Tom Golden: Presentation to the International Conference on Men’s Issues 2014

Editorial note: We will over the next few weeks continue to present full transcripts of all the presentations at the International Conference on Men’s Issues 2014. Tom Golden was our seventh speaker on Day 1, June 27, 2014. His “men are good” refrain was referred to by multiple media. Thanks as always to Rick Westlake for doing the hard work of putting these transcripts together. —DE

(Introduction by Attila Vinczer.)

Thank you, Barbara, for that stellar presentation. You are a breath of fresh air.

I should tell you, when we had the Dallas Transit—that horrific ad—it was at a time when I was working with Glenn Sacks (and Robert Franklin, who will be here tomorrow.) We did tremendous work to put incredible pressure on that transit system. I also called them; they eventually buckled and removed those signs.

Our next speaker is Tom Golden, named one of the Washington area’s top trauma therapists by Washingtonian Magazine. He wrote three books on the topic of men and healing: Swallowed by a Snake, A Man You Know Is Grieving, and The Way Men Heal. He has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and has appeared on CNN, CBS Evening News, ESPN, and the NFL Channel. He also served as the Vice Chairman of the Maryland Commission for Men’s Health.

He runs a private counseling practice working with men, women, and children in crisis and bereavement. He has presented workshops about men and boys’ unique paths of healing in over 100 cities in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe. He created and maintains the Internet’s first interactive grief-counseling website, He is a certified expert at—excuse me. He is certified as an expert witness on the topic of grief—grieving. He worked as the only male counselor for 11 years at the St. Francis Center, which focuses on dying, on the dying and bereaved. He has been married for 30 years, and has a son and a daughter. Please put your hands together for Tom Golden.

(Applause. Tom Golden takes the podium.)

Ah, let’s see what we’ve got here … The most important thing he said is I’m the father of a son and a daughter. And of that I’m very proud.

Okay, we’re going to change gears a little bit because what I want to talk about is … can be summed up in one made-up word: “MenAreGood.” I want to say that again—Men Are Good!

That’s not the message we’ve been hearing for 40, 50 years. In fact, it’s not the message that I got when I was in a counseling center. I’d just got out of grad school. I thought, I’m going to do some good work. I get to this counseling center, and what do I find? I find there were 17 therapists there; 16 were women, and one was a guy; that was me. So what did they do? They sent all the men to me! ‘Cause, what were the women saying? Women were saying things like “Men don’t grieve. Men aren’t dealing with their feelings. They’re stuck in all this stuff. Right?” Have you heard those lines before? How many men in this audience have heard that? “You’re not dealing with your feelings.”

Well, I’m here to tell you that we’re going to talk about how you, in fact, probably are dealing with it. But you’re dealing with it in ways that people don’t know about yet because really it’s all pushed underneath; you can’t even see it. But it’s out there; and it took me about 30 years to figure it out. And I’m going to summarize in about 30 seconds what it took me 30 years to figure out. And that is this: In general, men will tend to heal themselves through an action—or an inaction, pulling back and being quiet—that uses honoring, and pulls them into the future.

I’ll say it again: Men will tend to use action or inaction, and honoring within those two things, to pull them into the future, and through that, what do they do? They heal.

Now, you can see why that—really, it was unseeable at the time, because our culture pretends that the only way to heal is to what? Talking about it, and crying. Right? Oh, my gosh—you know, when I first—I got out of grad school, right? I go to work, I sit down with these guys, and I make good eye contact, just like they taught me in grad school, right? You make good eye contact. Do men like eye contact? NO! Not in the same way as women like eye contact. With the women clients I have, it was great. I could tell they relaxed, they felt calm … With the men, I found I was making them nervous! Of course, now I know what’s happening; men, when they’re with other men—eye contact does not mean connection and intimacy. It means something else—what does it mean? Challenge! Put ’em up! Hockey has a face-off! Boxers face each other! Right? This is a challenge, this is not something that’s going to make you safe, like, oh, now I can talk about the past … Nooooo! Hell, no!

You know, what I found out, of course, since then, was the honoring and action—Men do it shoulder to shoulder. They’re much more likely to do something shoulder to shoulder with each other. Men will sit in a fishing boat all day, shoulder to shoulder. They’ll leave that fishing boat after the day, they’ll feel close to that guy. But they didn’t say one word. Words are not that critical. It’s something else that’s critical; in fact, sometimes I’ll think this masculine way of intimacy, of being close, which is being with, is really in some ways more developed than “just a lot of talk.” But that’s my bias. Maybe it’s not yours.

Anyway … And it is? (Laughter.)

