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How to be a man | Psyche

Hoa Hakananai’a, a Moai figure from Easter Island, c1000-1200 CE. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

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Guide

How to be a man

Old ideas of manliness make us miserable. Being labelled ‘toxic’ doesn’t help. A reimagined masculinity is the way forward

by Andrew Reiner + BIO

Hoa Hakananai’a, a Moai figure from Easter Island, c1000-1200 CE. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

Need to know

In the conversation around what it means to be a man, there’s a tug-of-war between two sides that control much of the public discourse. On one side, there are people complaining that young men are too ‘soft’, that they need to stop whining, ‘suck it up’ by swallowing back their feelings – other than anger – and start ‘acting like a man’. On the other side are people insisting that all traditional masculine behaviour is ‘toxic’ and needs to be thrown out with the trash.

Missing from these opposing claims is a discussion about a more nuanced and customised form of gender identity that meets men’s individual emotional needs. And that’s what is needed to be a man today: the freedom to customise one’s gender identity and not be forced into what’s on the rack. One essential article we all need in our wardrobe is emotional resiliency.

Given all the stress and distractions in modern life, it’s hard enough to maintain a dialogue with our inner selves about who we are and want to be. For men, the war over our identity makes it all the more tempting to table deep, explorative thoughts about our own masculinity. But if there was ever a time that we needed to think about, reassess and reimagine what it means to be a man, it’s now.

Why now? Guys: a lot of us are struggling. Even if we no longer buy into many of the traditional and dangerous masculine behaviours – such as hiding our real feelings and reacting aggressively anytime our masculinity feels threatened – many men still unwittingly cling to vestiges of the old scripts that no longer serve us. We might still buy into the beliefs that we’re supposed to avoid asking for help and that we should not talk about our fears, sadness or emotional isolation. After all, competent men – the buffed, cocksure heroes of pop culture – don’t do these things, right?

Well, holding on to that kind of old-school belief could be hurting us. Men are at the fore of multiple public health crises. Worldwide, they die by suicide at more than twice the rate that women do. In the United States, almost three quarters of deaths from excessive drinking occur in men. A study of thousands of Australians found that, while a greater proportion of women than men said they ‘often feel lonely’, men indicated a lack of social support at higher rates (based on their agreement with statements such as ‘people don’t come to visit me as often as I would like’). And the loneliness experienced by many men is associated with increased risk of mental illness and life-threatening diseases. All these public health threats are likely connected, to some extent, to traditional or mainstream masculine norms that teach men to separate from their deeper emotional needs.

The truth is, a lot of men are depressed and might not realise it; there is evidence that depression in men is underdiagnosed. Have there been times you’ve lashed out hard at family members, a partner or child over small things? Risky behaviours you’ve been leaning into more often, such as drinking heavily or driving fast? These and other patterns can point to untreated depression in men. Trying to simply swallow back difficult feelings comes at a cost. Judging rather than accepting ‘negative’ emotions, research suggests, could contribute to worse mental health, including symptoms of depression as well as anxiety.

In research for my book, I asked many boys and men where they turned for emotional support. For those who confided in a male friend, the approaches were often similar – they carefully vetted the problems they shared, typically sticking to problems that might not lead to judgment or rejection (‘targeted transparency’ I call it). Always, they received advice and solutions for problems from these male friends. Again, I’d ask, where did they turn for emotional support? Their response: to female friends, girlfriends, mothers, wives. Or they handled it themselves. Why didn’t they turn to male friends? The most common reasons were that they feared their friends wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing such things, or they didn’t want to ‘burden’ anyone with their problems. So, to keep everything ‘chill’, many males stick to bonding with buddies over beer and sports or other activities that can prevent us from developing deeper emotional trust and intimacy.

This is what we’ve learned that men are supposed to do – downplay our emotional lives, making sacrifices when it comes to our emotional needs. It seems that far too many of us would rather keep our Man Cards in good standing than meet those deeper needs.

But if we’re going to survive and thrive, then we would do ourselves – and everyone in our orbit – a world of good by reimagining what it means to be a man. This has to include developing our inner muscle and strength. It has to include bulking up our emotional resiliency.

This is the hero’s journey.

