3 Ways to Break Out of the ManBox – Tony Porter & Justin Baldoni

Society has given men and boys very rigid rules to follow to be considered ‘manly’. Author and educator Tony Porter describes this set of limiting constraints as the  “manbox’, into which boys enter at early ages and remain into adulthood. It includes acting tough, hiding emotions and adhering to traditionally masculine gender roles in relationships, such as being the family breadwinner and not equally sharing in household chores and childcare. From early boyhood, men are conditioned to live within a narrow range of emotions, to be tough and not show vulnerability. These restrictive ideas of what it means to be a man continue to be upheld and rewarded in certain places, such as in competitive sports and military service. But what do men do when someone suggests we are not manly enough? Justin Baldoni, actor and activist, shares in his book “Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity” what happens to men when our own sense of manhood is challenged. We retaliate, we call names, and put others down. Why? Because as men we must prove our masculine selves. Unlike femininity, masculinity is not earned. And, because it needs proving, it can be taken away. 

Baldoni and Porter share that our behavior is driven by the need to show the world that we are man enough. This system hurts men as much as others. Worse still, we have taught men to suffer in silence, in loneliness and in isolation. Truly, this is a silent epidemic as men die from suicide at rate that is 4x a higher than women and they are more likely to die from the top 10 causes of death. Young men are also not immune to victimization by older adults, as 1 in 5 boys will be sexually assaulted or molested. This hurt inevitably leads to hurting others. We are hurting ourselves as victims of the same system and we push away our hurt by hurting others. We see the truth in this given the increasing incidences of men contributing to sexual assault, violence and discrimination towards others. But this does not need to be our truth and many men are turning away from the negative patterns they have been taught and are defining a new narrative of what it is to be a good man.

Here are three ways we can break away from the restrictive forms of masculinity and challenge the systems that limit our capacity for well-being. 

1. We are only in control of our own actions. Find what works for you and those you love. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a man or with masculinity. Find aspects of masculinity that serve you and those around you. As men, we are taught to take up so much space and make ourselves the centre: of attention, of importance, of authority. Re-shift your focus towards community by giving more space in your life for people who care about you. Listen to others and give thought towards them and the relationship they want to have with the real, authentic you.

Recognize the hurt we experience and the hurt we’ve caused to others. We can’t change the past, but we can begin to identify where our hurt comes from and understand what triggers our insecurities. We need to take care of ourselves, know when to take a deep breath, take a time-out for rest and to enhance our personal well-being. Then, we can better understand how we show up in the relationships of our lives, and how we can be present in the ways that we want to be – with our kids, our partners and our friends.

When we are in positions of power, we often feel the need to exert our dominance over others. These are old survival mechanisms for earning our pass into the ‘club of manhood’. In the past, we have been asked to pledge allegiance to a single group at the expense of others. These mechanisms no longer serve us or the greater good. 

2. Allow yourself to feel emotions and be vulnerable

Growing up as boys, and now as men, we are taught that feelings and sensitivity do not make you a man. If we are not real men, then we are seen as either ‘women’ or as ‘gay; a dangerous assumption that implies women and non heterosexual cis-gendered men are weak, createing power imbalances between us and others. We don’t allow ourselves to feel emotions because we are taught that it is not socially acceptable. But we are humans with a natural capacity for a wide range of emotions. Sure, we don’t have to use them all at once, but let’s start opening the process by asking ourselves “How do I feel?”, “What do I do with these feelings?”, and “How am I showing up in my life?”. Only through self-realization can we show up in our lives the way we want and not how society tells us to. 

We need to allow ourselves to feel what we need, and then to understand if the actions we commit to are coming from a place of self-awareness or for social validation.  9 out of 10 people who express feelings from a place of external validation had regrets on their deathbeds. Listen to the prompting and make choices that satisfy your heart. Don’t listen to the noise, because the pendulum will continue to swing and people will forget. But you won’t. So, become true to your own moral compass — Justin Baldoni

3. Be conscious of your mortality, of your ‘why’ and let go of expectations

Recognize that we are not immune to death and impermeable to disease. Men are dying because we take unnecessary risks every day. One day, our bodies will no longer be able to take constant risks. We will face the reality that we’ve spent our lives tying our worth to our physicality because we have told ourselves that our value as men is tied to our limitless capacity to drink, the speed of our cars, and the strength of our fists in a fight. What will happen to our self-worth when our bodies say, “slow down?”

Today we can be intentional in our lives and build our self-worth from the inside out. We are natural protectors, so we can spend our lives in service of ourselves and others. Ask yourself why to get to the bottom of your emotions, thoughts and actions in life.  If someone cuts you off while driving, you feel angry. Ask, why? Are you angry at being cut off or is this a reminder of some other frustration in our lives? Understanding this will bring clarity and understanding. 

Be comfortable in who you are and have integrity in what you do. Let’s shed the traditional myths that society and culture has placed on us about ‘what it means to be a man’ and adopt a new aspirational masculinity.

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