• BLOG
  • Thought piece

The evolution of masculinity: From ritual to self-compassion

The historic function of rituals in defining masculinity

In David Gilmore’s anthropological research, he observes that manhood is separate from biological maleness. In other words, it simply isn’t enough to have male genitals to qualify as a man. 

As a result, he argues, men have been subjected to dangerous and painful rituals throughout history, and only then was their manhood confirmed. Manhood was an either/or condition that was determined by a threshold, below which one was denied his masculinity. Once established, however, it was never questioned.

These rituals have been found at all levels of society from simple hunter and fisherman to urbanised communities. For example, young boys in England were sent to boarding school to endure ‘trial by ordeal’ which imbued Oxbridge aristocrats with the qualities required to run the British Empire. 

They transformed ordinary moments into something meaningful, albeit traumatising, which in this case pertained to masculinity. 

The double-edge sword of shame and grandiosity

Yet, Western Society has abandoned a lot of rituals. This has saved boys and men the distress associated with such practices, but as Bernie Zilbergeld notes, now men are plunged into a perpetual state of anxiety as their manhood is always on the line. 

They constantly need to demonstrate that they are worthy of being perceived as a man by their community by embodying qualities that are oppositional to femininity: strong, aggressive, dominant, emotionally inexpressive. Broadly, they are taught to disconnect from their feelings. This underpins the prevalence of damaging sayings such as ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘take it like a man’, and ‘don’t be such a girl’.

The incessant pressure to display masculinity has driven what therapist Terry Real labels performance-based self-esteem. In such instances, self-worth is externalised, which means there is no internal self-worth. When we believe that we are not enough, our default belief is that there is something inherently wrong with us. This manifests in a sense of shame that we carry for our entire lives.

Real asserts that shame’s outward counterpart is grandiosity. Such displays of superiority like dismissing other’s achievements or failing to recognise that actions can be harmful reflect the trauma men have buried ever since gender norms were instilled by society.

Towards a progressive masculinity

The ongoing disapproval of male emotional expression by men themselves means that they are untethered from the realm of feelings. The ability to identify and process emotions, which are both prerequisites of good mental health and wellbeing, is therefore also impacted: ‘Feelings can’t hurt you, running from feelings can kill you,’ says Real. Feelings thus become strangers and transform into frightening intruders when they rear their head. As Brené Brown notes with regards to shame: ‘No-one talks about it. But the less we talk about it, the more we have of it.’

Every human is born with the right to feel emotions, positive and negative, but cultural norms mean guiding men back to this stolen place is not an easy endeavour. However, there is a glimmer of hope towards a more progressive masculinity as reflected in the rise of male-driven initiatives such as HUMENFuture MenManKind and ambassadors such as Justin Baldoni who is done with being ‘man enough’.

A world where men don’t judge themselves solely on their outcomes, such as sale numbers or negotiations won, but instead recognise their inherent worthiness would mean their masculine identity is no longer a precarious battle that can be lost in any moment. How can men support one another in rewriting the script, and how might the rest of society do the same?  Here are some of our thoughts:

Express self-compassion: The more men model self-compassion, the more other men learn that it’s possible to be kind to themselves. If all they witness is punishment and negative self-talk, then they’ll assume no other reality exists. If you didn’t meet your own expectations, the default mode is to activate the harsh inner critic. However, if men see this voice met with self-forgiveness, then it can help liberate them from the constraints of traditional masculinity. 

Demonstrate sharing and self-disclosure: It’s a fine balance between modelling emotional vulnerability and making yourself the topic of conversation. However, psychotherapist Megan Bruneau suggests that self-disclosure can prompt the person to offer their experience, ‘I’ve been really struggling with the cost-of-living crisis and feel anxious about it. How have you been doing?’ 

Hold space for their emotions: Sometimes we feel something, but we don’t know what it is or how to express it. If you sense he wants to share, but there is a reluctance or a difficulty, be patient. What does patience look like in conversation? It’s about being present. We often feel an urge to fix but the best gift we can give someone is our undivided attention. After all, it may be that they haven’t processed why they are resisting opening up in the first place. 

Tune into non-verbal cues: Communication isn’t solely verbal, it's also eye contact, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Be intentional about your own non-verbal cues as you listen to him. For example, open arms suggest you’re willing to communicate while looking at a door or clock suggests you want to be elsewhere. Remember to also notice their body language which might indicate self-soothing gestures (e.g., rubbing their head or neck), unease or fear (e.g., hunched posture).

Small actions can not only help nurture a compassionate mindset, but also be a catalyst for a seismic shift on a societal level. We each have the ability to help men celebrate not simply what they do, but who they are. 

Word count: 929

Date: 21st November 2022