Finger-painting: Vulnerability for Late Learners

Last year I started seeing a counsellor for the first time in my life. My sharehouse had become a toxic environment and I’d been the victim of bullying for several months. I had tried to cope, endure, soldier on. But every night when I came home and saw a familiar car in the driveway, it was like a yoke across my shoulders. It wasn’t until I left again in the morning that I felt like I could breathe again. It took me a while to realise my self-worth was in the toilet. More I just knew I was unhappy and needed someone I could speak to.

I remember what prompted me to take the step to seek out a counsellor. I’d reached breaking point with the bullying and called a friend to ask if I could come over. He kindly welcomed me into his monastic shed (he didn’t pay much rent) and was good enough to listen as I poured out my pain, my frustration, my sadness. As I later explained to Richard, my counsellor, it was only then, when I heard myself give voice to my experiences for the first time, that I realised how unhappy I was.

Even once I decide to be more emotional, what do I do then? I literally don’t have the skills

Intellectually, I understand that it’s healthy to express emotion. I’ve read Brené Brown. I’ve watched Inside Out. I get it. But it’s hard to express emotion when I’m barely conscious of feeling it. I’d never realised that even though I write poems and listen to jazz I might not really be connected to my emotions. So in that shed, as I emoted aloud, I astonished myself.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire describes how oppression shapes the self-image and guidelines of the oppressed: ‘The very structure of their thought has been conditioned.’ I am the product of twenty-five years of gendered socialisation and less than five years of knowing about this and attempting to reshape it.

Some things have come more easily—I’m better at sharing space in meetings and I don’t measure my manhood by how much, or how little, sex I have. But the emotional stuff is harder. Even once I decide to be more emotional, what do I do then? I literally don’t have the skills. I never learnt.

But at least I’ve sometimes been taught. I hold on to a few scenes from my life when women close to me have shown me what it means to be, in Brené Brown’s word, “wholehearted”. In December 2009, I was in Denmark and had just borne witness to the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks. I sat on a hostel bed by my soon-to-be girlfriend as she cried. Concern about the injustice of global warming has dictated the course of my twenties, but I’ve never cried about it. Not because it’s not sad. Because I don’t know how.

At this point, these are the paints I have, this is my pallet. And so I keep daubing away

About twelve months ago I left my sharehouse and extricated myself from the bullying, and a month or two ago my counsellor said we could probably stop seeing each other. “But!” I wanted to beg, “I’m still scarce half made up!” Sure, I could see the positive changes in myself, in my mood and resilience. But when I looked into myself, I knew I still had so far to go. I was happy again, though I wasn’t yet the whole person I wanted to be.

Now, in the absence of a counsellor, I have a mentor, a friend. We talk about work, and my biggest barrier at the moment is my emotional under-development, so we talk about that. I tell her about times I remember feeling strong emotions – what provoked it, what was happening in my body, what it felt like. She coaxes emotions from me like a kindergarten teacher encouraging finger-painting. I stick them onto the fridge door with magnets and admire them, recognising them as seminal steps.

I don’t know what it means to be a man, anymore. I probably don’t aspire to it. I would, though, like to be “wholehearted”, to be fully human. My finger paintings are showing some progress, although I sometimes ill-advisedly compare my work to the oeuvre of others and feel a certain embarrassment. But at this point, these are the paints I have, this is my pallet. And so I keep daubing away.

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  • Tracy

    November 5, 2016

    I loved reading this Joel. Congratulations on your self awareness, openness and willingness to grow as a human being.

  • Odetta

    January 22, 2017

    Here here, well done Joel and I hope it’s going well. I hope you’re enjoying the richness of your emotional landscape as it becomes familiar to you.


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