Being a 'Sick' Man

Episode 302 April 22, 2022 00:50:47
Being a 'Sick' Man
Your Life Lived Well
Being a 'Sick' Man

Apr 22 2022 | 00:50:47


Show Notes

Men don’t do well at being “sick.” So what happens when we’re stuck with a chronic illness that won’t go away? These are the challenges (that we don’t want to talk about) arising from the collision between sickness and manhood. More important, these are some suggestions to help you live well, in spite of those challenges. Listen to this one with someone in your life who needs to understand.


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Episode Transcript

SEGMENT 1: Welcome to episode 2 of the 3rd season of Your Life Lived Well. Today’s title is “Being a Sick Man.” This was a tough episode for me to pull together. Men don’t really like talking about masculinity, and we especially don’t like talking about how our masculinity might be limited. I guess I’m no exception. Life with a chronic health condition isn’t easy for anyone. But men really aren’t trained to go through life “sick.” In fact, being “sick” is, in many ways, the opposite of being “manly.” They are difficult to reconcile. So in this episode we’ll dive into the collision between being “sick” and being a “man.” In Segment 1, we’ll look at what we mean by “masculinity.” In Segment 2, we’ll talk about how this can go horribly wrong — but not in the politicized ways we’ve become used to in popular discourse. In Segment 3, we’ll bring in the complications of chronic illness. Sickness and manliness do not play nice together. And in Segment 4, we’ll wrap it up by introducing some things we can do to become better men, even when we’re stuck with an illness we can’t get away from. I’ll also mention what those around us can do to support us, even though we probably won’t ask for it. So who is this episode for? Well, men who are wrestling with the challenges of a health condition that isn’t going away. But, maybe more important, the people around him that just don’t understand. So listen to this episode with someone you love and I hope it sparks the conversations you need. But first, a reminder: there are many ways to get involved with Your Life Lived Well — and even improve your own quality of life, in the process. First, subscribe and give us five stars on your favorite podcasting platform. Second, share us on social media — we’re @YourLLWell on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. Tag us when you do and give us a follow! Fourth, share us the old fashioned way — directly with the people you know who can use the knowledge and support we deliver. Fifth, drop by and sign up for our email list so you don’t miss out on tips, announcements, discounts, and everything else. Sixth, check out the rotating schedule of 16 live webinars we offer. Next week’s topics are: Pain Management is More than You Think, Thriving through Trauma and Grief, and Stress and Fear Aren’t What You Think. As a special thank you, you can use the coupon code APR60 through April to save 60% on any of them! And finally, we’ve just launched a new Patreon community! Check us out at: ! Now on with the show… Like many boys, the first important man in my life was my father. My Dad was born in the ‘40s and grew up on the Ozarks farm his family had homesteaded almost a century before. Out of high school, he moved to the big city and found work. He was drafted into service during Vietnam and was in country during the Tet Offensive, so he saw the worst of it. When I came along, he was still a union delivery truck driver. He was out the door before sunrise and worked long, hard hours. As a child, some of my clearest memories are of him, stretched out, exhausted on the floor after a hard day’s work. He was a mysterious presence on the periphery of my small life, disappearing to his work each day, coming home, eating, sleeping, reading the newspaper, and doing it again…and again. I was excited on those occasions when I could see his work and wander the cavernous, oily depot among the big trucks. But on the mornings he was off, we’d lay on the floor and read the funny papers together. I’d tag along after him as he fixed things around the house or did yard work. Trying to be helpful, and not really succeeding, but getting better as I grew. That’s where I learned that real men don’t need directions, and if you assemble it correctly, you’ll have parts left over. Then, if you save those parts, you’ll eventually have enough left over parts to build a whole ‘nother bonus thing. He was a quiet man. Stoic. Taciturn. Never complaining. Just going about his work and getting things done — on the job or at home. To this day, we still haven’t talked about most of life’s “big questions.” He keeps his own counsel and is largely a cypher. The first time he even mentioned his experiences in war happened by accident. I was in college. I came home late one night to do some laundry and raid the fridge, and found him in the darkened family room, watching the movie, “Full Metal Jacket.” It had just started. I had already seen it at the theater, but I sat quietly on the couch and watched it again. Or, more correctly, watched him watch the movie. We said nothing. He stayed silent through the credits, lost in memory. And then he finally opened up and we spoke about war. In many ways, my childhood in the ‘70s was far more similar to my Dad’s in the ‘40s, than it was to my own son’s in the aughts. No social media. A gang of free range children roaming the neighborhood, exploring the