How I Learned to Be a Man
Gender-driven social norms limit both men and women
Levels of crime and levels of suicide are higher amongst men – could this be changed if we raised our boys differently?
More men are coming to therapy than ever before; if you're interested in doing so too, find a therapist here
Boys get their definitions of manhood, strength, love, and self from watching other men—specifically, their dads. But we live in a fatherless nation. I learned this firsthand when I was working as a therapist at a nonprofit, treating teenagers for addiction. After working with hundreds of teens and their parents, I realised that the common thread in over 95 percent of these troubled teens was an absent father. Dad was either physically or emotionally gone. The girls stood too close to me, desperate for “Dad’s” attention, and, without anyone to teach them boundaries, were easily confused in social interactions with authority figures. But after my weeks of working with them, they quickly picked up on social cues and acceptable ways to communicate.
The boys were another story. Many of them mimicked everything I did, following me around, looking for an example of how to do the most mundane, obvious things. A few of them were confrontational, hoping for a connection with another man but never taught how to receive male affection or attention without posturing, panicking, and showing physical aggression. Both behaviours, I realised, stem from not having a positive, healthy male role model at home, and both behaviours can follow middle-schoolers into high school, then college, then the workplace, and into relationships with family members, colleagues, and loved ones for the rest of their lives. Unlike the girls, the boys didn’t learn quickly. They were, truthfully, lost.
The boys I worked with were growing up stunted, with a warped definition of “man”. Throw in manipulative advertising, toxic locker rooms, and today’s scroll-and-swipe culture that promotes instant gratification and hiding, and it’s no surprise that many of these boys go on to define themselves by having muscles or a corner office, learning about love, sex, and intimacy through dating apps and pornography. For many boys, intimacy is only skin-deep, and courting a potential partner is something they do while sitting on the toilet on their phone, where they never learn to communicate or experience true connection. Ultimately, their relationships fail, and because they don’t know what healthy feels like or have no tools to fix what’s broken, they fall into unhealthy relationship loops that prevent learning and growth. Such a boy has now created his own prison. Perhaps he forms unhealthy beliefs about himself, women, and love.I’m not good enough. I’m not lovable. This may lead to anger and coping strategies like addictions, ghosting, and passion-less communication—things that only disconnect him from his self. He may feel debilitating shame or guilt, and he may even lash out at his partner, his family, or perfect strangers.He becomes a predator. Now suddenly he experiences isolation, depression, and more false beliefs, which are fuelled by more flawed and ineffective reactions. Women now become objects. Or, more accurately, prey.
Regardless of the specific road that leads him there, all paths like the one above lead to the same place: men everywhere feeling lost or misunderstood, living without purpose and passion, and needing to inflate physical or superficial details to make up for what’s lacking on the inside. Or giving up altogether.
How does this affect individuals and society?
And all of this impacts us directly. In the US alone, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, forty-five thousand people commit suicide each year. Out of those, 79% are men. While women are more prone to having suicidal thoughts, men are more likely to actually do it. Some six million men in America are diagnosed with depression annually. While depressed women are more likely to report feelings of sadness, helplessness, and guilt, men are more likely to suffer in silence and not seek treatment. Researchers say it is often more difficult for men to identify their illness. Men with depression are more likely to report fatigue, irritability, and loss of interest in work. You probably don’t need me to tell you that 99% of mass shootings are reportedly done by men.
I can’t talk about men without talking about women, who for far too long have suffered at the hands of boys who fail to grow up into men. As reported by the Huffington Post, 85% of all victims of domestic violence are women. One in three women has been a victim of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within her lifetime. Domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families, with 50% of all women who are homeless reporting that domestic violence was the immediate cause of their leaving home, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. And of course this trickles down to the children. According to the World Health Organisation, some 40 to 60% of men who abuse women also abuse children. One out of every five teenage girls says she has been in a relationship where the boyfriend threatened violence or self-harm if a breakup were to occur.
Finally women are feeling safe enough to come forward and share their stories in the world, and what this has revealed more than ever is that the root of the problems facing women is . . . well, men. I’m not saying women are perfect, but they are not the ones assaulting, raping, and physically abusing other people. That said, I understand that many men are emotionally abuse by women. All of this abuse feeds on itself, and the cycle needs to be broken. It’s not about blame; it’s about taking responsibility. And since I am a man, I am talking to and focusing on men. Now more than ever, we have a duty to take ownership and redefine ourselves. And women must raise the bar and set a standard for the kind of men they want in their lives.
Okay, but how? After all, we are not born men. We are born boys. Although we may take the shape of a man on the exterior, the transition into manhood is an internal process. One that requires much work: reflection, pain, courage, and sometimes a rebirth. It is a process that never ends. There is no completion. Being a man is a journey. Many choose to embark on this journey. Many do not. If you do not, you will never develop, evolve, and become the best version of your-self. Manhood is not a light switch. It is not about age. You don’t become a man just because you turn eighteen. Being a man is a way of life; it’s about everyday choices that lead you to live toward your potential. If you choose not to embark on this journey, your relationships with friends and family, your work life, and your ability to create authentic intimacy will never be realised. I know. I was a boy most of my life. And as the title of my book suggests, I used to be a miserable fuck.
My own journey
Before I talk about my divorce, I want to mention that I made a promise to myself to share only my side of this story, without using names. I am very protective of my ex-wife and her anonymity. Although she is not in my life anymore, she is an exceptional human being, and I have nothing but love and respect for her and her family. They are beautiful people who have significantly contributed to my “man journey”. I also believe, as a man, that we should protect the people we have loved, no matter what happened. I believe we grow through all our collisions.
