“Don’t be a pussy – man up!” The hidden cost of “masculinity” in sports and modern culture

* Please note I am aware that the phrase “Don’t be a pussy” may be offensive to some of you. My intention with this article is to shed light on part of modern culture that is very much alive, and this phrase is still widely used among men to shame other men or boys into being tough. While there may be another article that could go into the female side of this equation, that’s not what this post is about. If you’re sensitive to this phrase, maybe skip this article.

When I first met Stefan (my man), the conversation quickly turned towards sports, movement, healing and my work with fascia (since yes, as cliché as it is he asked what I do, and when I replied with “I step on people to get them out of pain” he was instantly intrigued, as most people are!)

He was really open about his own physical struggles (of which there were a great many), and curious what I could tell him about how to heal.

Probably the greatest bond we have is that we’re both fascinated by the human struggle, by pain and healing, consciousness, evolution, movement and optimizing human performance.

Naturally, I wanted to show off and work on him, but I wasn’t expecting what happened when I did. His body responded unlike anybody else’s I’ve ever worked on.

He wasn’t shy about telling me what wasn’t working for him; and the way I usually work on people wasn’t working for him and his nervous system at all. We had to slow waaaaay down so he could find his breath; he needed to move very slowly; he needed me to add the weight gently otherwise he would panic involuntarily. I felt like I was walking on eggshells! Yet, this was not a man who couldn’t “tough it out” when it comes to pain. Quite the opposite.

He had one of the most inflamed, adhesed IT Bands I’ve ever worked on, with fascial “knots” the size of large grapefruits from knee to hip! Every square inch of this man’s body was full of adhesions: big and small throughout his legs, back, arms, abdomen, neck…everything was rigid and restricted and full of balled up fascia.

He got instantly “high” from the work, and experienced a correlating catharsis; but it didn’t budge any of his pain. Why?

It would take more than a year for us to truly “get” why he couldn’t heal, and – it makes so much sense now.

I’m betting there a LOT of men (and women) who have experienced something similar to Stefan. Maybe you’re one of them. We decided to write this blog post together in the hopes it will shed some light on an epidemic of silenced pain and cultures that shame its expression and make no room for healing.

Stefan grew up in Texas, where sports are a way of life.

He started playing basketball at age 5, and played soccer, football, tennis and basketball competitively through junior high and high school.

Most of his coaches used the drill sergeant method to train these boys, so Stefan learned from a young age to silence his own wisdom when it comes to pain, and simply pushed through while being yelled at; or he would volunteer to take a beating (over running) if punishment was required.

Did you know that in some places in Texas they still use the paddle all the way through high school as a way to “discipline” kids?

I can’t believe I’m even writing this, or that this approach is still being used on kids today! I was never spanked myself, let alone beaten with a paddle at school.

Stefan has shared a great many disturbing sports stories with me, but there is one in particular that can illuminate what this culture is all about, what it taught him and who it told him to become if he was to be accepted and celebrated instead of shamed and punished.

In his own words:

“There was a rule our coaches made up when I started high school: if you leave your grays (sweat pants and top) in the weight room and don’t bring them back to the locker room after a workout, you get gifted with a choice… 500 yards bear crawl or a bustin’ (aka getting paddled).

Of course one day I left my grays in the weight room. At that point I had been paddled so many times that I wasn’t in any way afraid of getting paddled, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to do 500 yards of bear crawling. Besides, the few kids who opted for the 500 yard bear crawl were considered massive pussies.

When I realized what happened, I walked into the coaches office and told them I left my grays in the weight room. They said, ‘Yup we got ’em. You want a bustin’ or 500 yards bear crawl?’

‘Well I’m not doing 500 yards bear crawl,’ I replied, and promptly put my hands on the desk and assumed the position.

Coach grabbed the paddle and busted me.

My first thought was, ‘Man he really got the right cheek on that one.’ I turned around, looked him in the eyes and thanked him, quickly grabbed my grays and headed back to the locker room to shower.

On the way back I could feel a substantial welt developing on my right cheek, and as soon as I hit the locker room I threw my sweats on the ground, pulled my pants down to show off my welt, and yelled ‘Hey fellas!’ There was a resounding ‘Ooooohhh!’ followed by lots of laughter, myself included. Then we all showered up and went to class just like any other day.”

Hopefully that gives you some good insight into the sports and culture context that he (and many others) grew up in. Being a “man” meant showing off how much pain you could take and not only not complain, but laugh about it.

