The title of this column may seem misleading to my regular readers. So, let me be clear from the beginning: this column is not my attempt to apologize to men for their difficult, horrible lives. I have said this before in many columns and I’ll say it again: it is a great privilege to be a man in our culture. Male privilege is alive and well. And as a man, I can tell you that on paper, it’s fantastic.
But male privilege is something I am not happy about nor proud of.
Because the patriarchy within which we all live ultimately comes with incredibly high costs for women. And it also comes, ultimately, with high costs for men, costs that may not be readily apparent, and yet, are only compounding the plague of the patriarchy. So while we may have an easier road at work, in moving about in our day, while we don’t have to deal with the direct and subtle sexism women face on a daily, hourly basis, the old adage, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” certainly rings true.
So what’s price we directly pay as a result of patriarchy?
There is a look on the faces of men that I always see when they are confronting a decision about whether or not to be vulnerable. They look trapped, they look like they’re in pain–because they are. You see, many of us men are trapped by the patriarchy, trapped by our social conditioning. What traps us? We are trapped by our difficulty with vulnerability, by our emotions, we are trapped by the constructs of masculinity.
The inability of many men to express vulnerability isn’t just a personal consequence that directly impacts the men and perhaps those closest to them.
The consequences of men having great difficulty with expressing vulnerability are not only widespread in all facets of society, but also ravage the strengths of human relationships. When men can’t admit and express their fears, discomforts, vulnerabilities, it causes unnecessary wars, dysfunctional leadership at the highest levels of government, incompetent leadership in public and private companies, and worse, behavior that leaves too many women AND men feeling lonely.
In a piece he wrote for the New York Times about how men communicate, publisher and writer Ben Schrank best describes the emotional constraints of men:
“Men no longer know how to fight. Don’t get me wrong — we know how to confront strangers when they cut in line at the butcher’s or block the door on the subway. What we don’t know how to do is have the kind of unpleasant talks that articulate feelings to real friends when those friends ignore our wives at a dinner, or don’t think to call us when we are fired. Instead, we either shrug off the slight or end the friendship.”
I realize that not every man face these difficulties and that not every man has trouble with talking openly about their insecurities or dissatisfactions. I also recognize that men are beginning to and throw away the arcane rules of masculinity.
But let’s be honest with ourselves, many, many men are still stuck, still entrapped by their conditioning.
And it’s is really about one thing: the ego. And in the case of this column, the ever-present exploding male ego.
I don’t mean to imply that all incidents of vulnerability have to do with ego, some people have been shut down so much they have a difficult time expressing vulnerability for fear of getting shut down yet again, but in adulthood, it’s rooted in ego.
So, is there even a possibility of a solution?
In my mind, there is no more powerful force than empathy. And the first step of healing any wound, solving any problem, is to have empathy. Without empathy, nothing will happen. So that’s why this column is entitled “An Apology To Men,” because I understand why so many men are trapped.
Let me be clear, I am not apologizing on behalf of men, I am not apologizing for their/our actions, I am not stripping accountability from us men for our bad behavior or the pain we may have caused others.
What I’m doing is apologizing to the little boy inside all of us men who was willing to show our vulnerability, but was subsequently shut down. I am empathizing with the pain, frustration, and fear caused by the messed-up social conditioning and training, we men have received, which makes us feel compelled to abide by a set of rules with regard to maintaining masculinity.
So here it goes, gentleman….
I’m sorry that you can’t admit your feelings are hurt because such admissions would make you feel and look weak (and yes, your feelings can be hurt when you’re 40, 50, 60 etc…having your feelings hurt doesn’t end when you’re 12). Instead you say you’re angry.
I’m also sorry that anger becomes your alternate emotional solution because there is a difference between the two.
I’m sorry that you have to constantly say words like “Dude,” “Bro,” “Bra,” “Broseph” and call everyone–even people you’ve just met–“buddy,” in an effort to show that you’re a man’s man. Side note: You can’t call 100 people “buddy” and have it mean something.
I’m sorry that you can’t adequately express your insecurities about your image and so, I’m sorry that you won’t be able say that you feel uncomfortable in your clothes or that you feel fat to your male friends. Men have insecurities about their bodies, just like many women–and you should think about expressing those insecurities in a different way than “I want to get ripped.”
