I had a dream a few nights ago and in that dream I was contemplating the Earnest Hemmingway Novels I’ve read. In my twenties, I went through a Hemmingway phase where I read a good portion of his works. I’ve also recently come to the conclusion, that I’m not now, nor ever was, a fan of his writing. I was trying to remember what it was that got me into reading him and I think it stems from him being popular with my friend group. For context, we were also watching a lot of Woody Allen movies. But the conclusion I’ve come to about Earnest is, that he was perpetuating and embodying the tenants of toxic masculinity.
Toxic Masculinity as a Lifestyle
The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes. Hemmingway was travelling around with his buddies, drinking too much and getting into fights. He wrote about war, fishing, bull-fighting, death, extreme independence and romantic encounters, topics saturated with masculinity. All of these topics and themes resonated with the type of man I thought I needed to be, at that junction in my life. But what I hadn’t taken into account was, how these personifications of masculinity were causing me to ignore the person I actually was.
I had been strong-arming my personality into a box that just didn’t fit me. Mostly because this was how I was taught to be a man. But maybe more importantly, because I wanted to be loved and accepted by those around me. What makes this so sad is, that there was always a low hum of anxiety, just beneath the façade of my masculine veneer. I was scared of the anger I was harboring, but also I was scared of myself.
The macho attitude I was displaying, along with my unforgiving personality, turned me into, the types of people who’ve abused me in the past. In short, I turned into my abusers. This was where my anxiety was coming from. One wrong move and I was likely to be cut off from everyone and thing I knew and loved.
Reality TV & Partying
The insights I gleaned from my dream was, that the ways that Hemmingway was living, with the drinking, the partying and all the drama that’s attached, was a lot like what reality TV has become. The only difference is, they had slightly different social norms in his time.
For example, I imagine that displaying your masculinity was what was popular at the time. So for Hemmingway, running with the bulls was probably a way for him to show off how manly he was. If you filmed it and formatted the trip into a half hour or hour show, throw in a little drama and you’d have a pretty good reality TV show.
And for the most part, minus the extravagant trips, this was what was playing out in my family. Something I’ll go into more detail later on this post. The men were putting on the façade of being ultra masculine, and shutting off our emotions in the process. While the women were looking to feel connection or taken care of and seen. But they were too scared to open up emotionally to the angry and abusive men, who had already severed emotional ties with the women. This was because this is what we thought the women wanted.
Why I was Living this Way
The more I think about it, the more miserable I was. Sure, I had some good times. But I was usually drunk, or having fun at the expense of somebody else. The rest of the time I was mostly worried about being around other people. Unable to relax or feel a part of what was going on around me. Worried I wasn’t who I should be. It was isolating and strange. So why was I living this way?
From what I can tell now, looking back in hind-sight, I was trying to be a-part of the culture I was steeped in. Being a product of the 80’s, I was definitely taught that men were tough, violent and in charge. These were their most prized attributes. These qualities however, were not how I wanted to act or be in the world. They were used in my past to raise me and I remember all too well the fear and isolation they created. The last thing I wanted to do was to perpetuate what had happened to me. But it seemed to be what was expected of me as a man. So I acted that way in an attempt to feel a part of the culture and people surrounding me. And it worked for a while.
Being My Own Person
But as I said above, it was fear and anxiety producing. Being and acting the ways my abusers had, went against the vision of how I wanted to live my life. I did not want or need the extreme independence and lack of connection with others that had been modeled for me. I wanted to love and be loved by those closest to me. But this was impossible while I was living the toxically masculine life.
So in order to be the person I felt I was and the one who was being stifled, I had to give up the image of what I was taught a man should be. And this was no easy task.
Getting in Touch with My “Feminine” Side
I found myself criticizing myself for being too “feminine”. Or not looking the stoic, powerfully in charge personality I was taught a man should be. The unyielding, unforgiving, authority figure who was prone to violent outbursts, was something that was modeled for me time and again. But the forgiving and accepting person I was trying to embody, I was taught were the traits of women.
Though it was never specifically taught to me that genders had inherent traits, culturally it was something that was reinforced. In my family, the women, just like the men, were petty and mean most of the time. But we still subscribed to the beliefs that women were soft, vulnerable and caretakers of the men. While men were hard, in charge and were not allowed to show vulnerability.
I’m not totally sure where this mentality came from. In my parents generation, the man was still supposed to be head of the household. The bread winner and the person calling the shots. And the women were supposed to take care of the family and the men.
Old Ways of Navigating Relationships Leads to Stifled Ways of Being
From this dynamic, I observed a lot of unhealthy forms of self expression. The men in my family were angry most of the time. Often around how the household was being run. While the women were expressing themselves through what they could buy.