So I got the message that, you know, men were not such good things because they couldn’t deal with their feelings so much. And it took me this 30 years to come and tell you what I just told you. We’re going to talk about the different ways they do that, later on. But the first thing I want to talk about is … why could I not see it at the time? Why could I not see the way these men were healing? What was it that blinded me, and what was it that made it invisible, so we couldn’t see the men’s pain? And the very first thing is, a man’s pain is taboo. A man’s pain is taboo. You’ve heard speakers all day today, talking about that in certain ways, but a man’s pain is taboo. No one wants to touch it, no one wants to hear it. And men are not dumb; they know that. So what are they going to do—go emote in public? Noooo! They know their pain is taboo.

Now—let’s do an exercise. I want you to imagine that you’re walking into your favorite restaurant. You walk in, you get seated, and you’re thinking, “Mmmmmm”—and you look over in the corner, and at the corner table, there’s a woman, and she’s crying. What’s the first thing you think about her? Anybody? … What’s wrong? Poor dear, she’s upset, right? I’ve asked this question of thousands of therapists in the workshops I give. I’m telling you, they all say the same thing. “Poor dear. She must have just broken up with someone. She needs support, how can I help?” Right? Does that make sense?

Okay. Erase that image. Go back, and you’re walking in the same restaurant, you’re walking by, and you notice over in that corner table there’s a guy, and he’s crying. What’s your first reaction? … Get away! Wimp! What else? … Drunk! Exactly! This is what I hear over and over again—people immediately come up with that. I came up with that, and I was working with them! This is not something that is just a couple of people. Almost all of us have this bias that is built-in, that says, ‘Man’s pain—get away! There’s something wrong with that guy. He’s probably drunk, you know? So we’re all built to not want to get close to men’s pain. Men know this. They know it—they know no one wants to hear this crap. In fact, the guys that sit with—they look at me and they say, “Do you really want to hear this?” They couldn’t believe that someone would want to listen to their pain. It’s sad. The first thing that tipped me off was that men’s pain is invisible because a man’s pain is taboo.

Now, there’s another one: the “provide and protect” role. Ohh, boy. So you provide and protect people, and guess what? Who is providing and protecting for you? Nobody. Nobody’s providing and protecting—Think about, it’s three o’clock in the morning. You and your wife wake up to a big noise down in the basement. “BOOM!” something goes. Who’s going down to check it out? (“Not me!” and laughter.) That’s a woman said that.

Who’s going down to check it out? Guess what? In today’s world, women may very well say, “I’ll go down and check that out.” And if she did that, she’d be a hero, right? But women’s roles are very flexible these days. She’d not only be a hero, but if she said, “Honey, I really don’t want to do that, can you go?” it’d be fine. Nobody would get upset, right? No problem.

Now … how about the guy? If he goes down and checks it out, he’s doing his job. Right? That is what he’s supposed to do. He’s the guy. But if he says, “No, honey, I don’t want to go,” he’s a jackass!

Can you see the double standard that’s going on? Men are expected to never be dependent—never be dependent—and guess what? You can’t emote and not be dependent. The two are linked; they’re linked up. So men strive to not be dependent, for good reasons, because the culture whips them into that.

There’s a guy named Peter Merritt; he wrote this beautiful piece on homelessness and men. But one of the things in that piece stuck with me, when he talked about men and dependency. Listen to what he says: “To put it simply, men are neither supposed or allowed to be dependent. They are expected to take care of others and themselves. And when they cannot, or will not, do it, then the assumption at the heart of the culture is that they are somehow less than men, and therefore unworthy of help.” Get it? “An irony asserts itself: By being in need of help, men forfeit the right to it.” Does that make sense?

A guy comes out, and he says, “I don’t need that help. I’m fine. I’m a man.” Right? Hey, no problem! He doesn’t get the help! But if a guy comes out and says, “You know, I really need some help today,” people automatically have a view of him—there’s something wrong with that guy. Right? He doesn’t deserve this help.

It’s a very powerful double standard that goes on for men; that keeps them, again, from wanting to emote in public, wanting to bring it out so people can see it. Very different.

Now, the third reason is the dominance hierarchy. You guys know about the bighorn sheep, right? The males, once a year, get together and get 20 yards apart, and then, boogety-boogety-boogety-BOOM! Boogety-boogety-boogety-BOOM! Right, have you seen that, the YouTubes of that? What are they doing? They’re setting up a hierarchy. They’re setting it up so who’s first, second, third, fourth, and they’re going to be that dominant male at the top, and the dominant male at the top is what? He gets the best reproductive success! Right? This is what men strive for. And now we know, or we’re thinking we know, that there is in fact a dominance hierarchy in human males.

