Whether you are male or female, the typical view from the outside of a man is someone in charge, someone competent, someone who knows what he’s about and how to get where he’s going. At its best, with women this can inspire a sense of confidence and safety if this man happens to be her partner or her boss. But with other men this can also inspire a feeling of inadequacy: “Why don’t I have it together like he does?” “Why don’t I measure up?” Or in the most basic terms: “Why aren’t I a real man?”
I’ll get to my definition of a “real man” in a bit, but for right now I would like to deconstruct this external edifice of competence, confidence, and can-do. In almost every case I’ve encountered, it is a façade, something created for external consumption. I don’t necessarily mean that all men walking around today are phonies. I mean that beneath that surface veneer of competence and mastery often is a panicked little boy who is trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do. I say this from getting to peak behind the curtain of men from every gamut of society, from the highest level (well, I’ve never had a U.S. president for a client) to the every day. I’ve worked with very wealthy men, very powerful men, very accomplished men, very famous men, very buff bodybuilder men. Inside most of them there seems to lurk in the corner a very scared little boy, afraid he’s going to be found out.
I’m thinking right now about a wonderful loving man, a good provider and a decent, good person. His wife loves him dearly but she is not sure she can live with him because he is so black-and-white, so controlling, so rigid. He won’t go to therapy because he doesn’t have a problem. What’s behind this successful and in-charge man?
After 15 years of marriage, during a weekend workshop he miraculously did agree to go to, he spoke to her for the first time of being separated from his family when he was 4 years old during a battle in his home country’s civil war. He was literally in the middle of a battlefield, crying and lost and alone. All of us can appreciate what that would mean to a 4-year-old, the helplessness and terror, and how that could so easily get locked into a character structure of seeing the world through that terrifying lens.
But what I see happen with men is that they so often are not willing to “go there.” They are not willing to touch upon those places of vulnerability, even when those around them (like this loving wife) would love to be able to support them. Part of it is not wanting to relive the feeling of helplessness, and I think this reluctance is common to both men and women. But men have the added challenge of simply not knowing and trusting that connection with another person in a place of vulnerability can be healing, pleasurable and liberating. In the male psyche, we’re supposed to figure out how to handle it alone.
Another image I like to use when working with men, including those who have more everyday issues from their past like feeling overly responsible from a young age, is that of pushing a lawnmower as a young child.
It’s less common today for boys to make extra money by mowing neighbor’s lawns, but along with delivering newspapers from a bicycle this was a very typical boy thing to do in decades past. But when you try to mow a lawn before you’re physically tall enough, you’re pushing the lawnmower from beneath rather than from above. You’re below and underneath your challenge, rather than above and in charge. And that sensation of not being up for what is required in the situation can get locked in as an experience of coping with life. You always feel like you’re pushing up on the handle of life, able to do it but with great effort, rather than being in charge, literally “having a handle on it.” This means a man struggling to balance all the demands of his life, whether it be providing for his family or caring for his children or making sure the car gets serviced or even trying to figure out why his wife is always upset with him – he feels like he can cope but he just doesn’t feel on top of it.
So what’s to be done? How can this be fixed? This is where I get to my definition of a “real man”: a
real man is a man who knows himself. It is not about biceps or income or car or wife or status or anything like that. A real man, a man who will feel strong and competent and trustworthy, is a man who knows himself, who knows the frightened little boy in the corner and is not ashamed of him, but fathers him. And when that happened, the little boy is up for the challenge, whether of mowing a lawn or of life, because he knows he has his father, big and strong, behind him.