Healthy Responsibility: How to Tell What It Looks Like and How Our Past Shapes Our Idea of What It Means

When I was a child in the eighties, responsibility was a word that was used liberally. It was also gender specific. This usually meant that the man in whatever situation, work or family, was responsible for the well-being of, well just about everything. They were the breadwinners, kept those in his charge safe, and provided for them and their needs as well. The women were prizes to be won and looked after what the man provided and who he provided for. This was/is a large amount of responsibility and was solely on the shoulders of the man.

As a child taking this role in, using black and white thinking to navigate their world, this can seem overwhelming. This was most definitely the case for me growing up and what I was taught about what it means to be a man. And I’m certain that I’m not alone. So my question is, if we’re taught what the role of a man is while we’re using black and white thinking to make sense of our world, how do we broaden our perspective to take in other ideas of what it means to be a man? I.e., what does a healthy amount of responsibility look like?

This is no easy task. But necessary if we want to become whole and healthy individuals. I’ll be sharing some of my experiences and the lessons I was taught growing up. What I was told and how I made sense of the role I was given to fit into, and how I’ve changed the definition of what it means to be a man for myself.

Man Up… or Don’t?

The phrase, “man up” was used a lot when I was a child growing up. It essentially means to be tough. Whatever is happening in the moment, if you were a “real” man, you’d be able to handle it no matter what. This was definitely the unspoken rule in my family and in society at large at the time.

So this is how I lived my life. To the measure of a “real” man. This meant drinking way to much, to prove I could “handle it”. I was also mean and condescending to others that I viewed as ineffectual or “weak”. Which I later realized was me preying on vulnerabilities I saw in others as they (the vulnerabilities) had been abused in me. In short, I was angry, abusive and uncertain of myself and supported in this iteration of my personality by those closest to me. Largely because it was how those who supported me were as well. And all of it monumentally unhealthy.

When I realized how unhealthy my definition of a man was, it was terrifying for me to realize what I had been striving to become. I had turned into my own abuser in a way, by punishing myself for not being invulnerable in the ways I was taught I needed to be as a man defined by my family. And to top it all off, I was supposed to be responsible not only for myself, but being a man meant, I was also responsible for the women and children in my family.

You’re the Man of the House Now…

I think this advice was dispensed to every boy whose parents divorced and whose mother had custody of the would be new man of the house. I was told this by every male family member when my parents split. As well meaning as their sentiment may have been, it felt like the world had just been laid on the shoulders of my eight year-old self. Overwhelming.

And the worst part of the entire experience was, no one told me what that meant! I was eight, my family was falling apart and according to all the adults in my life, I was in charge. It’s so absurd to think about now that it’s funny. But it sure didn’t feel that way then. But I took on that responsibility none-the-less.

I studied my caregivers like science projects, to find out what it was that I was supposed to be doing. As I’ve said before on this blog, that didn’t turn out so well. I ended up living as they did, which happened to be how Jim Morrison lived. As my friend Melba would say, this is no bueno.

And even after watching The Doors movie on repeat through my high school years, I still had no idea what was expected of me. I drank a lot, found myself in some pretty dangerous situations, but never had any direction on what I should have been doing. While my peers were studying to get good marks so they could attend a respectable college, I was drinking to numb the pain of the neglect I had experienced while fumbling around and looking for some center. Some stability.

And I never did learn what it meant to be the man of the house, because all the men who were supposed to show me how, left. And on top of that, the female caregivers in my family were consistently saying how they didn’t know how to raise a man. So I was abandoned and alone. And as a result, I made some pretty poor decisions. I left my then beautiful wife for a woman two thirds my age and who had been racing towards the bottom in the same ways I was. The Marla Singer to my Taylor Durden. But Luckily, this is where I turned it around and started making healthier choices.

Choosing to Be a Better Man

Exercise

It took me until I was in my thirties to recognize that I needed to make a change. But when I did I hit the ground running. Litterraly. I started my journey with exercise. First running then yoga. I had been so sedentary for such a long time that I had become unhealthy and out of shape. I was playing enough videogames to satisfy the hour requirements for a part-time job and drinking maybe half my caloric requirements for the day.

