When I was an early teen I felt deeply insecure in my family. In many ways I felt like I was treated as foolish by them following the lead of my father.
Perhaps it is normal that the youngest child is taken less seriously by the family, or perhaps that is a common perception of the youngest, but this went beyond the normal or typical rural Australian family or any false perceptions.
In the lead up to one Christmas when I was 13 or 14 my mother sent me to the corner store at the small beachside village of Kurrimine where we spent a week or two each year in the home that my Dad had built for his parents to retire to. Later that evening when Dad had arrived, having still worked that day with it being a few days before Christmas, there was a discussion about the peas that went into the pea and ham soup that Mum had cooked for dinner. I told Dad that they were green split peas to which he responded that it was impossible as there was no such thing.
I knew nothing of cooking or peas at that age, but I did know what I had bought that afternoon and so I told him that I was certain of it. Dad reacted sharply and angrily saying that I was “stupid and would not know what [I] bought!” We bet $100 on it and when I retrieved the empty packet from the bin he did not apologise but he did have to eat his words. And I very assuredly took the $100, which did not in any way restore what was the real cost to me from the encounter.
My father and I had grown close over my early teenage years, as I strived to deepen our connection to enhance my own feelings of security in that stressful period of my life, which far exceeded that of normal teenage development, but there was always a degree of anxiety and caution to our interaction as a subconscious protection on my part against the unpredictability of the repressed anger my father carried.
I have spent a lifetime learning and dealing with the consequences of the relationship I had and continue to maintain with my most important male role model, my father.
I, like many other men, heard clearly the words of Mike and Mechanics, “I know that I’m a prisoner to all my father held so dear, I know that I’m a hostage to all his hopes and fears”, but I found my way through to freeing myself from his hopes and fears while still loving him for who he was and is.
I learned that by truly seeing the man, with his fears, failings and fallibilities, to see his vulnerabilities even if he does not and probably never will, I have freed myself to be vulnerable and fallible. To be my own man. And to be human.
On R U OK Day 2021 – at the dawn of the Great Reset era – this is my gift to the many sons of deeply insecure men.
Growing up on the farm I was unconfident at doing things especially with my hands. I come from a long line of very capable men with consistently very high quality skills in carpentry, especially, and general farm skills such as mechanics. My Great Grandfather built many of the early houses in Innisfail before the turn of the previous century. My Grandfather was a fastidious producer of high quality carpentry work including a bedroom suite as a wedding gift to my Grandmother, but especially after he had retired from their farm he was known for his ornate timber sewing birds and children’s toys (especially with 26 Grandchildren). And my father, who did an apprenticeship as a carpenter before buying our farm, was always known for his quality building and woodworking.
I felt inferior and hopeless at woodworking at school and at home I avoided any type of mechanical or structural-type work. From my pre-teens onwards, on the farm I essentially worked manually or on tractors. If I broke something Dad or my older brother fixed it.
As a boy and lad I never really took time to think about the reasons for my actions. In truth I was not capable as I lacked emotional intelligence. I was a deep thinker, but I would lie in bed at night for hours thinking about very complex, external issues such as the vastness of the universe and infinity, often making myself anxious at the unknown. My only introspection was to kick myself for being so shy and unconfident with people and especially girls. With the stress under which we lived, I was always in an emotional state and thus reactive rather than strategic or proactive.
I now realise that I avoided doing jobs in front of my father that left me vulnerable to criticism. I have a vivid memory of being perhaps 12 trying to hammer with a sledgehammer and him laughing at me while taking the hammer from me “before [I] hurt [my]self” to complete the task himself, and I have a mélange of memories of very many similar instances.
I even felt susceptible to criticism and teasing just in conversation with him, feeling like I could be made to feel stupid at any time, so that I always felt an underlying level of anxiety when with him. Still, I spent many hours by his side on tractors or working around the farm. The anxiety I felt when speaking with him caused me to say silly things at times, like the time I slipped up when we were talking about our new endeavour, which we embarked on with equal interest and vigour, of raising cattle, and I said we should “AI (artificially inseminate) the bull” which Dad quickly seized upon and still reminds me about till this day.
