What does it mean to be a real man?
Over the course of their young adult lives, millions of American boys will by told (by more than one source on more than one occasion) to ‘man up’ – to start acting like a real man. Because of American standards pertaining to masculinity and the male experience, the path from boyhood to manhood is often littered with damaging stereotypes, harmful messages, and unrealistic ideals. Boys in our society are taught to favor dominance over empathy; physical strength over emotional compassion. From an early age, boys learn the importance of sex – but few adequately learn the significance of love (or what it means to love or be loved). In the current day and age, boys are considerably more likely to be expelled or suspended from school than girls. In post-secondary institutions, boys only make up about 43 percent of total enrollees. Boys are more likely to engage in drug and alcohol abuse, and they are significantly more likely to commit violent crimes. Finally, men commit over 79 percent of all completed suicides.
Teaching Our Boys Not to Cry
Are these gender disparities the result of inherent differences between men and women, or do they result from the undeniable impact we have on our sons when we instruct them to, “Stop crying and act like a real man?” The truth is, we have been pouring an ample amount of societal effort into women’s empowerment over the course of the past several decades. And the more we focus on encouraging and emboldening our daughters, the more the emotional needs of our sons are being overlooked. As a society, we have not done much to alter the long-standing and harshly detrimental masculine ideal. Without even recognizing that we are doing so, we teach our boys to begin stifling and disregarding their emotions from a very early age. We instill in them that sadness is a feminine emotion, and that masculinity equates to an apparent lack of fear. Of course, sadness and fear are neither masculine nor feminine – they are human emotions, emotions that we all innately experience on a regular basis. They are healthy and they are normal.
But when we are taught from a young age to disregard and ignore an intrinsic part of our human nature, our authentic selves will suffer severe and lasting consequences.
The Masculine Ideal
Recent studies show that men who fall short of the masculine ideal will overcompensate with the fulfillment of gender stereotypes. When the inherent manliness of a male is threatened in some way, he will typically either begin to blatantly reject all things feminine, or begin to excessively puff out his chest (so to speak). He may resort to anger and physical violence, or begin asserting sexual dominance and feigning emotional indifference. While there is no fixed, essential definition of masculinity, an accumulation of social standards and cultural ideals have shaped what we perceive to be the real man. A man who provides for his family – protects and supports. A man who shows no weakness or frailty – neither physical nor emotional. A man who asserts his power over others by flagrant displays of potency and bellicosity.
This is what a real man is made of. And this unrealistic ideal has lead to a severe increase in serious mental health conditions amongst men in our current society.
What type of things threaten masculinity? In many cases, the men who develop psychological issues that could be considered related to overcompensation were forced to fulfill ‘feminine roles’ early on in life. Perhaps they were forced to take on the parental responsibilities of an absentee mother, or they were sexually abused by a male family member from a young age. Of course, masculinity can be threatened on a smaller scale. A boy may feel as if his masculinity is threatened when he is rejected by a prospective romantic partner, or when he loses a sports game. It is common for boys who feel that they are not living up to the standards of society (or who feel that they are not as inherently manly as they are supposed to be) to begin acting out in a variety of harmful ways. They may pick fights at school, start experimenting with hard drinking and drug use, or engage in self-harming activities. Overcompensation often leads adolescent and teenage boys down a dark path of drug abuse, violence, and self-destruction.
Overcompensation and Self-Destruction
Later on in life, men may feel threatened by the loss of a job, impotence, or infidelity. When men undergo emotionally strenuous experiences such as these, they are significantly more inclined to turn to self-destructive behavioral patterns. They may begin drinking to excess, behaving in sexually promiscuous ways, or pick up a detrimental behavioral pattern – such as gambling – in hopes of regaining their financial status (which equates to a status of power and superiority, however subconsciously). They are also likely to fall victim to a host of mental disorders, ranging from anxiety to depression.
The underlying issue here, which stems back to early childhood (when young boys are first taught what it means to be a man), is a lack of self-identity. By continuously denying their own emotions, young men are not able to develop a firm grasp of who they truly are. We at Next Chapter work with men who have gown accustomed to overcompensating, and who have failed to develop a thorough understanding of who they are as emotional and spiritual beings. We treat trauma, mental disorders, chemical and behavioral addictions as primary disorders, looking back to early childhood for root causes and underlying emotional issues. For more information on our comprehensive program of male-specific recovery, please feel free to contact us today.