nearby creek and the surrounding countryside. As I grew, he taught me how to do manly things: shoot pool, play cards and chess, shoot hoops, play golf, drive a stick, shave, change the oil, tie a solid knot and a proper necktie. The rest of manhood I figured out on my own, with my equally clueless guy friends, as we navigated the mysteries of adolescence, discovering women, and staking out our own identities in the world. I learned most of the same lessons about navigating manhood that my Dad did, decades before: blue collar, green collar, working class, black-and-white ideas about what “real men” did and did not do. The acceptable script our culture provides us for “being a man” is pretty limiting. Stifling, even. My path was also different, in some important ways. I was a geeky kid who loved science, math, and science fiction — and desperately did not want to have to wear glasses. I had to scrap it out with a bully on the playground, until we reached a detente and he learned to pick an easier target. I also grew up in the arts. It’s a stereotype, but true: even in the buttoned-down buckle of the Bible Belt where I grew up, artists and performers tended to be more open, emotional, and accepting. I saw a wide variety of ways to perform manhood that went beyond the narrow straitjacketed masculinity of the rest of my world. And though he was always working, Dad never missed a play, recital, show or activity. He was always there with my Mom, rooting me on, ready with a supportive hug, and telling me I was loved. As I got older, went to college, traveled pretty widely, earned my graduate degrees, and spent decades researching and teaching about humans, all of that naturally expanded my ideas about what manhood could be. But just like everyone else, I am a product — and sometimes a prisoner — of my environment. So what are these unwritten laws of manhood that we’re all implicitly indoctrinated into? And, before I list them, I’ll just pull out some technical terms and note that this is the culturally dominant, hetero-normative, cis-gendered idea of what it means to be a “healthy man.” This is the common cultural script we’re all faced with and that (according to surveys) most of us find unsatisfactory or incomplete. This is the “party line” we’re expected to tow. As the story we’re told goes, “Real Men” are strong, tough, and resilient. We are confident, courageous, brave, and fearless. We are dominant, take risks, and assert our wills upon the world. We are stoic, never showing our emotions (save the occasional, acceptable anger or humorous wit), and never showing our weakness or admitting our pain. We are vigorous, adventuresome, competitive — and maybe just a bit “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” (As Lady Caroline Lamb asserted of Lord Byron.) We are capable, effective, successful, and achievement-oriented. We are loyal, responsible, principled, and our word is our bond. We protect our loved ones, but never need shelter. We are dogged, persistent, determined, and always in control. We are both willing and able to take the hit and get back up, as many times as we must. We provide for and give to those we love, but we never take or need, for we are autonomous, independent, self-sufficient loners. We prove our manhood by how we think our way through problems, shape the world with our hands, and lead the way for others. This is the idealized, positive, “healthy” version of masculinity, and it’s a hell of an image to live up to. Of course, this impossibility is also where it all starts to go wrong. We’ll talk about those inherent problems after the break. SEGMENT 2: How Masculinity Goes Wrong (or Gets in Our Way) Hypermasculinity, Toxic Masculinity, Supernormal Stimuli & Display Behaviors In this segment, I want to introduce some ways masculinity can go horribly awry. One is often dramatic and we now talk a lot about it a lot in our culture. The others are more subtle, less visible, but, perhaps, even more common. There are many reasons why more boys present disciplinary problems in school, and then grow up to become men who more often abuse alcohol and other substances, commit most of the violence toward self and others, take more unnecessary risks, avoid any kind of healthcare or selfcare, and are more often arrested and incarcerated. Are there some marginal differences in our biology that contribute to these trends? Sure. But we also know from international comparisons that culture contributes at least as much. Men are placed in an impossibly tight box, our precarious position is reinforced on all sides, and we’re held there, without the tools or education to make the best of it. And before you go there, just let me emphasize that this isn’t a contest. Men have lots of cultural advantages. Male privilege is real, there is a patriarchy, and it allows some men to get away with “toxic” masculine behaviors. And if you bristle when social scientists use those technical terms, they probably don’t mean what you think. If you’ve only heard them thrown around in popular media, then you haven’t heard them used correctly. But here, I’m not interested in the politics. I’m concerned about real troubles in real lives. We all know the consistent messages men are bombarded with from the time we are boys: “Man up.” “Boys don’t cry.” “Boys will be boys.” “Take it like a man.” “Suck it up, buttercup!” “Real men do x, y, and z, but not a, b, and c.” Fill in the blanks with whatever superficial, culturally gendered behavior the speaker is