I always felt pressure to say something worthwhile and intelligent, and I knew that I would need to vigorously defend anything with which Dad disagreed. And that he would jump on anything unwise to make me feel silly. It is strange how anxiety about the potential to make a mistake increases the likelihood of making that very error. I guess others in similar circumstances distance themselves, as I suspect was my brother’s approach, and for a good portion of my teenage years I prayed for an improvement in their relationship.
Being younger and less socially confident, I needed a reasonable connection with my parents for my security.
Nothing much of my own mattered to me, not rugby league, not school, not anything – I was just drifting in my own young life getting hammered by the next thing that came my way and focusing only on the issues that Dad and Mum confronted, mostly around the farm.
I found school easy and did not need to study more than a couple of hours for exams to do well even in senior high school, which was fortunate as I preferred to be roaming over the farm usually with Dad. Then as an undergraduate at university, from 17 and 1 month, I did not commit myself to serious study because by the end of my first year away I had realised that it was likely to be the only period of freedom in my life, and I did not want to ‘waste’ that time being studious especially when I was unlikely to use much of the knowledge or skills from my Marine Biology degree on our sugarcane farm.
Failing several subjects at university meant I needed an extra year to complete my undergraduate degree, which was fine by me, and it was in that year that I met my wife. In the final semester I still attended only a few lectures and studied just overnight for exams from photocopied notes from friends, but got high marks in exams. So when I decided to stay in Townsville with my future wife who had only completed her first year, I decided to undertake a postgraduate program.
This was the first period in my life when I really began to care about things that were my own – my relationship with a wonderful young woman and my postgraduate studies – and it was only then that it became apparent to me that I had major emotional issues that I needed to sort out.
My wife and I met while living at a newly built on campus accommodation college Rotary International House at James Cook University, and it was only through good fortune that each of us came to live there. It was a wonderful design with multiple wings of rooms each with shared central kitchens. With all residents being new to the college it was a wonderful, free time for connecting with a truly diverse group of young people. I think most residents felt the same.
By mid-year break I knew I was deeply in love and shortly afterwards we commenced our passionate and intense relationship. I always recall the meddling (Caucasian) cleaner, with an exaggerated view of her role in the administration of the college (of course she later went into local politics), warning me that if I was to stay in the relationship I was consigning myself to a life of emotional hardship. Clearly she did not understand what was my alternative, and while our cross-cultural relationship has indeed created a lifetime of challenges, that is true of most long-term relationships and ours has also been the deepest and truest love I have ever known and could ever imagine.
The following years, however, were extremely challenging as we each faced tremendous pressure from our own families, never expressing disagreement directly at our chosen partner, but always wanting different things from each of us to what we wanted. My wife’s family were anxious that she remain focused on her studies and disagreed with us living together. My family wanted me to return to the farm. We lived very frugally, usually having no or very little money leftover once the fridge had been replenished and the car filled with sufficient fuel for the week.
We fought emotional fights as our families pulled at us to get what they wanted. Not understanding the depth of pain I had been carrying, in those fights I frequently lashed out hitting the concrete walls with my hands hard enough for the pain to transfer from my heart to my hands. My wife carried as much pain in her from events in her own life that had challenged her through her upbringing and into early adulthood.
Young love often is turbulent as well as passionate, but we were two young people who did not know even how to identify what were the strong emotions we were feeling let alone know how to go about healing ourselves.
But we knew we loved each other, and that the hurt that we each were expressing was caused to us by others, not each other. Together we helped each other to heal.
During my PhD I also began to recognise the consequences of never being given the opportunity to fail at learning new skills. Whenever I needed to develop a new skill to carry out my research, especially a more technical procedure, or even more so when using a technical piece of equipment, I was so anxious that I read and read all of the theory and technical information until I exhausted myself to the point where I could procrastinate no longer. And my inner voice was always ready to provide that criticism that I had grown up with, and as I heard Dad chastise himself always when he made a mistake calling himself “a silly dickhead” repeatedly.
