by Patrick Means
In the last issue of STEPS, Patrick Means talked about the pressures on men to succeed, and the destructive results of those pressures. This article continues with a discussion of the third destructive consequence of toxic pressure
3. The Development of a False Self
Because we men have been raised to hide our weaknesses and exaggerate our strengths, we often find ourselves burning huge amounts of energy keeping our “false self” propped up and looking good.
One of the most distressing results of this is that no one truly knows us. True intimacy is impossible, because intimacy involves revealing and sharing who we really are with another person.
Many of the men I’ve met in my workshops describe lives that are crammed full of work and activities, but almost completely devoid of deep relationships – either with their wives, or with other men. This is compounded in our society by the ways we’ve been trained to relate to other men. We tend not to establish deep friendships with men – partially out of homophobia, and partially because we’ve been trained to view other men as competitors. We’re most comfortable with a superficial, semi-rowdy, slap-em-on-the-butt kind of relationship with other men formed around activities. And so the genre: “fishing buddies”, “golfing buddies”, “drinking buddies”, and so on.
After my life blew apart seven years ago, an old college friend wrote me to extend his friendship, and just to be a listening ear if I wanted to talk. I remember writing him back and saying that I was grateful for his offer, but that I didn’t quite know how to respond, and that I had a fair amount of fear, because I’d only shared my most vulnerable thoughts and feelings with women before, and never with a man. I’ve gone on to develop several deep friendships with men, and they’ve been some of the richest experiences of my life.
The diagram below shows the different “selves” we share with others. Those who know only our “Public Self” know what we look like, what our job is, and how we act when we’re “putting our best foot forward.” These people we categorize as acquaintances.
Those who know our “Personal Self” know a bit more about us. They know our personality, our likes and dislikes, our most obvious strengths and weaknesses, and some of the ways we relate to our wife and children. The people are our friends.
The person we keep hidden from almost everyone is our “Private Self,” and the people who know us on this level we call our confidants. Our confidants know our true character, warts and all. To them, we’ve entrusted our most precious secrets: our dreams, our fears, and even the issues and behaviors from our dark side that we struggle with the most. I have found deep healing from the experience of sharing this innermost part of my self, first with my wife, and then, through my 12 Step experience, with other men whom I trust. This is the level of soul-nourishing fellowship that John in his epistle describes as “walking in the light” with one another.1
If there are activities or behaviors in your life currently that you have not shared with your wife, or sponsor or confidant, then there is an additional compartment in your life called “Secret.” Often it’s our fear of criticism or rejection or some other loss that causes us to hold back a portion of ourselves from those we’re close to. But it is our secrets that keep us imprisoned in a world without true intimacy, without the nurturance of deep relationships.
: Draw and label the diagram below on a separate sheet of paper. Under the “Personal Self” list the names of people who know you on this level. Do the same under “Private Self” with those who are your confidants. If you have behaviors, fears of dreams that you have shared with no one else, draw and label the “Secret” compartment on the diagram. Begin to develop the kinds of male friendships in which it feels safe to share your “Private Self.”
As we stop hiding our successes and strengths as men, and begin to relate to our wives and to other men in deeply honest ways, we’ll experience a level of acceptance and affirmation that we never dreamed possible. But, like anything worthwhile, it will take time.
In The Velveteen Rabbit , the children’s story in which a nursery room stuffed rabbit wants more than anything to become real, a profound exchange takes place between the Rabbit and the wise old Skin Horse. The Rabbit wants to know exactly how one becomes real, and whether it happens “all at once.”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” the Skin Horse tells the Rabbit. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or who have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.
“But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”2
1. I John 1:7
2. The Velveteen Rabbit , Margery Williams, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.
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