How do we process our past? How can we develop deeper connections with other people through a stronger mind-body connection with ourselves?
A Q&A with Owen Marcus, a men’s coach and a co-founder of Evryman. We discuss the consequences of the unhealthy coping mechanisms that we have all developed, the importance of empowering people (particularly men) to tap into their emotional vulnerability, and how connection with others is the essence of being human.
Tell us a bit about how you came to be doing what you’re doing today, and what events or experiences have shaped your work.
I got into working with men and couples because I felt that I needed to. I’ve been working with people for over 40 years. I had a holistic medical clinic in Scottsdale for 17 years where I worked on a more physical level and I started rolfing back in the 70’s. At that time, I didn’t know that I had been suffering from both dyslexia and Asperger’s syndrome, but that ended up explaining why I struggled, not only in school but also in relationships.
The particular reason I got involved with working with men was that I needed a way to learn how to connect with and relate to people. I initially had resisted doing it with men, but that ended up being a good reason for why I needed to do it. Over the course of twenty-five years, I continued to dive deeper into that field, and I started bringing in other traditions, research, and experiences to my clinics. I’ve found that using other approaches really was something that enhanced the work that we were doing with men.
What is your opinion of the relationship between the mind and the body?
I actually wrote a book on the mind-body relationship, and I could go on for days about it, but I remember taking a graduate seminar in college and the topic of this seminar was mind-body. Back then, I didn’t know anything about it, but when I was living in Boulder in the mid-seventies, I had a roommate that had given up his law practice in Florida and moved to Boulder to study to be a Rolfer and he argued his case well enough where I said, “All right, all right, I’ll try it”. Once I tried it, it opened up another whole new world of experiences. So I went through the 10 sessions in the Rolfing series, and nine months later I was an inch taller and had lost a good 20 pounds of sheer tension. The most impressive part of the whole thing was that I realized how emotionally tight I was and I learned how to relax. I saw that one year later I was an entirely different man. When my physical body relaxed, my emotions relaxed.
I was an entirely different man. When my physical body relaxed, my emotions relaxed.
How do you relate the two and help others realize their own mind-body connection?
It goes both ways. I’m a bit of a hedonist when it comes to good bodywork, but for myself and all my clients, I’m always looking for what’s going to produce the most change with the least amount of effort, while also having it be generative. What I saw was that when you help the person learn a new model of living, it can help their minds relax and expand the possibilities of experience. When you relax the body and really start to connect it to the emotional mind, not only do people live richer lives, but they find that they can deal with stress better. We don’t realize how stressed out we are because it is ingrained in our culture and we’ve attenuated to it. When I work with people, they start to realize how the stress in their lives affects their bodies, and how their bodies respond by shutting down and failing, particularly when it comes to their relationships and professional success.
You mentioned trying to figure out what produces the most change with kind of the least amount of investment, or finding the highest ROI for creating change. What would you say you’ve found that to be?
Having a relaxed body and my mind. It’s a lot less about learning techniques and more about changing my own relationship with myself and my own experiences. I think the quickest return for people, certainly for these men I work with, is slowing them down and getting them connected to both their mental and physical experiences.
For a lot of guys, you ask them, “What do you feel emotionally?” they just roll their eyes and ask “What do you mean ‘feel’?” In comparison, if you ask, “What do you feel physically?” and you point out that they’re moving their foot or clenching their fist, then they start feeling their bodies. Once they start feeling their bodies you can ask them what they feel emotionally and they can make the connection. For some of these guys is the first time they’ve made that connection. Often, when their partners literally yell at them to feel something, they respond by shutting down.
So we work with how these guys are requested to show up emotionally. By slowing these guys down and giving them a new model with the skills of how to connect with their bodies and their emotions, not only does it become sustainable but they continue to grow.
So you’re helping people work backward to see if looking at situations from a through a new model can help them. Does that practice stem from emotional physiology?
Emotional physiology is a term that I came up with to describe everything that we were talking about. One of my other teachers was Peter Levine, who developed somatic experiences and taught me what the body does with trauma to turn it into PTSD. He also taught me ways to unpack that and use the body as a vehicle to get a person out of their post-traumatic stress disorder. Emotional physiology is essentially distilling that model and applying it in a more general sense. When I’m talking to my clients, I tell them, “Look, you can’t have an emotional experience without a physiological or somatic experience”. Much of, particularly I think for men, our limitations and struggles emotionally are based on physiological stress.
