What does it mean to be a healthy man?
It is a critical question to attempt to answer. Millions are asking these questions of men and many of them are men just entering adulthood. Without any guidance, they are left guessing or worse behaving in ways that could be destructive for themselves and those around them.
Understanding our current masculinity requires that we know the context within which it has evolved.
And yes, masculinity, like everything, is in the process of evolution.
Masculinity within Patriarchy
Masculinity, as we understand it has existed within the context of patriarchy. Patriarchy is a society predicated on male dominance. For millennia, to be a man was realized within a patriarchal framework. By nature of their gender, men afforded a position of dominance in society. This provided men with a great opportunity to control their external environment; however, they were significantly limited in the expression of their manhood.
Growing up in a patriarchal context, there is little room for a man to express weakness. Imagine how emotionally crippling the experience would have been for our male ancestors. They were living where they expected to be dominant, so being emotional, vulnerable, and outwardly caring could be construed as threats to their expected dominance. A man would have to choose between upholding the expected norms for a patriarchal male or show his frailty and potentially feel emasculated.
Manhood within patriarchy is nothing more than a limited form of masculinity. It is not necessarily negative or toxic but rather just very limited.
Gender equality has been the most significant gift afforded to men. It has ignited the process of evolution and provided us with the opportunity to collectively and consciously form a healthier definition of manhood. It has also created a vacuum within which we currently reside. So many men are floundering, trying to make sense of what it means to be a man. My nephew articulated this best when he was sixteen years old and beginning to date. He told me when explaining how he needed to be with girls, “uncle, I need to be soft but not too soft.” I thought to myself, how in the world is he going to know where that imaginary line is? However, I also understood him. He was saying that he didn’t want to lose his masculinity, and why should he? There is so much inherent good in masculinity.
Masculinity is Not Toxic
Toxic masculinity has been a popular expression and easy to use, but it provides little value towards our movement to a healthier understanding of masculinity. I encourage you to speak to young men, middle-aged men, all men and ask them to define which part of their masculinity is toxic and which is not. I picture young teenage boys trying to decipher that for themselves and terrified as to what they are deciding. Are their voracious sexual fantasies toxic? Are their competitive and aggressive energy toxic? Is their fluid sexual attraction to both men and women toxic? There is absolutely nothing toxic about masculinity.
Patriarchy is toxic and not masculinity. Equating the two is what is currently causing most issues for men.
Impact of Equating Masculinity with Patriarchy
An interesting dynamic gets created within men once they equate masculinity with patriarchy. It tends to elicit the movement towards two potential extremes. Both of which are rooted in fear and bring forth negative consequences.
Men who strive toward patriarchy (Alpha Male)
On the one hand, we have men who see masculinity as patriarchy and are trying to live up to that old idea. These are men who are looking to be the alpha male or the macho man. They are striving towards patriarchy. They’re seduced by the idea of being a dominant male and believing it will attract potential partners and respect. For them, their ethos is focused on being a real man or at least what they think that to mean.
The need to be an alpha male is rooted in fear.
Many of these men are in terror that they are the opposite. They fear that the world sees them as weak and resist against that perception of themselves.
These men will either be closed off to their emotions or afraid of expressing them openly and honestly. To do so would be to risk coming across as ‘soft.’ Their safety rests in the domain of the intellect and are mainly living in their heads. The world of feelings and emotions is a foreign territory.
Many of these men will be consumed by their anger and believe lashing out is a form of power. They think that not acting on their anger is a sign of weakness. As a result, they will be passive-aggressive or exhibit rage behaviors. The passive-aggressive men will internalize their anger and see themselves as entitled. Whereas the men engaging in rage behaviors see the consequences instantly.
They view other men as a threat, not towards their safety but in their ability to dominate. The aim is not competition but dominance, which to them ensures their masculinity. They fill their days in pursuit of winning a bottomless race of more success, money, fame, etc. all at the expense of their most cherished relationships.
Their sexual energy is entirely off-center and lacks any true sexual integrity. They will be interested in conquest over genuine intimacy as they see that as a clear way to validate their masculinity. Intimacy with a primary partner is often uncomfortable if not unappealing as it requires opening up emotionally. They struggle to realize their attraction to a novel partner is simply the safety of not having to expose themselves. It is easy to have sex with someone you do not care about (and who does not care about you) as there is little risk in that.
They are operating within a framework of masculinity that is so limited but they can not see it. What they perceive as power is nothing more than fear.
They are ultimately scared little boys playing dress-up as men.
Men who strive away from patriarchy (The ‘Nice Guy’)
Many men agree that being the alpha male or macho man is antiquated and unnecessary. This creates a massive vacuum that magnetically attracts the opposite of our alpha male. It ushers in the creation of our new age man or often referred to as ‘the nice guy.’ The new age man or nice guy also equates masculinity with patriarchy, but unlike the macho man, he strives away from patriarchy. He tells himself that patriarchy is negative, and by default, so is masculinity. He begins to describe masculinity as a social construct that has no value and negates his masculinity altogether.