In any case, I knew I was going to marry her when she first walked into our family restaurant. After twenty years of slaving in fast food, my parents finally saved up enough money to buy a nice little eatery—and by “nice” I mean something I wasn’t embarrassed about—that catered to the production studios in Hollywood. I was in my twenties and running the place because, well, my parents barely spoke English and had no idea what the hell they were doing. The truth is, neither did I. Anyway, she was nineteen and had just come to Los Angeles from Oregon. She didn’t have any plans to stay. She was actually looking for a job for a friend. She had no experience in the restaurant business, and we didn’t need any more servers. But I hired her because she made my heart stop. It was like a scene in a movie. I literally heard angels. We quickly became friends, and one night, after a private party and a few drinks, I kissed her in the office—an Airstream trailer in the back patio. I knew that if she didn’t kiss me back I could blame it on the alcohol, since it takes me only one beer to get drunk. (That’s why they called me “glow worm” in college.) But surprisingly, she kissed me back. And the rest of our story zooms by like a montage in a romance film, before the turbulence. Quick shots of us—two kids in Hollywood exploring young love. She was acting. I was screenwriting. There was something romantic about two kids pursuing their dreams in Tinsel-town. Running a restaurant that later became a trendy supper club. Me leaving brown-bag lunches with little notes on them on her porch. Swimming naked in my parents’ pool like two kids ditching school. We fell, deep and fast.
I asked her to marry me on a mountaintop in Oregon. I dropped to one knee and believed we would be together forever. We exchanged our own written vows, and I cried in front of a hundred people. I remember a dude making fun of me for my love tears. I was embarrassed, because real men don’t cry at their wedding. We moved in together—and then a sobering reality hit. Our movie switched genres, from a romance film to a gritty documentary. It became very clear I wasn’t raised with any tools. She had missed the fine print. I never made my bed. I peed in the shower. I left little hairs in the sink after shaving. (Every woman reading this just got it.) I didn’t clean up after myself. I ate out more than we could afford. And I lived in coffee shops, trying to write the million-dollar screenplay so I could be a “real man” and we could “live the dream”. But of course that never happened. So I became unhappy. Insecure. Lost. Negative. Jealous. Controlling. And miserable.
In a nutshell, I went from her mouth to her nipple, from her man to her son. I went from a twenty-something-year-old running a scenic restaurant bar in Hollywood with tons of friends and fresh ambition to an insecure screen-writer who never made his bed and asked permission to buy sugar cereal. Of course, the dynamic changed. And instead of taking responsibility, I blamed her and the marriage. It wasn’t until I went through the ensuing divorce and the rebirth that happened after it that I began to look at my own defects and question who I was, who I wanted to be, and my definition of what a man looks like. I started by looking inward. I started to observe the way I thought and behaved, and why. I examined my cognitive distortions, false beliefs, and flawed wiring. I took responsibility for my actions. I learned how they impact not only others but also my path. I became aware of my state and how that rippled through my everyday quality of life and productivity. I learned about love and the importance of self-love. I dis-covered the power of vulnerability. I learned about forgiveness. I learned about feminine and masculine energy. All this changed me, my relationships, and, of course, my life.
Simply put, I became a man.
In my book, I bring together different behavioural traits that helped me on my path, dos and don’ts that point you down the road to becoming an authentic man. Here is one that helped me:
Separate who you are from what you do
Just as our society ties a woman’s worth to her beauty, it also ties a man’s worth to his ability. What you can build, how many touchdowns you can score, how much money you can make. I want to set the record straight right now: What you do doesn’t determine your true value. Your value lives in your character and capacity. Your heart and your story. Not your ability. But if you believe your value hangs on what you can do, as many men do, that mind-set will keep you power-less and always chasing. More importantly, you run the risk of losing yourself and what you truly have to offer.
When you measure yourself against your character, you have consistency. Tying your worth to your ability will make you a slave to the world and your self-esteem. Your definitions of self will fluctuate and be contingent on factors you don’t even have control over. For example, you may work your ass off to make partner at your law firm, and if for whatever reason you do not make partner, you may believe you are a bad lawyer = bad provider for your family = bad father, husband, and ultimately = less of a man. To come out of this, you will either work harder, putting more pressure on the “win”, or cope in unhealthy ways.
This is the dangerous loop of tying who you are to what you can do. If we internalise this definition of manhood, then we believe that if we are bad at something, we are worthless, and that if we are good at something, we are worth more. Both beliefs are false. They are labels. We have been programmed this way. From our early days, we were praised for making the team, getting the girl, how hard we hit the ball, how much weight we could lift, what college we got into. We were praised on the size of our paycheck, our office, the letters after our name, and what we drove. Our brains got permanently set on accomplishments, accomplishments, accomplishments. Rarely did we ever get praise for our character, our compassion, or our capacity to love.
Your value lives in your character and capacity. Your heart and your story.
Your worth has nothing to do with what you can do.Your drive, passion, and ambition are all great gifts. Your athletic ability, your voice, your ability to lead, create, and change the world are imperative to your journey as a man. But they do not determine your worth. Your true value is what you bring to the table as a human being. This means not what you do but rather who you are.
The measure of a man is his inner self. It’s who you are that will get you through the rough patches of life, never what you’ve done or built.
This is an extract from John Kim's I Used to be a Miserable F*ck