What to do

Rethinking masculinity gives us an opportunity to access and integrate the deeper, authentic parts of ourselves that many men have been taught to fear and, in turn, hide. (Think: sensitivity and compassion. Facing our shame and fears. Helping and trusting other men.) Adopting a new brand of masculine strength gives us permission to expand the potential of our identities. Here are some ways to begin.

Ask questions about masculinity

For men to succeed in the classroom and workplace, a new toolkit is required, one that includes self-awareness, self-restraint, empathy, tolerance, collaboration and strong communication skills. Usually, we’re expected to figure this out on our own. Why not start learning together?

One way to do that is to sit down with a male friend or two and have a conversation about traditional or mainstream masculinity. Questions to consider asking are:

  • What qualities of traditional masculinity are worth ‘keeping’? Why?
  • Which ones are worth letting go of? Why?
  • What kinds of things should men be able to discuss openly without judgment?
  • What kind of behaviours should men be allowed to engage in without judgment?
  • What feelings should men be able to feel and show without judgment?

Discuss these or write down your responses.

Embrace emotional honesty

One of the falsehoods of traditional masculinity is the notion that ignoring or denying the real feelings beneath anger makes men tougher. Learning instead to accept, sit with and even engage with the feelings you fear could lead to greater emotional wellbeing and resiliency. As many people who have undertaken therapy know, the longer we suppress feelings, the more darkly fearsome and overwhelmingly large they become. Exposing them to the light of day can help us realise that they are more manageable than we thought. Given the mental health crises that men face globally, it’s urgent to see emotional honesty for what it is: a source of inner strength.

Try these small steps for learning to be with challenging emotions:

  • Start with some safe distance – write down something about a time from your past when you felt sad, scared or lonely.
  • Write about the event that led to this emotional state. It’s OK to keep the recollection general if it’s still painful to recall.
  • If you can remember, describe the physical sensations you felt. (Did you feel queasy or even nauseous? Did your stomach feel as if it was tied in knots? Was your heart pounding in your chest? Any other sensations you can recall?)
  • Then describe how you coped with the feelings you experienced. What did you do with these feelings? Did you force them down? If so, why? Did you share them with anyone? If so, how did that person react? Or, how else did you cope with them?
  • Now imagine yourself at your present age, sitting next to your past self, at the time when these feelings arose. Write down what you would say to your past self as gentle advice or suggestions for sitting with and accepting these feelings. Let your younger self know that it’s okay and safe to have these feelings – that they are a normal, natural part of being a healthy human.

Change the way you bond with male friends

Men tend to connect with male friends shoulder-to-shoulder. That is, we might consider our emotional needs met when we spend time with guy friends doing such activities as mountain biking, video gaming, playing poker, or watching sports on television while drinking beer. It’s true that sharing such activities with friends takes some of the bite out of loneliness. But it can also conveniently distract from our deeper emotional lives.

As many women grasp in their friendships, conversations in which people open up and show mutual empathy can decrease feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression. And they increase mutual trust. Adding the essential layer of emotional disclosure to male friendships will ultimately strengthen them and strengthen us individually. Importantly, this doesn’t mean men need to stop connecting with male friends through beer or sports – it means balancing friendships with greater emotional transparency. This could be as simple as you and a friend doing an honest ‘check-in’ with each other before starting an activity, taking turns sharing how you feel physically or mentally.

Create emotional safety nets

The nearly 200 boys and men I interviewed for my book turned to male friends for solutions to a few specific problems that they felt safe sharing. They were more likely to find a true ‘safe space’ – where they could share their frustrations, fears and sadness, as well as deep joy – with female friends or romantic partners. Now, if adolescent boys and men want to confide in their female friends and partners, that’s great. But as men get older, their friendship networks with women often erode. If they’re heterosexual and their romantic partnerships end, they risk having no one with whom they feel that they can share deeply.

All of us, regardless of sexual orientation, can greatly benefit from taking a page out of women’s playbooks. Many women are masters at creating networks in which they support each other, not just professionally but emotionally. Both are essential. One of the easiest ways to learn how to develop this safety net ‘muscle’ is to join a men’s group.

