When loneliness becomes a sickness

I was inspired to write this post by the recent BBC3 documentary Inside The Secret World Of Incels and an accompanying article by one of the men who featured in the documentary, I used to be an incel. I was deeply moved by both the documentary and the article and was prompted to reflect on my counselling work with men.

An incel is an Involuntary Celibate, someone who, despite a desire to be in a relationship and/or have sex, is unable to attract partners. People who describe themselves as incels are predominantly heterosexual men, and as the documentary explores, there is a whole spectrum of different types of incel, from thoughtful and sensitive Kissless, Handholdless, Hugless Virgins (KHHVs) who have never been kissed, held hands with or hugged anyone, to those convinced that making themselves more physically attractive will make them more attractive to women (known as looks maxxing), to those driven to stalking and shaming women for their perceived superficiality in only being interested in superficial, physically attractive men.

At the darkest end of the spectrum, “incel ideology” has been linked to four mass shootings in America, and the glorification and deification of the perpetrator of the first of these, Elliot Rodger. Incels meet and support one another in online forums, and there are many of these forums, reflecting the different levels of “inceldom”. The toxicity of the online forums in which openly misogynistic incels hang out is, as one would imagine, profound, as is the way they act as an echo chamber, reinforcing and amplifying the angry and confused ideas and beliefs of the desperate, lonely, alienated men who frequent them.

It would be easy to write this off as a sub-culture of men obsessed with sex and seething with rage because of their failure in this area of their lives. However, this would ignore the complexity of the issue, the way it is driven by digital technology and intersects in complex ways with with both feminism and what radical feminist author bell hooks describes as “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”, a system underpinned by powerful cultural narratives about both male and female identity which is being challenged more and more as gender roles and identities become increasingly fluid.

In my case, writing these men off as sex-obsessed misogynists would fail to acknowledge the deep empathy I feel for men in this desperate position, even those at the more extreme and frightening end of the incel spectrum. I do not condone their behaviour on any level and yet I recognise in them a part of myself, a psychic wound that for most of my life I did not know I had, a wound obscured by the layers of privilege I have taken for granted as a white, middle-class, heterosexual man. As a “new man” I have worked hard to avoid engaging in oppressive behaviour of any kind. However, for a long time I was only dimly aware of the extent to which I was oppressing myself, shaming myself, directing inward a potent but twisted aspect of my masculinity. Beneath this pathological self-control resentment bubbled and boiled.

It seems almost paradoxical that the way out of this dead end was to begin owning my power, my potency and my capacity to take control, to become harder rather than softer, more overtly masculine rather than less, but this has been my experience. First though I had to own my feelings – all of them, not only my resentment, my anger and my rage but also my fear, grief and despair, including my fear of being oppressed, dominated and controlled by women, a fear which I believes wholly underpins misogyny.

Many men may continue to assume the position of “top dog” in our culture, consciously or unconsciously, and defend this position vociferously, but this is only because they’re often protecting a deep sense of shame and a feeling of being the “underdog”. This psychological split is what drives both the male “winners” in our culture and the “losers”. It is only by finding ways to reclaim our healthy, balanced masculinity, one which runs deep enough to connect with these wounded parts in order to integrate them so superficial displays of power and control are no longer necessary, that men will find our true power.


Further reading

The Inner Landscape of Beauty

John O’Donahue’s “Beannacht” (meaning “Blessing”) is a poem that offers me a great deal of comfort in times of trouble and uncertainty.

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

In this interview recorded shortly before his death in 2010, O’Donahue speaks gently and profoundly on the subject of beauty, meaning and suffering.

My river has never looked so beautiful

How can we create lives which are truly worth living, given that these lives come to an end?

Abraham Maslow, author of Toward A Psychology of Being and originator of the famous “Hierarchy of Needs” diagram (see below), was one of the most influential figures in the establishment of the Humanistic Psychology movement in the middle of the last century. In 1957 Maslow suffered from a severe heart attack. His near-death experience blessed him with a profound and intense appreciation of life, which he later beautifully reflected on in a letter to a friend.

“The confrontation with death – and the reprieve from it – makes everything so precious, so sacred, so beautiful, that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. My river has never looked so beautiful… Death, and its ever present possibility makes love, passionate love, more possible. I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we knew we’d never die.”
Abraham Maslow, quoted in Rollo May’s book Love and Will

Anxiety and the benefits of ambient music

This lovely short film tells a very personal story about how a young man suffering with anxiety and prone to panic attacks discovers a new universe of relaxation, safety and a feeling of groundedness as a result of listening to ambient music at home and on his headphones as he makes his way through the world. In a society that can often feel relentlessly busy and stressful, it’s simple practices like these that enable us to slow down enough to be able to check in with ourselves and get a sense what’s going on for us underneath all the noise and static.


