Loneliness and My New Men’s Group

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.

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My 30 Year High School Reunion

2015 is turning out to be the year of completions for me. I went to my 30 year high school reunion on Saturday night. My experience of other boys at high school was challenging for me and on the way to the reunion I felt a bit triggered and reached out for support to a friend who had been tormented at her school by bullies.

"Strive To Survive" Was More Like My Experience
“Strive To Survive” Was More Like My Experience

The very first guy who spoke to me was one of the guys I remember bullying me in high school: He bought me a drink and we had a fun conversation.

Later on I was flirting with a girl from our sister school, and she goes “You’re really cool. Where were you in high school?” I thought: “I just wasn’t myself back then; I never felt safe to just be me”.

Then later another guy said “I told one of the other guys a few days ago that I’m going to apologise to Graham Stoney at the reunion for laying shit on him at school.” He was clearly embarrassed about it. We’d both been carrying that for 30 years. I said I was open to hearing his apology, and he said he was really sorry. I felt that he meant it too, and was getting complete himself. We shook hands and I thanked him. Then he told me that he had hated school and wasn’t dealing with things, and we talked about how isolated we all had felt and how nobody was really coping. But as boys we all just had to suck it up, pretend we weren’t hurting and fend for ourselves by beating up on the smaller kids, just like the bigger kids beat up on us.

One of my last conversations was a bit unnerving, with a guy who said I had ignored him at school, and that he didn’t mind putting shit on people weaker than him. He still had that bully energy and I didn’t hang around him long.

A lot of the guys remarked that I’m now taller than them, and I had grown. They hadn’t mentioned that at the 20 year reunion and I doubt I’ve grown much physically since then; but I have grown a lot spiritually/psychologically.

I came home thinking that completes the chapter of my life about being bullied at high school and the story that other men aren’t safe for me to be around and aren’t interested in connecting with me.

Other People Don’t like Me, and Other Victim Stories

I’ve been feeling an increasing frustration at the difficulty that I’m having making new friends in the suburb where I live. I moved to Bondi about a year ago, and expected that I would be meeting people all over the place, especially considering that there are attractive, interesting people all over the place to meet.

Backpackers from all around the world come to Bondi, and there are plenty of interesting locals here as well. When I first moved in, it seemed really easy to meet people; but since then I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut and have found it more challenging. The local beach is full of pretty, interesting girls from all around the world, and yet something is stopping me from going up and talking to them.

It’s not hard to imagine what that something might be: my old fear of rejection rearing its ugly head again.

I can remember several years ago walking up to a pretty girl on a beach, despite my nerves, and saying “Hello, do you mind if I join you?” to her. She was quite polite and replied “I’m sorry, I’m not really up for a conversation right now.”

I wandered off feeling like I’d been hit in the head with a frying pan as a full blown panic attack set in. The fact that it was a nude beach, and neither of us had any clothes on probably didn’t help with my anxiety. I ended up calling a friend to help talk me down again. With memories like that, it’s no wonder that I’m still a little reticent.

I’ve had several really good experiences of meeting girls on the beach since moving here, and I don’t feel anywhere near as bothered nowadays when they don’t seem to want to engage with me. But a big part of me remembers those old panic attacks, and just doesn’t want to take the risk.

Even now just writing about it, I’m feeling that tense feeling in the head again.

So yesterday, I headed off to my psychologist to talk about what’s going on for me. If rejection doesn’t bother me so much any more, why is it I still feel like I’m struggling to meet new people?

Almost immediately in the session, I felt some powerful feelings of fear, sadness, grief and anger. Anger at not feeling well enough to do all the things I want to do, and at the people who have rejected me in the past; grief and sadness at the times in the past that I haven’t felt accepted or appreciated by other people; and fear about the whole rejection/loneliness/abandonment thing.

It’s amazing how deep some of these feelings can go. Even after years of working on this stuff, I still get strong feelings of not being safe around other people sometimes. Each time I told my therapist that I didn’t really feel safe, I felt the fear, sadness and grief come up again.

Things that didn’t feel safe for me included:

  • Meeting new people, especially cute girls.
  • Expressing my anger.
  • Telling the truth about what I wanted.
  • Making mistakes
  • Getting things wrong
  • Failure

I still did these things sometimes even though they didn’t feel safe; but I really wanted them to feel safe so that I could be more consistent and not feel like I’m pushing through anxiety all the time.

Another friend who used to suffer from social anxiety recently told me that once he had overcome the social anxiety, he still found that he had another fear to deal with: fear of the fear itself, and that really resonates with me. I can see that over the past few years with all the anxiety related to CFS, I’ve been telling myself a story that anxiety is too much for me; that I just can’t cope with it. I’m still afraid of my own feelings, basically.

I came home feeling exhausted, anxious and restless. It made for a fairly sleepless night.

Dealing with anger and anxiety in particular are still quite challenging for me, but I can see that the extent of the challenge is heavily influenced by what I tell myself about these troubling emotions. When I get all caught up in the story that it’s all too much, and I can’t do it, I just end up creating more stress and suffering for myself. It’s like my inner child still wants mummy to come and fix it all for me.

Clearly, that was never, and is never, going to happen.

Whereas when I tell myself that they’re just feelings, that there is nothing wrong, and that I don’t need anyone to come and save me from them, I feel more empowered.

It’s time to let go of that old story that meeting other people doesn’t feel safe, and start seeing it as a fun, exciting adventure.