I quickly realised that the most important healing that I had to do was around my upbringing and especially my relationship with my Dad.
In my mid-20s, for the first time in my life I began to be introspective of my behaviours, driven by a desire to be a good partner and to also to be kind to myself. I recall observing my father over Christmas and thinking that even in that relaxed setting, with our entire family around, he seemed not entirely comfortable, and was mostly quiet and reserved. It was only then that I truly saw the depth of my father’s shyness and insecurities.
I had subconsciously known of it for some time, for instance in the way he spoke in a child-like manner often to people whom he did not know well, but I had not realised that it ran so deep as to not even feel at complete ease even with his own flesh and blood.
At this time I also had sufficient separation to observe the stress under which he and everyone around him lived. I learned that my wife had always been struck by it, but did not mention it to me because she could see that I was immediately sucked back into that emotion when I reentered the environment.
Dad was not averse to telling us that he was “buggered and someone should put a bullet” in him – which was obviously an acute emotional trigger especially after the incident that happened when I was 15 – but even from our earliest childhood we were made to believe that his life was tenuous usually, but not always, as a result of his asthma. I lived my entire life thinking that I could lose my father at any time, which was at the same time a strange dichotomy from the image that he and my mother fostered of a strong and powerful protector.
That continually undermined my sense of security and safety.
It was not his only contradiction. On the one hand my father and mother promoted an image of my father as an extremely intelligent and wise man, and certainly he fostered that in social settings where it was clear that he believed himself to be very intelligent, and I have heard others give him that affirmation. But on the other hand when he said something extreme, such as something vilely racist or a personal attack on one of us, we were told to just ignore it as “that’s just your father” as if he was some silly dope to be ignored.
It did not take a lot of introspection to realise that from my father I had learned to be toughest on those closest to me, and that if I wanted to be the best husband I could, and when the time was right, the best father I could, then I would need to unlearn that behaviour and quickly.
But it took a lot longer to unlearn the impacts on me of a father who was generally admired and respected within his community for being a good and reasonable man, but who at home took confidence from those who admired him and at the same time relieved himself of some of his considerable stress and general ill-content towards the events of his life by passing that emotion on to those closest.
Truthfully that is a task that I will have for the rest of my life.
That task took a big leap forward, however, and became far less overwhelming, when my introspection yielded the most important lesson of all.
My father’s behaviour towards me was all about him, not me.
Dad is a deeply, deeply insecure man and his frequent actions which undermined my confidence was a subconscious attempt to improve his own self confidence.
When I realised this I felt incredibly sad for him that he had so little belief in himself, at his very core and earliest formed self, that he needed to prove to himself his superiority to his young son.
Then unlearning the associated behaviours became a lot more manageable.
It was also an invaluable lesson for myself in raising my own sons, and in the need to carefully balance teaching the realities of life without overwhelming them with my own deep emotion, and instead giving them the tools – by way of setting my own example – on how to deal with challenges when they inevitably rise.
Most of all, I had to accept that I am never going to be able to role model extreme confidence for my sons, but that is okay as long as they can see that I have learned to believe in myself and to be kind to myself, and thereby to those I love the most.
It is another strange reality that those who are the least confident are often misunderstood as being the opposite, and I have little doubt that this was a part of the misperceptions of me as a lad especially by other lads as I discussed in “My Fraught Journey To Women“. Moreover, I know that subconsciously, after I had realised that I was extremely vulnerable in my early career as a research scientist, I attempted to project a persona of personal strength and power – as I had used all of my life as a protection mechanism – but it was entirely counterproductive and just added to the target on me and increased my value as a scalp to those (many) sociopathic senior colleagues who approached their research career as a game of “Survivor”.
I have always viewed myself as humble because I have known the depth of my insecurities. Others may take some time or may never know it.
Perhaps my most important learning has been the importance of always working at being ‘present’ with family and especially with my sons. Time is always precious no matter how trivial the activity may seem, and that is especially true when with those closest.