More resources

Reconnecting to your inner child and the deep web of life

At it’s heart, counselling offers a way for us to to process our suffering and our distress – and to find meaning in it. There is an increasing amount of evidence that demonstrates that it’s the quality of the relationship between counsellor and client which is the main catalyst for this process of healing and growth. Something quite mysterious and transformative can happen when two people relate really honestly with one another. This is because our identities are not fixed. Our personalities are much like the surface of the ocean, constantly shifting and changing depending on the currents, prevailing wind and other factors. Our personalities adapt depending on who we’re relating to at any given time.

Have you ever experienced the strange and unsettling sensation of going home for a weekend to visit your parents and finding that you begin to regress into a adolescent or childish version of yourself? I certainly have! The relationship between children and their parents are so powerful they can often overwhelm the identities we form in our adulthood. The English language doesn’t even have a specific word to describe the relationship an adult has to his or her parents – we will always be their children!

Think about yourself at home with your partner, at the office, socialising with your friends, when you’re on your own. Does your behaviour change? In each of these different situations are you consciously acting out different roles or does your personality adapt and change to meet these different situations? Are you more confident around some people than others? Do you like yourself more when you spend time with people you love and trust?

Identity is relational – it is formed in relationship with others. It’s the meaning we create between us – the dynamics of our connection to one another – which really counts and which makes all the difference when it comes to personal change, not only in a counselling relationship, but in ALL relationships.

“When a partnership is based on growing, evolving choice, when it’s interpersonal politics is free of a desire to control, it develops in a unique, idiosyncratic way.”
Carl Rogers

We are not only independent, free thinking individuals making our way in the world, we are also interdependent – we need other people to help us make meaning in our lives so we can change and grow in healthy ways. We cannot do it alone. This understanding of our fundamental interconnectedness with one another is the cornerstone of radical ecology. It is an understanding which is sorely absent from the cultural story our modern society is acting out. This is a story of individualism and separation, one which perpetrates the myth that identities are isolated inside our skulls, that we are completely separate from everyone else. It is the antithesis of the kind of connection an ecological view of the world implies. It is important that we update this cultural narrative, which at the end of the day is only a story about what it means to be human that we have come to accept as reality.

However, changing this story is one of the hardest things we can attempt to do. We recognise that this story of separation is one which we, as children of our culture, have taken to heart. We can talk easily enough about the importance of connection but, more often than not, we keep our deep emotional selves hidden from one another, protected behind carefully locked doors in our minds. With our adult capacity to think rationally it’s quite possible to grasp the idea that we are all interconnected, but it is our Inner Child – the child within each of us – who needs to be convinced. This is the part of us that has been most wounded by our culture, long before we were mature enough to begin making rational sense of the world around us. The Inner Child does not understand rational arguments. The Inner Child sees things in black and white, responding to basic emotional expressions from others (love, fear, anger, sadness) with basic emotional responses.

The Inner Child experiences these feelings very deeply, but the scars of all those old injuries, so often unwittingly inflicted upon us by our parents, injuries passed down from their parents, act like a barrier to their free and open expression, and so often they’re pushed down into our unconscious or projected onto others because they’re too powerful to deal with. The Inner Child has swallowed whole the story of separation our culture has whispered in our ear every day of our lives from the moment of our birth. Most of us growing up in this culture cannot help but become traumatised by this story on a fundamental level long before we’re old enough to make any kind of meaningful choice about what we believe in. Although our Inner Child longs for connection, there is simply too much at stake to take the risk of reaching out to another with authenticity and vulnerability. The Inner Child’s greatest fear is of abandonment, which is experienced like a death. No wonder we keep this part hidden most of the time.

If we’re one of the lucky ones, there are places where we feel safe enough to invite our Inner Child to be witnessed by another. Counselling is one such place. Those of us who have experienced the healing and the acceptance that this kind of openness engenders have had a taste of the kind of connection that is possible with another human being, the blurring of the invisible, illusory boundaries which separate us, a fleeting sense of the interconnectedness of the human community. This kind of connection with others is all too rare, but with time, patience and the right conditions, an environment which is safe, stable and free of oppression, self-understanding and self-compassion develops. Our Inner Child naturally blossoms and helps us find the courage and the creativity to begin the task of finding out who we were to begin with before we swallowed whole the lie that we are separate and alone. With great relief we realise it does not need to be this way.


Further reading

Brené Brown on the value and importance of vulnerability

This TED talk on vulnerability by shame researcher Brene Brown has been watch over six million times – and for good reason! Based on many years of research, in the video Brené explores the way in which our ability to courageously express our vulnerability in appropriate ways enables us to become more resilient to shame, develop clearer boundaries in our relationships and begin to experience what it’s like to live wholeheartedly.

Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” It’s going to bed at night thinking, “Yes I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid but that doesn’t change the truth that I am worthy of love and belonging.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly


Further reading on vulnerability

Eight things we need in our relationships to feel okay

Transactional Analyst Richard Erskine talks about his research into the fundamental things we need to experience in our relationships in order to feel okay. This short video is aimed at counsellors and therapists but I think there’s also a great deal here for those who are struggling to figure out what may be missing from their lives and from their relationships.

We all start out knowing magic

We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.

Robert R. McCammon

Successful people

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But she does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. She needs people who live well in their places. She needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.

David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World