Bob Livingstone is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCS 11087) in private practice for 22 years in San Francisco, California. He holds a Masters Degree
It is the twenty first century and gender roles have evolved from the 1950’s working father and housewife mother. But, how significantly have these roles changed?
Men are still assigned superior status over women in our sexist society. Men are given permission to dominate and conquer. Men are allowed to show anger, but not sadness. Anger in men is viewed as assertive and sadness is perceived as a character flaw. This all comes with a huge downside. We feel insignificant if we are unable to meet these standards.
We also may not really want to be dominators and conquerors. This alternative belief itself may make us question our masculinity. We may not want to take charge of every situation and want a break from that demand. This kind of thinking may cause us to feel ashamed.
We feel that our main function is to provide for our families. If the assessment is made that we are not measuring up, our self-esteem and confidence take a great hit. Our partners may feel that we are inadequate providers and/or we may believe that ourselves. In any case, we tend to suffer in silence and are often too ashamed to reach out to anyone else.
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For all the buzz about men now having permission to freely express our feelings, often times that sharing is viewed as weakness. That weakness is targeted by those who wish to do us harm or want to feel superior to us.
This influences men to be guarded and on hyper alert for those who may hurt us. This is a phenomenon that leads us to a further shut down.
We become so guarded that we lose the ability to feel our own pain. If we cannot feel our own pain, we have no means to put ourselves in another’s shoes. If we cannot empathize and be compassionate towards ourselves, it is impossible to do so with others.
The pressure to provide and fix all that is broken makes us feel incredibly anxious. We feel that anything less than perfection is not acceptable to the world at large and therefore to ourselves.
Your partner asks you to please buy toilet paper when you know you have run out. We feel wounded by this perceived criticism because we feel that we strive so strongly for perfection. We react badly when we hear about our mistakes from others. We respond to this criticism with defensive outrage and we tell those closest to us that they are making a big deal about nothing when in reality there is really no severe criticism here; just a suggestion to change some approach or way of doing things.
At this moment this perceived criticism feels like a punch in the stomach and a total loss of dignity. When in reality it was nothing more than a request to be more aware.
Deep down inside we are angry at ourselves for not being perfect and we respond to the feeling of inadequacy by verbally striking out at those who care about us the most.
The need for control comes from feeling that we have little or no power in the world. This belief stems from the fear that we are not good at dominating and conquering. We also secretly question if we want to be conquerors. The fear that we are not perfect and that this idealized state won’t be reached leads us to attempt to control our surroundings as much as possible. This need for micromanaging people and every day events is another source of worry.
If events don’t go as we anticipate, our reaction can be experienced by others as rage. This is another sense of loss of control that makes us feel vulnerable and lost.
Television shows depict men as either clueless idiots or superheroes who rescue those in distress. This reinforces the internalized stereotypes that we are either not clued in to the needs of others (mostly women) or we are supposed to be faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive.
We are allowed to function in the world as morons or superheroes. That is the territory that is carved out for us and it gives us very few places to go.
Everything discussed above keeps men isolated from our healthier parts and others.
How Men can Breakthrough Isolation
- Understand that the role of provider is gift and not a curse. However, we are not only providers. We are workers, caretakers, lovers, friends and healers. We also cook and clean house. We do what we can to help out those we love and that is the most beautiful role of all.
- Learn to discriminate between constructive criticism and character assassination. Understand that your partner telling you she would like you to rinse off dishes when putting them in the sink is not the same thing as calling you a worthless a–h—. If she is making a request, when you start going into the “don’t I do enough around here?” mode; stop and realize she is only asking you to change some minor behavior. If she calls you vile names, you can say that this is unacceptable to you and consider if you want to stay in this relationship.
- Take risks at sharing your long pent up feelings of inadequacy, fears and hurts with those closest to you. You may feel a sudden relief when you do this and find yourself having a closer connection with them.
- Realize that you don’t have to be a superhero or a buffoon to be accepted. You don’t have to act like you are stupid or spend much of your time rescuing others. You don’t have to expect this from yourself.
- If you don’t want to dominate, conquer or take charge of every situation, don’t beat up on yourself. This is a sign that you want to take steps to confront this long held belief about ourselves and that is a positive development.
- Understand that your quest for control is futile and it only hurts yourself and those around you. You cannot control others or the future any more than you can change the weather.
- It is totally normal not to be perfect; you can be ok with yourself even though you make mistakes.
- Consider psychotherapy or a self-help group if you feel that you need assistance in breaking through your isolation. There is no shame in asking for help.
- It is ok to cry if you feel overwhelmed; it is beneficial to take in painful memories you have had in the past. If you can feel your own pain; you can learn to empathize with others. Those who love you will welcome this dramatic change and feel safer in a relationship with you. Spend some time focusing on the memory when your dad smacked you in the face for no reason. Remember the time when your cherished grandmother died suddenly; concentrate on the day you graduated from college after struggling so long and hard. Feel the tears fall down your face and the ache in your throat. Honor your losses as well as your gains. It feels wonderful to finally let all this anguish out.
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