attempting to encourage or squelch. And we all know how caustic it can become. Bullying and harassing males almost always involves slighting our masculinity: “Mama’s boy,” “sissy,” and far nastier epithets based on feminizing and alternate sexual orientations are the go to putdowns. “Masculinity,” “manliness,” being a “real man” — whatever you call it — is a social role. It’s one that’s present in every society. And while these versions are somewhat different, most also share a lot in common. I introduced some of the “good” or “healthy” side of masculinity before the break: strong, brave, adventuresome, capable, loyal, protective, problem solving. These are good, socially useful qualities. They are, of course, not limited to men, but they are culturally associated with the masculine role. The roles we claim or reject are central to our identities. When we find we’re unable to fulfill a role we claim, or are forced into a role we reject, it causes a great deal of harm. We come to question ourselves and our place in the world — and others question us, as well. Our gender roles are part of our foundation. When those foundational roles fail, our entire identity can crack. Why do we have roles? Roles are a useful social shorthand. They are necessary guides. But if everyone doesn’t accept that each of us gets to color outside those lines as we express our individuality, then those roles become straitjackets. And the stereotype of masculinity easily becomes especially damaging — to everyone: the man who feels compelled to perform it even when he knows it’s not right, and those closest who are holding him within the limits of that expected performance. Early in the acquaintance process, when we’re beginning to know someone, we’re trying to develop a cognitive schema (a model or map) for the person we just met. We begin our acquaintance knowing nothing — or very little — about the other, so we begin with external and contextual cues: biological sex, race, age, how they dress and present themselves to the world, and how others act toward that person. We’re attuned to immediately decipher biological sex and then put that person in the associated mental and cultural box. Why? It’s easier. It provides socially approved scripts for how to treat the other person, and for how they’re likely to expect being treated. Much of the time, everyone involved is comfortable enough with the script and the interaction goes smoothly. We fill in the blanks of what we believe about people with those characteristics we think we see. And we fill in some blanks with what we know about ourselves (if we presume they are “us”) or not ourselves (if we presume they are “other”). These are either messages from our culture or social network, or they’re from our direct experience. Both are problematic, because real humans are far more varied than our roles and assumptions can anticipate. Curiously, we can carry these mistaken notions even about people we’ve known really well for years. The subject just never came up, or we ignored or discounted disconfirming evidence when it happened. Our assumptions and attributions are often wrong, or, at best, incomplete. So the first two practical problems we’ve identified with masculinity are that, (1.) in its positive or healthy form, manhood is an impossible ideal that we might be able to sometimes visit, but we cannot always live there. And, (2.) as a general, one-size-fits-all role, it doesn’t actually fit anyone well all the time. Each of us, no matter how “manly,” will find that the role is sometimes inadequate or even harmful. We don’t feel comfortable in it and we don’t want to feel comfortable in it. Our popular media bombards us with “supernormal stimuli.” These are natural signals taken to absurd extremes. They’re caricatures of reality. Jessica Rabbit is a supernormal stimulus. But we’re also surrounded by male counterparts. Anything beyond a certain level of fitness is just for show. You don’t become jacked like Arnold Schwarzenegger or swole like Jason Momoa and The Rock without a lot of time, money, and a whole team of supporters. That physique is not a sign of manhood, but of wealth and status. And just as we’re faced with physical examples of male supernormal stimuli, we’re also faced with behavioral examples. Taken to extremes, almost any virtue becomes dysfunctional. Strength becomes forcefulness, forcefulness becomes aggression, aggression becomes abuse, and abuse becomes violence. More does not equal better, but it does get us noticed. In a crowded social and cultural environment, we’re all looking for ways to stand out and be recognized for who we are. Especially when we are men who’ve marinated all our lives in the idea that domination equals value or display equals worth. Rationally, we know this this isn’t good, right, or true, but our primal brains feel the pressure of more. Let’s be strong. Just a little more. Let’s be forceful. Just a little more. Let’s be aggressive. Now, we’re not living a manly virtue of strength, we’re performing a farce because our primal brains have gotten locked into a cycle of fear and display that we won’t even admit to ourselves. We’ve slipped so far from living our values into performing a parody out of fear that we could lose our status or membership in the group. That is a core, primal fear: to our tribal ancestors, being shunned by the group meant death. Our basal brains still think that way, and they move fast, hijacking our bodies and our rationality in the process. This is how