Reflecting on my masculinity leads to unimagined freedom.
What kind of man have I become? How do I redefine masculinity today? I live these questions in my personal and work life every day.
I grew up exposed to the standard messages of what it means to “act like a man” —be tough, don’t show weakness, win at all costs, don’t get too emotional. Fitting into that “Act Like a Man” box meant being accepted by the other guys. Belonging was desirable, so I fit in enough to belong. But I was not the alpha male. I remember waiting on the playground to be chosen for a team. Sometimes it was a relief not to be last. Somehow I didn’t feel like I totally belonged in the middle of that definition of masculinity. Raised with five older sisters and having a mellow father, I did not have any alpha-male role models to push me. So I explored my own path.
With that background, how have I redefined masculinity?
Well, I like some of the traits that I grew up cultivating, like tenacity and ruggedness. But I don’t feel stuck in them as the only way. I believe a strength overused becomes a weakness. Balance is key. I can be tenacious and still ask for help. It is not weak to say, “I don’t know.” Once a client asked me a question in front of a group of 60 senior executives. I simply said, “I don’t know.” A guy in the front row blurted out “Well that’s helpful.” Despite their culture saying I should always have the answer, I gave myself permission to speak my truth. This is in contrast to what a colleague of mine calls the “Acquired Male Answer Syndrome,” when asked a definitive question, give a definitive answer whether you know what you are talking about or not.
Contrary to always being clear and definitive I’ve learned to sit with ambiguity. I’ve freed myself from always living in ‘either/or’ thinking, which can oversimplify complex issues. I can see how contrary perspectives give me a broader view. I’ve learned to approach others with much more inquiry rather than simply advocating my perspective. We white men have a tendency to jump right into fixing things, yet I can’t fix what I don’t understand. By stepping back and listening with both head and heart, I contribute to a shared understanding that is the foundation for effective partnership with others.
I grew up learning how to thrive in the world of doing and problem solving. My identity came mostly from my work. Today I complement this “doing mode” with simply being. Being fully present in the current moment offers the possibility of connection with others not otherwise available. I know this is a hard concept to grasp if you are always swimming in the water of doing. I asked a recent group of leaders whether they focus more on the present, past or future. And I asked them whether they lived more in a world of doing or being. They responded that they were often in the present with the focus on doing. But, what about being? They said they did not know what a focus on the present in a “being mode” would even look like. So I led them in some activities to explore connecting one-on-one in a being space. One of them responded that he had never had a conversation like that before. I asked them how many have significant others or family who would like them to show up more like that. All of them raised their hands.
I have enjoyed redefining my own masculinity from only about doing to both doing and
being. This accelerated for me when I attended Authentic World’s Aletheia workshop earlier this year (see integralcenter.org/aletheia
) The weekend workshop was a great way to explore connecting with others from a being space. I liked it so much I took their six-month train-the-trainer program and have incorporated their approach into my work within organizations and in my community and life at home. Practices like these can directly grow our muscles for presence and appreciation. As men we often flex our muscle of being critical because of our problem-solving, fix-it orientation. Rarely do we equally flex the muscle of being appreciative. Being present and appreciative are at the heart emotional intelligence, which research has shown to correlate more to the success of leaders than either intelligence or technical skills.
By evolving and expanding my original masculine mindset and practicing new skills, building effective partnerships across gender (and other differences) has become easier and more effective. My connections with other men are also much richer and more satisfying.
I’ll continue to ask: What kind of man am I becoming? The experience of reflecting on my masculinity continues to lead me to unimagined freedom and enrichment.