What makes you a man?
Take a moment to think about this.
I am curious to know what you answered. Strength? Toughness? Provider? Protector? What are some other words you thought of? Did you think of any of these words: Kindness? Sensitivity? Listener? Intelligence?... Well if you did think of some of those words, I am surprised.
We live in a society that praises hyper-masculinity.
1. above, over, or in excess
1. pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness.
Early in life we are taught what is masculine and what is feminine. And we are taught that these are two distinctly different realms. Boys don't cry, they grow up to be big and strong, they will find a wife to provide for, and they will be the father that protects and defends their families. Is this a story you've heard before? Me too.
This story line is not a bad thing. In fact, some of those qualities and identities are wonderful! And perhaps if you are religious you get to add other things to that list. Depending on your cultural background, you will probably also be able to add more qualities as well. The story can be good, the identity can be good, and the qualities can be good. Unfortunately though, this story leaves a lot of people out. Men who don't identify as heterosexual, men who are small in stature, men who naturally possess nurturing qualities, men with limited abilities to provide for their family, men who have been systematically oppressed, etc. My question is this:
Did you choose this story for yourself?
If you're being honest with yourself, do you really feel like you get to choose what it means to be a man? If you think really hard, I bet you can remember an instance when you were called a "sissy" for being nice to someone else. Maybe you remember a similar instance in which you were shamed for helping someone, for loving your mother, for wanting to stay at home with the children, for being attracted to another man, for being an artist... Any of these strike a chord for you?
The reality is that the age old stories we hear about what it means to be a man limit men to a very small and singular identity. In my time as a counselor (and really just as a human) I have noticed hyper-masculinity limit men emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
In my counseling experience, I have seen many men from many different cultural backgrounds who have endured wild trauma. I mean fleeing war-torn areas, watching their parents die in the street, being shot at, enduring violent torture from police in their home country, and the list goes on. I think most people would agree that these events are horrific and warrant a serious emotional reaction. I watch as these men who have suffered immensely fight tears and explain that displaying emotion is a sign of weakness. I often wonder how isolating this must be.
Chris Hoff, Ph.D, LMFT shared that in his work he attempts to "flip the script that showing no emotion is strength, and...by helping men to measure themselves against the idea that emotional risk taking is courageous" (Source). This is a radical idea that goes against that typical storyline men are taught to follow.
Is the story that society writes for us enough for you? Is it enough for you to fit into a rather small box of expectations about who you are to be as a man? Are you suppressing qualities that you have because it doesn't fit the script?
While it might be easier to change the storyline for men emotionally, physical change can but much more challenging. "Big and strong" is the goal for many men. Toy stores are lined with super-hero gear, wrestling figurines, and other toys that represent masculinity as uber-macho-muscle-mongers. We praise young boys' strength as top priority.
This facet of masculinity excludes many people. Men born with various disabilities that limit their ability to become "big and strong" are automatically excluded from this physical storyline of masculinity. Men who are small in stature are excluded. Men who have no interest in pursuing physical strength are excluded. Feeling excluded out of an entire identity group that you are supposed to fit into is painful. For many of my male clients, this pain leads to social anxiety. Imagine walking into a room (let's say a gym, for now), and it seems that every single person looks different than you. And it's truly not the different-ness that makes you insecure, because being different in and of itself isn't good or bad. But the pain comes from the idea that all of the people in that room live up to manliness, and because you appear different, society does not value you as manly. Example: A man considered "scrawny" enters into a gym full of men who are larger, taller, and more muscular. The slender man surveys the room and decides this is not a box that I fit in and he leaves. The anxiety rushes in from this brief interaction. The decision is made: I don't belong at the gym, so I will not be going. I am not manly, I can never live up to that standard. Of course this is an example playing on a very stereotypical definition of physical masculinity, but the point is that feeling like you cannot fit into a set of rules for masculinity can breed anxiety, depression, and pain.
*I would like to note as well that this is not a problem for just men and masculinity. This is an experience that spans across race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, ethnicity, etc. Not feeling like you fit in a box that society deems valuable is a painful experience, and for some this happens much more often than for others due to systematic oppression.
It is no secret that many religions have historically placed men and women in specific roles, and completely excluded those who identify as anything other than cis or heterosexual.
These roles, particularly in Western culture, have dictated women to raise children and men to provide financially. But what happens when a man is incredibly gifted with the ability and desire to nurture children, or the woman has developed a sharp business acumen? Many times, men and women have to ignore their talents and desires in order to fit in these boxes created by religions and culture. For those who are generally spiritual, this occurs with basic scripts for masculinity that typically align with religion anyway (i.e. man as financial provider). When somebody feels compelled to ignore their natural and cultivated gifting, they can begin to feel incredibly depressed. Feeling forced to ignore something that is deeply important to you in order to be valued by society or culture is a painful experience. And that is why hyper-masculine ideas can certainly cause men to feel depressed, unfulfilled, and misunderstood.
Ultimately, the purpose of this post comes down to this question:
Are you writing your own story?
Or are you letting somebody else write your story? Does hyper-masculinity work for you? Or is it leading to anxiety, depression, fear, pain? Do you feel free to write your own story, or do you feel that you've been trying to live up to impossible standards of masculinity that society defines? If you're tired and lost on this topic, it might be time to start exploring what this means to you.
If you need support, please feel free to contact me.