There’s a dominance hierarchy in human males, where we strive for status. Men strive for status. This is a little bit tricky, because it’s not like … not simple … because if there’s men who are peace-lovers, they may strive to be the best peace-lover. A guy on the football field, he’s going to strive to make the NFL. An academe is going to strive for having as many journal articles in prestigious journals as he can. There’s this striving, inherent in men, that we do in order to create status, and therefore increase our reproductive success. Does that make sense?

What happens if someone is striving for status, and they emote in public? Brzrzrzrzzz … your status drops like a rock! So you sure as heck do not want to go out in public and emote because that ruins all the status you’ve been working to build up!

Now, they are also thinking that women do not have the same kind of hierarchical requirements that men have; but they do have one hierarchy where they live. Do you know what it is? How do women compete with each other? There’s one issue … attractiveness. Attractiveness. Look at the cosmetics industry, the billions of dollars that goes into that. Women will compete with each other based on who is more attractive than whom, and they strive to go to the top. Right?

Have you ever seen a woman say, “I’m not leaving home right now because I don’t have my make up on,” right? Have you seen that? What’s she doing? She is saying, In my hierarchy, I’m not going to look lower until I can prop myself up and look better. She’s doing the same thing that the men get crap for! You know, the men get crap for this not-emoting, so much; but they’re just doing the same thing, they’re trying to not let themselves be exposed in public, in the very same way that the woman is trying to look as good as they can. But we need to love them both. Love men and women. We’re all in a hierarchy, one way or another.

Oh, and the last one is all of the physical differences, and I wish we had a lot of time to go to this because it’s fairly complicated. But in my book Swallowed by a Snake, and in the latest one, the Kindle book, The Way Men Heal, I talk a lot about the physical differences, the biological differences, and there are some very, very important ones.

The first one, let’s talk about it just a minute, and that is the work of Shelley Taylor. I don’t know if people know Shelley Taylor, but she’s a UCLA researcher, and in about 2002, I think, she found that all of the stress research prior to the year 2000 was done with male subjects. All of it! So everything you’ve ever heard about fight or flight? Probably goes for men. You know, men, the fight is moving into action; the flight is pulling back, being quiet. So Taylor said, Well, wait a minute. Do women fight-or-flight? She didn’t think so.

She did research on women only, and what do you think she came up with? They’re not the same. What she found was that women don’t fight-or-flight; women tend-and-befriend. They tend-and-befriend. Women, when stressed, will move towards interaction; they’ll move towards others, they’ll move towards a place where they can be supported. Men, when they’re stressed, will tend to move towards action.

Now, Taylor went a step further; she scratched her head and she said, Well, why is it? You know, we have basically the same physiology, afterwards. This oxytocin thing happens. Do you people know oxytocin? Oxytocin’s this hormone; it’s like they call it the “cuddle hormone” because when you get it, you really want to cuddle. You want to get close to each other, you want to hold and be held, right?

What Taylor found was, when women get this oxytocin burst, their estrogen amplifies the oxytocin. When they’re stressed, they really want to interact, they really want to be held. But the man’s testosterone negates the oxytocin. He does not have the same need to get close, and to hold … does that make sense? Think about this: After we have sex, we also get a burst of oxytocin. Can you see what happens now? She wants to cuddle! And he says, “Game’s on!” Yes? Yeahhh! That’s because he doesn’t have the same need! He’s literally biologically different. He does not have the same need that she has.

There’s all kinds of biological stuff, and maybe the most important is the early … That’s a very good point. This gentleman points out that he likes to cuddle after sex! And you know, we can’t really generalize like this, with “all men” and “all women.” In fact, especially the biological piece. What we’ve found now is that 17% of men will have a more feminine biology, and 17% of women will have a more masculine biology. It all happens at two months in utero, when the testosterone flood comes down. And in fact, if you want to really have some fun, you can tell by looking at your fingers, how much of a testosterone flood you got at two months in utero. And if you want to find out more about that, you can go to Google “2D4D,” and it will tell you all kinds of things about this testosterone flood, and about our differences.

Anyway, where were we? … The testosterone flood comes in, and it changes the brain of young men into masculine brains, which is a systemizing brain. The masculine brain loves systems. Now remember, it’s only 83% of men, or plus-or-minus, that do this. And the female brain is the default brain; it’s what they call the “empathic brain.” So we have a very different kind of way of looking at things: Man’s brain – think Legos. You know, the Legos, you can put them together, you take them apart, you experiment, that’s kind of a systemizing brain.

Okay … let’s see where we go. We need to talk a little bit—How much time do we have, Attila? … I know, and I don’t have my watch. Give me – we’ve got 10 minutes, you think? … Give me 10 minutes.

