COWBOY KEEPS HIS OWN COUNSEL
I have found that, for those of us who identify as men, an unfortunate aspect of our socialization into masculinity is an expectation of rugged self reliance. Whatever stresses and near disasters life throws our way, we expect of ourselves the ability to “cowboy up” and shoulder the work of fixing things until the job gets done. And, to be a man about it, means being strong. We keep our fears and uncertainty about whether or not we even have what it takes to survive the current struggle very close to our chests. Fear must not be seen beyond the brim of your hat.
We learned this expectation countless ways. In my experience, the recruitment into “cowboy keeps his own counsel” varies a great deal from man to man. Those who were bullied into masculinity learned to hide shame. Those who were encouraged toward it through supportive mirroring and cheerleading of masculine prowess learned to hide fear and uncertainty. Those who created it for themselves by being unfathered, unparented, or through abusive distortions of parenting learned to hide weakness and puniness. But, one way or another, many of us learned to never let them see you flinch.
This is such a fragile place to live. Ignoring our emotions and “soldiering on” creates a life of isolation, pain, and considerable danger. The man struggling to generate income for his family and make sure safety needs get met no matter what trials the work-a-day world can show him lives in a place where his neck can break everyday but no one will know it. Especially not those closest to him. Often the man does not even know that he is subscribing to this isolative ethic. It simply does not occur to him to share his fears with others. In truth, many of us are not in the habit of even sharing these emotions quietly with ourselves.
There is a reason men more frequently successfully complete suicides than any other demographic. I think one of the biggest reasons is the dynamic I have called “Cowboy Keeps his Own Counsel”. Struggling alone through the challenges of life, uncertain of one’s ability and fearful of asking for help can leave one vulnerable to intense anxious and self critical ruminations that can lead to hopeless decision making.
I believe that psychotherapy is one of the most intimate experiences in the world. Offering oneself up to “sharing counsel” with another person can feel very vulnerable and foreign for the man who is used to keeping his own counsel. It is also incredibly liberating. Having a space of your own to finally share your thoughts, feelings, pleasures, desires, and fears while thinking together with someone you experience as reliable to you can lift the burden of isolation and create possibilities for new ways of relating to yourself, your life, and your loved ones.