I Thought I Was Emotionally Connected, How Wrong I Was
Well, here goes.
I’m not sure what the response or the reaction will be to this post, but it’s important I write it.
It’s as much a message to myself as it is a post I’m willing to share with you.
There are times when I ask my wife, Rachel, if I’m a good dad or if there are things that I do that I need to get better at and there are even times where I’m simply looking for her to tell me I’m a good dad.
I think I’m a good dad but I also know I can be a much better dad.
Being a dad is a big responsibility and I’m the first to put my hand up and say I’ve made a lot of mistakes along this often bumpy and challenging journey that is parenthood, and I’m sure I’ll make many more before our kids grow up.
I’m good at the practical things like sport, housework, homework (limited) and helping get the kids to school and their seemingly endless number of activities, sleepovers and parties.
I’m also good at telling my kids how much I love them and how proud I am of them as well as showing them affection every day, whether it be a hug, a fist-pump or a fatherly kiss – but herein lies the problem.
Telling my kids I love them and that I’m proud of them is not enough.
You see, up until recently I thought I was emotionally connected as a man and, importantly, that I was emotionally connected with my kids.
As I sat in my kitchen watching Adam Dorsay deliver his TEDx talk Emotions: The Data Men Miss, I came to the sad and confronting realisation that I’m not as emotionally connected as I thought I was and, even more importantly than that, I am not emotionally connected with my kids as much as I need to be, as I should be and as I want to be!
Telling your kids how much you love them is different to genuinely showing them love.
Hugging, fist-pumping and kissing them is different to displaying raw, genuine emotions.
It was sad because I thought I’d done a lot of work on myself in the emotions department but the truth of the matter is I’ve done a lot of work on developing the skills that allow me to stay healthy and well mentally not emotionally.
Mental health and being emotionally connected are different things.
I’ve invested significant time, effort and energy into developing the skills to talk, to ask for help, to self regulate my triggers that could cause me stress but I realised yesterday, I haven’t invested the same amount of time, effort and energy into reconnecting with certain emotions.
Regrettably, I have buried any form of sensitivity and the associated emotions so deep that I’ve simply lost connection with them – and that is a very sad realisation.
Crying is not emotion that I readily feel, nor do I know how to express it!
It was a lightbulb moment; it really was.
I still have work to do; in fact I have a lot of work to do if I’m to become the person I want to be and the person my family deserve me to be!
After watching the video, I decided to write down the emotions that I know well and can express relatively easily, but I had to be brutally honest with myself!
This was my list: frustration, anger, disappointment, annoyed, resentment, sad and pride.
The first five are negative emotions yet they are the emotions that are readily available to me in my emotion toolbox.
Pride was the first positive emotion I wrote down and it wasn’t until I’d written the list that I realised happy wasn’t on the list.
It was frustrating and disappointing re-reading my list and trying to make sense of what was on the page in front of me.
I asked myself, why?
Why were the top five emotions all negative and why wasn’t happy, joyous, loving, sensitive, emotional (including crying) and caring on the list, along with pride?
The fact is, these emotions are easier for me to feel and express; they come naturally.
It’s what I’m used to feeling and expressing; it’s what I’ve been taught to feel and express as ‘a man’ because they are safe!
These negative emotions are safer feelings because to be happy, joyous, loving, sensitive, emotional (including crying) and caring requires a certain amount of emotional intelligence, vulnerability and confidence to be able to express them.
For as long as I can remember to be ‘a man’ was to be tough, strong, resilient, loyal, hard-working, trustworthy and stoic.
Men don’t show emotion, aren’t meant to be sensitivity, compassionate, caring, loving and vulnerable; that’s what girls did – or so I’ve been told throughout my life.
I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “don’t be a girl, don’t be weak, don’t be a sook, don’t be soft, don’t be a pussy, don’t cry”, but it’s been a lot; a fucking lot!
Instead, I’ve heard things like “harden up, toughen up, be a man, get back up, get on with it, shut up and cop it, it’s a dog-eat-dog world”.
The truth is, I don’t know how to cry.
I don’t have this emotion readily available in my tool box and therefore I don’t know how to express it.
I am emotionally bankrupt when it comes to this emotion and the fact I can’t feel it freely, openly and whenever I need too bothers me greatly.
Whenever my kids are visibly upset, I don’t get the sensation of tears welling in my eyes, or the vulnerability of experiencing this emotion; it’s like my mind and body is numb from this experience and I hate it!
I hate the fact I don’t cry; I hate the fact my kids don’t see their dad crying with them.
My family is not getting the whole me, which is an emotionally intelligent, sensitive, caring, loving, vulnerable husband and father who can be happy and sad, joyous and frustrated, proud and disappointed – and who can cry openly.
We assume this identity of ‘what it means to be a man’ based on the opinions, beliefs and expectations placed on us by family, friends, colleagues, work, our communities and society.
I realise now, that meeting these expectations required me to sacrifice some very important feelings and emotions in order to live up to what others believed it meant to ‘be a man’.
Real success is being emotionally connected…
People might think that I’ve been successful, in sport, in media and in business but that’s not real success.
Real success is being emotionally connected; being able to show the full range of emotions comfortably and confidently with my family; being able to feel my kids pain, disappointment and failings and crying with them.
We are all born (girls and boys) as sensitive and emotional creatures and there’s a lot of research that supports the notion that boys are in fact more emotionally expressive than girls in their early years but something changes, we stop being sensitive and emotional because that’s what we’re told to be by other people!
I want to be able to cry; I want to be able to draw on that emotion especially when my kids need that from their dad but for that to happen I need to reconnect emotionally, which will require a lot of work on my behalf.
For as long as I can remember I have ignored what’s best for me emotionally so that I could fall in line with what was expected of me ‘as a man’, so that I wasn’t judged, criticised or labelled for being sensitive, caring, compassionate, emotional, or for being seen as weak, soft, a girl or a pussy.
I now realise, that for me to be the best version of myself – the best dad, husband, son, friend, mate and colleague – I need to work on developing my full suite of emotions because that’s success, that’s emotional intelligence, that’s courage and that’s strength.
Be authentic, be real, be you!
Wayne Schwass is a former AFL player who battled depression throughout a 15-year, 282-game career. He is now an AFL media identity, motivational speaker and mental health advocate. He recently founded Puka Up, a social enterprise which focuses on mental health, emotional well-being and suicide prevention. Follow Wayne and PukaUp on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This article was previously published here.