Updated: Jul 15, 2021
The working man is a central, vital figure in the male psyche. It conjures images of competency, success and value, as well loneliness, emptiness and addiction. Here is my take on the multiple lived experiences and complexities of men and work.
Work as meaningless and vocation
A man’s work has the potential to be a potent expression of our powers. The power to make a difference in the world. The power to protect and provide. The power to imagine and create something new. The power to think and do.
In our therapisation of men, it can be easy to undermine these powers. Under the unrelenting pressure to ‘be a man’, the tendency for men to seek power, to do (something, anything), to accomplish and produce, and the pressures to be the protector and provider, can become the strains that crack a man’s body and soul. More, they can be the very things that prevent a man who is cracking from seeking and finding the help they need: men are self-reliant and independent, so the unwritten rule goes. Yet, man - as powerful, kingly even - is part of us. It’s written into our cultural stories of men. It’s written into our heart’s longings.
A masculinity without these powers is no positive vision of a man. It’s a mere reaction to the problems that occur when these become inflexible social expectations. This ‘double binding’ of men socially, whereby we both say men must fulfill these roles and we say that these roles are the problem, paralyses men so that they cannot make any real change in their lives or in our society. They are doomed if they do and doomed if they don’t.
For, we want men to be producers in our industrialised, economy-driven society. And these social pressures filter down into our family systems and microcultures so that, for many men, if they are not effective producers in a job, they are left feeling unwanted and worthless. Yet this compromised vision of men as mere producers in our globalised economy rips men away from something truly meaningful to their being in the world. The ‘successful’ man is left bereft and dehumanised into a machine, cog, or, at best, a consumer. If the man’s work circumstances also give little room for autonomy, or limit their ability to protect and provide for their loved ones, then this deep part of who he is is left truly bereft. Such a man may seek some understanding of what is going on, and they may be told it is because they have pursued success, productivity, being the provider and protector, and not got in touch with their feelings. The problem, they are told, is their adherence to the man code.
But the double bind stops us from seeing the real problem. Masculinity is not the problem. The social values of fearful competing in a globalised economy, of the primacy placed on industrialised productivity against the flourishing of the person, are the problem. Thus, the tie between masculinity and work, per se, is not the problem; masculinity tied to work in this dehumanising context is. Work becomes merely a way of paying the bills. Or a career to succeed in. Rather than the space in their lives where men have the opportunity to connect with and express their potency: their vast capacities to think and to do, protect and provide, and to make a difference. Still, work’s tie to masculinity can take the form of vocation: a calling, a sense of this is what is mine to do here and now in the realities and context of my life.
Work as escape and rhythm
The tying of masculinity to industrialised work, whilst emphasising the value of their thinking and doing, has removed men from feeling. The old adage, ‘real men don’t cry’, is subtly or overtly communicated to boys from a young age, almost inevitably. And so the emotional work can be given over to women.
The problem for men is that they crave relationship - and relationship is as much to do with feeling (feeling the other and being felt) as thinking and doing. Indeed, perhaps this is the definition of intimacy. So a man inevitably finds himself having to deal with feeling. Maybe from a partner. Maybe, further down the line, from a family.
Now a man has a bizarre relationship with feeling. The natural feelings that arise in his body are not free to come and go as they used to be when he was a toddler. They are frozen within. They could, after all, so he is told, rip him out of the man tribe, the tribe of his father who wasn’t there when he was young, but was out in the world thinking and doing. And so a man is disconnected from feeling, disdainful of it, and at root fearful of this vital part of his being. Moreover, when his feelings can no longer be frozen solid and start to break out, it’s as if he’s in competition with them. He’s got to deal with his feelings, get on top of them, not let them get him down. He competes with feeling by thinking and doing.
And now comes a person who demands of him connection with their feeling, and desires to feel his feeling. His partner yearns for this intimacy. His toddler children have their feelings exploding left, right and centre, requiring him to respond to feeling. Yet he never learned how. The only experience he has at his disposal is his toddler self, where feeling is exploding everywhere, his boyhood self where his feeling was shamed, or his conditioned self, where his feelings were shut down. No wonder relationships get so overwhelming for a man. No wonder the way men respond can seem bizarre to women!
And so work - the place where he doesn't have to feel, but can inhabit the much safer zones of thinking and doing - becomes a very attractive place to be. Emotional work becomes the women’s task at home. And even at work, relational skills are framed as ‘soft skills’, soft like a woman’s skin, and are the domain of the female-populated HR department.
The man therefore becomes the working father who is rarely present; who, in the eyes of the child, is off out in the world thinking and doing. We become the working father who, even when physically present, is preoccupied with jobs so that they cannot really be present with the child and all their emotional demands. We become the working father who is, perhaps out of his own awareness, training his son to become a productive, self-reliant worker, cut off from his own feelings, and so cut off from others. And himself.
