I recently joined a men’s group which now meets at my house once a fortnight. The idea of joining such a group was suggested to me a few years ago by a mentor who developed CFS after a traumatic car accident in which a friend of his was killed, and subsequently recovered by studying and practising emotional intelligence. They’re also highly regarded in the men’s work movement and in books like Steve Biddulph’s excellent book Manhood. A few years back I started hearing about them all over the place and when I start hearing about an idea from multiple sources, I begin paying attention.
It’s taken a few attempts to find a group that really works for me; this is my third men’s group in fact. The first one didn’t meet often enough to really get traction, and some of the participants seemed so stuck in their own ways that I found the meetings very frustrating. We spent tremendous amounts of time on situations that had seemingly trivial solutions, like one guy who was in a lengthy and expensive legal battle with his sister. One the basis of his telling of his side of the story, we all thought he owed her an apology not more litigation. He didn’t see it, and instead wanted our moral support for continuing to attack her in the courts over a dodgy property deal that he had engineered. I didn’t enjoy being around physically healthy guys who were wasting their energy on crap like that when my health was stopping me from moving forward.
The second group was more to my liking: pretty much all it’s members were quite functional, and several ran their own businesses. They were more inspiring and I got more out of the meetings. But my headaches and resulting occasional last minute cancellation became a sticking point. My top priority was my health, and that meant listening to my body and cancelling things when I didn’t feel well enough to go. They wanted group attendance to have top priority, and I felt that while attendance was important, my well-being was more important. After all, that’s why I joined the group in the first place.
When people didn’t turn up to group meetings, we’d get stuck in long conversations about commitment; but the people lacking commitment weren’t in those conversations so we were just chasing our tail. Almost everyone in the group had done The Landmark Forum, which for the most part I thought was a great thing; but these conversations were reminiscent of scenes at Landmark where people would start trying to control other people’s behaviour in the name of “integrity”.
For the most part I found the group helpful, but it felt like a waste of time to sit through discussions where we were powerless over the behaviour of people who weren’t there for the discussion, and it was annoying to be on the receiving end of it when empathy seemed to be missing. Since the group met on the other side of the city from where I lived and my health didn’t seem to be improving, eventually I quit going.
The third group meets conveniently close in my own suburb; in fact, since I’ve volunteered my place we now have all the meetings at my home which suits me since I don’t have to expend energy leaving the house on meeting nights.
Aside from the idea that being in a men’s group is generally a good thing for a man to do, I had a few other reasons for joining: One was to find a space to overcome the fear of conflict that makes it challenging for me to be assertive with other people. Another was simply to make some new physically healthy male friends in the local area. I also wanted a little more structure in my life to lessen my anxiety. And finally I wanted emotional and moral support of other males to help counteract the lingering effects of bullying at my emotionally vacuous all-boys high school. All these things should help reduce the unconscious stress load on my nervous system.
The format of the group is that each man takes a turn to share for ten minutes about what is going on in his life, while the other men listen. Then if he wishes, which he almost always does, he gets a total of ten minutes of feedback from all the other men in the group. There is the occasional back-and-forth to clarify things but it’s more structured than a regular conversation in order to keep things focused so every man gets heard regardless of how confident he may be.
I find this environment an excellent place for dealing with emotional issues outside of one-on-one therapy. It’s not a therapy group, but I believe it is therapeutic. It’s kind of like a half-way house between the two; a good starting point for applying what I’ve learned in therapy in the real world.
This week the guy immediately before me shared about loneliness, and hearing him talk about his loneliness brought up mine. When I went to give him feedback, I was so affected by what he had said that I got into my own story and forgot whether I was supposed to be giving him feedback or if it was my turn to share. I had been emotionally hijacked and couldn’t think straight.
I believe this emotional hijacking is the cause of the brain-fog many CFS sufferers experience: the intense anxiety from the amygdala stuck in fight-or-flight mode takes over the conscious mind and we can’t think. I’m lucky that I haven’t suffered from this on an ongoing basis, but I have experienced it occasionally and I can appreciate how debilitating it could be to have it going on all the time.
I got back on track by asking the guys in my group whether I was supposed to be giving feedback or sharing, and they kindly set me straight. Then I experienced a rush of shame for having said or done something foolish in front of other people. I believe I learned to be afraid and ashamed of making foolish mistakes from the way that my mother used to ridicule my father during their many arguments that I found very frightening when I was young. He we be triggered by her verbal taunts and would say foolish things which she could then criticise him for in that or any future arguments.
This is a particularly nasty way to manipulate people, because we’re pretty much helpless once someone who knows how to push our buttons triggers our emotional hijacking mechanism. Logic goes out the window. We go into fight-or-flight mode, and neither of those options are really appropriate for a man to use in an argument with a woman: it’s not like you can punch her in the face to stem the flow of her toxic words, nor is in very masculine to run away. My father didn’t know how to be assertive with my mother when he was calm, let alone when he was triggered.
Back to the men’s group though, rather than responding with criticism the other men in my group offered support and encouragement instead. To me, that’s very healing because it breaks my pattern of self-consciousness around getting things wrong or being foolish in front of others.
When it was my turn to share I talked more about my own loneliness and a few other highly emotionally charged issues that I’ve got going on right now. Then I felt another rush of shame; at least until the first guy started giving me feedback. I had gone against another part of my childhood conditioning by sharing my feelings with other people. Men even. I’d spilled the beans, and my nervous system was on high alert.
Unlike when I was a kid however, this time the feedback was all positive and encouraging. The other guys appreciated that I shared how I was feeling with them. This was the complete opposite of school or my family of origin; and exactly what I needed. I felt my nervous system calm down and the shame fade. We all even had a bit of a laugh about my brain fog moment, and the guys said they felt more connected with me given that I had shared some feelings with them; and after all, emotional connection is the antidote to loneliness.
At yin yoga the next evening, I felt a flood of loneliness and sadness come up from my body. The teacher said that we often store emotions in our hips, and during frog pose the tears started flowing freely. I remembered just how lonely I felt during primary school in particular; how desperate I was for the other kids to be my friends and how hard I found it making new friendships. The social skills that I had learned in my family of origin just wasn’t a very effective way to connect with other people and make friends. They didn’t work any better in the real world than it did in my family; in fact, it worked worse because people in the real world could just leave you alone completely if you acted weird. Family members at least felt obligated to stay around.
I’ve had a lot of therapy about my childhood experiences, but never really got into the depths of the loneliness that I felt. I remember how hard it was to befriend the girls at school and how badly I wanted the approval and attention of everyone, but I’d never really got into the depths of the loneliness that I felt inside before that men’s group meeting and subsequent yoga class.
I think loneliness and social isolation are a major factors in perpetuating the suffering of people with CFS. One of the most distressing thing that you can do to a human is put them in solitary confinement, and that’s one side effect of CFS. Social isolation is stressful and causes yet more anxiety, possibly keeping the viscous cycle of fight-or-flight hyperarousal going. The antidote is to reach out and connect to someone, especially someone who understands what you’re going through; so long as it doesn’t turn into a CFS pity party and leave you feeling even worse.
Having released the deep-seated grief around the loneliness I felt as a kid and during the first few years of my illness, I feel a little more comfortable with my own company. I don’t feel quite so needy for connection with other people. I think I’m less likely to settle for low-quality connection from damaged people. It will be interesting to see how this impacts my social anxiety, but so far it appears to have made quite a dent.