Macho Men and Radical Self-Care
What is the relationship between epidemic rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, addiction and how we develop as men? Why do men find it so difficult to admit to health issues and pay attention to troublesome symptoms?
Connecting the dots is pretty clear. Most of the men in my generation (boomers) generally follow the culturally prescribed path to manhood: deny your feelings of vulnerability and fear; work through any pain and play harder if you’re hurt; never cry; drink alcohol and take drugs to self-medicate; be in control; don’t be emotional like women; have a gun; go it alone; take physical risks; and work your ass off doing something you probably don’t particularly enjoy but allows you to buy more junk than you need. As a society we all have to pay the price for this manhood programming through medical bills, prisons, gun related violence, high divorce rates, and lost hours at work.
I caught the flu a couple of years ago. At first I thought is was my usual mid-winter clean-out cold then a week and a half later I got the knock out punch, serious aches and pain and prolonged congestion. I clearly needed to take some time off to get some deeper rest.
For a workaholic like me that wasn’t easy. After three days in bed I got really worried about not getting enough done. I had to face that part of me that questions my worth if I’m not being productive. At that moment I had tremendous compassion for all the men who were being laid off and out of work during the past few years. I feel how fragile the image of being successful is, and how much that depends on constantly producing.
In the months that followed that illness I had several men come to me for coaching who were going through the same issues. As I listened to them I could hear my own inner voices. Who am I without my work? Is it really OK just to kick back and take care of myself? One man’s wife claimed to be divorcing him because she didn’t want to be married to a man who was retiring early, questioning what to do with his life, and spending his days playing golf. Another man was facing his mortality, feeling that he couldn’t be who he was earlier in life, could see his old identity was dying and feared who he would become. A third man’s job was literally driving him crazy, but he couldn’t leave. To do so would mean failure to him and he feared that more than anything.
My own illness gave me the time to again face the reality of what it costs to “man up.” We lie about how we really feel, what we really want, and deny our pain until it gets overwhelming. And then we are surprised that we end up with “dis-ease” and our worst fears are realized.
My father and the men of his generation had this training down pat. I remember watching my father sit immobilized with the pain of his cancer. I remember hearing my mother say, “Isn’t your Dad wonderful, he never complains.” I wanted to yell at both of them, “For god’s sake, stop this insanity, and express your feelings!” By that time I knew full well that they wouldn’t and couldn’t do things any differently, and that I wouldn’t be the one to break the code of silence.
At some point in my late forties I began to understand that I was following in my father’s footsteps. My identity was also tied up in working hard, suffering in silence, not asking for help, not expressing my own vulnerabilities. I could sense that to act any differently than the stoic role model was to betray my father and that manhood he stood for. For many years I had to maintain that same pattern as a way of staying connected to him and my male lineage. For many men on this planet that connection to the stoic tough guy model of manhood is still very much alive. Going against the grain of that old model isn’t easy or even a consideration for many men.
What got me to begin to make that shift in myself was the clarity that I didn’t want to pass on that legacy of macho stoicism to my sons and grandsons. The buck had to stop with me. I’m still working on it.
What unwritten rules of manhood did you take on from your father and your male lineage? How’s that working for you? What is it costing you to contain your feelings and hide your vulnerability? If you are a father, what image of manhood are you willing to pass on to your sons and daughters? Is it possible for you imagine yourself as both strong and vulnerable at the same time?
The macho way of being a man ensures that most of us won’t admit that we are sick until we are almost at death’s door, and some not even then. Statistically 80% of men go for medical check-ups because their spouses, mothers, or female partners talk them into it or make the appointment for them. We are in tremendous denial about our bodies and feelings.
Make the radical self-care moves…..
Find a doctor or alternative healer you respect (it’s worth checking around) and make that appointment for your annual check up.
Take a long hard look at the ways you still follow the macho guy game plan and assess what changes you need to make.
With courage and commitment create a plan.
Create a circle of support.
Take small steps to move forward.
Be kind to yourself. Honor and appreciate those steps.