And The Male Heart Wound
by Linda Marks
Disconnection is both a personal and social
disease in today's world. With it come the afflictions of addictions,
depression and narcissism in epidemic proportions.
For all but the last several hundred to one
thousand years of human existence on this planet, we have lived in a more
collective, tribal society. In such a society, much like the one author
Jean Liedloff described in the Continuum Concept, babies are born with
cellular expectations of a connectedness and relatedness with self, others
and all of life.
From this point of view, as infants, we
feel connected to life and expect life and others in our lives to both
recognize us as human beings and take care of us at the most basic levels
when that is required. Likewise, we expect our caregivers to help steward
us through a maturation process leading to appropriate self-sufficiency
that can co-exist with appropriate interdependence. We place such emphasis
on working long hours, and getting so much done, that we live in an always
hurrying, overprogrammed culture. We don't have time to relax, to let down
our defenses, to relate deeply. The pace of life today becomes another
force to maintain disconnection.
As we have moved farther away from tribal,
village and community-based societies and into fragmented, disconnected
nuclear family units or broken nuclear families, the sacred roles of both
men and women have been lost. Men and women today are both engaged in
the work culture for economic necessity and for a sense of identity and
place. Many men and women alike are more distant from constant intimate
daily presence in the lives of their children. Child care is often handed
off to professional childcare providers, as the demands on one parent
alone at home with children feels unbearable, as two parents each work and
someone is needed to take care of the children or a single parent works to
survive and can't be in two places at once. When working parents are lucky
enough to have extended family, grandparents age into their 80's trying to
surrogate parent their grandchildren. Some of the energetic,
emotional and practical mentoring and mirroring from parents and extended
family that were once considered a child's birthright are less available.
This is true for both boys and girls.
THE NARCISSISTIC WOUND
The wound to heart and psyche that gets called narcissism occurs when a
child's vulnerable and developing core sense of self is not seen and
reflected back by the adults around him/her. Each child is born a unique
individual with special gifts and personal challenges, multi-layered and
both simple and complex. For any one layer to develop, that part of the
child needs to be seen, heard, understood and valued. Parents have to be
present to be mirrors—to bear witness and reflect back. Healthy
parents help young people build a frame of reference for living.
A child needs a safe context in which to
explore and express his/her core sense of self. A child needs adults who
are themselves grounded in who they are so they have emotional and psychic
space to be receptive to the individual child at any moment, rather than
relating to the child from their own unmet needs. Any one adult may be
capable of seeing and developing certain aspects of a child, and less
equipped to see and develop other ones. In this sense, it does take a
village to raise a child, and with the loss of this village and the
committed long-term adult relationships the village offers to a child,
many levels of the child's developing self will be missed entirely.
When a parent's own woundedness and unmet
needs override their ability to be present to a child or a parent's
undeveloped parts of self render them unable to respond to a child's
vulnerable and authentic needs, the child's core sense of self can be
lost, fragmented or undeveloped. The loss, fragmentation and lack of
development of the core sense of self is the root of the narcissistic
wound. Raw, broken, undeveloped and lost, we enter a cold cruel world
ill-equipped to relate, define fulfillment from the inside out and connect
with the spirit of life.
While our hunter-gatherer and agricultural
ancestors and the worlds they lived in have slowly become extinct over
many generations, our human bodies are still wired with the cellular
expectations of connection that were the birthright and experience of
those that came before us. When our primal wiring meets the world we live
in today characterized by disconnection at personal, family and social
levels, we experience a helplessness and aloneness that is beyond what we
are biologically prepared to embrace. By necessity, we must sculpt
defenses that allow us to navigate the world as
it is, and protect us from what we are afraid of or not equipped to deal
with. These defenses create a false self that allows us to survive
practically but masks as it protects our wounded hearts and souls.
We cannot live with a sense of depth
because to relate at this level is exhausting unless we are self-secure
beings, willing to be vulnerable and chance being exposed to the core.
