by Frank Ehrenfried
The problem really starts with defining what is considered a "real man". That definition is as varied as there are humans on this planet. Yet something powerful happens when the question is asked. A little gap is created to look at all the conditioning that encodes itself into our brains and bodies through images, symbols, myths, stories and beliefs. As childhood fades and teenagehood hits us in the face, the power of socialization can lock many men into an invisible prison. A prison they cannont see, nor touch, nor smell. A prison for their emotional lives.
So what on earth does this prison look like and how do we become aware of its impact on our lives? Thankfully a group of film makers asked this question in a documentary called "The Mask You Live In". Chronicling the story of American men and their struggles with stress, overwhelm, isolation and relationships, the movie reveals how destructive elements of masculinity can turn vibrant young boys into frustrated and lonely adults.
Reading a recent interview with the director, it was startling to discover the statistics that motivated them to create the film. Jennifer Newson (lead director) found that in the United States boys, compared to girls, were more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, more likely to be prescribed medication, more likely to binge drink, more likely to stay out of school, more likely to commit a violent crime, and more likely to take their own life...But why?
In the course of the film a powerful picture is painted showing how boys are systematically taught to reject aspects of their own humanity. What is left outside the realm of acceptable in their conditioning often includes empathy, emotional regulation, connection, community and expression of their inner world (aka feelings). Many by the age of adulthood no longer have access to these parts of themselves, much less are aware of how it negatively impacts their current relationships and state of wellbeing.
Reflecting on my own life, I felt a deep connection to the message of the movie. While I still am terrified to confront the contents my own mind, I realize that only by seeing what lies in there am I able to become aware of what drives my habits. So many of the inner programs and belief systems I am controlled by were inputed without my consent. Many of the role models I looked up to expressed the most extreme versions of masculinity, hyper-sexuality and an adoration of intellect, money and power. There had to be more to being a man than just this...
In an attempt to embrace a fuller range of experience and expression I stepped into the unknown. This required a new map for the territory and I took to constructing a cartography of masculinity that went beyond the invisible prison.
Map making isn`t easy, especially when the territory can be full of painful pitfalls. Taking time away from the busy "doing" of life, I found myself drawn to some of the most creative tools available for becoming more aware. While I love taking the lone wolf approach, this new path required a leap of faith. It asked that I reach out for help in ways that often made me feel ashamed.
While asking for help at first felt awkward, I eventually got over it. Through a powerful slew of tools such as flotation tanks, acupuncture, therapy, breath-work, mindfulness and nature, I plotted a new course. I intentionally joined communities that shared my new values and were open to walking a similar path of self-knowledge and exploration. These communities and practices helped me find parts of myself that I had split off or abandoned growing up. While the process will always be a work in progress, my new map is no longer based on all the most extreme elements of masculinity. I now have room to fully be myself and find connection in ways that I choose, helping me feel more alive than ever. As former NFL Coach and Player Joe Ehrmann remarks in the documentary...it`s time to end this hyper-masculine narrative right here! Its end with me and it can end with you too.
Check out the trailer for "The Mask You Live In" below.