Transcending the ManBox

photo by J. Gaddis

I wrote this for the Good Men Project recently. It generated over 100 comments within a week. Here’s the post in full…

In recent years there has been more and more articles on the state of white, heterosexual men and boys.   These articles peaked in 2009-2010 after male unemployment spiked and women officially outpaced men in the workforce. The general question has been “what is going on with boys and men and why are they struggling so much?” (If you are a gay man or man of color, this post relates to you as well, but I imagine that you are facing much more than just this stuff).

(Check out these older posts for a good backstory on the subject: Start with a funny post–Ode to the White Whipped Male by Mark Morford of SFgate. Then read The End of Men, which essentially explores how the balance of power is shifting toward women. And a superb and confronting follow up by Ann Freidman in the American Prospect called “Not the End of Men” where she cites that gender stereotypes are responsible for the man crisis going on).

Is there truth to these articles?  What is really going on with men now? Are we still suffering? And finally, if there is merit in the press about boys and men, what do we do about it?

A lot of people have weighed in on this subject. Here are a few perspectives followed up with my own.

This year, in a new book called the Demise of Guys author Phil Zimbardo claims that the reason boys and men are flailing so hard is due to arousal addiction, specifically the rampant overuse of video games and online porn. I can’t argue with this one, especially in younger men. However, these behaviors are symptoms of something deeper.

Experts like Dr. Michael Gurian say the reason men are suffering so much is because boy brains are different than girl brains and schools are designed to support girls learning style more than boys. Thus boys end up lagging behind. According to Gurian, this eventually leads to more men not finishing school thus falling “behind” in nearly every area in life.  Gurian’s work makes sense and he’s on to something important.

Then, there’s Warren Farrell, who’s most recent book The Myth of Male Power suggests that boys and men are seriously lagging behind women academically, economically, socially and psychologically. He says that men in 2011 are where women were at in 1961. Doah! In my ongoing coaching and counseling with men and couples, I couldn’t agree more.

I’d like to build upon what Farrell has found. Here’s my take…

The biggest obstacle facing men today
is their own conditioning.

Sadly, instead of growing up to be a healthy human being, men are conditioned to grow up to be “men,” which immediately limits their options to an incredibly narrow range of masculine ideals and behaviors and how the culture defines being a “man.”

The main conditioning influences for boys are:  other boys/men, their dads, TV/internet, movies, politics, and sports. Most of which still define masculinity as: Tough, strong, powerful, brave, figure it out on your own, suck it up, man up, stop whining or crying about it and get on with it, lead, don’t be a pussy, don’t act like a girl, don’t act gay, don’t act weak, don’t whine, don’t cry, money equals success, win at all costs, competition is good, be a good man, etc etc.

“don’t act like a girl, don’t act gay,”

So for a boy to survive and not be rejected by his peers and culture, he has to conform.

As these boys grow up into men, they allow someone else define who they are and how to be. As a result, men abandon and disconnect from themselves, which calcifies slowly over time. A common remedy is to medicate away this truth through addictive behaviors such as porn, drugs, alcohol tv, and technology. Men then buy what’s expected of them as their ability to listen to their own inner authority fades and thus the hamster wheel continues.

If a brave man sees through this trap, he can realize that the culture’s version of masculinity doesn’t fit for him and he can then choose to be the author of his way of being. Ironically though, if a man decides to leave the gender box behind, he will face the same gauntlet of judgment he experienced as a boy that put him in the box in the first place—more conditioning. He will be a threat to other men who want him to conform. It’s almost cult-like to remain in the gender box. Most gender-compliant men and women want other men to stay in the man-box club.

So his own conditioning becomes the tie that binds him and his fear of shame, humiliation, or ridicule is the only thing stopping him. Remember, it’s not our fault. We men didn’t choose to adhere to the man-box when we were young, we were subjected to it like cattle being herded into a pen. We had to agree. We conformed in order to avoid more shame or humiliation, and to be accepted.

For a man to even question this conditioning stuff threatens the very foundation he has built his ego around. If he wants break free from it, it will likely be an epic journey. It has been for me.

