, a trained therapy dog that I brought over from Germany. Often times I see my students let their guard down for the first time when they see her running up to them. She is the most joyful and loving bundle of fur you can imagine. She will sit next to the boys in session, put her head on their laps or shoulders, and shower them with unconditional love and affection. It always amazes me how disarming animals can be. Often the journey towards wholeness starts here.
My therapist told me once, “Freedom is on the other side of your fear.” I share this with my boys often as I invite them on this heroic journey towards wholeness and what it means to be a “real man.”
Steinberg, L. (2008). Adolescence. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Erikson, E. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.