Stefan started getting injured at a young age, but few of his injuries were ‘obvious’ (no broken bones or shattered hips like his brother who also played sports) so his parents (who didn’t know any better) often dismissed his pain, as did his coaches.

He didn’t want to be a “pussy” so he stopped telling anyone that he was in pain. He spent an entire year of high school with sciatica (back pain that shoots nerve pain down one leg) at a 5/10 level every single day and rarely complained, but it came fairly easily by that point.

His nervous system had no choice but to learn to push through pain, while he learned to grin and bear it. Consequently, he incurred long lasting injuries that never had the chance to heal.

He hasn’t had a pain-free day since junior high.

Scientifically speaking we could say his nervous system perceived the world as a place where pain happens daily, where you’re not allowed to talk about or heal it, and if he wanted to avoid getting shamed or scolded he had to learn to grin and bear it. His neurons adapted to this environment, his behavior was shaped by it, and his cells likely became inhibited towards healing as a learned behavior. What else could they do?

How do you heal anything with a nervous system wired with the belief that pain is inevitable, daily and not to be talked about?

Stefan not only has back pain (mid and low) and still gets sciatica from time to time, he can’t sit on his heels without excruciating knee pain; his knees hurt when he runs (but he runs anyway), he can’t get through a single Jiu Jitsu session without his left knee popping at least a dozen times, each time causing lightning bolts of pain; but he also developed anxiety and digestion problems in his late teens, and he was totally depressed for a quite a few years.

He felt trapped; stuck in a never-ending cycle of pain and the pain of not being able to get away from it no matter how hard he tried.

He recently processed a huge piece of this puzzle that has nothing and everything to do with his physical body: he stopped trying to operate on top of the emotional pain associated with all of this, stopped resisting who he became as a result of his upbringing, stopped trying to deny it and simply let himself feel the impact of it all.

He spent the better part of two weeks immersed in all the feelings from childhood he’d never been allowed to feel back then: sad, confused, alone and sorry for himself because of it. He needed to go fully into feeling like a victim to his environment growing up; he needed to feel the emotional pain of not being seen, not being heard or taken care of.

Though not as obvious as being the victim of say, child sexual abuse, constantly having your very real physical pain not only denied but made wrong (“Don’t cry like a girl” / “don’t be a pussy” / “nothing’s wrong with you” / “man up”) is absolutely traumatizing to some (probably all) little boys (or girls). I know he’s not the only one who went through this and now suffers the consequences.

This trauma was happening on a daily basis, and not unlike water dripping on a rock, the effect built up insidiously day by day, little by little, year after year, until he no longer realized what was causing it. He found a way to live on top of the physical pain and emotional trauma without actually feeling the full extent of either. From five years old through college this cycle and mentality continued until not-so-suddenly there was a giant hole where solid rock used to be.

Inside, Stefan’s pain started as a quiet whisper. Slowly over time it built up to a piercing scream. All the while he just wanted someone to acknowledge what he was going through and help him through it. Instead, he was shamed and scolded (intentionally and unintentionally) and even punished for appearing weak. Outwardly he became tough as nails and determined not to let the pain show; inwardly he felt alone, confused, hurt and longed for healing.

Now looking back on the situation he sees that the shame and scolding came just as often from those who loved him as those who didn’t. He believes no one contributed to his pain out of hate or malicious intent towards him; in fact sometimes it was the opposite.

What happened for Stefan growing up is what happens to so many young men (and women) around the world: the adults and influences in his world (coaches, family, principals) had a lifetime of their own pain built up that likely never got processed or felt; and that lack of feeling got transferred to the youth they were influencing. He doesn’t blame them because he now sees that most (if not all) of them experienced the exact same dynamic growing up and were never shown a healthy example of how to deal with pain and fully process their feelings around it.

Though I didn’t go through this myself, I feel sad that this is so common! I want something different for kids who play sports (and those that don’t but have similar experiences in other contexts). I want something different for every child on this planet, where their pain – physical and emotional – is acknowledged and addressed and never made wrong.

I feel compassion for the adults who influenced Stefan and so many others like him; and I feel protective of our youth!

How can we create a new story?

Maybe the only way through this is one person at a time willingly facing their past, facing their pain, consciously healing, forgiving and changing the paradigm.

Stefan and I both believe that the more we talk about this, the wider this conversation goes worldwide, the faster it will change; the less alone we’ll all feel and the more inclusive this healing process can become.

We have to feel fully what we’ve been denying, before we can move on.

