I think most men have the uneasy feeling that our masculinity, our protection against the world, is under constant threat and we have to guard it at all times. I think in the backs of men’s minds we recognize it as a mask, not the real thing. And we worry that it’s too thin to protect us from harm. We wish it could be like Darth Vader’s helmet — an impenetrable, intimidating protection for the scarred, mask-dependent (and kind of pudgy) man inside — but we fear it’s more like an eggshell.
Some of the behavior traits men share and which go into the formation of the Male Mask, are genetic, handed down since apehood. But most of them are taught to us by our parents, teachers and culture. There is no great conspiracy to this, it’s how those mentors were raised and how their parents and mentors before them were raised, so it’s just one of those things that is perpetuated down the generations. We hope that one of the effects of our book will be that mentors and parents will learn to appreciate and nurture the Feminine as well as the Masculine traits in boys; the full spectrum of human traits, rather than ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ traits.There is no doubt that boys and girls behave differently, but the suppression of the Feminine in boys has evolutionary ramifications. Carmen McNeil, a college professor of psychology of women, told us at a workshop that when her 3-year-old son has a serious question about life, she asks him, “What does your intuition tell you?” He always has an answer, and he is learning to listen to his innate Feminine. Meanwhile, most men cope with their ‘traditional’ upbringing.
As we grew up, we were taught that boys don’t feel pain, that it’s OK for us to hit things with other things, to wrestle and fight, to resolve everything physically — all the boy stuff. That early learning doesn’t go away; it’s always there at the foundation of our personalities. For some men, it remains their defining characteristic, their way of dealing with the world around them. The conditioning continues through our early years, and as we get older we may retreat into the comfort of the male pattern (unless our mothers and partners teach us otherwise), because it serves as a familiar uniform for us.
Human brains form connections in childhood that establish neural pathways, a network of connections, which become habits and preferred choices. That’s part of the struggle all humans, female and male, have with changes to our comfort zones, and it’s a large part of the difficulty in forming relationships. The preference is to stay with the known, even at the expense of maturing, and even though women prefer social stability. Most men don’t like to stand out in the crowd, we’re just guys like the rest of the guys; we’re part of the guy team, a brotherhood against the emotional world of the female, the unknown, the gay, the ‘weak’, the foreign and the mindful.
By the time the cascade of testosterone floods boys’ teenage bodies, we are fully entrenched in being guys. We have our instructions imprinted on our brains. Here’s the guys’ version of “The List,” the instructions that are passed on to most men by culture and are basically unknown, misinterpreted or romanticized by women:
Destructive Cultural Instructions for Being a Guy
- Don’t show emotions — being too happy or afraid and talking about love is for wimps. The only emotions allowed are expressed during sporting events and if they’re necessary to get sex.
- Don’t show weakness — or anything that might be interpreted as weakness by a jury of your peers. It is not manly, it invites bullying and it sets a bad example to the younger boys. It may only be used as a ploy to get sex.
- Be independent — asking for help is for kids. That includes asking for directions, unless it’s a way to get sex.
- Don’t admit to needing love or relationship — save the touchy-feely stuff for Mom, and only on her birthday. The only exception is when using it to get sex.
- Don’t let a woman tie you down — commitment is a noose, it leads to marriage, children and all those inhibiting things preventing men from being the heroic figures they ought to be. The only time for docility is if it leads to sex.
- Don’t show pain — grit your teeth, steel your spine, set your jaw, squint your eyes. Pain means nothing, even the pain of rejection. Carry on as if nothing can hurt you, unless you’re looking for sympathy sex.
Fight or Flee
Part of the Male Mask’s usefulness is for survival in this dangerous world of ours. It’s the shield from behind which we scan our surroundings, whenever we’re away from our home base. We step out of our front doors, no matter if we live in a New York apartment or an Idaho farmhouse, and what’s the first thing most men do? They scan for trouble. They look around, along the corridor, across the yard, up and down the street, whatever. They may not actually stop and look. They may not give any sign that they’re scanning. They probably don’t even realize they’re doing it, but they are. A man walking down a city street is probably unconsciously attuned and aware of what’s going on around him. It’s instinctual to most men.
All that scanning goes on behind the Male Mask, which hides the fact that we’re aware and ready to fight or flee at any time. We men do such a good job of hiding it that most women don’t realize how attentive we are to the world around us, because we look so relaxed, or bored or annoyed that we’re being dragged from store to store. Women may see the physical signs of our emotions, but might not pick up on the constant background tension we experience outside our comfort zone of home.
So that’s the false front that women have to understand when they get involved with men. Most women believe men’s Masks to be our real selves and think we’re always in control, coolly navigating our way through our lives. No upsets, no fears, no threats to our steely exterior.
When we men find ourselves in a stable relationship, we may feel safe enough with our partners that we allow the Male Mask to slip when we’re with them. Suddenly we’re confronted by our real selves, and we may not like it all that much. We’re naturally, and that means biologically, gun-shy about the concept of commitment at the beginning of a relationship anyway, so any unmasking is doubly threatening.
How It’s Meant to Be
So here we are, average guys hiding ourselves behind our Mask, guarding against ridicule and rejection, radiating strength and confidence, and hoping that nobody makes us have to prove ourselves. The great thing about a true partnership with a woman—once we’ve got over the initial fear, dropped the Mask, seen our true selves and realized that this isn’t such a bad deal after all—is that we can relax around our partner. We can take off this restrictive bloody Mask and, at least with her, we can be real. It’s all about being comfortable, secure enough in her company to let our guard down and enjoy true companionship. That’s just about all she wants too. Funny how that works!
 Dan Kindlon & Michael Thompson, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. Ballantine, 2000.
 Lewis, Amini and Lannon, A General Theory of Love, p160