The Standard of Masculinity: Struggling with Intimacy and Shame

We could have two sets of values: one on the surface of our minds, and the other below it. Cognitive psychologists often speak of how beliefs affect our thoughts, feelings, and actions, noting that they’re the foundations of who we are in the world. We have moral beliefs and factual ones, both of which serve as guides to an understanding of ourselves. Until we reach the critical phase of development when we learn to assess the world and create our own ethical code, we simply accept our environment’s vision of reality. (Children can’t assess whether or not their parent is lying when they criticize them.) However, one set of values doesn’t just supersede the other in a neatly linear way. More often than not, internal conflict ensues, and we can spend the rest of our lives in it.

Growing up in a patriarchal setting, I was taught the qualities that I had to possess to be considered a man: Dominance, Courage, Conscientiousness, and Stoicism (in the common sense of the term, not the academic one). Unfortunately for me, I didn’t live up to them for the majority of the time when I was a kid. I was afraid of fighting, I was highly emotional, and I could barely control my own behaviors let alone those of others. So, masculinity was a terrifying standard, which I knew I’d likely never embody. I’m sure you can imagine what that can do to a kid trying to find his place in the world.

Although the story seems bleak, there was a great pivot in my life. I’m not exactly sure when it occurred, probably around college; but during this period, I accepted that masculinity meant something else; it was more about being a good human than being a good man. My conception of it shifted to the qualities of generosity, empathy, honesty, and integrity. And that reframe fostered a sense of relief, because I believed that I was better equipped to behave in ways that manifested those qualities instead of the prior ones. I learned all about toxic masculinity and how unhealthy it was for a man to bottle in his feelings. I learned that men struggle with breakups more than women do (on average) because women have intimate relationships with their friends and family, unlike men, who find intimacy solely in their romantic lives, if at all.

The mental health crisis among men is staggering, and I knew then, as I do now, how silly and unhealthy the old standard is; yet, I still struggle with vulnerability and kindness, because god forbid that I would ever be perceived as being weak. I decided to write this blog to highlight the fact that I, like many other men, have accepted a different understanding of what it means to be a man. But, like them, I still struggle with an underlying urge to act on the outdated one. Intuitions are tricky things; they don’t just go away because you no longer consciously believe them.

Our deep-seated intuitions, our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us, are formed and reinforced at an early age, making them formidable opponents for logic. Despite every bone in our body telling us that they’re wrong, with proof in hand, they find ways to creep up on us in our most vulnerable moments. If I’m ever placed in a position where I feel the need to express emotional pain, my old conception of masculinity prevents me from acting, as it’s still my default-setting. Whenever I make a mistake, and we make a bunch of them on our podcast, I frequently revert back to believing that I’m a failure. Those types of intuitions are never fully erased.

And, I feel shame every time I fail at being a man. And this pertains to each important area, from sex to my individual relationships, making me feel the burden of the world on my shoulders. The man is supposed to keep everyone around him happy, a standard that I can’t live up to and find myself resenting more as time passes. Each mistake is perceived through the lens of conscientiousness, drilling my own incompetency into my mind’s depths, or rather, lifting it up from its shadows. A man can’t make preventable mistakes; he can’t ever be weak.

So, my journey entails a consistent pushback against the old standard of being, attempting to integrate those qualities in a nuanced way rather than disavowing them completely. I don’t, and can’t, always be courageous, conscientious, and stoic; and, I definitely shouldn’t try to dominate anyone. As men, our main issue is with a black and white form of thinking, believing that we have to choose either the new or old model. But, I’ve learned that masculinity, like femininity, actually encompasses both, thus eroding the foundations of gendered ideals. Accepting that takes the burden of our rigid expectations away from us; and life begins to flow as we become mentally flexible, able to tolerate the dichotomy of our imperfect selves. Emmy van Deurzen notes that we can be beautiful as well as flawed. Thus, I can be a man while also being human.

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