Since I first scuffled with bigger boys on the playground I was told by teachers, adults, and peers to have a thicker skin. Through my teen years and into adulthood I was told to man up, toughen up, and grow up. In my early adult life I was told to be more assertive.
I did my best.
Yet throughout it all, I intuitively knew these messages were somehow flawed.
Now I know why.
But before I get to that, let me explain why the arguments to “man up” seem so right. There are a variety of versions but they all come down to placing a high value on strength, toughness, and courage.
- One version is that girls want strong men. As far as I can tell this is true both culturally and biologically.
- Another version says that in a universe where survival of the fittest is the fundamental reality, strength is what it is all about. The strongest survive.
- And lastly, is the market argument. In a world of competition for resources, jobs, and status, fortune favors the bold.
These three arguments seemed iron clad to me growing up, yet there was a niggling doubt. It took me 50 years of living to uncover why the advice was flawed.
Here Is Why The Argument Is Flawed
Advice to “man up” is almost always given by people who have learned how to repress or hide their feelings. Why THIS is a problem, will have to wait for another post. For some, it may be obvious that bottling up your feelings is not a good idea.
As far as I can tell, there are only four ways to deal with strong emotions like fear, anxiety, grief, and anger:
- feel and express them in the moment,
- feel them but hide your feelings with a poker face,
- repress them so you don’t feel them,
- feel them in a controlled way through some form of disciplined inner processing.
“Man Up” Really Means Don’t Show Weakness
When I ask people what they mean by “man up” they say it is a process of toughening your character to handle insults, harsh conditions, and pain without getting upset. When I ask how this is accomplished they usually say that encountering the harsh realities of life is the best way. Most “toughened” people do not have an explanation for how the toughening occurs, only that it involves courage and not letting anyone see you sweat.
This sounds good in theory, but in practice, most tough people I know simply deny or repress their feelings, grit their teeth, and clamp down hard on their tears, cries, or expressions of pain. The rules seem to be, “don’t react, don’t lose control, don’t cry, don’t sweat, don’t show vulnerability or weakness.”
For these people, it is all about not showing weakness, whatever it takes.
Man up, then, is using two of the options I noted above, repression and/or the poker face.
I reject both of these strategies.
The exception to my general rejection of “manning up” is the people who understand grit. The Positive Psychology movement includes a body of researchers working on resiliency, and they make clear that resiliency is a set of learned skills for bouncing back when life deals hardship. I’m not talking about these useful techniques, strategies, beliefs, and behaviors when I talk about “manning up” because Positive Psychology isn’t about holding in what you are feeling so no-one sees it or repressing it so you don’t feel it yourself.
Some people who dole out “man up” advice have learned these techniques, but usually they have no knowledge of how they did it, or of how anyone else can do it. So the advice remains useless.
The Bottom Line
For those looking for a bottom line to this topic, it is this: Don’t simply repress your emotions, or put on a mask of toughness; instead, learn the techniques, skills, and strategies for developing grit and resiliency. But there is more than just Positive Psychology and getting grit.
My Journey to Meekness
For those interested in this topic on a deeper level, I will outline my own story, and the strategies I’ve adopted for fostering true meekness.
I now believe that my so called timidity and weakness growing up were judgments made by those around me based on misconceptions. People judged me to be timid and weak because I hesitated to express a strong opinion until I had thought a topic through. I also avoided conflict because of my preference for harmony, cooperation, and synergy. This fundamental aspect of my nature remains essentially the same as it was when I first encountered bullies and tough guys.
It is common for people to interpret these behaviors as shyness or lack of courage. I do shy away from those things when I’m not ready to compete or take a risk. In addition, my lack of assertiveness is a personality trait that reflects my life experience, chosen strategies, and preferences. If you are at all like me in this regard, it will help us both to unpack this a bit.
It’s Not Your Fault
The first thing to realize is that most of the strategies we adopted as kids were selected from a limited list of options when we are pre-rational. Like protozoa bumping around in a liquid environment, our early selection process for dealing with threats and pain were chosen from reflexive and instinctual responses, or from responses we found successful in our short life so far. It wasn’t like we could dispassionately compare a variety of techniques that we had mastered through years of practice. We likely picked an approach based on limited knowledge and under some duress.