These gatherings of men in private places or online (facilitated by mental health professionals, informal groups of men, or organisations such as Men’s Group, Evryman and ManKind Project ) offer men something they sorely need: the chance to talk openly and honestly about their deeper emotional lives. Within these groups, men also learn to provide each other with emotional support – specifically, empathy and mutual listening, as opposed to the prescriptive solutions and advice men commonly give each other. Another option that requires less initial risk: posting on one of the online platforms where men can share their struggles anonymously and receive support, as well as commiseration, which is crucial. Tethr, for example, is billed as the first app where men find peer-to-peer support in an online community that connects them for open and honest conversations about life.

In these ‘safe spaces’, men can learn how to trust other men on a deeper, emotional level. For many men, this is transformative, given that competition is scripted into the narrative of male friendships early in life. This subtle but potent competition – laughed off as harmless one-upmanship – can erode trust. Once we create these ‘safe spaces’, it becomes easier to enter into male-centred networks and to benefit from (and provide) deeper, stronger, sustaining support.

Rebrand old ‘manly’ traits

On the journey to rethinking masculinity, there are going to be some old-school masculine traits you might feel strongly about keeping. For instance, some men are naturally less talkative, especially with regard to our emotions, while others really love competing aggressively. There’s nothing wrong with these traits – as long as we are open to rethinking and tweaking them so that they still point us down the path to greater empathy, compassion and emotional resiliency. So, if you’re more introverted, you still want to make an effort to open up about your emotions when the occasion calls for it.

For a long time, I was a highly competitive person: in sports, at work, with guy friends. I’ve had to rethink the role of competition in my life. Was it motivating me not just to excel but to be the best version of myself I could be? Or was it harming others (eg, demeaning them for my gain)? I realised that sometimes it was the latter and that, if I was going to hang on to my competitive streak, I was going to have to reimagine it as a means of self-motivation that didn’t simultaneously cause needless harm to others. This isn’t a dynamic most guys are even aware of, because it’s so subtly woven into the fabric of male-male friendships and interactions. It might surface when one man makes fun of another about ordering a salad or a glass of wine with dinner, or for tearing up over something. While many men insist that they’re simply ‘busting the chops’ of another guy, competition often underpins this behaviour. It’s a form of one-upmanship – trying to increase one’s manly status while undermining another guy’s.

When men decide to compete – in all parts of life – without demeaning other men in the process, they can create a new, more supportive and generative form of competition. I have intentionally stopped ragging on my own friends and have noticed that they do it far less to me as well. This has created a space in which we now talk a bit more openly about our struggles and are more likely to support each other. The pressure of one-upmanship has been removed.

Accept help – and offer it

Many of us know that men are less likely to seek help for mental health struggles than are women. What doesn’t get discussed as much, and what surely contributes to this problem, is that traditional masculine norms actively discourage men from seeking help in most parts of their lives. That can further teach men to refrain from helping other men who aren’t intimates. Men I interviewed told me that they don’t extend themselves to other men because they don’t want to ‘embarrass’ another guy or to ‘intrude’ on his privacy, even in public. These excuses seem to mask a deeper concern: many men fear it will make them appear too helpful. Too feminine.

Asking for and offering help is perhaps the easiest first step toward embracing a healthier brand of masculinity. You can practise this in small ways, such as opening the door for a guy who is exiting the store with packages in both hands, or helping a guy pick up the cans he knocked over. You can graduate to asking a man who looks burdened if he’s OK, if he needs help with anything. Of course, you can also start by asking for help yourself.

Ultimately, it’s important to acknowledge this deeper truth: it feels good to have someone, be it a friend or a stranger, offer help. This feeling lets you know that you are cared for, that other people can have your back if you need assistance. Be honest: who doesn’t want and need this deep feeling of security?

