Being a Man

What exactly does it mean to be a man? Is it a personal definition, or one ascribed to us by others or by our culture?

Traditional ideas of men are falling away. Men are losing out to women in progress of all sorts, and aren’t reinventing themselves with ease. Professional and economic insecurity have become more permanent additions to men’s self-perceptions, and there are more expectations on men than ever before, including added emotional and relationship demands. Jobs requiring good communication and “soft skills” are essentially replacing many of the needs in the work environment, as traditional “hard skill” and industrial jobs are giving way to technology and the needs of the global economy.

Without solid foundations, plenty of men flounder. Many men haven’t developed the basic tools needed to be successful in their lives, from intimacy to personal health and well-being to positive self-esteem. Primary male role models sometimes are non-existent, emotionally distant or withdrawn, or consumed with career. Culture and media is often left to fill in  the blanks, but even those models of masculinity fail.

In the age of performance enhancing steroids, the post-Armstrong era of fallen heroes, and the vulnerability and shamelessness of politicians, celebrities and athletes who have often filled the vacuum of dispensing messages about masculinity, who do we turn to now? Where do the next generation of boys learn how to be a man from?

To me, masculinity is less about the impact of external sources, and is more focused on developing the positive traits within a man that improve the lives of oneself, those around him and the community at large. “Being a man” is beneficial to all.

The traditional and outdated idea of “being a man” doesn’t have as much weight now as it did in the past. To “be a man,” would mean to suck it up, deal with adversity by being stoic and refraining from crying, and pulling one’s bootstraps up to complete the job. Throngs of fathers have distributed this message down to their kids, with plenty of negative impact, because that’s what they learned from their fathers. As a result, sons develop a strong self-critic, doubt themselves and their abilities, and end up as men trying to aspire to some fantasy version of themselves rather than learning about who they really are. What is gained from “being a man” in this sense?

And what does it mean to be a man in the 21st Century? I think being a man starts with being authentic to oneself, and then being authentic with those he interacts with in his life. It means speaking the truth about oneself, even if it’s a hard truth, or if it exposes vulnerability, or if it compromises what others think of you.

Empathy, a prized commodity in this age of Facebook and social media narcissism, for oneself and for others also defines being a man. Strength is certainly important to the male experience, as it always has been, but I would modify it to include emotional strength by understanding one’s emotions (emotional intelligence or literacy) and having the strength and courage to go into those emotions, instead of running from them and pushing them away. Dealing with emotions as they need to be dealt with is ideal, and the implications for dealing with them straight on are vastly more positive than stashing them behind avoidance strategies.

It’s courageous to deal head on with the problems and hardships one will inevitably encounter in life, be they financial, relationship, or health. Not being a man is to hide from them behind alcohol, drug use, anger or rage, porn, or any other negative mode of escape that consumes oneself. The damage is not just to oneself, but to those he loves and associates with, and to the larger community.

Are you someone that others trust? Are you someone that you would trust? Trust, like empathy, are somewhat endangered species, yet I talk with so many men that want to be that guy that others trust and rely on. They want that consistency of character in a way that they, and others, hunger for it. It’s the currency of so many marriages and intimate relationships.

Values, and the application of them, define what it takes to be a man. By values, I mean a set of principles and guideposts one has to reference for the game of life, that can be fallen back on in good times and bad. Are you a man of values? Do you know what you stand for, and do others know?

Personal responsibility is a hallmark feature of what it takes to be a man. Being able to “own” a decision, even through failure, marks the path of an honorable man. Real men can take ownership for their lives and problems, and not have to blame others for them, by victimizing themselves in the process. As flawed as they may be, responsible men can attribute the success – or failure – of their own fate to none other than themselves.

There are certainly other characteristics of what it takes to be a man. What do you think? Do you have some ideas about it for yourself? How do you define being a man for yourself, and do you live by those definitions? What would others in your life say?

Being a man is a very personal journey. It’s not one readily given to us by parents, media, idols, or others. It’s one we have to develop for ourselves, a definition about us that we can live with and help give our lives the meaning and structure it requires.


About Jason

As "The Man That Men Will Talk To," Jason Fierstein, MA, LPC is a private practice counselor and psychotherapist for men and couples in the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area. He works with struggling men to find happiness in their lives, and with their wives.
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