Reclaiming What It Means To Be A Real Man

Friendship

Paul and I in a moment of spontaneous fun at his men’s friendship weekend where we spent time sharing our journeys, expressing love to Paul, and celebrating his birthday.

My closest friend Paul and I were having our weekly phone visit a few days ago on New Years Day.  We shared how we had experienced and lived out the primary feeling words we had chosen at the beginning of 2013 – the feelings we most wanted to experience for the year and what activities we had engaged in to help us truly feel those words.

The sharing was powerful and very validating, as it always is when we visit – a weekly commitment we’ve made with each other for the last 16 years.  Being able to bear witness to each other’s lives, the ups and the downs, the victories and the challenges, is extremely affirming and encouraging.

At the end of our New Years conversation, we both commented on how blessed and grateful we are to have this time set aside for deep, honest, authentic, sharing of our lives with each other.  We both know many men who simply don’t have this experience in their lives for various reasons.

The Challenge of Men, Friendship, and Masculinity

As my last blog post described, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the challenge we men have with intimacy with other men, in our friendships, in our professional associations (which manifests in such unhealthy ways in our leadership styles and insecurities).  Many of us have been conditioned since childhood that being a man means primarily being strong all the time, aggressive, not showing too much emotion, choosing confidence over authenticity, and being independent.

So our friendships tend to reflect that picture of masculinity.  We engage in activities – “shoulder to shoulder” rather than “face to face.”  We play hard with and against each other.  We joke, we poke fun.  Our primary way of communicating is through sarcasm, trash talking, knocking the other – all in good form, of course.

When I was trying to find a picture for my last blog, and I googled “pictures of men’s friendship,” out of the hundreds of photos (mostly about men playing sports), there was one showing two men in a face to face conversation.

And we wonder why our culture is so biased when it comes to masculinity and what it means to be a real man.  Taking the time to share honest feelings, to talk about how life is going, to be transparent, empathetic, compassionate, and authentic expressions of need and insufficiency or inadequacy – that’s for women.

Significant Research About What It Means to be a Real Man

In truth, though, more and more research is emerging to unabashedly reveal that that picture of masculinity is one-sided, limited, and insufficient to a healthy, strong life.  It’s in fact only one piece (and often misused piece, at that) of what it means to be a man.

Dr. Niobe Way, professor of applied pschology at New York University, wrote a Huffington Post blog last November, explaining how the tragic child sex abuse scandal at Penn State by one of the football coaches could have happened (“Penn State and the Crisis of Masculinity”).  She charts the typical process of conditioning our boys go through especially in their teen years.

And then she hits the research.  Stunning!

For example, Sociologist Kirsten Springer studied 1,000 middle-aged men, and found that those who most rigidly adhered to ideals of masculinity (such as emotional stoicism and toughness) reported the worst physical health over a 40-year period.

For example, Psychologists Joseph Pleck and James Mahalik also found that adhering to norms of masculinity such as emotional stoicism for boys and men is significantly associated with poor mental and physical health and with high rates of risky behavior and violence.

Not only is our culture’s masculine norm producing unhealthiness, it also bleeds its disease profusely into the work place.

Misguided Masculinity Impacts the Workplace

What I see often when I do consulting and coaching in corporations and businesses is that this male leadership model (which tends to refer to employee development and personal growth as “soft skills” as opposed to the “hard skills” of data and financial productivity) ends up

reducing employee engagement, increasing stress, lowering employee loyalty to both cause and company, and ultimately leaving a carnage of bodies and disillusioned minds-hearts-and-spirits in the wake of these leaders.

Many male leaders are simply not getting it because they’re acting out of a misguided sense of masculine strength and influence.

It’s About Leveraging How We’re Really Wired – Being Fully Human

The truth about men is actually counterintuitive.  Notice Dr. Way’s description:

“Primatologist Frans De Waal, developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello and evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, among many other scientists, conclude that we need a complete ‘overhaul’ in our conceptions of human nature to account for the extensive research that underscore our deeply empathic, cooperative, and relational nature. Caring about what others think and feel is the reason why, according to Charles Darwin, we have survived as a species. Being emotionally sensitive and caring about others is not a sign of being ‘girly’ or ‘gay’ but a core element of being human, essential for surviving and thriving.”

That’s profound!  We need to stop raising our boys with the stereotypical masculine image of emotional stoicism, independence, autonomy, and being strong as not showing caring and compassion too much (not exercising all those “girly” qualities).

What I’m talking about is what it means to be truly human – how we as men are in fact wired, and why reclaiming this part is nonnegotiable to both the survival and success of humanity.

This is a huge health issue.  And it’s also about how we as men can be most effective, influential, and successful in whatever mission we’re engaged in.

My friend Paul and I, in our conversation on New Years Day, ended our time by recommiting ourselves to our regular journey of sharing, accountability, and support.  Right before we hung up the phone, we affirmed to each other what an amazing blessing it is to carve out this sacred space in which we can be real, honest, emotionally aware, and authentic.  I can’t imagine not having this kind of friendship in my life.

My friendship with Paul has and is truly making me a better man!

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Looking for a Speaker?

If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for keynote speakers or workshop teachers for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it.  And interested in strengths coaching?  Feel free to email me at greg@gregorypnelson.com.