Most people yearn to be known, to be understood. Only by living from the
core do we become who we were meant to be.
NARCISSISM AS A TRAUMA RESPONSE
A degree of helplessness and aloneness is the psychospiritual paradox of
human embodiment. We need to develop our faith and trust in nature, the
lifeforce and our connection with each other to live through and overcome
moments where that sense of essential helplessness and aloneness prevails.
When a culture has a sacred foundation, spiritual practices, and community
connections, psychospiritual crisis moments are held with understanding,
respect and care. Life is hard, but the experience is understood, held or
The repeated experience of disconnected
abandonment and disinterest wires in a pathological sense of
self-reliance, where we become feral humans on the emotional streets of
life. God has forsaken us and no one hears our pain. We have no
choice but to do it alone. Much of our pain is unspoken and
invisible as we go about our compartmentalized, isolated lives. Some
people develop masks to wear at work and in the world. The mask makes one
appear well when they are really not. We live the experience, "No one
is going to be there when I really need them. In life, I have to do it
alone." No one touches beneath the thick plates that form to protect
the traumatized heart.
Narcissism can be seen as a simultaneous
trauma to the core self and the neglect/deprivation of the core self.
While healthy mirroring feeds and reinforces the developing sense of self,
narcissistic mirroring breaks down the boundaries of the developing self.
With narcissistic mirroring, the developing self is lost, overshadowed or
never activated at some, if not many level(s).
A metaphor for looking at the developing
self is the conditions necessary for a seed to germinate. A seed is full
of potential and contains all the raw ingredients needed to grow into the
full embodiment of whatever plant it has descended from. Without the
proper conditions, rather than having the life spirit inside of the seed
sparked to life, it can decompose and disappear, sprouting and then
shriveling or remaining dormant, never to see the light of day. Healthy
mirroring allows for germination of soul and spirit. Narcissistic faux
mirroring damages, if not destroys, the potential to germinate as a sense
of self, put down roots that support full development and grow into life.
This creates emotional birth defects which are physically unexpressed, but
set emotional limits which stunt our capacities to be fully human and
program us for failure in some ways.
In this sense, the narcissistic defense is
a natural result of or response to trauma. Here, trauma is defined as an
interpersonal violation of the boundaries of the self, which may be
fragile to start with. Likewise, this narcissism generating trauma
also includes elements of deprivation and neglect. The heart
simultaneously starves from deprivation of essential contact, mirroring
and relational experience, and dies of toxicity as it is force fed by the
narcissistic other. This compromises emotional metabolism. The person
wires in a way of life of emotional starvation and toxicity—unable to
take in the good and unable to release the bad.
Creating a fantasy world to defend against
an unliveable reality is what children who are physically or sexually
abused do as a matter of survival. This is called dissociation, a
splitting of self into disconnected parts. The narcissistic wound
becomes a trauma response at two levels, first as our spiritually empty
culture can't support our spiritual needs, and second, as our
narcisstically wounded parents are unable to be present and often
overshadow our developing sense of self. Left unhealed, the map is set for
a future trail of tears. Seeds of self darkness are sown for the wounded,
their mates and their offspring.
THE INTERGENERATIONAL CHAIN OF NARCISSISM
In healthy relating, adults have a grounded
sense of self and personal boundaries. This means I know who I am distinct
from you and you know who you are distinct from me. And it extends further
to mean, I can know and own my own needs, triggers, wounded places and
projections and not inflict them on you or blame you for them. When a
narcissistic adult relates to a developing child, s/he may not be able to
make the distinction between self and other and therefore, impose his/her
own needs, pain and projections on the child. The child can experience
trauma at the boundaries between self and this intrusive other.
boys and girls grow up with lost, fragmented and undeveloped parts of core
self, when they try to parent their own children, they invade and neglect
them at intimate and core levels. Narcissistic parents pass on the
narcissistic wound through their lack of grounded sense of self, their
unclear or broken boundaries and their inability to be fully present to or
respond to the needs of a developing child.
