- With role-modeling and mentorship, men can explore how to develop a mature, holistic model of masculinity.
- Research suggests that being connected, motivated, and authentic contributes to forming a positive masculine identity.
- We can develop relationships by taking small emotional risks and letting ourselves be seen by others as we express our honest emotions.
My father recently made a comment that surprised me. Without prompting, he said that although he was nearing his sixties, he felt as if he had somehow missed something and sometimes still felt like a boy in the world of men.
This was not a new idea for me. I relate to it myself, and it’s a familiar sentiment that my male clients express in therapy. There is a distinct lack of masculine role models in our culture. Many of us feel that other men got some sort of instruction or guidance on navigating the world, but somehow it eluded us.
Although I hadn’t shared many of those thoughts with my father, he had come to echo the hunger many men feel in the modern world. He shared a yearning for mentorship, brotherhood, and growth into a mature, developed sense of manhood. It is a yearning that, for many of us, goes unfulfilled.
Without much-needed mentorship into the world of men, we are left to find our own way toward a mature, holistic model of masculinity that will meet our deeply felt internal needs while also honoring the sovereignty and dignity of those around us.
Thankfully, there is a growing movement among men to establish a new definition of healthy, positive masculinity.
In this vein, a group of researchers recently created a framework for teaching a model of positive masculinity to school-age boys. Their goal was to build a foundation of mentorship for boys that would take them from boyhood into the broader world.
Using several theoretical foundations rooted in our understanding of social and psychological development, these researchers suggested the following three attributes that contribute to the formation of a positive masculine identity:
- Being connected. To the self and others, forming interpersonal relationships based on respect, open communication, and non-violence.
- Being motivated. Intrinsic motivation to engage with and contribute effectively to society beyond social pressures.
- Being authentic. Comfort in enacting commitment to one’s values. Capacity to adopt flexibility around the emotional restriction and stoicism in help-seeking.
Although this was designed for work with boys in school, these principles give men a framework that moves us toward a greater sense of our positive masculinity and is useful at any age.
As the old saying goes, no man is an island. However, many men may feel that way. Traditional masculine ideology is built upon excessive self-reliance—the message that real men shouldn’t need help and that accepting it is weak.
This results in drastic rates of loneliness and isolation amongst men. Close relationships can be few and far between, and the ones men have are often centered around external activities like work, sports, or the bar. If we are to develop a strong sense of healthy masculinity, we cannot do it alone. We need true connection.
Researchers go further, saying that connections should not be centered around intolerance of other groups. Brené Brown calls this “common-enemy intimacy,” the attempt to hot-wire connection and intimacy through hating the same people. Too often in our polarized culture, groups are formed around an “us vs. them” ideology. This does not lead to real connection because anger and hatred do not build trust, even when shared.
Positive masculinity is connected masculinity, which means it embraces vulnerability and honors the humanity in others. As Wilson et al. said, it is centered on “respectful, tolerant, equal, empathetic, kind and non-violent relationships.” This kind of relationship requires us to embrace discomfort, let down our walls, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with one another.
We can develop these relationships by taking small emotional risks and letting ourselves be seen by others as we express our honest emotions. It requires us to be willing to be uncomfortable and vulnerable. It also means that we must make space for others to express themselves, requiring us to breathe through discomfort as others express vulnerability. However, we build trust and intimacy with those who have earned it by taking these emotional risks.
Motivation can be particularly difficult, especially with infinite distractions at our fingertips. But the motivation that Wilson and their team refer to goes further than simply having a productive day.
This motivation is about a deep-rooted commitment to bettering oneself as a person. It is also about developing a sense of personal purpose and living in a way that contributes to the betterment of others.
This contrasts with our typical idea of motivation, which is focused on achieving goals placed on us by external forces. Our culture ushers us into this mindset, preparing us in adolescence to become faithful workers and to measure our value in terms of what we produce. It also tells us that our lives should be based on what others think of us rather than on a hard-earned sense of who we truly are.
From the perspective of this kind of motivation, our driving force should be based on personal authenticity, founded in values developed through personal experience. This kind of commitment is solid enough for us to work toward the greater good, even as others oppose us.
While the previous quality focused on connecting with others, developing this trait relies on connecting with ourselves. It happens when we take the time to reflect on our inner selves and develop a set of personal values based on our own study and experience.
To connect with ourselves, we must be acquainted with ourselves, even our darker side. This includes the things we may not be proud of as well as the uncomfortable roots beneath reactions of anger or unkindness. We prioritize the work that leads to personal change and growth by making space for that inner reflection and self-improvement.
A major goal of this work is that the opinions of others will lose their weight and that we will develop a deeply felt sense of our own masculine identity. As we work toward that end, we reclaim the power over how we view ourselves. When our self-worth as people and as men are based on our own internal values, it is like taking a much-needed deep exhale. We finally have room to be as we really are.
We do this by redefining what being a man means to us and living it out in the world. We do it as we allow ourselves to express our emotions sincerely. When others judge us, maybe out of their own insecurity, we stand up for ourselves. We defend our right to embrace the full spectrum of our personhood.
This then extends to others, making room for them to be their whole selves, even if it is different from us. We seek to bring them in rather than exclude them. Since we no longer need to defend against insecurity or self-doubt, we can be open to new people and experiences. New ideas are then no longer a threat but an opportunity for learning and growth.
From this mindset, we have courage, confidence, and the flexibility to hear others and even learn that we might be wrong. Our worth is no longer on trial, constantly measured against a suffocating definition of manhood. Instead, we are grounded within ourselves and can approach the world from a place of integrity and compassion, both for others and ourselves.
Operationalizing positive masculinity: a theoretical synthesis and school-based framework to engage boys and young men, Wilson, et al. Health Promotion International, Volume 37, Issue 1, February 2022, daab031, https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/daab031