I run a men’s group. It is a very unique experience. I gather 12 men for 12 weeks and we talk about all the challenges of masculinity in this quickly evolving society. The group is diverse across race, income, education, age, relationship status, parenting status, and orientation. The men always want to know how to be a more authentic self while challenging scripts that we were given when we were younger. These scripts, grounded in our cultures, family histories, economics, geography, etc, have been used to solidify how we believe we are supposed to behave. The group – of their own accord – tends to take these scripts on full frontal to decide if the scripts still work for each individual. It is an empowering experience to see a group of men talking to other men about heartfelt and challenging topics without judgment or critique.
The other night in our group, we were talking about why men are often challenged in how we manage distress. One of the men in the group reported that he cannot allow himself to be a burden to those he loves. Now, as a quick reflection on the group, previously in the group we had talked about how men are often defining their jobs as fixer, provider, and stabilizer. They discussed how the feel they are doing the work of relationship when they are fixing things (the faucet, a stress someone else is having, etc), providing things (income, a home, support, strength when needed, etc.), and when they are stabilizing (making sure things don’t get too crazy by being the strongest foundation they can be). They discussed how when operating in these relationship roles they feel they are being the best partner/friend they can be. However, when they are struggling or need those roles provided for them, it is hard for them to accept. So, when this group member articulated what others in the group were feeling, “I cannot be a burden to others”, an intense discussion open.
While I would love to walk you through the discussion (there is not enough room here to do so…), I will share where we ended. Several of the group were quick to concur that they feel important and valued when others allow themselves to unburden themselves to them. The men talked about how when a valued person is vulnerable enough to unburden themselves to the man, he feels trusted and intimate. They said it did not matter if it was an intimate partner, family member, or close friend. The result was the same. They were able to identify the sadness they feel when they find one of these valued people are struggling and did not reach out to him for support. While they have a quick tendency to want to fix, provide, and stabilize in these moments, they also articulated that sometimes just listening is a supportive intervention of the greatest meaning.
It was only when the discussion flipped on how they want their valued connections to feel were they able to connect that their sharing their burdens allows these connections to also feel important, valued, and trusted. The reframe of I am a burden to I have burdens and I would like to share them with you because I value and trust you was shocking but intensely well received. I am not a burden but I have burdens allowed the men to acknowledge that they do not always need to be strong for masculinity sake, but sometimes the greatest strength is to share and bring people closer. The group identified that their definition of masculinity changed that night to include being able to include a new definition of the power of burdens and what sharing them can do.