Men can be vulnerable if only we allow them to be says the counsellor and relationship coach Antony Sammeroff.
—This is article #20 in our series of #100Voices4Men and boys
There is an ancient taboo on a man showing his vulnerability. This is perhaps the product of a time when the strict gender role for women was to raise children and make home, while it was the assumed responsibility of a man to provide resources and protection.
In this time a man who did not want to work a dangerous job could not have provided the first, and a man who did not want to fight a war could not provide the second. And so, every society that succeeded only succeeded by shaming men who heeded their own sense of vulnerability. Emotions such as anger and pride which could be applied to dominance may have been permitted, but fear, sadness, grief, guilt, shame and anxiety were best ignored.
It is a little known fact that little boys receive more physical punishment than little girls, and studies correlate frequency of physical punishment to the rate of domestic violence. Baby boys are, on average, allowed to cry for longer without being comforted . As toddlers they are told that “big boys don’t cry”, and as adolescents they are told to “man up and take it.”
The pattern is then bolstered by the man’s stereotypical gender role at work. Men succeed in gaining promotions by outcompeting other men. A lawyerwho says to the defence counsel ‘that’s a good point we hadn’t considered, can my client and I have a moment to discuss that?’ will make a terrible lawyer, but a wonderful partner! A man who hones the skill of interrupting and undermining his opponent excels in the courtroom and the office, but if he brings these antisocial disciplines home to verbally abuse his wife and undermine the confidence of his children he will make a terrible husband.
We need to teach men to care for themselves first
When we diminish a man’s capacity for self-empathy we diminish his capacity to empathise with others. Research shows that boys, on average, tend to be more transactional than girls, meaning that they “act out” what has been done to them more often than girls who are more likely to “act it in” on themselves.
The prison psychologist, James Gillian (husband of the famous feminist Carol Gillian) found in his work with some of the most violent men in America that what often motivated them to violence was an idea they internalized from their environment that to be a man meant to dominate in order to gain respect. Prisoners said to him things like “James, I never felt so much respect in my life as when I had a gun in my hand.” Part of rehabilitating these criminals was to break down and recreate their own imagination of what manhood meant to them.
In my own work as a counsellor and relationship coach I am faced with the pain of men who feel that even admitting they have a struggle, such as with attracting a woman, is humiliating because according to the standards they have inherited from their upbringing, it is an admission of their failure as a man. If it’s humiliating to even admit you have a problem, how do you go about getting help? No wonder the majority of people who go to counselling or therapy are women.
Acknowledging men’s pain does not diminish women’s pain
It does not help the cause of mutual understanding when any discussion of men’s issues are too often met with generic responses such as a sarcastic “poor men” or a “yeah, but women have it worse.” How is this to further the cause of men learning to discuss their grievances openly and honestly and express their emotions? Who would tell a sexual assault victim that a rape victim had it worse? The pain of one sex does not negate or diminish the pain of another and the taboo on male vulnerability has to go! It is only through mutual understanding of the challenges that face each sex that we can build a more just order.
All men’s issues eventually become women’s issues because the extent to which men feel understood is likely to reflect the extent to which they are willing to be challenged and offer the same understanding to women. Of course the reverse is also true.
While Women’s Studies has rightly critiqued the traditional roles which women were expected to fulfil with a view to expanding their options and opportunities many have claimed that history is men’s studies. In fact all that history does for a man is to reinforce his traditional role as a performance machine. The greatest of men, in the historic view, is he who “heroically” risks his life in war, or has the privilege of sending other men to kill and die for their nation state.
Now is the time to critique the traditional role of the male as an emotionless automaton built to provide and compete. The ultimate beneficiaries will be our children who will have better fathers and happier mothers who will model the skills necessary for them to form rich, open and honest relationships, and the tools to forge new workplaces based on mutual empathy rather than one-upmanship and competition.
—Picture credit:Flickr/Jason Roberts
Antony Sammeroff is a relationship coach and counsellor living in Edinburgh, Scotland , where he runs workshops to help people create fulfilling relationships by improving the way they communicate with themselves and others. Antony answers questions and posts videos on improving relationship and communication skills on his new youtube channel Enrich Your Life
You can find all of the #100Voices4Men articles that will be published in the run up to International Men’s Day 2014 by clicking on this link—#100Voices4Men—and follow the discussion on twitter by searching for #100Voices4Men.
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