As a parent it never ceases to amaze me exactly what little pieces of memories years later my boys retain and/or hold dearest to them of the many hours we have spent together.
It is a mistake for a parent to consider that any time spent together is of lower value than any other. Every moment together is precious and has the potential to be deeply held and a rich memory of your enduring love and guidance.
I also knew intuitively that the power in saying “I love you” could never be overstated. When I fell in love with my wife my emotions were so strong that I needed to tell her I loved her frequently, several times a day. And I continued it when I became a father, telling my sons several times a day, meaning it with my whole heart each and every time, with their present schedules at least once when I say goodbye to them at school drop-off and then before they go to sleep every night. Even in the awkward teenage years it is obvious in their body language the security it provides them, and it is never taken for granted.
I don’t even know if my need to say it frequently had anything to do with the fact that I never heard it before falling in love with my wife. My love was bursting out of me so much I needed to say it. For that I am grateful.
I wrote this because I know that my father is not alone in this world in his inability to connect with his emotions.
I feel sorry for those who have learned to suppress their emotions so deeply that they cannot even connect with them, let alone express them.
I see evidence of it all around in our modern world, but I especially see it in the extremes of politics and political divides by those who seem to revel in the dividing of humanity.
I have never known that feeling of disconnection because from my mother I learned, and likely inherited, to connect with my emotions, and because I felt them so strongly I never was able to suppress them. While earlier I said that I lacked the emotional intelligence to understand my emotions as a teenager, the truth is that I always felt my emotions strongly.
I have always been someone who wears their emotions ‘on their sleeve’ – in actuality patently on my face and in my body language. As a teenager I regularly cried when watching a sad or romantic movie or television show, and I disliked suspenseful shows frequently watching them through separated fingers with my hands held to my face at the ready to blindfold myself should I become overwhelmed.
I certainly received gender stereotypical messages as a pre- or early teen that I was “too sensitive” or that I needed to be tougher or braver like the nights when Dad had forgotten to turn off the lights in the shed requiring me to walk the 80m there, and often running the 80m back in the dark, along an uneven dirt and often muddy headland.
In truth, I have received those messages from Dad for my entire life – from my earliest years, such as when I was five and he told me that I was now a man so he would no longer kiss me good night because men shake hands, right through to when I became a stay at home Dad and he would describe that to others as me being a ‘house wife’ to poke fun at me in avoidance of his embarrassment.
I was shielded, however, from greater coercion within broader society in that my large frame, and then muscular physique, along with a natural ability as a powerful forward in rugby league, meant that there was a broader common perception of who I was that was not entirely accurate but was in many ways fortuitous to my emotional development in that I was not challenged more by peers to be more masculine or ‘macho’.
I have always recalled travelling back from a representative rugby league game with a mate’s family when his father asked me what I had planned after completing school later that year, assuming that I would look for an apprenticeship or a farm labouring job. When I said that I intended to go to university he laughed thinking I was joking, and was shocked when I told him that I was one of the brightest in my year.
As I explained in “My Fraught Journey To Women” as a teen I was vulnerable, and absent a few twists of fate, and especially meeting my wife when I did, I may not have found my way to my full and healthy expression of self.
If I had not walked through my sliding door, and if I did return to work the farm with Dad, then I suspect that I would have learned, partly through necessity for survival given the stress inherent in that lifestyle, to suppress my emotional side much more. I also would have resumed my persona of a powerful rugby league player, someone my family, and especially my father and brother, could be proud of.
I believe, based on observation, that suppressing emotional connection leads to narrow-mindedness and ultimately opens up a vulnerability to hate. I consider this to be one of the greatest issues with low levels of tolerance and higher rates of racism in many rural regions of Australia. Again it presents a contradiction.
Coming from a small country town in a region known to have a high prevalence of racism especially towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, I have spent a lot of my adult life reflecting on that contradiction – how can people be so caring and open-hearted to those who fit a certain profile or ‘type’, yet hold so much hate in their heart to those who do not?
