Sometimes the surgery is obvious. Your boss questions your ability in a staff meeting. Your wife takes over the negotiations. Your brother makes a non-subtle dig about your house. There are countless more examples but the result is the same: You feel as though your manhood’s been removed.
But sometimes the feeling of emasculation is more of an inside job. Your wife makes more money than you do. You get a pay cut at your job so she has to go back to work. You become a stay at home dad because it makes more sense. This is circumstance — there’s no intention to cut you down, but the result is also the same: You feel like less of a husband, father, provider, less of a man.
You don’t want to feel like a failure, but every signal tells you otherwise and a switch flips in your brain. It happens and is actually natural.
“If you don’t feel like you’re running your own world, it can be debilitating,” says David Ezell, a psychotherapist and clinical director of Darien Wellness.
First, a little perspective. Change happens constantly. New jobs. Marriage. Kids. They all force one to adapt. But you wanted those challenges, and at the least, a pregnancy gave you nine-plus months to prepare. Change isn’t always of your choosing, and the natural instinct is to fight for the status quo.
As Dr. Jeff Bostic, psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, puts it: “The unknown is more resisted than the known devil.”
The question, then, is when such things arise and a feeling of insufficiency starts to gnaw at you, how do you feel better about yourself, or at least not feel as deflated? You could certainly do a personal inventory, and then endlessly process. Or you could go outside and do something like mow the lawn. It’s not going to cure your insecurity, but it’s healthy and productive, Bostic says. Such simple tasks also put you in the moment, where you stop ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. “It’s the one place and time you can do something. You can own it,” says Dr. Simon A. Rego, chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center and author of The 10-Step Depression Relief Workbook: A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Approach.
Small tasks clear your mind and change your orientation. Then, per Rego, your mind can entertain possibilities and see options rather than only threats, because there’s always another perspective. Your wife makes more money? You’re lucky that you married someone so accomplished. She has to go back into the corporate world? More good fortune that she has the skill and it just might make her feel empowered. It’s all about reframing your thinking: Now a stay-at-home dad? No more cubicles or commutes. Afternoons are baseball games in the backyard, Bostic says.
Finding tasks that busy your body and put your mind at ease help you see the bigger idea: that together, you and your spouse are supporting the family. You still might feel like a failure for not being able to do it solo, but earning power isn’t your only reason for being. You’re not a one-tool guy. Think of it in terms of basketball: When your outside shooting is cold, you can keep forcing up bricks, or you can pass, rebound, and get back on D.
It’s the stuff the team needs, and while your head still wants to self-criticize, you need to keep your outward focus think about what you want your kids to see. If you, say, lost your job, they probably don’t know what you do for a job, so any title change doesn’t register. If laundry is suddenly your new gig, get them involved. Dads often have a knack for making anything into a game. Fastest folder. Tallest pile. Whatever. You’re multi-tasking, taking care of a chore, supporting your spouse, teaching your kids a necessary life skill, and since you’re both laughing, you’re giving them a boatload of funny memories.
Sure, in this situation, you might flail around, but that’s not the takeaway. Instead, it’s this: When adversity hits, you don’t sit there and do the same ineffectual thing. You try something. If it doesn’t work, you try something else, because it’s not failure, merely discovery, Bostic says. It’s about evolving, learning new skills, and accepting that new things might be better. No one longs for high rises with only stairs or sits at work and says, “I’m strictly a typewriter guy.”
Adversity can often feel emasculating because as a society we’re forced to believe that men are meant to be the breadwinners, the heads of family. This just isn’t the case. You’re going to build muscles amid adversity. Either they’re the ones to remain rigid or the ones to be open to alternatives. “Which option gives you the chance to feel better?” Rego asks. Flexibility won’t do you wrong. When it refers to actual muscles, you’re less likely to be injured. When it refers to your mindset, no idea is the ultimate. “The more options you have, the more likely one will be helpful,” Rego says. “The less you have, the more reliant you become on what you do have.”