One of the exercises used in our agency’s Partner Assault Response (PAR) program and in educational programs by the Male Allies, is called “Act Like a Man Box.” Designed by author and activist Paul Kivel and popularized by male feminist Tony Porter, it invites participants to identify what is acceptable and expected of men.
We include a contrasting “Act Like a Lady Box” and discuss the consequences to each gender for stepping outside of the boxes. Despite how far we’ve come, one of the distinctions almost always made is men are more rational while women are more emotional.
And historically, society has favoured the former.
But, there are positive and negative qualities associated with each, and either in their extreme can be harmful. While our rational minds can assist us in decision making and problem solving, if we are not connected with our feelings and the feelings of others, we can make decisions that have devastating impacts on others and ultimately on ourselves. As Brene Brown writes in Dare to Lead: “when we become disembodied from our emotions to the point that we literally don’t recognize which physical feelings are connected to emotional feelings, we don’t gain control, we lose it.”
Many of the men I interviewed for the men’s group would talk about how they ignored, stuffed or pushed through their feelings of distress or upset. I have no doubt this unhealthy coping contributed to their use of abuse along with beliefs that promote male superiority.
But reacting from a purely emotional place is not the ideal either. When we make decisions based only on feelings, we often haven’t taken the time to check all the facts and weigh the consequences of our actions. There have been times when I’ve gotten fired up about something I’m passionate about, only to discover there’s more to the story and other perspectives that I haven’t taken into consideration. Reacting from pure emotion, especially fear, triggers defensiveness in others and disconnection.
Moving forward, we need to remember these boxes are socially constructed without any consideration for the complexity of being human and what is required to live in harmony with one another. What if we could see the value in combining both? What if we could learn from one another instead of competing with one another? What if we could bust out of the boxes?
I was introduced to the concept “wise mind” at a recent training on Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. “Wise mind,” or using Brene Brown’s language “wholeheartedness,” is about integrating our emotional side and our rational or thinking side.
Wise mind is about pausing and engaging the head and the heart as we interact with one another. It is about tuning into our body and recognizing our emotions have useful information to offer us. It requires us to stay open to others’ perspectives. It is about reflecting on the impact of our actions and the needs of the collective rather than making decisions based purely on economics or what logically makes sense. Being wise means learning to listen, ask questions and not get stuck in dichotomies like right or wrong or me versus you.
Nicole Schiener is a registered psychotherapist in Cambridge at the Family Counselling Centre of Cambridge and North Dumfries.