If you are a male and have ever admitted to feelings of inadequacy or anxiety there’s a good chance that your concerns were met with comments such as these:
“Just get out there and do it.”
“Get over it.”
“Just be you and start feeling confident.”
“Suck it up.”
“Deal with it.”
“You’re x age and still feeling this way? Come on man, it’s time to grow up.”
In short, “man up.”
This sentiment is pervasive in our culture (as well as many cultures around the world) and it is almost always aimed at males. Never mind that there isn’t anything about being male that guarantees power, confidence, reliability, or success; my interest here is in the usefulness of this cliche as advice, which is usually how it’s framed. To start, let’s look at the quotes above. The general idea being expressed is that the person is acting weak, needy or passive, and therefore they need to be stronger, more independent, more assertive, just like that. The assumption here is that their problems are trivial, that they shouldn’t need any help or support, and that their expression of anguish, frustration, pain, or fear means they’ve given up, submitted, surrendered, retreated.
Wait, what is it that they often say about assumptions?
When you tell someone to “man up,” what you are saying is “be less like you and more like me.” Okay hypothetical flawless life-guru, that means people can just choose to change in the opposite direction right? Now that we’ve established that, let me ask you a question:
Can you “man down?”
If you are, for example, extremely secure in yourself and confident around people you are highly attracted to could you choose to become anxious and insecure instead?
So if you can’t “man down”, what makes you think someone can “man up”? Is it fair to expect that of them?
I think people often downplay, or just don’t consider that other people are who they are in the exact same way they themselves are who they are, but just with different outward results. The problem with the sentiment of “manning up” is that who we are is largely a result of our past experiences, and these experience s differ greatly between people. Take social anxiety for example. If you have good experiences with people throughout your childhood and adolescence you’ll be secure in your adequacy and likability. If however, you have had enough bad experiences with people to make you doubt your self worth, you’ll be completely insecure and anxious. It’s not as easy as “being confident” or “finding your balls.” To ask someone to just start succeeding is like asking them to grow a new arm. It’s not advice.
Next time someone advises you to “man up” as if it’s the easiest thing in the world to do, ask them if they could just “man down.” When they invariably say no, ask what the difference is. I’ve done this before and people usually get totally stumped because they’ve never thought of it like that before.
That all being said, this does not mean that people cannot change. A series of positive experiences and some practice can change a person affected negatively by their past. I know about this from personal experience. It isn’t easy to change but it can be done. I don’t mean this article to imply that not one person in one instance has ever been helped “manning up.” My point is that its usefulness as advice is much less than its pervasiveness in our culture suggests, and in reality what it does most often is just hurt people.
The cover image depicts the painting ‘Anxiety’ by Edvard Munch