MALE HEART WOUND
While both male and
female children suffer heart wounds growing up in our fragmented culture
that values productivity and functioning over relationships, there is a
difference in how men and women are allowed to deal with their woundedness.
As infants, toddlers and small children, boys do feel and they do cry. As
the mother of a son who has just turned six, I would even say that the
boys I have spent time with many be more emotionally sensitive than the
girls their own age. They may be more likely to act out their
vulnerability than talk it out. However, the intensity and complexity of
the boys' feelings are certainly evident.
THE MEN WE NEVER KNEW, Daphne Rose Kingma writes that "obviously male
children feel and feel deeply, but eventually socialization takes care of
all that.... the feeling boy is gradually molded into the
unemotional man." She quotes a 45 year old graphic artist, "This
culture... destroys the sensitivity in men. It annihilates the male
emotionally, sexually, spiritually and creatively."
have been taught that in order to hold the world together, to make
political, economic or social decisions, they have to ignore their
emotions because the intervention of feelings could make mincemeat of
their choices," says Kingma. "They have been encouraged not
only NOT to have feelings, but have also been specifically instructed to
shove down whatever random tendrils of feelings should, from time to time,
manage to crop up."
identity is based on suppressing the male heart and the wounded male
heart. Kingma notes that we have enculturated beliefs that men, "by
nature are willing to carry and inflict the pain that is required for
civilization to advance. Whether it's in the form of laying railroad
tracks or fighting a war, we have always assumed that men have a
special capacity for bearing pain in silence." Men have been taught
to sacrifice their hearts and their lives for the forward movement of
civilization. And we have collectively been taught to assume men will not
be affected by what the male role requires of them.
definition of a man is to put duty ahead of emotional fulfillment. Kingma
speaks to this. "Like Ulysses, a man's calling is always to duty,
never to what might be emotionally fulfilling for him. This need for men
to not feel is so universal, that it has become, basically, our definition
for what it is to be a man." Men carry their pain in their bodies, in
their faces and in their self-destructive habits. Alcoholism, drug
addiction and sex addiction rates are higher for men than for women. Men
drop dead of heart attacks and suffer early deaths at higher rates than
women too. Without having developed a grounded core sense of self, men
truly are lost, and treat themselves in disconnected ways far more
self-destructively than women.
who yearn for a deeper, fuller, richer life often stamp out this impulse
because to go for emotional fulfillment and self-expression runs contrary
to society's forces that define his success as a man. Men often have
difficulty connecting deeply with who they are emotionally and going for
it. The risk is too high. Many men spend their lives waiting for their
emotional ship to come in, but without taking matters into their own hands
and creatively shaping their lives. Men don't realize they need to do
their emotional work. They wait for social security and death, not really
caring which comes first.
DON'T FEEL, YOU DON'T HAVE TO DEAL
are many secondary gains of the male heart wound. Power and wealth are two
great anesthetics for the wounded male heart. Power and wealth get men the
social trappings, including pretty women and all the toys, that allow men
to avoid the emptiness in their own hearts. "When I am feeling
powerful, I have no pain," commented a man I interviewed. Men have
built externally functional selves with worldly rewards. However, these
rewards are not rooted in a core sense of self or soul which is inaccessible
and undesirable, having been lost, broken, underdeveloped or never
defined. This lack of sense of self, fragile self, undeveloped self
results in an elaborately built psychic/emotional defense system that
draws power and attention towards the person and keeps pain at bay.
all have this monster of anxiety and depression that eats around the edges
and wants to eat us up," reflects Mark McDonough, an entrepreneur and
explorer of the male heart wound. "We throw different bones at it:
power, sex, alcohol, workaholism, entertainment. There are so many ways to
keep that monster from eating you up. Nobody wants to sit with the
monster. It's too horrendous."
and women alike run from the dark feelings that characterize human
existence in our modern day world and that accompany the wounds we inflict
to both male and female hearts. Men, even more than women, have a lack
of tolerance of emotional pain. They become addicted to running from
pain and discomfort, disconnecting and distracting. The growing presence
of chemical solutions, like Prozac and its family of prescription drugs,
adds yet another avenue to avoid dealing with the monster. Men don't want
to feel. If they did, what they would uncover might question and erode the
foundation and the structures on which they have built their identities
and their lives.