Yet the possibility of work is that it offers a rhythm to our lives. The space it gives away from our family and partner can become the space in which our capacity for the hard work of relationships, and even our love and desire, is refuelled. The difference it brings, even its monotony or meaninglessness, can draw us deeper into the intimacy, connection and joys of our personal life. The skills and sense of competency we practice there can also be brought into how we navigate the vagaries and complexities of family life, inasmuch as the relational skills and emotional support of family life can be the support and wisdom that invigorates our work life.
We can also see the rhythm of work across the lifespan. Jung saw the first half of life as necessarily being out in the world, acquiring socially-valued skills and positions. From this sense of competency, we journey into the second half of life, into a more introverted life, where we explore, encounter and find ways to express more and more of our own personal values, personality and powers.
Thus, work-life balance can go beyond precariousness and conflict into becoming an invigorating, vivacious rhythm of our life, where our work, family and personal lives are flowing one into the other. Naturally, this is an ideal that will rarely be the full story; life is too complex for that. But it is a reality that can be a profound essence in our experience of work.
Work as tragic or a threshold
We can see why men work long hours, even compulsively, even in a fundamentally meaningless job. The hits of productivity and success that numb our own threatening emotions and avoid the overwhelming emotional demands of our relationships, along with the promised social esteem for those who go up the career ladder or can provide even more for their family as consumers, are ample motivation to keep men at work and away from home. Work, tragically, becomes the man’s solution to their emotional struggles.
In doing so, we set ourselves up for catastrophe. If our work starts to fall apart - if we lose our job, or don’t get the promotion - if we find ourselves stuck one or two promotions above what we naturally enjoy and are competent at - if we make a mistake that brings a feeling of inadequacy, if not legal proceedings - if we are in a job where we receive little positive feedback, little sense of being valued or making a difference here - if we start to become overwhelmed with an unmanageable workload within an atmosphere where this is considered normal and we should just ‘suck it up’ and get it done - if we start to feel replaceable, or incompetent or failing in comparison with others - we are left with nothing. Equally, if the payoff we thought we were promised proves false - if we don’t get more money, the recognition, or the respect of our colleagues, managers or family - and, yes, even the sex we somehow still expect - then we are left resentful, like we were cosmically and personally deceived.
Of course, what would help in these times of crisis is the support of our family, of our intimates, and of friends. Yet we have found ourselves in a position where such support seems impossible. Maybe our relationships are too strained now. Maybe we are still unable to access our own emotions and must be self-reliant. Maybe our relationships have no space for the man to be struggling. Maybe we just have too much guilt. Maybe we just find that these relationships are too depleted after years of avoidance. Tragically, the very thing we ran to in order to avoid our overwhelming, terrifying feelings is what has made our feelings utterly, terrifyingly overwhelming..
It can seem like our only options are to work more and try more, or to find another addiction to numb it all, or escape this cruel life itself. It can feel like we deserve this. But we don’t. No-one ever deserves that. Perhaps life is simply beckoning into something new.
For, at this point, we do have a choice. This goes back to Jung’s idea: such a tragic moment can be a threshold moment into a new way of being in the world, from extroverted where our preoccupation is making ourselves in the world, proving ourselves, climbing the ladders, acquiring socially recognised skills and competencies, fulfilling our society’s vision of the good or successful life, to an introverted way of being where we reconnect with ourselves, be with ourselves, and thus a new way of being with others and our work.
Admittedly, the new necessarily risks feeling - what we have spent our lives avoiding. But our capacity to feel lets us have values, longings, hopes, passions. It lets us receive help when we need it. It lets us reconnect with others.
Doing and thinking have proven incapable on their own as ways of living our lives. They have proven dead-ends. Feeling offers the something new that we need, the different path through the dead-end. A path that can, in the end, reconnect us with others, ourselves, and bring the joys of intimacy, the rhythm of working and relating, and the sense of vocation and finding our meaning in the world.
So what do I do?!!
Firstly, feel. Feel into any moment you’ve had when reading the words above that has impacted you. Maybe your body and soul have recognised yourself in part of these experiences. Lean into this recognition, even if it brings a touch of grief, resentment, frustration. Maybe the words have touched a longing for what your working and relational life could be like. Maybe the words have shone a light on an area you are truly grateful for.
Lean into these feelings. Lean in with empathy and compassion - for most of the culture and personal family life we have been born into has led us to this place. Trust them. Then let them invigorate your vast thinking and doing capacities as you feel and think through what you must do now - for yourself, for your relationships, for those around you you can make a difference to.