The nervous system controls this response (in coordination with whatever is hiding in our subconscious). It’s entirely possible to operate on top of a mountain of trauma, grief, rage etc. We can be strong and determined to move on, we can even feel empowered and “do everything right” but…it has been my experience, and now Stefan’s too, that it is not possible to truly heal while operating on top of pain that hasn’t been felt fully.

Stefan is one example of what happens when we operate on top of the trauma: to an outside observer he appears like any other “normal” healthy adult, but he’s still in pain every day.

While he’s no longer depressed, he still has anxiety (which is getting better too, but not gone); he still has digestion issues and difficulty breathing; he has trouble regulating his body temperature. He’s had to dedicate a lot of his time and energy into reversing the damage this upbringing created inside of him in a place invisible to most observing eyes, though viscerally felt by him on a daily basis.

Don’t you think so many of us are like this: walking around looking “normal” (whatever that’s supposed to mean anyway) while feeling depressed or anxious or feeling emotional or physical pain but trying not to show it because we’re all supposed to be ‘fine’ 24/7?!

The reason Stefan had SUCH a hard time busting through this pattern?

He was ultimately in a catch-22 scenario: his nervous system got so used to operating with pain on a daily basis it couldn’t even conceive of being pain-free; meanwhile, another pattern was running: the belief that he wasn’t supposed to feel the pain let alone express it or ask for help unless he wanted to be called a “pussy.”

For years, he would try to convince himself he was ok with a mantra of “You’re ok, man! You’re good.” He tried to “be positive” and move towards positive things in life, but every time he did his nervous system knew the truth: he wasn’t ok. Then he’d get so frustrated that he’d shame himself for not being able to get unstuck, for feeling so sorry for himself, for not being ok.

In order to reverse this patter he had to acknowledge and feel the totality of his experiences growing up and especially the pain of the pattern itself: that he was wired or made to exist in pain on a daily basis, unable to speak about it or get help and no acknowledgement of what he was going through. Not only did this wire him to be unable heal physical injuries, I believe it wired him to feel incapable of healing psychological and emotional pain too, paradoxically making it nearly impossible for him to crack this one open!

I’ve shared this before, but it’s worth repeating:

Before we can move on from trauma, we have to fully acknowledge what our nervous systems have been carrying for us.

I asked Stefan how he knew he’d broken this pattern, and he said:

“The day after I was crying on the floor feeling like such a victim, I tried one more time telling myself ‘You’re ok, man; you’re good.’ And I was. It just felt true. I guess you have to keep saying yes to feeling those feelings until…you’ve felt them enough. You know when you know; you feel done. And then, you’re gonna be tested! The world’s gonna go ‘Are you really done? Are you really ok? Right. Are ya sure?’ It isn’t a straight line or one shot deal it just gets easier and easier.”

In the year plus that we’ve been together Stefan has constantly risen to the challenge of facing all of this, has healed so much and continues to amaze me with his commitment to becoming his healthiest, happiest self. I love that we’re walking this path together. He feels emotions deeply, is incredibly sensitive (I think he cries more than me, and I love that about him!), and – he’s a man. He’s tough. He’s strong. He loves getting punched in the face (for real! He loves boxing/sparring/jiu jitsu).

Stefan has contributed largely to the evolution of my work and how I approach all of this now.

While I was talking about and tinkering with theories about the nervous system and neuroplasticity before meeting him, I know for sure that if Stefan and I didn’t spend countless hours nerding out together, watching interviews with neuroscientists and pioneers of evolution while theorizing about how to apply it all via my work – I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Many of the adjustments I’ve made this past year to how I work with clients (most notably the conscious inclusion of working with the nervous system, patterns and trauma) I owe to this relationship and this man’s curiosity, passion and eagerness to experiment with me.

Stefan is finding unique and healthy ways to feel his past and present pain, but his background is in no way unique. So many of us reach adulthood already adept at operating on top of whatever trauma or pain we experienced in childhood.

I want to change this systemic collective pattern of stuffing our pain down and pretending it shouldn’t exist!

I want to teach our children something different. I know there are a lot of girls out there who experience some version of what Stefan went through, and – I believe it is particularly traumatizing to boys, who learn to not only create a tough exterior around physical pain but emotional pain as well. Often, even if girls were shamed for their feelings, they at least find refuge with other women friends. Because boys are so often told to never cry, never show weakness and never complain or face shaming and name calling by family, coaches and peers, this pattern often continues into adult male circles, where they still shame each other and feel so uncomfortable if a fellow man dares show sensitivity or emotional pain that there’s a very real threat of being “banished” or rejected socially.

Thus – the cycle continues.

