By Galen Erickson
At 22 years old, I was divorced, depressed and sitting in a jail cell, facing felony assault charges for a bar fight that I had “won.” I would call this moment rock bottom for me.
When I hit rock bottom, I realized that something needed to change; not just a small correction, but my whole lifestyle and worldview. While sitting in that jail cell, looking out at the rainy Seattle skyline, I made a commitment to myself to be better, to figure it out.
Why had I gotten in that fight? Why was I so angry, so depressed? I knew it had something to do with my views on being a man, specifically, being a man in relationship to a woman.
In my freshmen year of high school, I was about five feet tall and weighed 122 pounds. I had a boyish face and a somewhat goofy demeanor. Puberty arrived late and slow (I didn’t need to shave until junior or senior year). I didn’t exactly exude manliness or toughness.
My lack of manliness put me at serious risk of getting bullied, ridiculed, or worse, feeling like I didn’t meet the bar for what it meant to be a guy.
But I wasn’t stupid. I found ways to “up my manliness.”
I started by joining the wrestling team. There, I built muscle and learned skills in physical violence. The coach taught us ju-jitsu in addition to traditional wrestling moves. My buddies and I would get drunk and “brawl,” which was a sort of no-rules wrestling that involved a lot of tackling and body slamming. I was smaller than basically all of my friends, but because of my fitness and training I was able to compete with the rest of them.
The second thing I did to up my manliness was getting laid. I found out pretty early that, not only was sex fun and exciting, but it seriously improved my status in general, and my “manliness” in particular. So I pursued women aggressively. Senior year in high school, I was voted “biggest flirt.” I’ll let you guess what that implied.
But, with all the physical intimacy, there was very little emotional intimacy. I didn’t fall in love; I had fun. I expected that the women I connected with were doing the same thing. The hook-ups seemed to me as a mutually beneficial arrangement.
There were, however, two fairly significant issues with my exploration of hook-up culture. First and foremost, so much of my identity and sense of self-worth was wrapped up in my “success” with women that a dry spell or a “failure” was a huge knock to my ego. Second, there wasn’t much depth in the connections that I was making. By “playing it safe,” the relationships provided only short term amusement rather than fulfillment.
As I began college I figured out the fairly obvious fact that more depth would be more fulfilling, but I glossed over another, much more dangerous story: I based my sense of worth as a man on being in relationship with a woman. I began a very “serious” relationship with a woman when I was 20 years old and dismissed my friend’s suggestions that it was an unhealthy one.
It didn’t take long for our unhealthy relationship to devolve into verbal abuse and depression. I clung to the hope that marriage would make things better. Instead, marriage made things worse. By the time I figured out how unhealthy the situation was, we were both psychological and emotional messes. Splitting up was the right thing to do, but it made the depression worse. I began drinking heavily to numb the pain of guilt and loss of self.
One night, I turned my grief into anger and a sense of self-righteousness. Ironically, it was someone who I perceived to be disrespecting women that received the brunt of my anger. Strong words became clenched fists. When the bouncers pulled me off of him I was screaming and bashing his face in. My clothes were splattered with his blood. I left the scene in a rage. The police knocked on my door later that evening. I solemnly cooperated as they handcuffed me and read my rights.
This was a huge wakeup call for me.
As I write this, a little over ten years later, I have an amazing marriage with the love of my life. I am financially, physically, mentally, and socially healthy. I feel secure in my manliness and inspired to share my journey.
For me, this journey has been about a lot more than just pulling myself together; It has been a process of becoming secure in my masculinity. It turns out, this has had very little to do with “being tough”, “manning up”, or “growing a pair.” Paradoxically, it’s been learning to accept my softer side that’s allowed me to feel strong. The more I am able to connect with my feminine side, the more grounded I become in my masculinity. And, of course, I’m still learning.
But this acceptance of the feminine is not what society teaches young men. We are taught that men are strong and stern, that the only emotion a man should ever show is anger. We are taught that “feminine” traits in men are worthless, and even dangerous. We are taught that homosexuality (or anything resembling it) is shameful and wrong.
The resulting impact on men (and women) is far reaching. Four of five suicides are committed by men (over 32,000 in 2013)*. And every 9 seconds (on average) a woman is assaulted in the US**. These statistics are almost overwhelming. And yet, physical violence isn’t the only negative impact.
Emotional relationships for all of us suffer from this toxic male conditioning. We are taught that our own inner feminine is weak and emasculating. This hateful energy is consciously or unconsciously inflicted on our female partner. We long for a woman’s feminine energy, yet the space we hold for our own feminine energy is one of hatred and shame. This makes it pretty damn hard to build effective relationships.
For me, doing men’s work is about becoming the fullest expression of myself. It is about undoing culturally engrained misogyny, homophobia, and self-hatred. It is about learning to honor the feminine within myself, so that I can honor the feminine in my partner. It is about learning to celebrate expressions of masculinity that are rooted in courage and love, rather than violence and anger. It is about learning to be both soft and strong.
The path toward wholehearted masculinity is long, but the first step is to acknowledge that the journey is needed. I invite you to join me in creating a healthier, fuller, more integrated culture of masculinity.