PTSD really comes from “micro-trauma,” or the stress that we’ve endured throughout our whole lifetime. It literally houses itself in the fascia of the body, and the fascia is the connective tissue that holds everything together. Trauma locks itself in and then eventually becomes scar tissue or tension in the body.
One of my metaphors is that it’s like taking a plow truck and stopping at a stop sign, but the engine is still revving. So, you’re not going anywhere, but your nervous system is still in a hyper mode.
In other words, you have a stress response when there’s really no external stressors happening in your life, which is the physiology of PTSD. But that physiology is not pathology; it’s a learned behavior. We can unlearn and understand the model of this emotional physiology, and use our skills to unpack that, slow it down and ultimately heal it.
We’ve been led to believe that if we understand something and our rational mind understands it, it fixes the problem. This can be true, but for our emotional issues, particularly bigger ones, chronic ones, it’s not true and we get a lot of guys in our groups or trainings that are working hard to understand things cognitively and analytically, but they’re beating their head up against the wall because they’re not getting anywhere. Through Evryman, we help them realize, “Wow, there is nothing really wrong with me, my body’s experienced this trauma and I’ve developed coping mechanisms that are not working.
Trauma locks in and then eventually becomes scar tissue or tension in the body.
How does your work relate to your experience with Asperger’s, and do you think it has given you a unique point of view?
Yes. One of the biggest symptoms of Asperger’s is that we struggle with social connection and emotional connection, which I saw first hand when I realized I had Asperger’s. It helped me relax because I knew why I was always different and why connecting seemed to be extra hard for me. As I started working more and more with men, I realized that most men in this culture struggle with what I call ‘emotional Asperger’s’. We all tend to struggle with emotional connections. Having that problem myself and really wanting to heal it, I dove into every possible thing I could do to really heal it.
In your book you talk about how men can benefit from creating connections with other men by allowing them to surround themselves with people and resources that can help them tap into their emotions and give them more purpose.
Well, that’s another big question. There’s research that you might be familiar with around attachment, which is how we connect and that’s the therapy word for your listeners or for what connection is called in the therapeutic realm. We really learn who we are in relationships and how they give us feedback and models for us to use. Our ability or our lack of opportunity to connect with people on this emotional level when we’re young determines that skill set going on for the rest of our lives. For so many of us, particularly men in this culture, we weren’t connected in a way that really activated this instinctual skillset of emotional connection and how to have it within ourselves, but particularly create it with another person.
To refer back to what I said earlier about so many men having emotional Asperger’s, a lot of guys that come into our trainings or coachings would start to realize that they’re performing below where they want to be in terms of connection and relationship. Then they start to realize within our system that because it’s educationally based through their own experience that they get to practice new models of thinking, and through relating to other men they start to fill those gaps that they didn’t have when they were a child connecting to someone on an emotional level and then modeling and guiding other men to do the same really reinforces their skillset but also makes these men really feel like they’re contributing.
Most men do not feel like their emotional intelligence or skill set is contributing to anything. We often feel anything from shame to confusion around that realm of existence. By being in these groups, they start to see that after a while they developed a skill set that they should have had as a kid, but they didn’t, it’s not their fault. And then they start to guide the newer, younger men in these groups and that really not only reinforces their skill sets but makes their presence and who they are as a man of more value, which I wouldn’t have thought would have been so important until I went through it, which is one of the reasons that we get so many men in our events wanting to learn how to do this and starting their own groups because they see the pleasure they get in helping other men.
What would be your definition of what it means to be a man?
That’s a hard question. I think first it’s really, what does it mean to be a human?
And how is it be different from what it means to be a human?
Men and women are way more similar than not. I think being a human is about being connected: being connected to yourself and your own experience, but also others and their experiences. I think the essence of being human is our ability to connect and enjoy the emotional connection that we have.
I think in this culture we have lost the meaning and the power and the means to really know how to connect emotionally to ourselves and to other people. That’s one of our goals with Evryman is to really support men in those connections. What we find is that our biggest advocates are women and after these guys go to our trainings, women are blown away with the results. Guys come back and say, “Wow this is what my wife has been trying to teach me, but then I have this experience with you guys and it’s easier than I ever thought and it’s fun. Now I’m naturally doing it with my partner, it’s not work, and she’s really happy.”
I think in this culture we have lost the meaning and the power and the means to really know how to connect emotionally to ourselves and to other people.
In terms of actionable advice, what are ways we can intentionally try and lead more connected lives?
