The Fear of Feeling: Being a ‘Man’ in the Twenty First Century
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ that has been popularized by the eponymous book by John Gray; but we aren’t from different planets. Metaphors aside, men and women are from the same place, Earth, which means we seek and value the same thing: love.
In socio-psychological discourses, masculinity is associated with logic, reason, and power whereas femininity is associated with feeling, creativity, and compassion. But this dichotomous thinking is not so straight forward, for we are each both masculine and feminine, which is part of the richness of our being; and yet we deny some of those aspects of ourselves.
Because it’s ‘uncool’ for men to seek love, isn’t it? In fact, it’s unmanly for men to have feelings, let alone show them or talk about them, right?
Wrong. Here’s why.
In a patriarchal culture, emotions are synonymous with weakness: men are educated in denying or repressing their feminine side in order to protect their Ego, their manliness, so that we in turn run and hide from our feelings out of shame or fear. But what are we so afraid of?
If we don’t conform to the masculine stereotype — if we appear too ‘feminine’ — then our families, our ‘friends’, our peers, or even strangers may judge us as weak and effeminate: we are afraid of what others think at the risk of being outcast from our tribe, branded ‘different’, and so we seek the safety of social conformity and in turn fulfil society’s expectations, thereby perpetuating the stereotype. But in doing so we deny or even repress our feelings rather than expressing them: we wear masks rather than being true to ourselves, because to wear our emotions — including our insecurities — on our sleeve means being vulnerable, which in the eyes of a patriarchal society is tantamount to weakness. In all honesty, opening myself up in writing this blog meant being vulnerable, and I had my reservations about it, which just goes to show how much I’ve been indoctrinated by the patriarchal bullshit.
But where did this bullshit come from?
Masculine identities are cultural fabrications created by generational attitudes — including our erroneous and damaging history of prejudice, stereotyping, and gender inequality — that gradually become ingrained as cultural conventions and instilled in us in our socialisation. All of this is perpetuated, of course, by the all-powerful media, which itself is androcentric and full of shit.
We are judged by everyone: by our colleagues, our families, our social circles; by both the men and women we encounter, because the false conceptions of manhood that have been force fed to us are part of women’s socialization, too, just as our conceptions of ‘femininity’ have been fabricated, inherited, and perpetuated. So we often fulfil male stereotypes in order to be attractive to the opposite (or same) sex. We look at images of buff guys and assimilate it as the ideal, or what others desire in a man. Physical strength is lauded over intellect and emotion: superficial appearance is everything, it would seem. This belief is kept alive on social media in the form of ‘selfies’ that draw attention to our bodies rather than focusing on our minds and, more daringly, our feelings.
I am no exception. I have swallowed the same bullshit.
Throughout my adult life I have struggled with low self-esteem. I was never popular at school, especially with the opposite sex. I was teased for being brainy, which was ‘uncool’ and, on reflection, the reason why I was rejected by girls. I associated that rejection with ugliness, and so I perpetuated a vicious cycle by focussing on nurturing my intellect to compensate for what I lacked in physical appearance. Studying and achieving good grades was a form of self-valorization, for it proved to myself that I was ‘good enough’ in spite of my ugliness and unpopularity. But this lack of self-worth, coupled with a feeling of not fitting in, soon translated to my body. As a teen I was anorexic. I associated attractiveness with being skinny, and my unhealthy relationship with food became a means by which I felt I had some sense of control over my self, or at least over my body: self-denial meant I was in control, right? Wrong. I was delusional, for the voice in my head that told me I was ugly (and resulted in depriving myself of food) was the same voice that told me I wasn’t good enough. So after several years of suffering with this demon, I got tired of feeling ugly both on the inside as well as on the outside, and I turned to weight lifting as my ‘therapy’. Building my body gave me confidence, as if muscle mass were somehow an externalization of a growing inner confidence. Did it work? Yes, to an extent: I now lift weights because I choose to and because I love it; I no longer do it out of some need to prove myself or my inner worth. It took a lot of self-exploration and inner healing to get to this place, and it entailed a lot of honesty and vulnerability — which is of course what so many men are afraid of. I don’t know if I will ever outrun my demons, but learning to understand where they came from, and empowering myself to think differently, is a step in the right direction.
