Note: The author of this article recognizes that the discussion around gender identity is complex. The topic of transgender people and similar identities is not something he is deeply familiar with. The point of departure for the article is the author’s own experiences from men’s groups, where the majority are heterosexual men – but also some homosexual and bisexual. The author has observed many of the same masculine traits in the participants, regardless of their sexual orientation.
In order to flourish as human beings, there is a great clarifying power in exploring the extremes of one’s own psyche. If we don’t dare to do this, we will be limited by our fear.
In this article, I will explore this topic specifically in the context of relational conflict, authentic expression, and masculine/feminine dynamics. Much of the article will be based on my experiences as a participant and facilitator of men-only personal growth groups in Norway, Bali, and Canada. I am also one of seven men interviewed for the Canadian YouTube documentary Men Need Men.
In August 2020, The Good Men Project published the article “Personal Growth for Men,” which you can read here. The article you are now reading builds on the ideas presented there, but can also be read separately.
In the mentioned article I wrote that men’s groups present unique possibilities for the development and maturation of the masculine psyche. The participants can experience a raw honesty around problems that are specific to men, which is unavailable in a group that also includes women. The foundation for achieving this is that the leadership operates based on an understanding of authenticity rather than from a wish to instill an ideology. Authentic expression and presence are central in such a group, as in any genuine personal growth work.
Authenticity as a Lifestyle
Within environments dedicated to personal development, there is much talk about achieving a greater inner balance. What does it really mean? What is an idealist delusion of balance and what is the reality? For most of us, it sounds appealing to achieve a degree of psychological equilibrium. It’s important to clarify that this kind of balance isn’t like arriving at a heavenly existence and resting happily in it for the rest of one’s life. Inner balance rather entails turning authenticity into a lifestyle.
Inner equilibrium revolves around attitudes that we are actively choosing and persistent training. Rather than consisting of a permanent state, the equilibrium results from meeting the challenges of life in increasingly more intelligent and authentic ways. This is made possible, in part, by exploring the extremes of one’s own psyche.
Exploring Powerful Impulses
I will shed light on this in the context of communication in a couple of relationships.
If powerful impulses come up during an argument, my advice is to explore it – as long as you are both agreeing to this and have set a framework for it. The point is to create possibilities for the expression of all the conflicting elements that we carry inside. We can then experience that such expression creates a good balance between forcefulness and playfulness, an attunement toward both oneself and the other, etc.
Daring to open to this diversity of emotions can be very beautiful and create a deep connection and freedom. The alternative is often that we become unconscious slaves of our repressed shadow-sides – for example by trying to avoid it and thus becoming powerless and impotent. If the extremes are explored, there is a release of the energy that was used to avoid what we fear. This gives us greater freedom of choice and greater access to connection, warmth, and intimacy.
Fear Is Not the Enemy
This doesn’t mean that fear is the enemy. New Age ideology says “fear and love can never coexist”. Such a statement is not very loving, is certainly lacking in nuance, and the result of following this tenet is usually that we become more afraid of our fear than we were to begin with. It is almost like saying “fear is bad, I’m a loving person and I will avoid my fear at any cost”.
The American psychologist John Welwood (1943–2019) wrote that “love is making friends with fear”. An intelligent person with life experience and little interest in following an ideology will know that “the more I have explored my fear and the emotions and phenomena I’m afraid of, the more energy I will have, and the more I can navigate each moment with ease, presence, and intelligence”. We have a greater repertoire of actions to choose from when we are not limited by our fear. The path to becoming less limited by our fear entails becoming more familiar with the fear – not avoiding it, explaining it away, or trying to destroy it.
Without this exploration, we will fear many parts of our emotional palette. If however, we have explored the highs and depths of our emotional landscape, we will have achieved a degree of psychological equilibrium. When we have become more at ease with our emotional range, we may for example sense the following in a given situation: “perhaps I need some anger, some empathy, some listening, some spontaneous expression”. The different modes of being – the different attitudes and emotions – is something we’re already familiar with. On the other hand, that which we haven’t proactively explored isn’t easily accessible to us when we need it.
Such an exploration of our emotions does entail making a few “mistakes” along the way.
It’s important to make “mistakes” – new mistakes – rather than just repeating the old ones. At the same time, this can be a scary and vulnerable area. Many of us have experienced friendships and couple relationships ending because we “screwed up”. This is complex.
