The Guardian wrote an article in 2016 highlighting recent findings that men seek mental health therapy less than women. My life as a male and in my clinical experience as a therapist who specializes in working with men supports this finding. Men seek therapy less often than women, and I find this tragic. Today we are talking about a core problem of men who try to be Superhuman.
I idolized Superman growing up. I imagined invincibility to be awesome, as would be the ability to fly and stop bullets with your pecs. I saw the Man of Steel as the ideal man; Impervious to physical and (in my mind) emotional pain. Up until my late 20's this was who I aspired to be. I spent years fantasizing about being indestructible (emotionally) and much of my emotional energy was devoted to projecting a superman (Superhuman) presence to those around me. My thinking was flawed and I failed to identify a major consequence of trying to be Superman… isolation.
Superman always struggles to relate to the humans with whom he coexists. He is both a part of our planet but apart from humanity, an outsider. Emphasizing this point further, his house is called the Fortress of SOLITUDE. Solitude being defined as, “The quality or state of being alone…a lonely place.” This was the price he pays to be Superman – isolation from the very ones he attempts to protect.
In hindsight, I lived in my own Fortress of Solitude. Hiding from myself and others, I lacked authentic relationships where I could show up as I was. I hid behind a wall of performance, playing roles for acceptance. I lived in a self-made solitary prison. I had denied my humanity out of fear of vulnerability and I don’t believe I am the only man who has lived this way. I see many men I work with do the same, often without realizing it.
How would a man know if he is attempting to be a superman while denying his core as a human? The following are a few themes I’ve witnessed (and experienced) in men denying their humanity: Difficulty and unwillingness to engage unpleasant emotions. Anxiety and irrational fear at the thought of being fully seen. A low frustration tolerance, quick to being angry, in failure and imperfection. Few (usually zero) heart-level connections with other men. Feelings of alone, isolated and misunderstood.
For men, embracing our humanity is counterintuitive. We are taught that vulnerability is weakness, strength is complete command over emotions, life is neat and tidy, and that needing others is proof of inadequacy. Men face the day as these pseudo-warriors conquering whatever life throws at them. This pattern is so deeply engrained that even as life again proves it is more powerful, men still choose to mend their wounds in isolation and pain. His heart is wounded and in need of care, yet avoiding his humanity reinforces his learned instinct to isolate; promising nothing other than continuing the cycle of being isolated from others.
Wholehearted living, embracing one’s humanity, provides a way out of this cycle. It requires a counterintuitive step into the very vulnerability he has avoided. It requires the ability to authentically engage himself; an embracing of the good and bad, successes and stumbles, strengths and deficits. I love how Brenè Brown explains wholehearted living in her book Daring Greatly:
Therapy is powerful because a good therapist is able to help a man navigate this healing path. I view all my clients as a type of hero. As I sit across from them I see them bravely set to the task of authentically exploring their life. Their bravery is tied to their willingness to step into vulnerability, not because of their achievements and accomplishments. They exercise the courage to embrace their humanity.
As they step into this place it brings tears to my eyes. I feel as if I am seeing them for the first time, even if we’ve worked together for months. If feels sacred to see another man step from super to human; embracing his worthiness regardless of his performance and in light of his imperfection. For many men it feels as if they are fully seen for the first time.
Sadly, clients tell me that the therapeutic hour is one of the only times they can experience this, a place where they feel safe with their humanity. I often wonder “What If this were not the case?” What if more men embraced being human instead of being super? What if more men engage one another with kindness and authenticity, bound by their humanity and not their performance? What if masculine strength means the courage to be fully seen for who he is, not what he does? What if this step into authenticity transcends the therapeutic hour?
I wish more men engaged in therapy. I wish more of us delighted in being Clark Kent, rather than the impossible standard of Superman. I struggle to believe a momentous change will occur unless we challenge the image of Superman as the ideal man. Men need encouragement to engage themselves as they are, imperfect, and require both external and internal freedom to experience true strength.
This strength is not being faster than a speeding bullet, being more powerful than a locomotive, or leaping tall buildings in a single bound. It is strength to travel the longest and most difficult of paths; the path from the head to the heart, with the courage to accept and love what he finds when he gets there.