Ultimate Courage

A startling number of men suffer in silence. They hide their pain, often from even themselves.

This covert male suffering is manifested in numerous ways: Loneliness and/or social-emotional isolation (they’re definitely not going to talk about it); drinking and/or taking drugs to excess; dangerous activities; fits of anger; dissociating from emotions. While most men may not recognize themselves in the more extreme forms of covert male suffering, they can usually identify their reluctance to reach out for connection and emotional support. Certainly, the women in their lives recognize their lack of outreach.

Lots of men experience depression at times. While it’s commonly accepted “science” that women suffer from depression more often and more intensely than men, it’s also true that statistics can conceal more than they reveal. The problem is that, while accurate according to common definitions of depression and the psychological tests that measure it, these findings don’t account for the particular ways that males demonstrate depression. This depression is manifested more outwardly through actions or inwardly through emotional withdrawal. The bottom line is that men tend to suffer covertly in the shadows.

I’m not suggesting that women don’t suffer greatly. Of course, they do. However, women are much more likely to seek help than men. And men need help.

Consider these statistics:

  • Men commit suicide four times as often as women.
  • Men die an average of 4.9 years earlier.
  • Men are much more likely to be the victims of violence.
  • Men have higher rates of alcoholism and drug addiction.
  • Men are more socially isolated.

Even without the more extreme manifestations of male behavior, it’s clear that most men feel generally isolated—even with lots of people around. Those of us versed in male psychology believe that the problems begin early in life; boys are taught to hold their emotions in and “prove” their masculinity.

In fact, there are decades of scientific research with consistent findings: males who learn to rigidly identify with “traditional masculine ideology,” a term coined by a preeminent thought leader in male psychology Ron Levant, are psychologically and physically less healthy than those less identified.

(To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all aspects of how males are conditioned to be masculine are negative.) This ideology includes the belief that showing emotions, particularly softer ones like sadness and fear, makes guys less manly. Indeed, depending on the context, it could make them appear feminine.

Boys learn to so fear being called a girl early in life that they will go to great lengths to avoid this. Think blustery, aggressive defenses.

While playgrounds feel safe and fun to many boys, others can experience them as far more threatening. Bullying is sadly common. Home can even feel like a scary place to some. Stoicism and surliness become survival strategies. The fear of being bullied, shamed, or worse leads most boys (and men) to not express their vulnerable, authentic human emotions. Instead, their faces become increasingly stoic or even stone-like. This emotional shutdown underlies silent suffering—the kind that in its extreme leads to the fourfold difference in male suicide rates.

Most guys have learned that expressing these more vulnerable emotions can lead to abandonment, rejection and/or humiliation. Shame and a general experience of threat act to keep guys mum and enclosed. Sadly, this leads to loneliness and emotional isolation. Some guys, as they grow older, become more aware of the conundrum they face: either they continue to “man up,” hold it in or strike out and “be a man,” or go against the grain of traditional masculine ideology and follow a path of health. For example, they speak vulnerably and openly when they feel disconnected (neither blaming nor self-pitying), and they earnestly and vulnerably act on their essential human values that include connection, compassion, and collaboration. This takes courage.

In my 35 years of leading men’s groups and workshops as well as coaching and consulting with individual men, in both personal and professional settings, I have found that the most direct route for men to evolve beyond traditional male ideology and develop thriving habits of mind and behavior is through two related, yet distinct, sets of practices:

  1. Addressing their covert (and overt) suffering by learning to be self-compassionate
  2. Building positive emotional muscles through self-acknowledgment and self-appreciation

When practiced in tandem, particularly over time, men experience greater motivation, resilience, and overall life success—including better physical health, relationships, and capacity to just get things done.

It takes courage for men to practice self-compassion because it involves being present with their real pain—actually dealing with their covert suffering; this naturally includes emotional vulnerability.  

Men can take heart and feel assured that their sincere efforts will be rewarded, as witnessed through the overwhelming evidence that being self-compassionate is healthier (and stronger) than just “toughing it out” and resisting their painful feelings. Paradoxically, compassionately being with painful feelings does not lead to a hopeless state of feeling stuck but actually frees men to evolve and transform more quickly.  

While compassion always involves bringing awareness and kindness to yourself when you’re feeling pain, you can focus on building positive emotional muscles when you’re not necessarily in pain. This includes focusing on positive aspects of yourself. Some guys need to dig a bit. There’s a big difference between healthy self-acknowledgment and arrogance bordering on narcissism. Guys tend to hide from others the degree to which they are self-critical. They haven’t lived up to some often unattainable male standard, so focusing on the ways they are respect-worthy and lovable can feel very challenging.

The focus of Ultimate Courage, a workshop co-created by Steve Hickman (executive director of the Center for MSC), David Spound, and me, is on developing self-compassion and building on the positive specifically. Guys who have participated have consistently enjoyed a sense of positive male community that’s beyond anything they’ve ever experienced.

Men get real about acknowledging their life challenges in relationships, finances, or doubts at work. They find that the experience frees them to honor and appreciate themselves as well as bring care and kindness to themselves when in pain.

It takes courage to even register for the workshop because it will clearly thrust them in a more direct relationship with both themselves and other men. To a man, the choice to participate and the actual experience have been worth it. A consistent response we’ve received can be summed up like this: “I had no idea that guys could be so caring and supportive. I never dreamt that I could trust a group of men so much.”


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