"Because of the nature of the male heart wound, many men are closed
to considering that the male heart wound exists," notes Art Matthis,
a father of three boys in the Chicago area. "A characteristic of the
male heart wound is the denial of the existence of the male heart
"Because they've suppressed their feelings for so long, men are
unconsciously terrified of what might occur if they did experience their
feelings.... Most men don't own up to this of course, but... they arrange
their lives and behaviors... so they avoid stumbling into feelings they're
not prepared to have... In particular, men fear they won't be able to move
from the feeling state back into the rational state" which provides a
safe and productive ground to stand on and act from.
men don't know how to trust their feelings or reconcile the conflicts
between what they can figure out rationally and what they feel. They have
not had a chance to see that emotional process leads to resolution, and
lack the tolerance of the discomfort and the time it might take to reach
such resolution. Men routinely deny and rearrange feelings to defend
against and suppress anything they don't want to see about themselves.
While this keeps pain away, it also keeps real love out.
THE MALE HEART WOUND IN RELATIONSHIP
both men and women need love, Kingma acknowledges that "it is exactly
at the point where love the feeling, intersects relationship, the reality,
that men have so many problems. Indeed, it is the very relationships that
have made women despair of ever having a real experience of intimacy with
men that the true dimension of men's suffering is ultimately revealed. For
it is in relationship, the very essence of which is to be a sanctuary for
the nurturing and exchange of feelings, that men, by virtue precisely of
what it is to be a man, are most deprived. In the province of feeling, men
are called upon to serve and not to feel, to perform and not to reveal, to
behave like heroes and not mere human beings." Women contribute
to the struggle for intimacy as well, as they ask men to go forth and
conquer the world, and then are amazed when he cannot take his armor off
I find it striking that a
song recently popularized by singer Nellie Furtado, "I'm Like a
Bird," speaks to the prevalence of the male heart wound, which can
also be seen as the narcissistic heart wound in both men and women. The
song speaks of a person who has qualities that are precious and rare, but
who is sure to break the heart of even the most devoted lover. Eventually,
"I'm like a bird, I'll only fly away. I don't know where my home is.
I don't know where my soul is."
Matthis notes, "Men live with a tension between a deep desire to
connect and some strong social training that as a man you shouldn't have
to. While all human beings have a natural need to be in community, men
have been taught they need to function as rugged individualists. The male
identity gets split apart between an organic human need and a social
Men and women
alike are deprived of the solace of true emotional intimacy, which is the
most fundamental food for our hearts and souls, by the price that is paid
simply for being a man in our society. Neither men nor women get to be
whole, fulfilled people with traditional gender roles. Kingma reflects,
that men and women suffer equally. "Until men can be liberated from
the spirit suppressing requirements of the male role, they—and we—will
be consigned to relationships that deny us the joy of true intimacy, those
that would allow us to discover each other in all our depth, power and
McDonough points out that men and women have lived out an unspoken deal.
There are several elements to the deal. First, men ask women to be their
heart and in exchange, the woman doesn't have to go out into the world,
put on a shell and stay hard. "The woman can stay home with the kids
and remain soft and cuddly." Second, women have been taught to let
men be the rational thinkers, so that head and heart functions are split
between the genders rather than developed in each gender.
each gender has a different and corresponding response to the narcissistic
heart wound. The male response is, "These people can't take care of
me. So, I will become big and strong and take care of myself. I can make
it on my own and I don't need anyone." The female response is,
"I can't make it on my own. I'll find someone who can protect me from
it, because I don't have the power to do it on my own." Male and
female relationships are based on two incomplete halves coming together to
form a whole, rather than two whole people coming together to create
something exponentially greater.