Where does this gender conditioning start and how did we get here?

I’m with researcher William Pollack who believes it starts in boyhood with the “boy code.” Pollack says the boy code is..

“…a set of rules and expectations that come from outdated and highly dysfunctional gender stereotypes: the idea that boys need to keep their emotions in check; that violence is an acceptable response to emotional upset; that their self-esteem relies on power; and that they must reject any and all signs of “feminine” qualities.”

For boys who never question the boy code, it slowly turns into the “bro code” or the man-box as they enter adulthood. When men stop questioning their own gender conditioning, it keeps them stuck in an immature stage of development that Sociologist Michael Kimmel calls “guyland.” Guyland is when a man refuses to grow up and then behaves in ways so as to not be seen as unmanly, gay, or feminine

The solution?

The way out of the man-box is straightforward and yet, will require more “work.” Men who don’t like the idea of more work won’t be up for it, which is completely understandable. Most men I work with are stressed, maxed out, and have very little room to do more stuff that’s “hard.” Notice the irony here. Men will work hard in their jobs, sports, or manual labor all day long, but when it comes to the deep personal work, men avoid it and many don’t even know it’s an option. It’s actually difficult to see there’s even another way.

So, for the small number of us that want to be our full selves and have full choice on how we want to live, and to be deeply fulfilled, the answer is to do your inner work.

That’s right. The remedy to this lack of freedom that male conditioning engenders is to dive inward through things like high-quality therapy, coaching, being mentored, men’s groups, reading, writing, art, music, wilderness, spirituality, shamanism, Ayahuasca (and other plant medicines), or a modern day rite of passage. Because as we dive inward, we gain new awareness. With new awareness, come more choices. We start to see there’s another way to live outside of the cultural man-box.

This takes courage, for a man will have to take two huge steps:

1) Acknowledge that he veered off course in the first place and quietly agreed to someone else’s version of masculinity. In other words, acknowledge that we are in a box that we didn’t author or design.

For example, once we simply acknowledge that we’ve been in a box created by our culture, we can begin to break free from it. We can also learn to embrace the inner aspects of ourselves that we’ve avoided because our culture shamed us for it. The real us can begin to emerge.

2) Move toward being a more integrated human being. This includes growing ourselves up, dismantling our own internal gender bias, and integrating three main aspects of ourselves:

a. The hurt little boy living inside of us.

b. Our feminine side.

c. Our masculine side.

The inner child

Growing ourselves up is critical to being an adult. Try being a parent. One of the first things we learn as parents is that we aren’t very grown up sometimes. We act like children, throw tantrums, and get our feelings hurt just as easy as kids.

Because most men don’t do inner work (largely because their conditioning won’t allow it), it can be assumed that most men have a hurt little boy inside who often runs the show, specifically in relationships.

By growing ourselves up, we can begin to meet the demands of our life from a place of maturity and responsibility. Rather than shaming each other into “manning up” we simply grow our fragmented self up, one step at a time.

The inner feminine

We all have masculine and feminine traits inside of us. Most normal men have completely cut themselves off from anything that resembles feminine so as to fit into the man-box. Had you told me I had something called an “inner feminine” living inside of me twenty years ago I would have made fun of you.

“Had you told me I had something called an “inner feminine” living inside of me twenty years ago I would have made fun of you.”

Yet once I began to really work on myself in psychotherapy, I eventually saw how my inner feminine held the key to getting out of the gender box that kept me stuck, unsatisfied, and alone.

My work with my inner feminine has allowed me to reclaim all of the sensitivity in me that was shunned as a child. I also realized that I was indeed capable intimacy and relationship. I learned that I was very intuitive, creative, and emotional. By accepting this part of me, I could begin to access the “real me.” My inner work with her is ongoing.

Finally, once we embrace the conscious feminine hidden within we can stop being at war with the feminine on the outside—mother, girlfriend, wife, and even the earth.

The Inner Masculine

By “cleaning up” his masculine side, a man might have to confront real issues about where he learned masculinity—namely his own father and other men who were in positions of power as he grew up.