Can we change this please!? Will you join us in pledging to change this?!

The only way we can really change this collective pattern is to become living examples of what it means to fully feel our own pain, change our own nervous system patterns, and heal at a core level.

Stefan and I plan to have kids together, and I’m so proud to call this man my man. He wants to teach our kids to feel their feelings; he wants to create safety for them to fully express who they are. We want to raise them to listen to their own wisdom. I’m sure we’ll mess them up somehow (isn’t that inevitable?) but we’re going to do our very best to make sure they know they’re listened to, acknowledged and free to be who they are without shaming. And – we’ll do our best to prepare them for a world that may or may not be a living example of this. Yet.

If this post sparked anything for you, please comment! Please write me/us. Please reach out to Stefan (via this blog, I’ll get him every comment that comes his way).

What has your experience been with sports and the “masculine” culture that shapes boys like this? Or, were you a girl and experienced something similar?

We want to hear from you!

Not only did I get Stefan’s permission to share this story, he helped me write this post – our first writing collaboration (he’s a brilliant writer!) I’m sure it won’t be the last 🙂

 

You may also like

6 comments

  • Mikel May 24, 2017   Reply →

    I spent a year in a US high school, including one season on basketball, where the drill seargant method was applied. I must say that I very much liked those experiences and treasure them. On the other hand I must say that I don’t recall that one was generally shamed for expressing physical pain. Maybe during practice, but not at home or with friends.

    What seems to weigh heavier on me is the general tendency of my family not to talk openly about or express negative feelings. They were just ignored. I think that might be part of why I also have similar problems like Stefan. My body expressing my need to honor and accept all the negative emotions that I have held back over the years. Refusing to heal until the “truth” (the pain) has been admitted.

    • Elisha Celeste May 27, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Mikel – thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I’ve shared your comments with Stefan and he felt sympathy and says hello. He also told me that he has very fond memories also of that sports culture, because he loves sports and he was bonding with other young men who were also facing similar hardships and growth. They were in it together! I truly appreciate the insight you have towards your body connection to your emotional pain. Please reach out if you need/want help with that! I offer Skype sessions and have been working with people on this aspect and it’s been going really well. It’s NOT therapy…it’s just letting your body talk to you, and then putting some practices in place to change the old nervous system patterns into healthier ones of your choosing. Either way, good luck and I hope to hear more from you!
      Elisha

  • Ben May 25, 2017   Reply →

    I’m a military veteran who grew up with a farmer/veteran for a father…pain was life and complaining about it was weakness. By the time my father passed he had 2 artificial knees, 2 artificial hips and multiple back surgeries. I found myself at 26 so banged up, dysfunctional and chronically in pain that I was facing daily depression, anxiety and suicidal ideations. Masculinity is toxic – the documentary The Mask We Live In was amazing in helping me realize that. Would love to stop and see you next time I am out in Colorado, my myofascial issues have improved night and day but it’s an ongoing struggle.

    • Elisha Celeste May 27, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Ben – thank you very much for sharing your thoughts! I really appreciate hearing some of your story and struggles, and read your comment to Stefan who appreciated hearing it as well. I would absolutely love to work with you, should you ever come through Colorado! I’ll check out that documentary you mentioned, sounds like a great eye-opener. While it appears we have a long way to go as a culture around this topic, it DOES seem to be shifting…one person at a time. And I am truly grateful for every person who opens up and shares their truth and experience. So – thank you! I hope to hear more from you over time.
      Elisha

  • Kimberly May 25, 2017   Reply →

    Great blog post, thanks for sharing it, you two. My son, who is almost 18, has been spared a lot of that “don’t be a pu&&*^” stuff because he never played school sports. He fenced for a while, and has done a lot of hiking as a Scout, but isn’t a big “sports guy.” All that said, I still think all boys or men in this culture face that “be tough” attitude, which is sad.

    I hope Stefan will be at the training in July, would love my son be meet him and have another mentor (in addition to Elisha) in this work we’ll be learning! 🙂 Super excited about it!

    • Elisha Celeste May 27, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Kimberly! YES!!! Stefan will be there the whole time, learning to step on people too – and I am having a hard time containing my excitement at the thought of you BOTH coming! I would just LOVE to shepherd your son into an exploration of how to use this work through college to help himself and those around him. And of course, I do think there’s something this work can teach us all about what it means to be a human being. I’m so excited you’re both (likely) coming!? And of course, thank you for commenting on this particular blog post. I am really proud of Stefan for being willing to put it on the internet and open this up for conversation.
      Elisha

Leave a comment