If our masculine identities are constructed through patriarchal ideologies and discourses, then what defines ‘patriarchy’? Put simply, power: the attainment and preservation of dominance and control. In this instance ‘power’ equates to Ego, which is part of our survival mechanism: the survival of the fittest, the survival of the strongest, the survival of the most ‘powerful’. But at the very heart of this desire for power is fear: the fear of losing that power.
The paradoxical thing about paradigms built on power is that those paradigms perpetually shift. For example, the physicality of a ‘man’ has changed massively over recent decades. Once upon a time, in my living memory, the ‘action hero’ stereotype — portrayed in the movies by the likes of Schwarzenegger, the very embodiment of strength and power — was in vogue and seemingly defined masculinity, whereas these days it’s not so much muscle as tattoos and big beards that are associated with manliness; although it should be said that some gender stereotypes are being redefined, as more and more women have body art, which is refreshingly progressive.
So what happens when bushy beards are no longer fashionable? The paradigm shifts, the stereotype changes, and we all follow suit like obedient sheep. We therefore need a definition of manliness that is real, not transient: a version of masculinity that is from the heart and speaks our truth; and what’s more real than breaking down pre-conceived, erroneous and damaging beliefs and perceptions about what makes a man?
By conforming to social expectations and by fulfilling social stereotypes, we are not powerful; rather we perpetuate the power of patriarchy. Women are gradually becoming more empowered, which is about fucking time; but what about us blokes that are stuck with the shifting stereotypes of manhood, and inwardly lost in fear of judgment for not living up to them?
How do we break from the patriarchy that we, as a society, have inherited but no longer wish to be a part of? At what point do we take control in forming our own identity? How do we take our power back?
By being our own judge; but more importantly to judge our self-worth according to our own values and principles, and not by some external standard or expectation. To be truly powerful means to be authentic, which means opening our hearts, expressing our feelings, and owning our insecurities. We need to embrace our feminine side, for that is where our creativity and compassion resides, and by doing so we can articulate our inner depths with transparency and insight; for self-exploration and self-expression is vital to living an emotionally healthy life, and it is vital to nurturing emotionally healthy relationships. The only way to live with authenticity is to own and express our feminine aspect, which means owning and expressing our feelings. Indeed, men want security and love just as much as women do, and (some) men want to connect with their partner on a deep, intimate, soul level. The problem is that some men don’t admit it, or pretend otherwise, and as a result make themselves emotionally unavailable, which can lead to all manner of interrelationship issues. Indeed, emotional suppression is not only stifling to our self-expression and creativity; it is also dangerous, for our feelings may manifest in emotional outbursts of anger, or even violent behaviour.
If manliness is associated with power, then that idea of power is egocentric: true power is the ability to positively influence and inspire others, and with this understanding of true power we find that the most powerful men in our history are those who spoke, who acted, who lived with feeling — that is, with selfless love and with compassion: Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and the like are men who spoke their truth and were not afraid to do so; but whilst their vision was one of inclusion and integration on a societal, even global scale, how might we change our perception of masculinity on a personal level?
It is a commonplace that in order to be truly integrated, internally, and in order to live with authenticity, we must embrace both our masculine and feminine aspects. The way to do this is to stop running, stop hiding, and start owning our feminine side, for this is how we achieve balance, both psychically and emotionally. It is also how we build strong, healthy, inclusive relationships, for in order to do so we must first be healthy and whole within ourselves.
And so if our identities of manhood are fabricated by patriarchy out of fear, and if we perpetuate those identities out of fear of judgment, then the way to take our power back is to fuck fear and live with feeling, unashamedly and unapologetically. Why hide how we feel? Why deny what we truly seek? Why pretend to be something we are not? We all have insecurities, so why kid ourselves otherwise? Being unafraid to be vulnerable is real strength, and being true to our selves is real power.
So stop being told how to ‘be a man’. Be yourself and speak your truth, because that’s the most powerful thing you can possibly do.