I wanted to talk a little bit about some examples of men and the way they process emotions because that little thing that I gave you at the beginning really doesn’t say too much. You know, like, “Okay, he does action that honors, and ah, he goes into the future.” Think about Eric Clapton. People know Eric Clapton? … Eric Clapton had the experience of his son dying, from falling out of a skyscraper window. Horrible experience. Clapton went into deep grief, and his autobiography talks about this whole experience, and he helps us understand exactly how he dealt with it. Clapton was two years sober at the time. He basically went into seclusion. He did two things: he went to AA meetings and he played his guitar. His friends were all saying, “Oh, you need to join a support group, you need to go talk with someone, you need to do this—” Clapton said, “No! What I need to do is play my guitar.” He played it over, and over, and over again, and he said he didn’t really do it to try to write songs. But after a while of doing this, after months of doing this … songs started to come. In fact, Clapton has this quote; he says, “My guitar has always been my salvation.” So his guitar kind of pulled him out of things.

At any rate, he wrote these three songs—one we know, “Tears From Heaven,” right? That’s about, will he ever meet his son again. Another one is called, “My Father’s Eyes,” which came during this time for him, this deep grief. And the song was about thanking his son for giving him the opportunity to see his father’s eyes … because Clapton had never met his father. Isn’t that beautiful? But the third song is the most important one. It’s called “The Circus Left Town.” And in this song, Clapton tells the story of having taken his son to the circus, the night before his death; and how that one trip to the circus is going to have to last his son a lifetime. Whew … If you want a powerful experience, go watch Clapton play this song, on YouTube. It’s really, really powerful, and you can tell, from watching him play, how much emotion poured through that man as he was writing this song. Can you imagine? He was doing the same kinds of processing that was going on in someone’s support group where they’re talking about it. He was doing it with himself, in a solitary place, through an activity: his playing, his guitar, and having the song come up. You see how it works? And it pulled him into the future, around a product that he was creating.

… Okay. Michael Jordan. People know Michael Jordan, right? Do you remember when Michael Jordan quit basketball? Do you remember what happened right before he quit basketball? His father died—his father was murdered, in a tragic accident. But, Jordan … I think it was about two months after his father was murdered, Jordan called a press conference and said, “I’m quitting basketball.” People were going “Aaaaa—are you kidding? I love watching Jordan play!”—He’s going to stop basketball. Everyone’s scratching their heads! Two months after that, he has another press conference; he says, “I’m going to play baseball. I’m going to play minor-league baseball.” And I scratched my head even harder! What is he doing?

Do you know what he was doing? His father had been a baseball player. His father had always asked him to please play baseball … and he stopped his basketball career to play baseball. Jordan was following his father’s wishes; he was honoring his father by doing something in the future. Does that make sense? This whole baseball thing was about his dad. In his autobiography, Jordan talks about going to practices, and thinking—and talking to his father, in his head; you know, having conversations with him. The same kind of conversation that someone else might have with a support group—but he’s doing it on his own, in his head.

Then, of course, Jordan found that maybe baseball was not his best suit. So he went back to the Bulls! Guess what he did there? …They won a championship. Yeah, but the one time … do you remember the one time after they played the Seattle SuperSonics? And … Jordan fell on the ball in mid-court. Do you remember that? At the tail—After they’d won the championship, Jordan falls on that ball at the end of the game. And unbeknownst to anyone else, Jordan had dedicated that season in memory of his father. Again, he’s honoring his father through his action, through doing something, and as he’s doing that—every time, you can see every time he practices, he’s thinking of his dad. Every time he won a game, he’s thinking of his dad. He’s going to do this for his father! It’s like Brett Favre, you know, when he played that Sunday-night game after his father died. What’s he doing? He’s doing it in honor of his father. Men use honoring as a means to move their emotions through.

Jordan was doing the same thing. So what happens is, Jordan collapses at mid-court, on the ball, and the camera zooms in, right? What do they find? Jordan’s crying. He’s in tears at mid-court. The camera pulls back—go to commercial, right? Yeah! They come back—he’s in the locker room, he’s still crying! People are thinking, What is going on here? And we really didn’t know until Jordan told us exactly what was going on. He told people about his season being one where he wanted to dedicate it to his father. And he said, once he’d won the championship, that just opened his heart and floodgates happened. He said to one interviewer, “It wouldn’t have happened except for one thing. We won that game on Fathers’ Day.” Can you imagine? He said, if we hadn’t won it on Fathers’ Day, it would have been different. But can you imagine, winning on Fathers’ Day? Ka-whoosh—it just all pours out. That’s a beautiful, masculine way to deal with emotions. Most people don’t see it—it’s invisible. You cannot see it. It’s there, and it’s a thing of beauty.

And if men get the chance—if people start to try to understand men, if people try to study men a little bit, so we can understand our differences, our uniqueness—there’s only one conclusion you can come to; and that is, Men Are Good!

Thank you all very much.

Recommended Content

Skip to toolbar