People raised to be tough as nails often detest those who show a sensitive side. It triggers the tough individual’s inner critic that was always on high alert to eliminate his or her own sensitivity.
While growing up, if they showed any feelings of sadness, compassion, or fear, they got pummeled with criticism, cruel jokes, and sometimes physical abuse. Showing empathy or sensitivity became perilous. So they learned to repress any such tendencies in themselves.
The ability to experience feelings such as sadness, fear, and helplessness is essential to developing compassion, empathy and deep love for another human being. Someone who has repressed these feelings will have difficulty having empathy for others.
The tough guy’s repressed vulnerabilities, however, haven’t disappeared. They exist in the unconscious where they can wreak havoc. Being conditioned to hide their empathetic and sensitive impulses comes at a huge emotional cost. A tough uncle who scares others through verbal battering causes hurt to the spirit and soul of others as well as himself.
The very thing that makes the REAL tough guy attractive is that he has BOTH courage and a heart. Take a look at many of the characters played by popular actors from John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart to Matt Damon and Denzel Washington. They’re often tough and courageous, but they also feel secure enough to show kindness and compassion to others.
The fear you have felt in the presence of your uncle, has been felt by him thousands of times. He has lived with it on a daily basis. He has numbed himself to avoid the pain.
Sensitivity can be a wonderful and humane quality. Yet, in the presence of someone like your uncle, it’s best to tone down sensitivity so as to avoid triggering his virulence. Tough guys feel most comfortable with people who can match their apparent toughness. Ironically, only when they feel safe from being exposed to feelings, will they possibly let their guard down a bit.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD