I am guilty of it myself.
So what is this phrase that I making such a big deal of here? Well, it sounds something like this:
“It’s no big deal.” …. “I am not worried about it.” … “It’s no skin off my back.” … “It doesn’t affect me.”
There are more versions, but I think you get the point. It is the assertion that whatever has transpired, it hasn’t caused me any grief or worry, and certainly isn’t going to affect me in the days and weeks and even years to come.
For starters, let me be clear. I am not talking about getting mustard on your shirt or the Cardinals losing to a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth. No doubt there are many minor occurrence that we all must, and do, let go of at various times in our lives. If not, we would all be a bundle of frazzled nerves and frayed neurons every hour of the day. But what I am talking about here, and am guilty of myself, is making statements about matters of heart, mind, and soul as if they were concerning a recently emptied tray of grandma’s mashed potatoes at a family gathering (although I realize that for some, this loss might actually be understandably traumatic).
Everyone is guilty of it, but guys are especially fraudulent in this regard. Over the years, I have been struck at the number of times I have heard male friends, family members, patients, professionals, and many others talk about breakups, job losses, estrangements, various disasters, upcoming challenges, even deaths as if it was really was no big deal. On the surface, it sounds resilient, but when various reports of weight gain, sleeplessness, increased drinking, gray hair, constant tension, isolation, separation, cardiac problems, and the like start to surface in various ways, a more accurate picture begins to emerge. As a psychologist, I am especially privy to what really occurs to men when they struggle to deal with matters; yet even in the office, dismissal and minimization like this are not uncommon.
So why am I making a big deal of this “little white lie”? Well, beyond the short list of symptoms I just included that may ensue when matters are not adequately addressed, lies such as these serve to disconnect men from the various people that can be of greatest assistance in helping them cope and work through challenges. Only when men take a courageous step of transparency and vulnerability with the right people do difficult situations often improve. But when we act as if it is no big deal, it can easily take us to a place of self-absorption that rarely results in good habits and improved relationships.
The interesting thing, though, is that the origin of this lie starts at a very young age and likely comes from both an innate and socialized source. In regards to the innate piece, evidence suggests that young boys have an evolutionary predisposition for physicality, aggressiveness, and competition that is in-born, and exceeds that of girls. These characteristics set the stage for a belief that “being tough” is synonymous with being a male. As socialization increases, boys often come to understand that tears, whining, and acknowledgments of vulnerability are not often rewarded in the annals of popularity and attention. I noticed this with my oldest son and the dynamics that developed in the classroom during his first few years of formal schooling. His transparent communication skills (including admissions of vulnerability) might have helped him avert a major problem or sanction, but it sure wasn’t going to win him status as an “alpha male”, which everybody in the class knew exactly who that was. And just like many of the other boys (despite their interpersonal frustrations), this is where he aspired.
Fortunately, as the years have ensued, it has provided for many conversations about what is just important for his health and well-being, and the relationships he has and will have someday. But for many boys, these types of conversations (and related modeling) occur infrequently at best, and never at worst. And so, many boys become men who still subscribe to the notion that a real man “just deals with it,” even if in reality what happens looks more like being “dealt with it” instead of any semblance of true growth and coping. If increased isolation/anxiety, 40 pounds of weight gain, chronic sleeplessness, and/or constant alcohol use (among other common outcomes) are dealing with it, we need to rethink just where our perspective lies.
So what am I asking? Well, I guess I am asking for us men to consider redefining what masculinity looks like, and what it does not. As someone who has done an Ironman, multiple ultra-marathons, and is the father of seven kids, I am not suggesting that we stop pushing through reasonable pain and challenges at times in pursuit of a greater purpose. I am also not recommending that we broadcast our trials and tribulations to just anyone (online or otherwise). But what I am asking is that we take to heart an old ultra-marathon rule. That is, when someone is asked about how the trail is ahead (by a runner yet to have traversed this section), don’t ever say that it is easier than it really is. Tell them the truth – let them know where the hills get particularly sharp and where the pitfalls lie and just how far is left to go. Because if you are the runner who receives that false information, and you suddenly reach a stretch that seems much longer and more difficult than expected, demoralization will likely ensue. As in life, situations of hopelessness are not improved by false hope, but rather honest answers that can illuminate a plan to follow. Consider that when are honest with ourselves and others, our boys get a better perspective on just what life is all about. We also get a better opportunity to pursue a more effective course.
If we teach our boys to tell the truth (e.g., “Yeah, it has been difficult because of ABC, but what I am learning is XYZ”), then as they grow up, they will not only connect with many others and themselves, they will learn to redefine courage and toughness as something that aligns with reason and truth, not a legend whose true story lacks the same muster. When this happens, the world suddenly becomes clearer and options previously unseen are illuminated more fully. And it is then that our boys learn how to “deal with it” in the most manly of ways.
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