I will say a bit about how this can be dealt with specifically in a men’s group. Usually, there is an explicit or implicit agreement not to leave the group, even when things get difficult. There is a willingness to be present to the difficulties instead of escaping. Experiencing that it’s possible to move through deep conflict and be enriched by it afterward opens up a vast inner space. If, however, participants are inconsistent in their attendance, it may be difficult to really get anywhere, go deep, or gain momentum.
If one knows from experience that the group can handle more or less whatever one brings to the table, that is reassuring. If something very intense or extreme can be expressed, that’s usually a sign of a deep level of commitment that supports the participants in going deeper. We all carry monsters within – letting them come forth in a healthy context and become normalized is the only healthy option. Healthy context means having agreed-upon rules and guidelines that make it possible to express ourselves in an unfiltered manner. There is a shared understanding of why this is valuable and there is support available if things start to get out of hand. We may refer to this context as a setting of boundaries. Expressing ourselves with intensity in such a setting is thus something entirely different from trespassing on other people’s boundaries – which could be the case if the expression seemingly comes out of nowhere, without a shared context.
An irresponsible expression of the same inner content, where there isn’t a safe framework for the expression, will often be experienced by the other as a violation. For example, blurting out your intensity toward a person who doesn’t understand your context or doesn’t have the capacity for receiving it is likely to increase a sense of isolation rather than create a connection. And yet, what’s being expressed may be more or less the same. Does the intensity rise to the surface as a consequence of deep trust, commitment, and connection? Or is the person who is expressing just throwing out some emotional garbage without a clear intention? Seen from the outside, these may look similar but are two very different scenarios.
True Expression Makes Change Possible
An ex-girlfriend of mine would often push me to attend men’s groups. When I participated consistently she experienced me as more engaged, direct, alive, and more equipped to make quicker and better decisions. It’s far from ideal to primarily process one’s emotions with one’s partner, without also having other strong channels for this. Men need support from other men, who can strengthen the masculine by recognizing, challenging, and validating.
It is healthy to express oneself regarding relational challenges in a safe context that doesn’t include the other party. True, authentic expression is often sufficient to resolve difficult situations. We can come back with a whole new level of clarity. What appeared to be a big problem is transformed into a manageable challenge. Many personal development groups lack this understanding, especially quite a few of the ones that have their roots in “positive thinking” and coaching. They often try to solve problems without even first understanding the situation. Solutions come to us when we are willing to face what is actually there, not by trying to “fix it” – that effort will often lead us to disconnect from what’s actually happening here and now. I would go even further and say that ultimately problems are dissolved rather than solved – through our willingness to face them on a deeper level.
Sometimes it is more useful to reflect back to people that they are stuck and encourage them to look more deeply into it, rather than trying to “lift them out of it”. This could be done, for example, by saying “I hear you say that this isn’t a big deal for you, but your facial expression and your posture seem to say something else. If this is relatively unproblematic, why are you even talking about it?” In everyday life it is often best to let other people remain in their denial, but if we can’t confront it in groups committed to personal growth, where else?
Conflict That Creates Connection
The objective of men’s groups isn’t friendship, but for participants to get to know themselves better. As a result of this, they become more authentic, honest, and transparent. A men’s group that I participated in over a long period had several rounds of conflict. Most attendants had at some point been in a conflict with another participant. This would often play out over the course of several months. Our willingness to explore it and look at what was really going on at a deeper level created a deeper connection. Daring to deal with conflicts may actually be less challenging and take less energy than simply letting it “simmer” and not dealing with it.
Facing conflict head-on creates a connection to the other party. If one isn’t addressing the conflict, each party will sit on their own with judgments and a growing distance to each other. To express what is actually present – even if that may be judgment – can be a way of creating a connection. Sometimes judgment may be so intensely present that without expressing it, nothing else can be accessed. In that sense, the expression of judgments can be healthy and loving, if done with a degree of responsibility and self-awareness.
Triggers and Healing
There may also be some grains of truth in judgmental labels we give to each other. If something feels hurtful, perhaps there is some truth to what is being said? Or perhaps it’s experienced as hurtful because it reminds me of something that happened in my childhood? Maybe I can then realize “wow, this situation is actually different – the other person doesn’t hate me or wish to hurt me”. It is also possible that the other person is doing something stupid, but that I can experience a sense of mastery by being able to handle the situation – “I’m in a different place in myself now than in my childhood.” Then, even genuine stupidity may potentially be a gateway to heal a wound rather than to retraumatize. Nevertheless, one should be careful about intentionally “triggering” others – saying things that we know are hurtful, in an attempt of “healing” the person. We are usually triggered by life most of the time. If you believe that other people need to be triggered, your eyes aren’t open.
