On any given day, I am probably offering emotional support to at least three different men in different ways.
I don’t begrudge lending people my shoulder, my ear, my arms – not ever. I have a lot to give in that regard and I want to share it (which is why I eventually want to become a therapist).
But sometimes it makes me wonder what these men would do if they didn’t have me; or what men in general would do if the women they rely on for support disappeared.
As many, many other people have said, women do the bulk of emotional labour in the world. This includes men coming to us with their problems because they don’t know what else to do with them, and because their relationships with other men are often not at a level where they can say ‘I’m hurting’.
This is because to hurt is feminine, and we all know that being feminine is Wrong. So men don’t get hurt; men get angry instead. Men stand up again and shrug off every wound so that they can achieve their goal, just like in the movies. Just be a man, you know?
It takes a lot of strength to turn away from that kind of thinking.
Like bell hooks said:
‘The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.’
The result of this is that when men finally do realise how much they are hurting, they don’t feel able to go to each other; they can’t show their ‘unmanliness’ to other men. They end up coming to women instead, because we’re the ones who deal with emotions. We know the right things to say.
Except, no, we don’t. I cannot tell you how many times I have been entirely lost on what to say to offer a scrap of comfort, advice, positivity, or support.
I always find something – a clumsy wish or statement that I hope will suffice in place of the deep healing I wish my words could bring – but I do not know the ‘right’ things to say.
Women do not automatically know exactly how to listen, how to soothe. No one does. It is something that you can learn and get better at, but there are no magic words.
Still. Having said that, I’ve had a think about the principles I tend to follow when someone comes to me. I don’t generally do ‘tough love’; in my experience, that usually entails telling people something they already know in a way that isn’t helpful.
I think it’s important to be gentle. I think it’s important to listen. And I think it’s important not to reinforce someone’s negative feelings about themselves. That’s what the list below is mostly based on, and it’s what seems to work for me. But remember – different things work for different people.
- it is about them, not you; but if something is happening in your mind as well and you can’t handle their pain as well as yours, you need to tell them so and come back to them later. Make sure they know you’re coming back.
- if it’s not already clear, ask them if they know what they need – practical advice, emotional support, reassurance, a hug, a distraction. You might even want to double check that they want to talk about it in the first place.
- ask them about what they are feeling and why. It often takes talking to someone for a person to identify their feelings and why they’re feeling them.
- do not blame (i.e. ‘well if you just did xyz, this wouldn’t happen!’). They are already hurting.
- do not judge, even if you think they’ve done something wrong; you can tell them later if you want to. Right now, they need your support.
So if they say “So I went out and got into a fight.” don’t say “That was stupid.” They know that already.
- remind them of good things about themselves and what you see in them.
“I feel like a failure.”
“I think you’ve achieved a lot. <examples>”
- if you can help it, do not lie. If you lie when someone is trying to open up to you and they find out, it will be even more damaging than usual; it’s a false comfort. Instead, find a gentler way to tell them the truth.
“You could have dealt with that better” is usually preferable to “Yes, you fucked up”.
- in my experience, people often use self-deprecation to tell you what they really think about themselves. So challenge it:
“I’m just being a lazy sod, haha.”
“Nah, you’ve had a tough day. You deserve a rest for a bit.”
- listen to what they are saying beyond their words. For example, ‘I feel like such an idiot’ can also mean ‘I feel like it’s my fault.’
- if they give you a long list of the things that are upsetting them, either ask them what they most need to talk about or choose which seems to be the most important – but don’t forget the rest.
- make sure they know that they can stop talking about it at any time, and that they don’t have to tell you things they don’t want to.
So, that’s generally how I do it. Maybe this will help someone.