I’m not saying this is easy, but simply just being present. Everyone talks about that, and men who have been told to relax for a long time. What I brought into Evryman was this process of really facilitating men to be able to slow down and relax, which gets them connected to their own experience, which is the foundation to being able to become vulnerable. Being vulnerable is really the conduit for our connection with others.
So one of the things that I ended up creating through Evryman is what we call the ROC Form. The R O C. stands for: Relax, Open up and be vulnerable, and Connecting. So, as we’re able to do that with ourselves, we end up developing a much deeper relationship and inevitably in all these venues, from the coaching to the couples’ work to all the events with every man in our regular groups. What I see in all those situations is that with a little guidance, people will slow down. Now the foundation of that is feeling safe. If you’re not feeling safe to slow down and to have that experience, the first thing you need to do is start working on what it would take for you to feel safe.
A lot of the work we do is on these very basic skills that in this culture we’re not encouraged to develop and once you start to develop these skills, the rest of it gets pretty easy and often just happens naturally.
What kind of skills or tools do you use to help yourself be more present?
Well, I’ll cheat the system. The more my body is constitutionally relaxed, the more my soft tissue is relaxed, and then the easier it is to be present. That’s where good bodywork really helps. Not only does it relax you in the moment, but it releases a lot of the chronic stress. One of the things I worked on for decades is my ability to experience what’s happening in the moment to its full extent, owning that experience on a physical and emotional level. That’s a bit of a game I play. Being in these groups really helped me do that because there are moments in these groups over the years where it would be emotionally intense, and my job was to see how much of that intensity could I experience and internalize before I would check out. As I developed that skill set, I found myself being more and more present in other situations.
Could you give us an example of a moment in which you think that, after being exposed to through all of your work, you could have been a better version of yourself?
So, I just came back from doing a couple’s training with my partner, Dalia, who’s a couple’s therapist in Northern California, and one of my edges in our relationship is me being just present with her. It’s when my Asperger’s does come in is when I’m tired and I check out. I have my reasons and excuses, but I don’t like to make excuses and there was a time this past weekend where I hadn’t slept and I was just not there for her. She’s really sharp and called me on that, so I felt shame in how I didn’t show up and didn’t immediately own what I did, which made me feel sad because I love her and one of the things I want to do in these training sessions is to support her and model what I teach. Emotional physiology, emotions, the body, and man’s need to often experience all this through their body moving.
Through your work with Evryman, how do you plan to dive deeper into helping share these processes with men and women?
The challenge is how we take what we developed with Evryman and adapt it to work for couples. We teach certain things in these couples trainings and then the couples go off and work individually, so we don’t really do any group work. Dalia and I go around and work with couples individually. I just really cut to what’s taking them out and apply what I’ve learned with working with men to help both people to explain what they’re experiencing but not saying. It’s not that they’re resisting; they just don’t have the emotional, physiological language.
When I can help facilitate that, in the course of a few minutes this couple could have a major breakthrough because it’s grounded in just speaking this emotional physiological language in such a way that it’s intrinsic for them. Once they experience it, they can start replicating it on their own.
How do you help men and couples work past their fight or flight response, get them to take the risk, and then allow them to open up emotionally?
You have to be willing to take a risk. Often in our groups, we will tell them to take the risk and speak the unspeakable. I joke with them and say, “Look, you don’t sleep with these guys and you don’t work with them. You might be really tight with them in the group, but you don’t generally have extraneous relationships with them. So here’s a great place to practice these skills”. The guys get to practice with no real consequences. Most of us have a hard time asking for what we want, speaking the unspeakable, but when we finally do, we see that it isn’t really that big of a deal.
So how can we work to kind of change that unspeakable norm and all of our own perceptions? What questions do you think are most important for us to be asking ourselves right now?
I think the first question is, what are you experiencing at this moment when you feel your body? Where do you feel tension? What do you feel? What don’t you feel? Where are you disconnected from your body? Where do I feel emotions in my body? What do I feel? No judgment, just be aware of it. The next level is what do I want? What do I want? It doesn’t mean you’re going to get it, but the power and the healing is in the asking.
We talk a lot about passion and purpose, particularly for men, but I think as men we need to be living for something beyond just our own pleasures. What we see with these guys in the group is that their purposes become how they can take what they’ve gone through and leverage it to help other men going through similar things. There is a huge reward and being who you are and having that make a difference in someone’s life.
There is a huge reward and being who you are and having that make a difference in someone’s life.