Then sometimes we see the power of human connection where circumstances put people in contact with each other who might not have in other circumstances, and their humanity shines through so that a strong connection forms. In the case of the Sri Lankan family that was settled in the Queensland rural town of Biloela, that connection has sustained a prolonged and determined battle in support of the family by locals which is a proud reflection on their community.
I cannot pretend to have all of the answers to that deeply vexing question, but I am certain that there are answers to it in what I have written above, and for every person learning to connect with their true emotions is the only gateway to connecting with broader humanity.
Of course there is no need to be loud or obvious about feelings or emotions. People who try to tear down others do so because they feel increasingly isolated in their emotional repression. I, myself, am only speaking up as a means to helping others and especially young men that might have had similar experiences to mine. If I did not feel that I had something to offer others by sharing, I would have happily remained private.
I often wonder at how the hit movie Crocodile Dundee has been taken so much into Australian male identity yet there is little discussion about what made the movie so popular. It is very much a character-based movie, so it achieved success because audiences ‘connected with’ the main character Mick Dundee. Mick appealed to our better selves and so many (especially young) Australian men emulated him. But they emulate his antics more than his character. Mick Dundee had a depth of character that showed he knew how he felt about circumstances; he had genuine emotional intelligence. And for a man who had never left the outback of the Northern Territory, Mick was open-minded about people from different cultures and different nations (of course if written nowadays he would have been woke to the LGBTQ community). It is Mick’s warmth and connection with broad humanity that young Australian men should seek to emulate because it is that which made his character so loveable and admirable.
No matter how any Australians or groups view themselves, this I am certain of.
Nobody who discriminates between which type of person or groups of people they are friendly and respectful to could be considered a sincere or honourable person.
Sometimes when I want to be down on myself, when my subconscious seems intent on undermining my sense of security, I can still slip into thinking how I was in my early 20’s, at how emotionally immature and raw I was. How I was ‘damaged goods’ and undeserving of my wife’s love and devotion.
Then my logical mind starts up and tells me that I was always a good-hearted, decent man, and that I also gave my wife a lot of love and devotion. That we helped and taught each other how to deal with and how to heal from the traumas and our emotional shortcomings.
Finally my kind mind reminds me that the traumas I experienced had injured me. Like an unfortunate accident can cause physical damage with varying degrees of incapacitation or disability, I had sustained injuries to my emotional wellbeing affecting my mental health. Recovery from all emotional as well as physical trauma requires acceptance of those injuries and patient but determined rehabilitation. I learned to be kind to myself and not blame myself for my injuries.
The more we acknowledge our truths as individuals and across broader society the more we free ourselves from our histories and the more light we let into our souls. We become receptive to deep and authentic connection with others, in doing so becoming better people, better friends, better partners, better parents, better leaders, and better contributors to communities.
When I think of my Dad it is easy to see how challenging and frightening that seems to those who have lived a life suppressing emotion. In saying that I am also seeing in my mind’s eye a slide show of especially middle-aged men from the conservative side of the political divide. It is ironic that those who cultivate an image of rugged masculinity and toughness are in fact putting up a protective barrier and are afraid of what should be the least threatening things in life – themselves, their own thoughts and feelings, and the people around them who want to give them love and light.
Indeed these people are worthy of our compassion and understanding, but also our firm assertion that inappropriate behaviour and faulty thinking springing from their fears and misperceptions will no longer be tolerated. Humanity has either run out of time or progressed to the point where it is entirely unacceptable.
Now in the Great Reset era we are forging ahead to a better, fairer, more inclusive world. There is nothing to be afraid of and there is much to be optimistic about even if we face many challenges especially in addressing the climate crisis.
We have relearned through the pandemic that we feel safest and grounded when closely connected with our communities.
None of us wants to leave anybody behind.
Nobody suggests that any of this is easy or achieved without real courage and conviction.
Don’t let your own insecurities – irrespective of their origin – hold you back from enjoying that optimistic and compassionate future with the rest of us.
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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021