The confusion of modern masculinity: why trying your best to ‘be a man’ can leave you falling apart
Updated: Feb 24
One day it dawned on me: all the time and energy I’ve spent trying to be a man was like being a puppet on stage pulled in multiple directions by a thousand strings. And I was exhausted.
Here are some of the tensions I’ve started to notice.
I. Be strong and vulnerable
From early boyhood, men are taught to be strong and big. Whether it's from their dad or on the playground, the messages are clear: ‘don’t cry!’, ‘don’t be a wuss!’, ‘don’t be a girl!’. We learn to be silent and tough.
Yet boys soon realise that this isn’t the only message there is about how they should be as a man. There’s also modern man, in touch with his emotions, vulnerable with others, and not afraid to show his pain.
We see this tension in the rise of the quiet male action-hero (think Jason Bourne): he may be emotionally vulnerable when all is well and safe, but is utterly cool-headed and in control when a crisis comes. It’s like we’re being told that, to be the ideal man, you will be in touch with your emotions, but not when you’re needed to save the day - then you must be strong and emotionless.
This dynamic gets played out in many relationships. Partners can seem to pester us to talk to them, tell them what we’re thinking and feeling, share more. But men have never learned the vocabulary for what’s going on inside us: ‘I’m fine’, ‘Normal’, ‘I wasn’t thinking anything’. Eventually, if they try to fumble around with these foreign words in an attempt to express themselves, they can be met with bewilderment and responses that amount to: ‘I can’t handle this. I need you to be OK. That was the deal.’ It can be as terrifying for a woman to have a man in weakness as it is for a man to feel his weakness.
This, apart from completely undermining the power of women, puts intense pressure on men. When we’re needed, we must be fine and save the day. When we’re not, we must suddenly get in touch with all our emotions. - which we learned very early on (and it’s difficult to unlearn such things) were trixy and could, without explanation, rob us of our place in the male clan and, thus, in the world. And so we’ve lived avoiding them for most of our lives.
Furthermore, what happens if the crisis is within us? Maybe it’s our emotions spiralling. Maybe it’s losing our job. Maybe it’s realising our life isn’t how we’d imagined it. Whatever it is, the answer is often simple: “you still have to be fine”. We must be silent, swallow it, push it down, stuff it down, forget about it, try harder. Anything but express how utterly desperate and fragile we are. Until imploding, like a nuclear bomb that clears all those expectations, can be our only exit.
II. Be successful and around
A second tension men can find themselves experiencing revolves around the question: what should you give your time and energy to? For the modern man, there is a call to be at home, to help in the house, to spend time with the family. At the same time, there is a drive to be successful - out in the world. To “be a man”.
The nature of patriarchy is hierarchical. This means that ‘being a man’ is to be in competition and, for 99% of men, it means not being enough. There is always someone ahead of us to compare ourselves to. So, we’re pulled to do more, work harder, accomplish greater.
This tension can be lived out in our relationships. Our partners ask us to be home early, to put the kids to bed, to make dinner, and then can be frustrated when we haven’t fixed the car at the weekend, or disappointed we haven’t made more of our lives (or, perhaps, we just imagine they are).
Equally, this tension can be lived interiorly. We crave to be a good dad, to be a modern man who cooks dinner and still fixes the car….and to get that job that is truly fulfilling and meaningful.
These pressures can leave us exhausted and stressed: we can never do enough, we can never make the time to rejuvenate, we can never pursue what is truly meaningful and energising for us. Again, implosion can seem our only escape.
III. Be powerful and safe
The call to be powerful, to influence and change the world around us, goes deeper than the stereotypical male hunger for power and respect.I believe that the urge to unleash our potential in the world is a drive from our very spirit. Bly* calls it our inner King. It’s the call to our soul to live meaningfully in our time in this world.
But I also believe that, as a society, we are missing positive Kingly role models. Indeed, we are often suspicious of powerful men - and with good historical reasons. In the absence of good role models, however, a stereotype has filled the void: the weak man, who can’t discipline his kids, can’t handle conflict and seems so easy going that it’s hard to know if he stands for anything at all.
The result is that men lack visible Kings to teach them how to unleash their inner King in a positive and constructive way - and to affirm that this is wanted. Instead, we keep the inner King locked up (it’s safer then, they can do no harm). Except that this imprisoning of our inner Kings leaves men empty, living lives devoid of any real meaning beyond being dependably safe and unthreatening.
A Different Show
Men get a bad press. Yet, I suspect, many of our actions stem from what has been expected of us. I also know my own role in patriarchy: how I’ve lived in it, been successful in it, tugged other peoples’ strings.
How do we extract ourselves?
I’m not sure we can, not entirely. Patriarchy is woven into the fabric of our society - our workplaces, relationships, friendships and inner lives. However, we can start to unpick it.
Often, these competing expectations are left unspoken and unnoticed, fiercely felt yet left unvoiced, as if they are unquestionable. And so, they’re unanalysed and disproportionately valued. As we look at them, name them and talk to each other about them (especially in the relationships that re-enact them), they will start to be undone.
In doing so, we’ll feel relief as we, who generally avoid all feelings, realise there is good reason to feel our exhaustion and stress and unrelenting pressure. We’ll start to feel empowered as we realise the absurdity of some of these pressures and choose more consciously how we want our lives to be.
This is the stage of possibility, rather than shoulds and oughts, of belonging, rather than the constant message of being ‘not enough’, of choice, rather than conformity. This is the show where the avoidance of implosion and the pursuit of living meaningfully can become valid and valued parts of being an everyday man.
*Much of these thoughts stemmed from James Hawes, The Secret Lives of Men: Ten Keys to Unlock the Mystery, and Robert Bly’s classic book, Iron John: Men and Masculinity.