THE MALE HEART WOUND
Both men and
women have broken hearts and have learned to take on fragmented gender
roles that need to evolve to create a healthier and more fulfilling world.
Finding a language that can be heard by the male psyche is critical
to healing the male heart wound. The words "healing" and
"male heart wound" themselves may be considered women's
language. One man I interviewed commented, "When men hear words like
this, they run for the hills. They think 'you want to heal me.' 'You think
I'm not whole, I'm not good enough, I'm not okay.' This is very
threatening and hard for men to hear and take in."
we need to develop a language of gender equality. This language might be a
language of growth, building a full life, creating, even nurturing. Men
and women must come together and collaborate on finding a common language
that reflects compassion for each gender's unique strengths and struggles.
Even beyond finding a common language, men and women need to come together
and speak frankly and listen fully to each other's experiences. A
compassion between the genders is necessary to heal the wounds in both
male and female hearts.
to healing work done with both men and women, men need to also find ways
of doing healing work with other men. This can include finding a peer
group of men who will support each man's development physically,
emotionally and as a unique soul. Sparrow Hart, leader of The Mythic
Warrior Training thinks men need to be put in a place where they can
learn to love other men and receive love from other men. Likewise, older
men need to mentor younger men and children. How can a boy grow up to be a
man if he doesn't know what it means? Boys and men need both role models
and coaches to help them develop a mature male identity.
artist Heyoka Merrifield, feels healing the male heart wound requires a
radical shift in how we live. "Men need to make space in their lives
for more than their work. Many men can't imagine this since work is the
only space in their life where they feel in control. Many men live with
broken relationships and feel inadequate in the relational
"You have to
make the healing process a whole way of life," reflects Heyoka. "You
have to radically change just about every area of your life, including
what your priorities are, how you eat, how you exercise, having time for
daily meditation, your habits, and how you live your daily life. The male
heart wound can't be healed on the therapist's couch. There is no
acknowledges the importance of ceremony or sacred rituals in daily life.
"All of our spirituality is locked up in the brain. We need ceremony
to get it down into the body. Without ceremony, we are not whole human
beings." Meditation, ceremony and sacred rituals allow us to attune
to nature, the life force and our own highest self. Living from this place
of attunement inspires following a higher road and a deeper consideration
of what our responsibilities are as human beings to self, other and the
Other men I have interviewed feel we need to make it emotionally safer to
be a man. Men need to be feel effective in making things happen and need
to be supported in making their dreams real. Men need to be appreciated
for what they do. The 42 year old father of three children noted,
"Collectively, we need to understand the pressure society puts on
men. We are breakable and we have learned to hide it." We need to
make it okay for men to be in therapy. Therapists need to learn to balance
confrontation with empathy, and individual men need to endure taking
responsibility for their own actions and their own impact on the
other people in their lives. Sadly, men need a personal crisis, usually
achieved through failure, serious illness or the collapse of an important
hope, to find the impetus to go inward and do introspective work.
can we redefine what we call male power and see that there is really a
vulnerability and even an oppression behind it?" asks Sparrow Hart.
"One of the fundamental things men learn is that they are disposable.
A boy walks on the outside of the road with a girl on the inside. It's not
as great a tragedy if he gets killed. Men get the message that their lives
don't count. To have a conversation with a man about self-care is almost
Linda Marks, MSM, is a body-centered
psychotherapist practicing in Newton, MA who works with men, women
and couples. She is writing a new book along with her colleague Brenda
Bush , HEALING THE MALE HEART. She is author of LIVING WITH VISION:
RECLAIMING THE POWER OF THE HEART (Knowledge Systems, Inc, 1988) and
offers coaching classes Creating the Life You Want From the Inside Out.
You can reach her at LSMHEART@aol.com
or (617)965-7846. If you would like to be part of a new workshop
exploring HEALING THE MALE HEART WOUND or MEN AND WOMEN COMING TOGETHER:
HEALING ACROSS THE GENDER GAP, please call or e-mail.