Welcome to another installment of the Relationship Help For Men series.
It’s no surprise that for some men, experiencing and expressing vulnerability is akin to root canal without anesthesia. To understand men’s struggles with emotions, it has been argued that men are socialized to avoid emotional vulnerability, and the research shows that by age four or five, children are already aware of gender differences (“Boys don’t do that…”; “You’re acting like a girl.”). Our early gender awareness has a profound impact on our evolving identity—shaping assumptions, beliefs and behaviors about what it means to be a man.
The Exclusionary Self: I’m Not a Woman, Therefore I’m a Man
Most troubling, for many boys (and later teenagers and adults), our sense of maleness is rigidly defined by what is considered off limits, and as our masculine identities solidify, a wide range of experiences get tagged as being in violation of our masculine way of being.
Problems result when the core aspects of our identity (our sense of what it means to be a man; what it means to be a woman) are defined by categorical, inclusionary/exclusionary criterion.
When masculine-feminine categories (which are socially constructed) are used to evaluate and justify our experiences (as either belonging to or in violation of a particular gender role), we become imprisoned by our own creations. Too often, masculinity is defined by what it is not—when masculinity and femininity are experienced as being in opposition to each other, then anything deemed non-masculine falls into the not-me, feminine camp. Psychologically, anything experienced as not-me has the potential to be viewed as unacceptable (in this case, unacceptable = feminine), and the unacceptable is often experienced as a threat.
To this end, some men feel highly threatened when their definitional boundaries separating the feminine and masculine blur—when men act as women and women act as men. When this occurs, we quickly place the person who is in violation of the masculine-feminine category into additional, narrower categories in order to explain these violations (“He’s gay”; “She’s a tom-boy”; “He’s a creative type”; “She’s a lesbian”).
But what happens when our own feelings/behaviors threaten our masculine codes?
Often, we are unaware of our own masculinity until it is challenged in some way. For example, when guys enter a gym, they quickly become hyper-conscious of their maleness (after all, one of the defining features of masculinity is suddenly on display: our physical prowess). In these moments, it’s as if an internal gatekeeper who stands point on the perimeter of our masculinity is alerted to possible threats—the threat being that stronger, more virile men may be judging our manliness.
Our internal gatekeeper doesn’t just monitor the behavior and reactions of others. Your gatekeeper keeps a watchful eye on your own self-experiences and behaviors, assessing which thoughts, feelings and reactions are in line with your masculine ideals and which internal experiences threaten the very masculinity you created.
Handling Threats to Our Masculinity
When your own feelings threaten your masculine identity, you have several options:
- Repress, minimize or deny that the internal threat exists (a process of self-segregation which must continuously work to narrow and strangle your inner life);
- Attack or devalue the threat (it’s not uncommon to turn against oneself: self-loathing and self-directed anger are examples of men turning against themselves; and even more unfortunately, too often men turn part of this self-directed anger toward others);
- Rationalize the existence of the threat as allowable, but only under certain conditions (“Who wouldn’t feel sad after his wife left him?!”; the implications being that once these unique circumstances pass, we will go back to our masculine default position);
- Adjust and create more flexible and fluid masculine self-definitions that transform perceived “threats” of the feminine into acceptable experiences (though easier said than done, this one gets my vote).
The emotional struggle of men has been written about for over thirty years (see Warren Farrell’s The Liberated Man published in 1974), and this important issue is finally getting the much-needed attention it deserves. As a psychologist (and guy), I frequently witness how rigidly-defined masculine ideals strangle the emotional vitality of men, robbing us of the potentials that exist beyond restrictive, masculine self-definitions.
A more expansive identity that stretches beyond traditional gender roles (a self-expansiveness that allows the freedom for a wider range of experiences) doesn’t mean that men have to be other than they are—what it does mean, however, is that men are given choices and permission to be and feel and act in ways that honor our truest, authentic selves (even if that experience isn’t considered “manly” in the traditional sense of the word).
Until next time!
Dr. Rich Nicastro