Key points – How to be a man

  • Many men embrace aspects of traditional masculine identity – such as trying to handle problems alone or declining to talk about certain emotions – that don’t serve them well, especially at a time when men’s rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness and suicide are so high.
  • If they discuss their ‘negative’ emotions at all, many men turn to female friends and partners for emotional support. They turn to male friends for advice about safer, less intimate subjects, fearing judgment if they discuss anything that makes them appear vulnerable. This perpetuates emotional distrust among men.
  • Being honest about your feelings rather than ignoring or denying them is not a sign of weakness, but rather a source of inner strength.
  • You can make connecting with emotional honesty part of male bonding sessions – even just by checking in to see how each person is feeling. Men’s groups and online communities can provide an expanded emotional safety net.
  • Traditionally ‘manly’ qualities can be preserved but reimagined. Competitiveness is a powerful motivator, but frequently denigrating or belittling other men in your life undermines deep trust in these relationships.
  • Men’s relationships would benefit from less of a narrow focus on advice-giving and problem-solving and more mutual support, commiseration, empathy and nurturing.

Learn more

Many fathers have been doing a fantastic job of learning how to meet daughters where they are, and of being a more ‘present’ parent – by talking with them on an emotional level, by teaching them their own love of sports, by hugging them, by painting their fingernails and doing their hair, or by donning a tutu and dancing with them (these images are blasted across social media).

But what about meeting their sons where they are? Not so much.

Sure, we see fathers wrestling with sons, playing soccer or basketball, throwing a football around. Often, these are activities that fathers want their sons to love and enjoy. But there is a dearth of men openly, let alone publicly, hugging their sons. There are not enough fathers practising and modelling emotional honesty with their sons. Research suggests that fathers (and mothers) tend to talk differently to sons than they do to daughters, using less language with toddler sons related to emotional self-awareness and more language related to competition. Such differences could have implications for boys, then men, later in life.

Why do too many fathers withhold emotional literacy from their sons? Perhaps they fear raising ‘soft’ boys – they fear raising incompetent men. Yet research has shown that girls and young women are outpacing boys and young men in the classroom, including at the highest levels of educational achievement. They have been gaining in the workforce, too. It seems a recipe that includes emotional support and nurturing is creating many competent, resilient young women. It could help create competent, resilient young men as well. Fathers can start this needed paradigm shift in small steps: for instance, by sometimes replacing fist-bumps or handshakes with hugging their sons. And this: sharing their deeper emotional lives with their sons – especially times in their lives when they’ve been scared.

Boys need a new brand of positive role-modelling from educators and coaches, too. During research for my book, I was struck by how many male teachers and coaches as young as in their 30s were still sending boys the message that, to become ascendant men, they needed to ‘toughen up’. They should not cry, whine or ask too many questions (a few were OK). These messages ultimately teach boys to swallow their sadness, fear and frustration, to handle all problems on their own and to always have an answer, to always appear right. The takeaway for boys: your emotions, curiosity and admission that you need help betray vulnerability and weakness. They make you a less competent man.

But, again, learning to accept and embrace the full spectrum of our emotional lives actually increases emotional resiliency. Curiosity encourages the reflex for lifelong learning and a willingness to consider other perspectives. Asking for and receiving help increases feelings of connection with others and decreases feelings of alienation.

Considering that many male teachers and coaches act as primary role models for boys, they too have an opportunity, not to mention a responsibility, to meet boys where they are developmentally – to give them the new toolkit they will need to succeed in a world that increasingly rewards self-awareness, curiosity and collaboration.

Links & books

My book, Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency (2020), explores the key factors preventing men from thriving in a rapidly changing world. Research and real-life stories illustrate how leaning into emotional resiliency is essential for healthier masculinity.

Another book, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (1999), by the child psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, provides insights into why many boys feel frustrated, confused and isolated. As incisive now as it was years ago, it’s a great resource for both mothers or fathers of boys.

A CNN segment from April 2021 with Christiane Amanpour, in which I participated, examines the overlooked public health crises affecting men, especially untreated depression, emotional isolation and suicide.

The documentary The Mask You Live In (2015) excels in its compassion, context and moving first-person stories. It offers a primer for understanding the limiting masculine script foisted upon innocent boys. The film also sheds light on the heroic efforts boys and men are making to create a healthier form of masculinity.

In my article ‘For Father’s Day, Let’s Redefine Masculinity So Dads Can Give Boys What They Need’ (2021), I challenged the old trope that boys need to be raised as ‘hard’ and unemotional if they are to grow into competent men.

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29 September 2021