Freya Watson believes men’s over-identification with one role leaves them less resilient than women in the face of stress.
‘Men come off worse at times of recession. It seems as if they don’t cope as well as women do with difficult times…’
‘We’re hearing stories of men who sleep in their cars – Mercs or BMWs – but get dressed in their laundered suits and go to work each morning as if nothing’s happened. Perhaps estranged from a first marriage and having broken up with a second partner, they’ve fallen on hard times…’
Living in a country (Ireland) which has been hit hard by the economic downturn of the last few years, I’ve been hearing a lot of reports and anecdotes about struggling families and individuals, but for some reason the comments above (and others like them) have struck a particular chord with me. I was even cornered at an event recently by a man who heard that I was offering empowerment workshops for women – ‘men need them more than women’ was his view.
Is it true that men aren’t particularly good at coping with change? Can it be that women are naturally more resourceful when it comes to finding a way through the challenges that life throws at us?
Looking around me, I have to confess that it can appear that way sometimes. I look at the business world, where men are obviously comfortable and wonder if that comfort is because there are carefully delineated boundaries, structures, processes and rules? Is it because the world offers a certain amount of security and reputation provided you play the game as it needs to be played? There’s no doubt that business culture is masculine in its orientation, with its focus on logic, goals, procedures and deadlines. And although it has its own challenges, there is something tremendously safe about knowing that if you put in the hours, week in week out, you’ll be paid and respected for it.
Is that how life really is, though? I mean, life, with its chaotic richness, it’s a mix of feminine and masculine. Life as the combination of yang and yin, expansion and contraction, light and dark, logic and instinct, birth and death. Now, there’s one—what about death? How does being educated through a formal, academic schooling system and then spending years working in a formal business environment prepare any man—or any person, for that matter—for death, and all the inevitability that is part of life? Perhaps women have been coping better with change because they’ve had broader areas of responsibility than their male counterparts. Or perhaps, with a greater connection to the feminine/yin aspects of life, women find it easier to surrender and flow with the changes.
Over the years in my role as both as a mentor/counselor and as a business manager, I’ve had many men walk through my door and it has always struck me how competent a man can be in one area of his life while struggling in others. Part of this can be attributed to a simple lack of interest. After all, if we’re not interested, it’s unlikely we’ll pick up the practical tools we need to be efficient in a particular area. For instance, not all men want to be fathers and not all fathers want to be full-time dads (in the same way that not all mothers want to be full-time moms).
But surely we all want to be be able to navigate the normal ups and downs of life, to be able to meet our basic emotional, physical and mental needs? Some of this is a matter of up-skilling—of making sure young men are growing up with the tools and understanding they need in order to deal effectively with life. And these tools include emotional awareness, practical health education, communication skills, and others that are more than amply addressed in articles elsewhere on GMP.
There is a deeper layer, though. One of the key things I see that seems to trip men up (and, increasingly, women too as they become more career-focused) is an over-identification with one role. Although the traditional view of a man as sole provider has been shifting in the last few decades, it is still far from gone. Add to that the fact that our society is very much focused on external achievement and success, and it is easy for a man to succumb to the view that his career is the only measuring stick by which to gauge his value. Men who opt to take on the role of full-time parent are only too well aware of this.
So what’s the solution? We could argue that expanding the sphere of influence and responsibility for a man encourages a wider sense of self—one that is not measured solely by his financial success or otherwise as a provider. As an active parent, partner, friend, volunteer, etc., a man finds a healthy variety of expressions for who he is. All the same, there is still that pervasive view that someone is to be measured by their external achievements and monetary value. We could argue, then, that we need to tackle society’s value system, something which has been happening to some limited degree but is likely to be a slow burner.
But I’m a firm believer in the saying that problems can’t be resolved at the level at which they were created. Stimulating media discussion, shifting roles, learning new tools, adopting new behaviors—they’re all very valuable, but they don’t resolve the more fundamental issue of ‘who am I’, which is what lies behind the struggle for many men in dealing with change: ‘who am I if I’m no longer defined by what I do’. It’s not a dissimilar place to the one in which career mothers used to find themselves in once their children had left the nest and society wasn’t geared up to have them enter the workplace.
It often takes an extreme crisis for a man to start delving deeper into himself, to bring him to a point when he makes space in his life to consider who he is, behind whatever roles and public masks he identifies with. But we don’t have to wait for it to get that bad before turning our attention inwards. Those who successfully navigate the storms of life are usually those who have a deeper sense of themselves and have anchored their value system beyond the material. For me, this is spirituality—a sense that the more valuable part of me lives on beyond this lifetime and is connected to others through a greater force. It brings with it a perspective that is bigger than whatever challenge I’m facing at this moment and helps me to face life with the open curiosity of a visitor rather than the fear of a prisoner of circumstance.
Others might not choose to use the term spirituality here, and really how we label it is not particularly important. What is relevant, though, is that we create space in our lives as men and women to discover who we are at a deeper level. Questions that help the process are:
- If I set aside the roles that others relate to – co-worker, manager, father, husband – who or what am I? Do I have a sense of myself outside of these roles?
- Who do I feel myself to be when I’m alone and there’s no-one to reflect an identity back to myself?
- What do I really value in life, beyond the material?
- What gives meaning to my life?
- What am I or what do I have that can’t be taken away from me by economic forces or another’s decision?
When a man can answer these questions, even if he can’t explain the answer to others, he has found the part of himself that offers a way through even the toughest of times.