And if a man can confront the cultural box of masculinity, his own internal masculine files will need to be updated. This includes his relationship to shame, and power/agency.

If we find out we have been in a box, and dive inward, we’ll eventually find shame. Most men bury shame so far down, there’s zero awareness that it’s there.

For example, growing up I got shamed for being a sensitive emotional boy. Because I wasn’t allowed to feel my reaction to being shut down in this way, I buried it deep inside and postured over it. Thus, as an adult, I’ve had to bring my shame into the light. I have had to reconcile that disowned part of me that feels ashamed of who I am. I’m also reclaiming being sensitive and emotional.

Men will also have to confront their own use of power and what power means. Learning how to own our power (trusting that we won’t hurt others) is critical for an adult male. Men typically either abuse power or shy away from it. Each man will have to find out how to wield his sword with mind, heart and soul.  Right use of power includes having agency— what William Farrell calls “control over one’s life” or what Nelson Mandela called “being the captain of my soul.”

Men often make a mistake by thinking that they are in control over their lives, but upon closer inspection they realize they gave that up as soon as they conformed to society’s rules and expectations of their gender. This can be seen in men who feel “obligated” to work a certain job or get married and have kids which, in a traditional sense is still the pinnacle of male “success.” However, as Warren Farrell points out, this isn’t true power.  True power for a man is about having agency over his life.

Instead most men are a slave to their gender’s expectations of success—house, cars, high paying jobs, marriage and kids. Heterosexual men will even compete for the status and approval of each other by climbing even higher on the gender latter. The classic “American Dream” is one example that keeps men developmentally, psychically, and spiritually way behind women, and men don’t even question it.

Growing ourselves up in these three areas helps us find the way back home to our “real” selves. By doing our inner work, we can learn to be ourselves and no longer get caught up in what other men or women think of us.  We can find the authentic expression of us, no matter how masculine or feminine we are and learn to live from that place. This I believe is where we begin to redefine “the masculine.” Rather than try to “act like a man” or  “get masculinity right,” we aim instead to be an integrated human being.

“when men listen to someone else define manhood for them, instead of using their own intelligence and being the true author of their own life, they end up buying the culture’s narrow version of masculinity without question”

Remember, when men listen to someone else define manhood for them, instead of using their own intelligence and being the true author of their own life, they end up buying the culture’s narrow version of masculinity without question and then raise their kids that way. And when men and women tell boys that they need to act like a boy or man, we build fences around them like cattle, and then complain when they don’t act like their gender. With this approach adults and kids lose. Ouch.

For brave men who want to be in control of their life, the path will be to transcend the gender box and dismantle their conditioning. This is path to more and more personal choice and freedom.

Finally, as we raise our boys, we owe it to them to be very mindful of the ways we collude with the boy code and the man-box. Let’s aim higher and go deeper by supporting our boys in being who they naturally are.

Join the Raising Boys community here.

1 Comment

  • Owen Marcus

    Reply Reply June 18, 2012

    Jayson – you wrote a great manifesto for men to grow up. I couldn’t agree more that as men our worse issue is not us, it’s our cultural box.
    Yes the process of true maturation can involve some hard work. Yet I’ve found over the years of teaching men to lead men’s groups that it can be a hell of a lot of fun. With a good group you turn doing it solo (a common acculturated trait) to a team sport.

    We often forget with each us is the instinctual memories and skills of being a man. When you put a group of committed men together over time the collective wisdom of that group exceeds the sum of all the men there. It is as if to use Robert Bly’s poem term, the Third Body of the group’s collective wisdom is the collective unconscious of masculinity.

    I know you are an advocate of men’s groups, obvious so am I. With Ken Solin I formed a nonprofit to teach men how to start and run men’s groups or as we also call them – micro-communities.

    In a few weeks we are presenting at WDS (World Domination Summit) on how men and women can form their own micros. We also offer men and women free downloads on how to do this at

    If we are going to step out of our box we need to do it together. We need to: Go tribal with a micro.

    Thanks for bringing clarity to what it is to be on the path of being the man you want to be.

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