man box

The Man Box: How to Break Free Before It Kills You

I was five years old when my uncle drove me to the mental hospital. He was taking me to see my father who had suffered “a nervous breakdown.” Later I learned that he had become increasingly depressed because he couldn’t make a living supporting his family. Like me, he was a writer, and found it difficult to be the breadwinner that he thought he was required to be.

Years later I found a journal he had written during that period of his life. He described his torment as he slid closer to the edge of despair:

June 21st: The heaping up of many failures in the world has a tendency to unbalance a man’s worth. I lose complete faith; the feeling of inferiority is overwhelming. Accomplishments, no matter how small, must be constantly made to help keep my self-respect and remind me of my intrinsic worth.

July 8th: Sunday morning, my humanness has fled, my sense of comedy has gone down the drain. I’m tired, hopelessly tired, surrounded by an immense brick wall, a blood-spattered brick world, splattered with my blood where I senselessly banged to find an opening, to find one loose brick, so I could feel the cool breeze and could stick out my hand and pluck a handful of wheat, but this brick wall is impregnable, not an ounce of mortar loosens, not a brick gives—Are these pages written red, instead of blue?

November 21st: All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education. I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Sunday morning in November, my hope, my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.

Three days after this journal entry he took an overdose of sleeping pills and was later admitted to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Some said it was his depression that drove him into the hospital. I grew up wondering what happened to my father and whether it would happen to me. Certainly, he had become increasingly depressed, but why, I wondered?

I’ve come to believe that the real reason for his depression was that he was trapped in the Man Box. I describe the Man Box in a new book, My Distant Dad: Healing the Family Father Wound, which will be published in June, 2018. A recent study by Promundo, a global leader in promoting gender justice and preventing violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls, described the Man Box this way:

The Man Box refers to a set of beliefs, communicated by parents, families, the media, peers, and other members of society, that place pressure on men to be a certain way.

One of the participants of the study described his experience of the Man Box this way: “How does society let men act? Because of society, the pathologies and powers that exist, men can only act a certain way. If you do not fit into the box, you are not labeled as a male.” The study describes seven qualities that men must follow when they are trapped inside the Man Box, along with a number of messages that embody each quality.

  1. Self Sufficiency

A man who talks a lot about his worries, fears, and problems shouldn’t really get respect. Men should figure out their personal problems on their own without asking others for help.

  1. Acting Tough

A guy who doesn’t fight back when others push him around is weak. Guys should act strong even if they feel scared or nervous inside.

  1. Physical Attractiveness

It is very hard for a man to be successful if he doesn’t look good. Women don’t go for guys who fuss too much about their clothes, hair, and skin. A guy who spends a lot of time on his looks isn’t very manly.

  1. Rigid Masculine Gender Roles

It is not good for a boy to be taught how to cook, sew, clean the house, and take care of younger children. A husband shouldn’t have to do household chores. Men should really be the ones to bring money home to provide for their families, not women.

  1. Heterosexuality and Homophobia

A gay guy is not a “real man.” Straight guys who are being friends with gay guys are suspected of being gay themselves.

  1. Hypersexuality

A “real man” should have as many sexual partners as he can. A “real man” would never say no to sex.

  1. Aggression and Control

Men should use violence to get respect, if necessary. A man should always have the final say about decisions in his relationship or marriage. If a guy has a girlfriend or wife, he deserves to know where she is all the time.

The study points out that fitting in with the prescribed roles can help a man feel good about himself, but being locked in the Man Box can also be destructive, particularly to a men’s mental health. In the study they sampled young men from three countries, The U.S., The U.K., and Mexico. The men in the study “reported extremely high incidence of depressive symptoms, with clear links to adhering to the Man Box.”

There was definitive evidence that men in the Man Box in the US and UK are significantly more likely to meet a screening standard for depression than men outside the Man Box. Some 41 percent of men in the Man Box meet this standard of depression in the US, compared with 26 percent of men outside the Man Box. In the UK, 46 percent of men in the Man Box meet this standard, compared with 28 percent of men outside the Man Box.

Additionally, the men’s rates of suicidal ideation is linked to the Man Box. “Quite simply, young men are thinking frequently about taking their own lives. Large proportions of young men in all three countries reported having thoughts of suicide at least ‘some days’ in the last two weeks. In all three countries, men in the Man Box show significantly higher levels of reported suicidal ideas than men outside the Man Box.”

How do we break free from the Man Box? The first step is knowing that there is a Man Box. We also have to realize that men who can’t fit themselves into the Man Box, like my father, suffer significant physical and emotional pain. They come to believe that they are a failures for not being able to be the “sole breadwinner” or to adhere to the other beliefs of the Man Box. Further, we have to recognize that even those who are adept at following the rules of the Man Box, suffer as well.

Women have come a long way in breaking out of the restrictive roles that limited their freedom and opportunities to be all they can be. It’s time for men to expand our understanding of what it means to be a man and what the benefits of breaking free from the rigid requirements of the Man Box.

The only way my father knew to get free was to break down. When he was hospitalized he was misdiagnosed as being “psychotic.” Today he would have been seen as having bipolar disorder. Yet, what we call “mental illness” may in fact be a healthy response to the Man Box. Surprisingly, his “nervous breakdown” may have been the thing that saved his life.

I share his story of escape and his journey to freedom in my new book. If you’d like to learn more and receive a pre-publication copy of the first chapter, “Mad Father, Dutiful Son,” drop me a noteand put “father wound” in the subject line.

I look forward to your comments. We can only break free by sharing our stories of survival and liberation.

This article first appeared on Jed’s blog.

Photo by Michael Jasmund on Unsplash

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