It’s often not constructive to attempt this type of raw, honest dialogue in situations in everyday life. It also depends on the background of the other person. Yet, it’s also not helpful to never take charge. Once in a while, it is good to risk some chaos. If it’s already messy, it would just be a different kind of a mess. Perhaps that’s good for a change once in a while?
What Is Masculinity?
In connection with the topic of men’s groups, it is relevant to say something about what masculinity is. In my previous article, I described “the ability to cut through” as a central aspect of the masculine. One may for example cut through the bullshit, unhealthy resistance, avoidance, etc. I experience it as essential that this ability is actively used in a men’s group so that the participants feel more comfortable to connect with and express their own power. Power is in itself a fundamental part of life, the question is how the power is used and if we apply it consciously.
Both women and men have masculine and feminine traits. It is essential for all human beings to be in touch with both aspects of themselves. Nevertheless, we can generally say that men are more masculine and women more feminine. All men have a masculine potential, either in a developed or unexpressed form. When men explore and bring to awareness their masculinity, it should not be approached as a new role that they have to fit into. It’s rather about uncovering that which is already present within them. What they uncover may be both masculine and feminine, depending on the eyes of the beholder. Even more important than being more “masculine” is to be true to oneself.
Masculinity as a Point of Consciousness
Both the masculine and the feminine can come to expression in either an authentic or a distorted way. There are plenty of examples of men who are ruthlessly inconsiderate and only see their own agenda. This is a distorted expression of the masculine. An authentic expression of the masculine involves being precise, straightforward, and having clarity and direction in one’s pursuits. We may refer to this as a “point-consciousness”, characterized by taking initiative and being able to remain firmly centered in oneself even when faced with strong outer turbulence, resistance, and conflict.
Being rooted in point-consciousness doesn’t mean that you are closed-off or emotionally cold – you do have an ability to take in your surroundings and adjust your course along the way. However, you aren’t so easily manipulated by the hysteria and drama of yourself or others. Similarly, you have a strong capacity for remaining centered rather than being hijacked when the wish arises for instant gratification of superficial desires at the expense of meaningful long-term goals – whether this urge arises in yourself or it comes through the influence of other people.
Authentic and Inauthentic Feminine
The authentic feminine revolves around connection and feelings, is heart-centered, very open for impressions, and concerned with relationships even more so than its own direction. We may refer to this as a “field-consciousness”. The focus is greatly to support, nourish, and invite to unfolding, rather than actively taking initiative. This may be enormously enriching both for the person themself and for the people around them. The distorted feminine takes this too far and becomes uncentered, to a large extent dictated by its own emotions and the needs and demands of others, giving in to the slightest random impulse and may even present it as “following one’s intuition”. The result is often chaos, instability, and deep dysfunction. The distorted feminine doesn’t only find its expression in women – it’s not unusual to be seen in men who have lost connection to their own authentic power.
Bulldozers and Role Models
The point, regardless of gender, is to achieve a good balance between the masculine and the feminine. Historically, and also in our time, there are numerous examples of men who are ruthless, narrow-minded, and manipulative “bulldozers”, who don’t give a shit about other people and their surroundings. As a consequence of this, and because there aren’t enough good masculine role models, many of us have rejected important aspects of the masculine in ourselves. Masculinity has for many of us become synonymous with dominance, violence, and the trespassing of boundaries. One of the main points of a men’s group is therefore to offer experiences of being connected with one’s own power without becoming an asshole – that it’s possible to combine power with vulnerability and openness.
Live Your Uniqueness!
Supporting the participants in exploring what is unique in their psyche and personality and bringing this into their lives is central to men’s groups and to any type of genuine personal growth work. In other words, we may refer to this as following one’s heart. A man who finds the uniqueness in himself and follows it starts to radiate and shine. This is the most effective method for living a centered life. The uniqueness in men is most easily illuminated in the company of other men. If women are also present, it is easy to go into competition for their attention and not be as honest around certain topics such as one’s relationship to women, etc.
There are many discussions about what is masculine and what is feminine. This is often a derailment. For example, “is it masculine or feminine to cry?” Find something more meaningful to talk about, I would say. An understanding of the dynamics between the masculine and the feminine is a good foundation, but it is even more important to discover the uniqueness in oneself. It is less relevant if what one discovers fits into a category of masculine or feminine.
This article was previously published in Norwegian, in the printed publication Magasinet Visjon, issue 4, 2019.
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