This man can be found all around us and is becoming much more common than the macho man or alpha male. The clearest evidence of the new age man is an individual who is entirely cut-off from his anger. He will report that he just doesn’t get angry and equates the emotion of anger as connected with the patriarchal male. However, there is an essential negative consequence of not accessing the feeling of anger, which is that these men lack entirely any sense of healthy assertiveness. They become men who do not assert themselves or speak their truth.
You will also find these men openly engaged in more spiritual communities and moving towards spiritual pursuits. However, most of these men are engaging in what can be called a spiritual bypass. They use spirituality as a place where they can hide having to deal with all their more intense negative emotions and aspects of themselves, such as their anger and sexuality. Rather than touch these more uncomfortable aspects of themselves, they use spirituality to bypass it.
Emotionally, these men believe themselves to be emotionally aware. They will generally own this perception of themselves as a result of being able to cry more freely or to be more vulnerable. However, there is much of their emotional world they struggle to access. They, too, will be living in their head but believing they are not. This is how many of these men become labeled as ‘the nice guy.’ They are unable to access all the fear that lives under their so-called niceness. Being a people pleaser is not being nice as it’s a form of selfishness rooted in fear. The ultimate goal of the ‘people pleaser’ is not to please the other person but rather to ensure that they are liked by the person they are pleasing. In this way, it is accurate to say that women generally don’t like ‘nice guys.’
The sexuality of this man is filled with deep shadows. These are the men who may be outwardly espousing their support for feminism while simultaneously consuming excessive amounts of pornography that may be degrading or humiliating to women. These men are ashamed of their sexual energy and, as a result, attempt to mask it. They hide their sexual energy behind a veil of romance. With a primary partner, they may be completely impotent. Alternatively, they avoid any real intimacy and see their desire for multiple partners as a liberated or evolved sexuality.
Here too, we have a scared little boy yet living in the world as such and not knowing it.
Healthy Masculinity as Rooted in Love.
What then is healthy masculinity?
We now live in a time where the environment for the conscious evolution of masculinity is possible. The shackles of patriarchy that hurt both women and men are now lifted and provides us with tremendous opportunity. We have the opportunity to evolve into a more expansive and healthy version of masculinity.
This version of healthy masculinity is rooted in love.
Be mindful when reading those words as it is imperative not to confuse the love being described here with a sentimental love. There is no sentimentality in this love.
The love being referred to here is one of integration, wholeness, and power. Healthy masculinity is not a defined version of a man but rather a man who becomes more integrated and whole—a man who lives with an empowered heart.
The outward expression of the healthy masculine will vary significantly. He can be seen as local firemen, police officers, athletes or registered nurses, pastry chefs, etc. He may be sitting in a church pew with his family or at a bar watching the game with his buddies. He is a gay businessman who loves his partner and gives back to his community. There aren’t any boundaries as to what the healthy masculine looks like on the outside. The opportunities are boundless.
Yet, accessing one’s healthy masculine is not for the faint at heart. Evolution is difficult and requires courage and formed by choice. Each man has at his disposal the vehicle to grow into the healthy masculine, and that vehicle is his ability to choose.
To love is hard. If a man finds himself raging with anger, it takes guts to admit it is a problem. It is an act of love towards oneself and others to begin committing to do better and no longer acting in rage. A man who is so connected with his anger will need to walk through that unbearable feeling of powerlessness when rage is no longer an option, and he aims for love instead.
Developing emotional awareness is challenging work but the foundation for making better choices. The days of relying solely on the intellect to make decisions are behind us. There is essential data within our emotional system, and we must begin to access it.
Men hiding behind spirituality or negating unpleasant emotions, it is scary to access it. It takes love for a man to assert himself and speak his truth. Sharing information others may not be happy to hear is a form of love and intimacy as it lets them know where one stands.
Not being consumed by sexual energy is not for the weak at heart. It takes courage and love to have at one’s center the well-being of another and not to be driven by one’s need to be sexually satisfied. Compulsive consumption of pornography or random, casual encounters will do little to help usher in the healthy masculine. In actuality, it is the remnants of our limited form of masculinity, which are now in the process of exiting.
Evolving into a healthy masculine can only be achieved by conscious choice. Becoming more aware of one’s emotional landscape and being able to make choices rooted in an authentic love is the road home.
Hundreds of years ago, if a man wanted to be a warrior, he would be given a sword and asked to fight on a battlefield. Today, the battleground for men is an internal one. It is not easy and takes courage to face one’s deepest demons.
Men, you hold power to decide what legacy you would like to leave your daughters, sons, and loved ones. I am encouraging you to leave one they will never forget – being a man who lived following his heart.
Your father, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers will be so proud to see the man you’ve become – that you’ve evolved into a healthy man.
Eric Pierni CSAT RP is a Registered Psychotherapist (RP), Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) | Founder of Men Therapy Toronto | Counselling Services for Men specializing in therapy and psychotherapy for men in Toronto, Ontario (GTA). Offices are located in the midtown (Yonge & Eglinton) area of Toronto.