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Another Perspective

Men & Fear I: Non-Productive Responses

James Hollis in his terrific 1994 book, Under Saturn’s Shadow, The Wounding and Healing of Men (Toronto: Inner City Books) writes about eight secrets men carry that shape their lives. I hope each of you will read his book.

What I want to focus on is secret number two: “men’s lives are essentially governed by fear.” I see this regularly in my psychotherapy practice. One of the primary fears is not measuring up: sexually, financially, physically, and psychologically. The love for football – or any sport – is found in the competition. “Am I as good or better than the other man?” “Can I exert my will on him or will his will defeat me?” Fear of impotence and powerlessness haunt men. As Hollis observes:

"Governed as he is by fear, unable to admit this to himself lest his hold on things slip, unable to share
with his comrades lest he be shamed, a man compensates. The man who boasts of his big car, or big house, or big position with a big title, is surely compensating to some degree for how small he feels."(p. 24-25)

I find that there are three typical responses to fear that are not helpful. The first involves denying its presence. The problem with denying fear is what we are not conscious of has the power to control us. As C. G. Jung pointed out in 1937 when he was speaking at Yale University:

“How can anyone see straight when he does not even see himself and the darkness he unconsciously carries with him into all his dealings?”*

Imprudent decisions and behaviors emerge from the denial of fear. Instead of doing what will address what is feared, we do something else and wonder why their fear persists and grows more insistent. Denial of fear doesn’t eliminate it; it enables it.

The second common response to fear is to run away from it. Addictions are a preferred method for this. Regular use of alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling or obsessive working or exercising can help to distract men from what is feared. Because fear generates anxiety, men often justify their behaviors as legitimate ways to ease their stress, to relax.

Habitually running away from fear not only weakens self-esteem, it keeps men feeling and acting child-like. For example, watching men in couple counseling withdraw into dark pouts as their wives ask for emotional closeness is an all too common expression of running away from fear. All these men need to do is offer a statement of their true feelings, yet fear of being hurt, scorned, not taken seriously, or locked into another non-productive argument inhibits them from speaking up. Instead of facing their fear, they retreat into an angry, defensive stance (i.e., pout) or act out their anger by verbally attacking their loved one. Then these guys wonder why the relationship isn’t working. The classic comment I hear at such moments is “all I want is peace.” Discussion is over. Fear wins again.

A third typical response to fear involves the use of power and control. Men naively believe if they can use their personal power to control a situation, then what is feared will be diminished and go away. Like children who are afraid of the dark, men turn on the light in their bedrooms, look under their bed and in the closet and not finding any boogie men, think their efforts have once again made them safe from fear. While offering momentary reprieves and the illusion of safety, power and control do not dissolve fear. They just postpone engaging it constructively until night comes again. An example of this is a man’s fear of the feminine and by extension, women. Men who dominate women, control what they do, eat, the people they see, where they go, whom they speak to, etc., are men responding to their own fear through power and control. It doesn’t work even when it seems to be because power and control are a defense against fear, not a resolution of it.

It is vital that men learn how to constructively handle fear. In my next blog I’ll identify how to do this constructively in a variety of ways. The role of spirituality will also be discussed.
* C.G. Jung, “Psychology and Religion,” Collected Works 11, par. 140.
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