Why American Men Are Stuck in Adolescence (And How To Embrace A Mature Masculine Identity)
Most American men are psychologically stuck in an adolescent mindset. Their collective stunt in emotional development contributes to the mistreatment of women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and culminates in a profound disconnection from themselves.
As a man myself, it’s important that I take ownership of these issues and recognize that I too have the capacity to hurt, mistreat, and marginalize others.
Like many other men, I was raised to become stuck in perpetual boyhood. Our culture lacks markers of transition — rites of passage and initiation ceremonies that use rituals to convey the increase in responsibility associated with a more mature masculine identity. Lacking such an initiation into manhood, perhaps due to a deficit of mature men and elders to engage in this guiding work, I, like many modern men, have been forced to create those rituals myself.
In high school, I looked to driving a car as a source of freedom and responsibility. Despite the privilege that afforded me this opportunity as a straight white guy from the suburbs, I was still ignorant of the world and disconnected from myself. Throughout college, my immaturity continued, though the seeds of my transformation were planted.
I experimented with mind-altering substances that opened me to Spirit and de-constructed my previous understandings of reality. My degrees in psychology and sociology forced me into a brutal confrontation with the ways in which I participated in systems of oppression and demanded that I take ownership for the ways in which I, and many people that looked like me, colonized and marginalized people and cultures that we deemed as “others.” Each of these experiences served as miniature markers of a transition that was taking place, yet not conscious in my psyche.
It was not until graduate school that I truly started waking up. I engaged in therapy for most of my seven years of graduate school, which was another initiation into a world that I had long neglected: my inner experience. I started practicing what I preached to others and started listening to my inner guide by taking actions aligned with my truth. Most importantly, I started building a bridge from the identity I constructed to my true and authentic self that had yet to fully emerge.
It was in the therapy room that I learned and practiced emotional vulnerability and that the earlier seeds of intellect grew into lived, integrated experience.
I’ll never forget my first few sessions.
I felt like the world’s brightest spotlight was shining on me. I was so uncomfortable. I wanted to quit. I even sat on a chair adjacent to the couch to avoid the sense of discomfort I experienced with the therapist’s direct eye contact. I had difficulty tolerating the imbalance in conversation — I felt pressured to speak and silence only amplified the tingling knot of fear in my stomach. The intensity contributed to feeling exposed, as if interrogated, despite my therapist’s warmth and curiosity. So in the third session, I asked him if he would be more conversational with me to alleviate some of my discomfort.
After a suspenseful moment of reflection, he said, “Sure. That’s not my typical approach, my clients tend to speak more than I do, but perhaps I could benefit from learning a new way of being.”
Years later, I recognized that his willingness to change in that moment was the single most healing moment of our time together and provided a potent model of integrated masculinity.
My journey of becoming a man started the moment I started questioning myself. It accelerates each moment I choose vulnerability instead of armor, uncertainty instead of bravado, and honesty instead of comfort.
I’m still in the process of developing my identity.
I am continuing to educate myself on issues related to systemic inequality and support Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ movement, and other important causes that increase the visibility, respect, and equality of people who have been historically mistreated and who continue to be systemically wronged to this day.
Rather than disowning my own potential for violence, I recognize that the power to hurt others exists within me. And I hope that others can acknowledge that this potential exists within us all. Because one aspect of boyhood psychology is externalizing blame, projecting our disavowed traits, and then harming the others who hold our projections.
Most boys — posing as men — have not taken it upon themselves to transition to manhood. Further, many of the archetypes we see in our culture involving masculine identities are rooted in compensation — an effort to avoid or make up for emotional wounds that remain unaddressed.
Whether it’s a focus on achievement to the exclusion of personal and social wellbeing or a rigid worldview that cannot tolerate holding the tension of opposition, this compensation contributes to a lack of accountability and a boyish desire to remain ignorant of one’s inner process. This desire to avoid accountability, to blame others, and to act out when feeling unregulated contribute to the disempowerment of others who lack the same sociopolitical privilege and opportunities. On a personal level, these boyish tendencies eliminate the possibility of personal development, further prolonging an extended adolescence into adulthood and ensuring that these tendencies are passed to future generations.
The only way to transition from these regressive mindsets to more mature perspectives is to start engage in activities that promote psychological growth.
You must learn. You need to seek education in books, diverse conversations, and, most importantly, listening to other people’s experiences to better understand the ways you impact the social collective. You need to practice listening to yourself — building that emotional bridge — so you can take actions aligned with your truth. And with guidance and self reflection, you need to create your own rituals that serve your transition into a way of looking at yourself and the world.
I’ve created many rituals over the years. My most recent rituals to serve and mark this transition have involved graduating from seven years of graduate school, earning a large tattoo, confronting the reality of starting a business, earning an income for the first time, and acknowledging the impact of immense student debt.
I’m also continuing my own therapy. I’m working to set boundaries with myself and others, changing my thinking from a sole focus on myself to thinking about the wellbeing of my entire system and the systems I encounter, and working to build accountability for engaging in my own depth-oriented psychological and spiritual process.
Each of the above have resulted in a crisis — an emotional confrontation with my limitations and shortcomings. However, in each moment, I have learned, grown, and increased my sense of accountability for the patterns I bring into each interaction.
Though I am still in the process of becoming, I am sensing a crystallization emerging from my depth. I am beginning to connect with the power of sharing my voice with others, in advocating for this inner work that contributes to the transformation desperately needed by many men in our culture.
I am also learning how to listen.
I am practicing listening to the voices of others, validating their experiences and supporting their fight towards justice. I am practicing listening to my friends, family, and community members when they tell me something about their reality, even if I struggle to comprehend it. And I’m continually learning how to better listen to myself so that I can become more connected to my intuition and inner truth.
Like my therapist, who graciously taught me how to make the most of an opportunity to help another person as a vehicle for personal transformation, I aim to use the current world events to engage in this inner alchemy.
I hope other men will do the same.