This shift involved responsibility, something that had been lacking in my life so far. This sense of responsibility spread throughout my life and scared me rigid. It was the logical extension of who I was and who I wanted to be. It was the movement out of me and my ego into my relationship both with those I was responsible for and the wider world.
This shift had to happen, I had to move on from my self-focused world that gave me no answers. In the ’normal’ world it is called growing up, becoming an adult. The abiding thought I had, though, was “Can I do it?” I knew that I had to do it, but how was the issue. Initially I put one foot in front of the other and kept going forward. Letting the other people in my life down was not an option, so it just had to happen.
This issue became the deepest issue in my life and came to dominate all that I did for years. Even though I developed techniques to answer the question, “Can I do it?” I still remained obsessed with not letting other people down. Of course I did let other people down, many times. I became confused when that happened and ceased to understand how to see myself in relation to others.
When I look back I wonder why I automatically thought I could not do it. What was it in me that defaulted to not being able to do things. In my career in the theatre I had done amazing work and had shown time and again that I was capable of being thrown into a situation and succeed. I was not just capable but I was clearly more capable than many of the people I worked with. Whether what was involved was physical, practical, mental or intellectual, I was always able to solve the problem, I was always able to move things forward. I knew this, I saw myself as a solution man able to do anything. So what was the problem, deep down.
I see now that I used to regard the life I was leading as a lie. My fear was that people would see me as weak, indecisive and scared.
According to Tony Robbins we all have a Primary Question, a question we ask ourselves every day, one that controls our focus and the direction of our lives. For many years my Primary Question was, “What if I’m found out?” I regarded the life I was leading as a lie, a mask. My fear was being found out by someone, by anyone. My fear was that people would see the real me, the weak, indecisive and scared me.
To avoid being discovered I put on a front of strength and determination. I hid behind a view I had of masculinity, a view that I thought protected me. I realised I was lost, as a man. My view of myself was based on an idea of being a man that I thought was attractive to others. I realised this was false when I later discovered that people saw through this mask.
It was only when I looked closely at myself, when I discarded what I thought a man should be, that I started living as the man I am. It was then that my outward presence shifted, it was then I became just me, a man not a pale shadow of a male stereotype.
Looking from the other side of the shift I wonder where the mask came from and why it was so deeply entrenched. It eventually contributed to the failure of a 30 year marriage and to the bankruptcy of two companies.
Mine was the kind of middle-class background that produces normal men, men who often grow up behind masks, feigning masculinity.
I believe that there is a core essence we are born with, an essence of sexuality, gender and personality. This essence creates us as straight or gay, masculine or feminine, extrovert or introvert. This is not the whole truth but it does influence how we react to life, how we make decisions about ourselves.
This core is overlaid in the early years, up to about age seven, with the experiences that most powerfully influence our development. This period can reinforce or suppress our essence. The influence and effect, or lack of it, of our parents is primary and it is backed up by friends, teachers and many others.
It is in this period that I believe the idea of a mask is born. This when we decide whether we are worthy, whether people like us. It affects our sense of self. Our sexuality and our view of gender can be affected as can be seen in the dramatic effect that sexual abuse can have. It often corrupts the victim.
Beyond these years we continue to grow in a cultural milieu that influences us. As men, if we have decided that by the age of seven that we are not worthy, we will often seek refuge in stereotypical ideas of masculinity to hide what we really are.
William Pollack said in his book “Real Boys’ Voices”,
When boys speak about ‘being themselves’. Many describe a double life in which they are one person in public—a cool guy who plays fast and lives by the rules of the Boy Code—and somebody completely different in his private life, often a much more creative, gentle, caring sort of guy. Others say they can ‘be themselves’ only after they go home, go to their own rooms, and shut out the outside world. What just about every boy says he knows all too well is what I call the mask of masculinity, a stance of male bravado and stoicism boys learn to use to cover over their inner feelings of sadness, loneliness, and vulnerability, to act cool, and to protect themselves from being shamed by their peers.
This can happen to all of us but why is this particularly an issue for men.
Men are normally raised by mothers not fathers. During the formative years, up to age seven, boys tend to be more influenced by women. A boy accepts this female role model until the time of separation comes. This is the time when boys are about to become men, puberty is approaching and society dictates that they need male role models in order to develop their sense of masculinity. In tribal societies this was dealt with by ritual and initiation, recruiting the boy into the dominant male group.
The transition to manhood can fail to work for many reasons. It can be forced and happen before the boy is ready for it, the father may fail to provide guidance or it could be unnecessary and harmful to the boy. In many urban contexts this transition happens on the streets with gangs taking over the role of parents. The story of Oedipus is a myth about this period of transition.
This passage can result in confusion for the boy/man, depriving him of connection to his mother and not replacing it, causing him to fall back on the stereotypes he is fed by the media and by friends. This slowly becomes a mask, a masculine stereotype.
In my case I lacked the guidance from anyone to make this shift and, as I retreated from both my parents, I found it difficult to know who I was or how I should behave.
Much of the blame I put on the view of men I had from the media. All men face these issues and the resolution is to help boys and men face the shifts they go through and understand that they can make their own decisions and frame their own masculinity.
Life is all about making a choice regardless what is thrown at you. Overcoming these so called obstacles that will assist you in becoming a better person. Go against the grain and do not just grow into that idol that society wants you to be. Fighting to keep your own image and standing fast for what you believe in is the only thing that counts. —Fendson Dorvilus
I did move on from this and developed a sense of personal power that overrode the fear. I took a roundabout route, however, to get there. I will look at at how I did this in the next section.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Martin Cathrae