Running and yoga were ways for me to reconnect physically with my body and the world around me. I had spent so much time staring at a screen that it was almost like I was living in a two dimensional world. Taking care of my body’s needs helped bring me back into the third dimension. I remember asking a co-worker what the third dimension was, and he did a comical rendition by bouncing up, down, left, right and back and forth. I had spent so much time in front of a screen that I literally didn’t understand practically how dimensions worked. And I went to architecture school for a semester!

And the more I got up and out the door, or on my mat, especially when I didn’t want to, I became more comfortable with that feeling of wanting to avoid my responsibility. I began to enjoy the work I had previously avoided by playing video games and drinking. I now work harder because of it.

Learning to Cook for Myself

This was a big portion of my life that I had been neglecting for a very long time. And what’s most strange is, that I worked in the restaurant industry cooking and baking for a majority of my career. It should have been second nature. But drinking was still my main priority when it came to my caloric intake.

Again, in my thirties is when I started to take responsibility for my nutritional needs. It was also the first time I started viewing eating as my “nutritional needs” instead of just eating what I felt. This was a big shift from eating whatever I could find around the house and ordering takeout three to four times a week. Also better for my budget. Something I’ll be going over in more detail next week.

I began my nutritional journey by going vegan. It was a little extreme looking back on the decision now. I’m eating vegetarian currently, but still cook mostly vegan for myself. My weight is the healthiest it’s ever been and I’m also feeling much healthier. Win win. And the long term health benefits for going veg are undeniably the healthier nutritional option. Also cutting back on large amounts of processed foods helps as well, reserving them mostly for occasional treats and snacks.

Budgeting

When I began making the switch to healthier choices and decisions about my life, I was also about 110k in debt. Health bills, student loans, credit cards… If someone was lending money, I was most likely looking to borrow it.

So getting on a budget and being responsible for my financial world came rushing in all at once. This is when I found Dave Ramsey and started following his baby steps to getting and staying out of debt.

I began by taking stock of what I had. All my debts all piled up in one place so I could see just how deep a hole I had dug for myself. I then came up with a plan to pay down my debt by making and sticking to a written budget. This isn’t always easy.

There were definitely months where I looked at my grocery budget of 250$ and realized that I overshot it by 500$! These were difficult months. But the more effort I put into sticking to my budget, the more it paid off. I started to make some real progress on my debt goals and have cut it down to nearly half of what I originally started out with.

Not to mention that I’ve also had the time and resources to make plans for retirement as well as setting up an emergency fund for a little financial peace of mind. I’m feeling more responsible for my life now and it’s also given me more focus and direction on my career path and goals. Taking charge of your money is a great place to start recognizing what healthy responsibility looks like because it touches so many different aspects of our lives.

Being a Man: What it Means Now

The messages I received as a child of what it means to be a man, the gun and porn collections of my childhood caregivers, the bravado: these were not sustainable ways to be a man, let alone to live your life. I’ve come to realize that those who were showing me the way in my youth were struggling themselves with what it means to hold healthy amounts of responsibility.

For me now, being a man means to take care of my needs first. Not in a selfish way, but in a way that allows me the security and peace of mind to know that I’m on a good foundation. That no matter what comes up, I’m able to take care of myself while it’s happening. Then I can begin to focus on helping others on their paths.

But it begins with understanding where our unhealthy patterns of taking on too much responsibility lay. Are we consistently spreading ourselves too thin by feeling obligated to do as much as possible for others at our own expense. Our first obligation is to ourselves, then we can judge how much we’re able to take on without completely overwhelming ourselves.

So if you’re struggling with feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted at the amount of responsibilities you have, maybe it’s time to check in with yourself. What are the areas of your life that are feeling too much. What can you do to ease some of the stress? Are there small changes you can make to your routine that will shave off some of the responsibilities you have to a more manageable level?

These are all little ways where you are able to make a large impact on how you view and manage your responsibilities. And above all, know your limits. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you’ve taken on too much, trust that your intuition is right. Listening to yourself is the first step in taking on a healthier amount of responsibility. As always, peace and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “What’s a weekend?/Resource overload” by AllieKF is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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