What was and is so frustrating about watching this dynamic play out is, we are so much more than the one or two roles we play in our closest relationships. When we’re reduced to a stereotype, we lose dimensions of our personality. This can lead to resentment. Also, taking out our pent up anger, due to limiting our personalities, on others in our relationships. This was the root of a lot of discord in my family.
This was due to dynamics in play such as, men weren’t allowed to be vulnerable. And women weren’t allowed to take charge or question the man’s authority. For me as a man in my family, this meant taking on too much responsibility for others and feeling overwhelmed, without knowing when to take a break and care for myself. From what I saw with the women in my family was, that they were frustrated with feeling powerless. So they acted in petty and spiteful ways to take out their frustrations on those they felt powerless to.
How We Handled Stifling Our Emotions
But in order for the men in my family to bury their vulnerabilities and for women to cover over their frustrations, we drank. This was the easiest way to not have to feel what we were so afraid to express. Of course, nothing about what we were experiencing was easy. But we’d rather drown our problems than take a hard look at what was causing them.
How I Retain My Masculinity While Showing My Vulnerabilities
This was a difficult lesson, with a steep leaning curve. It had been taught and reinforced, so many times in my family, the lesson that men were not ever vulnerable, that the wall I had built around my emotions was almost impenetrable. Luckily for me, with the aid of a friend I awoke into my emotions. But the path was most definitely a rough one.
When I began letting my emotions in again, I had the emotional intelligence of an eight year-old. This was around the time my abuse started. So my emotions had been frozen for little over two decades. I remember clearly that when I started to feel my emotions again, they would all come flooding in at once. And they were all intense. I didn’t know what emotion I was feeling at any given time, because I was never shown how to give names to my emotions and let them be without trying to stifle them.
But the longer I stayed with my emotions, the less intense they became. When I first started feeling them, it was as though they were all bundled together, like a knot of live wires. And every time I tried to untangle them, I would get a shock. But the more I untangle them, the clearer it became which emotion was which. Even though I was vulnerable to the shock of feeling the once overwhelming emotion. I’m now able to feel emotions that were much too powerful for me to experience before. And I believe what has helped me the most has been, support from friends and family and meditation.
Support from Family, Friends & the Greater Community
The support I received from family and friends was pivotal. Knowing that I could just be me, without the toxic masculinity and still feel accepted, was what allowed me to discover who I was. And not only allowed, but accepted and loved for who I was becoming. This was what gave me the courage to drop the masculinity armoring and allow me to let the emotions in.
But it’s been a slow process. And one I’m still learning how to adjust to. I had a life’s time worth of lessons on toxic masculinity to unlearn. And I had none of the resources with which to unlearn them. I went searching for them in earnest and many of the resources I’ve picked up along the way are listed here in this blog.
Sites such as The Good Trade have done so much good in helping me to get in touch with the more sensitive aspects of my personality. They have a wealth of articles that give advice on how to navigate emotions and emotionally charged situation.
Tara Brach was another great teacher that I found along the way. Her talks helped me to understand that I wasn’t alone in what I was going through. Hearing others’ stories have helped to give me a sense of hope. Hearing that someone else has been through what I’m going through and hearing how they managed the experience, has been a huge source of relief and sense of community for me.
And finally, meditation has helped me to stay in my body while my emotions are coming over me. This may seem like something insignificant, but every time an emotion came on that was over whelming, I ran from it by dissociating. I ran so often, that when I finally sat down to sort through them all, they had become the mass of tangled, live wires I described above.
Sitting and learning to handle a single emotion and separate them from the unsorted emotions has been invaluable to understanding my emotions. Also how to handle them with care. And the longer I stay, the easier it becomes.
Final Thoughts on Masculinity
If you’re in the same boat that I was in, and I imagine that it’s not all too uncommon, don’t worry. It’s difficult to feel the pressures from our families and friends, and not to mention from society and culturally as well. A place where masculinity is given a much higher value than it can be worth. So if you’re feeling a little uneasy about how you’re seen by others, maybe it’s worth your time to investigate where these feelings are coming from and what you’re doing that makes you uncomfortable.
Are you doing something that you don’t really like doing because it’s what’s expected of you? Maybe there’s a trend you’re apart of, that you got involved with to feel some belonging. If you examine these places and you find that you aren’t enjoying them as much as you feel you would like to, it may be worth asking yourself if doing them is a true expression of your personality. Here is where you can find where your true passions lay. And being masculine isn’t a bad thing. But when it gets in the way of who we truly are, then we may need to explore why we’re holding on to it so tight. Peace & thanks for reading : )