A big factor in my early selection process was reticence. My reticence is based on a combination of my natural intelligence, my openness, and my strategy of not settling on a decision before all the facts are in. This is seen as hesitancy or confusion by many. I tend to not fit in because I see many sides in a discussion. People don’t like that. They want me to agree with them and support the group view. But I have always found “toeing the line” to be risky. I’m wary of mob mentality, having watched it go bad too many times. I tend to look at alternative explanations so that I will not be deceived and instead I hold out for a more balanced perspective. I’ve wanted to know the truth, but this, especially in my younger years, made me look hesitant, wishy washy, and timid.
Now I must admit that it I do avoid taking a contrary position to aggressive people. I avoid conflict in general. I learned early in life that when people don’t get what they want by talking, they often resort to aggression and violence. Because I was usually the smallest and youngest child in my class, this strategy worked well.
Even today, I need to feel very confident in my position to stand up against aggressive people. Fighting seldom accomplishes the things I want. I try to have a moderating effect instead. I try to appeal to the concern for deception and rash action in others. If I can find others in the group who are having misgivings, we can support each other towards a more accurate appraisal of the situation. In this I am modestly successful. The biggest problem is that I am not a rhetorician. Jordan Peterson says that the ability to think on your feet and speak your truth is a skill that can be practiced and if he is any indication, there might be hope for me in this.
People Act From Their Wounds
Another reason that I fail to appear strong and confident is my tendency to self-sacrifice for others. Some of this is my Type C Personality, and the rest grew out of a belief that it was a better way than selfishness, that it was the Christian way. Meekness, I now believe, is not a retreat from difficulty and conflict but the development of a set of beliefs and disciplines that allow us to see the wounds, needs, and desires that drive human behaviour. It allows us to understand what is going on when people are aggressive, violent, and uncivilized.
Growing up I didn’t like bitches and bullies. I didn’t like schemers and kids I knew were just in it for themselves, despite playing by the rules, or smiling sweetly. Most of us, by the time we reach high-school know who is genuinely kind and caring and who is just putting on a show. Despite the fact that those people are often successful, I never wanted success if it meant I had to be a liar, cheater, or mean.
What I now know is that I don’t need to behave like that, I just need to grow meekness to deeper kind of strength. This will seem ridiculous to some because it is such a counter-culture strategy.
I do need to be more assertive and face conflict with equanimity, I do need to better deal with my fears and angers, and I need to stop sacrificing my own needs and wishes as much as I do.
But most of my other traits are OK. The truth is, that it wasn’t fair for teachers to tell me, the smallest kid in the class, to man up. It is crazy to tell a sensitive boy to hide his emotions. It is petty to make fun of weakness. And despite all of the taunting, teasing, and disgust I encountered, I still maintained the virtues of objectivity, tolerance, kindness, and understanding. I kept turning to Jesus, over and over, as a model of strength. Strength in humility. Strength through compassion. The strength of clear sight.
Back to Meekness
So lets say instead of “manning up” I look for other ways to be strong that don’t involve repressing or hiding my feelings. Lets say I think my leadership style might be meekness (or the stoic idea of apatheia). I’m going to be like Jesus or Epictetus and make unforced grace and equanimity my brand. Lets say I want to know a healthy way of dealing with anger. The sages of old seem to think true meekness was a way of managing emotions in a healthy way, especially anger. Rhoda Feng suggests that “meekness corrects for the aspects of anger that … interfere with our ability to make impartial decisions…” Apatheia/meekness is, in this regard, more like a discipline that insures impartiality.
All that Repressed Anger
So what do I do? How do I move from either reacting unfavorably to my emotions, or repressing them? As I wrote here, I’ve come to see repressed anger as a major cause of my physical pain. Very few people talk about what to actually do with that repressed anger.
Timidity and Attachment
Some of the books and podcasts I’ve been listening to recently emphasize that we adopt patterns of feeling angry and coping with those feelings early in life based largely on our genetic presets and early learning. Attachment theory now recognizes that both factors play a role in the strategies we adopt. “Grazyna Kochanska and her colleagues at the University of Iowa discovered that infants with one or two short alleles on the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR) established secure attachments to their mothers when their care was sensitively responsive, but developed insecure attachments when it was not.”
