I am Afraid for Men–A Better Way

Yep, I’m afraid for men.

I have been working with them for over 30 years in a wide range of businesses. The vast majority of the contracting, coaching, consulting and interaction we do in our firm is with men. Perhaps due to the preponderance of men at or near the top of leadership roles in companies, men populate my professional world.

Many of my precious people are also men.  My husband, my father (now deceased), my brother, my sons, father- and brother-in-laws, step-son, nephews, the father of my kids, and dear friends are amongst the ranks of those my heart holds the very most dear: men I love and cherish.

I write this blog as a callout to the many men in my life, as well as those in circles that extend far beyond mine. I am driven out of love, respect, partnership, joy, and alas, fear.

Robin William’s recent death, presumably the consequence of depression, raises for me a deep and visceral worry for men and boys. It also reminds me of men I have known and countless I have not known, who have taken their lives or accidentally died as a result of depression, anxiety, addiction, and illness when we least expected it.  Tim was a hard driving 48 year old man that I had the privilege of working with for a multinational client in North America and South Africa over a 5-year period.  He was intense, driven, perfectionistic, an athlete, a devoted father, and a rising star. His death happened unexpectedly in his hotel on a Monday night during a big gig, and no one in his inner circle had any inkling of his private pain, loneliness, or the dark night of the soul that caused him to take that final act.

We teach men in our society, to be many things, but above all else, to NOT BE WEAK.  Brene’ Brown, a mentor of mine and celebrated researcher on shame and resilience, describes the mantra for men as akin to being inside a small box that says on the outside two stark words “BE STRONG.” This messaging results in little boys who learn quickly that when they are physically hurt they should brush it off and suck it up, that when they are scared they should suffer privately, and that when they are alone and incapacitated, they should find the strength within to prevail, single handedly with a stiff upper lip.

This training plays out in organizational cultures all over the globe in which mistakes are not tolerated, shame is used as a motivational tool, and men show up to the world as confident, tough, and in charge, even when the exact opposite is true and they ache, shake, and lie awake in cold sweat.

We have all read about the countless shootings perpetrated by young (mostly white) men. Suicide rates for men remain, shockingly, four times higher than for women, with the highest incidences our average client age of between 45 and 64.)  Simply put, in our world today, men ask for help less often, name their pain and loneliness to almost no one, and are more gravely at risk for addiction, suicide, and violent crime than any other demographic, anywhere.

And yet we don’t talk about it!

In our firm, we work with hordes of senior leaders who desire to more authentically lead from their heart and courageously show vulnerability as a means to a wholehearted life and an engaged, dynamic work culture. For the men we coach and consult to this means demystifying the assumptions they are burdened with about what it means to be a man. We work to reframe the notion of vulnerability as weakness and try instead to view it as a strength that facilitates connection and belonging on infinite levels.

For the countless other men  who never find a path through their very human fear and self-doubt towards surety and belonging there remains an old mystique that they must be heroic. Can we create cultures in business, in community, in government and at home where men can be both strong and weak, both brave and afraid, both depressed and hopeful, where men are invited, welcomed, supported, followed, and seen?  Only when we get there, in my view, can we lessen the astounding rates of isolation, suicide, depression, violence, and addiction that torment the family of men populating our offices and our homes.

The men I love and the clients I respect the most do not ride their white horses into the sunset as brave princes who wear armor and rescue the weak. Instead they are complex, messy, unique individuals who deserve to be seen fully.

With Williams’ death we feel shock, loss, surprise, and wonder—how could this happen? We see the paradox and we feel sadness and mourning for the heroic man who fell victim to a terrible demon.

I ask this: can we move beyond the individual and consider the group, the family of men, who we have unconsciously trapped by making it oh-so-not-okay to fail, show weakness, be afraid, or ask for help?

In my dreams, in my home, and in my work, we find a better way.

Jim Morris