I’m sorry that your man-training, the set of rules you either consciously or unconsciously take on when you grow up, has taught you that in an effort to remain and appear manly, you have to act like a jerk to women.
I’m sorry that you’ve been taught that treating your girlfriend with respect is equivalent to being “whipped” or not manly.
I’m sorry that you ignore or retreat from situations, arguments, emails, text messages that require any admission of guilt or culpability, because all of those things require being vulnerable. It’s called cafeteria responding and it makes the people in your life feel like shit.
I’m sorry that your most heartfelt emotional, loving moments often come when you are shamed or guilted into apologizing. Wouldn’t it be nice (and also powerful) to say the things you say in those moments when you are happy and say them unsolicited?
I’m sorry that you feel heterosexual pressure from your male friends to have sex with someone when you don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable. And I’m equally sorry that you feel the need to lie about your sexual exploits to make you seem more manly, more heterosexual, as a way to appease your male friends.
I’m sorry that “your way” of expressing that you like someone is to make fun of them or use sarcasm. It’s not cute, it’s not helpful, and it’s very unattractive.
I’m sorry that you have to deepen your voice when you answer the phone (you know exactly what I’m talking about). We may laugh about this, but it’s actually just indicative of your conscious or unconscious belief that you somehow need to “man up.”
I’m sorry that you refuse to be the soft-hearted, vulnerable man around your male friends and I’m sorry that the women in your life feel as if you’re a different man in the presence of the male friends in your life.
I’m sorry that it makes you feel uncomfortable to see someone cry and that sometimes you may say or demand that the crying stop, instead of letting that person whom you purport to love express their genuine feelings.
I’m sorry that you can’t remember the last time you cried or that you have to pretend that you don’t remember the last time you cried.
I’m sorry that you are constantly living in anxiety or fear of being seen as gay, even though you’re not.
I’m sorry that you can’t come out of the closet because of all the real and perceived implications that such honesty has on your life, especially the fear you will no longer be seen as a real man.
I’m sorry that you have to use phrases like “let’s hug it out” or “bring it in for a hug,” in a way to diminish the anxiety you have around showing other men affection. It’s as if saying those phrases somehow envelopes you in a cloak of absolution from the masculinity gods.
I’m sorry that you have to have “your way” of saying “I love you” and “I’m sorry,” instead of really just saying those words.
I’m sorry that your dog gets your sweet, vulnerable side only because you know your dog isn’t going to call you “gay” or “weak” or say you’re not a man enough. Your dog, like all the people in your life, just wants “you”.
I’m sorry that you need alcohol to express vulnerability.
I’m sorry that you have to act like nothing happened after a breakup in an effort to insulate yourself from the pain and frustration. I’m sorry because that only means the pain is only going to get worse and it will only carry forward to future relationships.
So here’s a message to men…it’s time to change…now.
Without expressing a full range of emotions, you are missing out on life. Without expressing a full range of emotions, your ability to empathize with the people you love and with all humans will greatly dissipate as each day passes. Read: You are losing not only the connection to yourself, but you are also losing your connection to others.
I find it incredibly frustrating that people believe that the difference between a woman and man’s ability to engage in emotional communication is a consequence of biology. Or, that it’s (and here’s my least favorite phrase), ”Just the way things are.”
Our behaviors are learned, and a man’s inability to express authentic vulnerability have nothing to do with biology and everything to do with conditioning.
But now, you have a choice. Because we can’t blame our conditioning forever. Once we have become aware of how cultural conditioning impacts our tendency to be emotionally closed, the onus is on us men to get out from underneath our traps.
Men who are trapped share a common pattern where all the people around these men are constantly yearning for some sort of emotion, attention, validation from them. These relatives, partners, friends, co-workers just want to hear words with some sort of emotional intensity behind it.
The usual response coming from the men are:
“They know I love them”
“They know how I feel”
“They know I appreciate them”
and my least favorite:
“I love you more than you know.”
But the reality is, they really don’t know, they’re waiting for you to tell them, and not when they ask or beg for it.
Empathy is not a one-way street. Now that you have been the recipient of empathy, you have the responsibility to be more emotionally explicit to the people who have been yearning for the real you. You don’t have to wonder what it has been like for them, you know exactly what it’s like, it’s the way you’ve felt for most of your life: trapped.
And they’re waiting to get out just as much as you are.
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