What this means is that very early in life we learn if we can rely on our caregiver or not. If we receive a generally consistent and sensitive response to our distress, we will develop a secure attachment, and that attachment will provide us with a basis for healthy relationships, self confidence, and good use of and integration of our emotions.
Without a secure attachment, kids adopt other strategies. In Mary Ainsworth’s original “Strange Situation” experiment she noticed that some children explore more, some less. She concluded that the children who do not explore in a strange situation have learned that they are on their own in a dangerous world and can not rely on the attachment figure (parent/caregiver) for help. And to make matters worse, the attachment figure has a harder time soothing them, because of this lack of trust. Commenting on this Saul McLeod says, “This behavior results from an inconsistent level of response to their needs from the primary caregiver.”
Kids who develop anxious or avoidant attachment styles are a small group. They have two things working against them. The inconsistency of their caregivers, and a genetic disadvantage. It turns out some kids have a genetic advantage that allows them to form a secure attachment, almost regardless of the response from caregivers. Jay Belsky says those lucky kids are, “born secure.” For the rest of us who received inconsistent responses from our care-giver, we adopt one of the other two attachment styles.
For me it was the anxious attachment style. I kept my head down, avoided dangerous situations, and found a variety of methods to sooth my feelings of anxious attachment, including going off by myself into nature, the great and universal balm for emotional pain.
Ainsworth had noted anger towards the caregiver as a common response when reunited. The child is angry, but not easy to console. It is like the child is saying, “I can’t count on you, I’m angry about that, you need to do better.”
I was so successful at repressing my anger at my mother, that I had great difficulty even acknowledging it’s existence. I finally did when reading Reinventing Your Life by Young and Klowko. The line that turned the corner for me was this one on page 117. “Did I feel close to my mother, did I feel she understood me, did I feel loved, did I love her, was she warm and affectionate, could I tell her what I felt, could she give me what I needed?”
Sadly, I could not answer with a strong affirmation to any of the points. I remember that my mother wanted a closer relationship with me, but I always felt threatened by it. Part of that feeling was because she was the one needing the connection, and part of it was that gut feeling that I couldn’t count on her to understand my situation or know what to do.
I know that I was, and to some extent still am, angry at her for this, even though a big part of me doesn’t blame her. She was a product of her age, anxious herself, and doing the best she could. I know that she wanted to be a good mother, but she failed to prepare me for the brutal world of school and work.
She used to tell a story about leaving me at the hospital for an operation on my eye. I was very young, and the hospital had rules about parents staying. She described my bravery and how it broke her heart. I now see that the bravery was an example of me caring for her, more than myself. I saw how anxious she was to leave me. I knew I was on my own. I pushed down my emotions and steeled myself for the operation.
So the first step in learning to change my response to anger, is to admit that my repression started very young and that there is a lot of repressed anger still bottled up inside me. John Sarno doesn’t think we need to express it to reduce it’s impact on our health, just acknowledge it. So, here I am, acknowledging it.
I wonder if those famous meek men of old were just “born secure;” and on that security they were able to build the patterns of true meekness. I think so. I think that when those of us with repressed anger and a lack of a secure attachment style approach the subject, we may see the wisdom and virtue of meekness, but lack the foundation for making it a strength. Without that foundation, it becomes part of a self-sacrifice schema or an emotional deprivation schema. If so, then understanding our schema and addressing it is the first step.
Less Nice, More Meek
The trade marks of true meekness: friendliness, equanimity, an even temper, non-responsiveness to triggers (anger), can seem the same as niceness, non-confrontation, and repression, but it is not. The meek person is gentle and warm whereas the expert of repression is more cool and anxious. Teeth gritters like me may want to be friendly and genuine, but their niceness is often a facade.
Niceness can be a facade almost as insidious as sarcasm. So the second thing I have to do is express my true thoughts and feelings more. Not rudely, diplomacy is a big part of meekness, but definitely genuinely.
Writing, poetry, drawing, painting, sculpture, and other forms of expression can be creative and effective ways to explore the bottled up emotions and wounds that continue to drive us.
Meekness, as I will explore in further posts, may turn out to be an unlikely but highly valuable alternative for those like me who reject “manning up” but still want to be strong and kind.
Featured Image by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-in-black-full-zip-jacket-715546/