Many men are very focused on being strong. Strong for their children, strong for their marriage, strong for their parents. And strong is a good thing, right?
I think it is, but here’s where we get all mucked up: What does it mean to be ‘strong’? How do we measure strength in others and, particularly, in ourselves?
I think we are describing strength in the wrong way.
The Ideal Strong Man
Picture in your mind’s eye a strong man (no, not the guy from the circus). For many this brings up images of a stoic, serious man. He may or may not be able to bench press a few hundred pounds, but most people see a guy who remains serious and firm when others are crying or “losing it”. A guy who doesn’t let tense or discomfort show—except in getting mad. That’s a show of strength.
While we may like images of a man being tender, holding a baby, maybe even crying, we usually don’t refer to these moments as him being “strong.” It’s him being soft. Being vulnerable. Showing his “feminine” side. It’s good, it’s just not strength.
We need to redefine what we consider strong because the way we use it now is a misnomer. It’s generally just a definition for the unhealthy ways many men try to mask shame and, as we will see, all the work to maintain that mask makes a man less strong.
But first, Shame.
The Disastrousness of Shame
Some therapists belong to the school of thought that we shouldn’t label emotions as positive or negative. I’m not shy about calling shame a ‘negative emotion.’ Shame does no good for the person and gives the rest of their feelings, and the rest of the world, lots of power.
Shame is a horrifying feeling and we are taught early on what leads to shaming. Maybe our family does it first (“Stop walking like that—that’s not the way a guy walks!”) and then it’s reinforced by peers (“You run like a f**got!”) and before long we are doing it to ourselves—and probably to others.
For many men, what we’re left with is a façade. We’ve created, with the help of a good many people in our lives—many who love us—a mask to obscure all our sadness, our fear (sometimes even our joy) because it makes us vulnerable.
And being vulnerable, we believe, makes us weak. Because if we’re vulnerable, we are more apt to be (you guessed it!) shamed.
Shame as an Energy Sucking Vampire
Contrary to popular belief, our idea of “strength” isn’t very strong. The shell that we show to the world means that a lot of our energy is spent “holding it together”—energy that could be better spent connecting with others and participating more deeply and meaningfully in life.
Here’s a visceral example if this isn’t making sense: Think about a time you really needed to pee. Do you remember how difficult it was to follow directions if you were driving during this time? How challenging it was to hold up your end of a conversation, or to pay attention to intricate plot points of a movie while you’re crossing your legs?
You can’t do your best thinking if you really have to go, because you’re spending too much energy holding it in. Until you get to a bathroom, of course. But some men never find that “emotional bathroom” and the bottling in of those feelings morphs into physical symptoms, substance use, or other risky behavior. Suicide is more common among men than women, the “weaker” sex.
This is not being strong. While you may develop great bladder strength from holding in that urine, you could be doing major damage to your insides—plus you’re not fully present for any other task during the time that you gotta go.
Just like the guy who’s trying not to break the seal, the stoic, silent type, isn’t showing strength. All the work to stay stoic is actually putting that man in a very weak position.
Learning to Fall
The strong man can weep deeply and openly. He can laugh loudly and joyfully. Just as there is no such thing as bravery if we don’t feel a bit scared, our strength comes from falling and knowing we have the tools to get back up. In fact, if we never fall, we won’t know that we can get back up. And when you begin to allow yourself to feel more, you realize that it’s not some pit that you fall into with no hope of escape. If you allow yourself to be sad, you don’t get Stuck on Sadness. If you allow yourself to feel the depth of your anger, it doesn’t mean that you’ll do something horribly violent.
When we are truly strong, we know that these feelings do not control us. The only control they have is when our attempts to suppress them become the most vital thing to us. And that’s the weakest place to be of all.
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