we get to hypermasculinity, toxic masculinity, and all the other dysfunctional ways we try to be “men.” Fear kills rational thought. Fear is sneaky and disguises itself as anger, frustration, pride, or another, more acceptably “manly,” emotion. But fear is a natural part of being human and cannot be overcome by ignoring, excusing, or explaining away. And the rest of us go along with this show because we don’t want to be called out on our fears, either. So we let the bad behaviors slide. The bad behaviors become normal. And, pretty soon, we’re not just accepting them, but praising them and wanting to emulate them because that’s how society is telling us we succeed. Before we wrap up this segment, I’ll introduce one more way that masculinity goes wrong: men are not socialized, trained, or supported with a complete toolset for dealing successfully with modern crises. Especially when those crises are likely to be part of our new “normal.” What do I mean? The popular version of masculinity we’ve all internalized has limited us in ways that actually reduce our health. 1. Men do not receive help well. All humans need help, but many men will never admit it. We are unable to ask for help. We’re often unable to even recognize or articulate the kind of help we need. And we’re really bad at accepting help, when it’s offered. And men don’t share a culture of helping other men, except in culturally-approved, “manly” ways. Sure, I’ll use my truck to help you move when your girlfriend has kicked you out, I’ll probably bail you out of the drunk tank after a bender, and I might even help you hide the body — if the jerk was asking for it. (That’s a joke!) The traditional, masculine model of “helping” is pretty concrete and practical, and it shies away from emotions that go much beyond supportive grunts and bro hugs. And, to top it all off, others are often unable to even believe we need help, when we ask. It is so far outside the accepted script. 2. We tend to pathologically ignore ourselves and our own needs. We can become so focused on “getting things done” and “not letting down our team” that we don’t even notice that we’ve become so stretched that, in reality, we’re no longer operating very well, at all. 3. We’re very good at suppressing or ignoring our emotions. Too often, men get trapped behind that stoic mask. We don’t display any emotions that might expose a chink in our “manly” armor. Our lack of emotional training means that, when they do slip out, they can get confused in their expression. Too often, sadness, grief, shame, and other “unacceptable” emotions look like some form of anger. And then, we men feel like we have to apologize for our emotions. We think they’re “weak.” This is a massive misunderstanding. So, we’ll take a break as we contemplate how well we actually handle our emotions, and I’ll catch you on the other side as we introduce “being sick” into this tricky balance we’re all trying to navigate! SEGMENT 3: Welcome back! Now that we’ve picked apart “manliness,” let’s talk about what it means to be a “sick man.” Just as our culture gives us a role (or a blueprint) for how to be a man, our culture and experience also teaches us how to be “sick.” Even if no one has ever told you this, you’re going to recognize it. “Sick” builds on experiences we’ve all had from the time we were kids. This script gets automatically triggered when something goes “wrong” with your body. You get an illness, like the flu, or an injury, like a broken arm. Those are familiar incidents we recognize as “sick.” So we feel bad, groan about it, laze around, take our meds, do our therapies, rest, rehabilitate, and recover — and then we return to the “normal” lives we had before we got “sick.” Everyone around us lets us hit pause and they help take up the slack, because they know this is temporary and you will do the same when they need it. Nobody has to say anything, we all fall into our expected roles. And it works really well for acute and emergent sicknesses. In a few days or weeks, everything is back the way it was and life goes on. Our sick role presumes an “other side.” But that sick role, and all those expectations, fail in the chronic case. Now you’re faced with an illness that will stretch on for months or years — or forever. And with something like cancer, you may be pronounced “cured” someday, but you’ll always live with the daunting specter of relapse. Now everyone (those diagnosed, loved ones, caregivers, friends, co-workers) is left in a no man’s land without guidance. We can feel lost, confused, and even betrayed. All we can see is that this “sick” is somehow not like the “sick” we expected. And we probably can’t see why. The why is that we learn the stories in our roles and scripts, then presume they are the reality. But they’re not the whole reality, they’re only shared stories that offer a framework to help organize our experiences. They’re only sometimes useful approximations of any specific reality you may find yourself living. They work well when the story is applied to a reality it closely mirrors, but as reality diverges from the neatly packaged script, everything falls apart and they can do more harm than good. These stories are where we can start making sense of the world we’re in, but we can’t stop there and we can’t let them limit us because the real world is not a neatly resolved story. Just like “manly” is a useful enough role that can get warped, misapplied, and misinterpreted, so is “sick.” And that brings us to our natural emotional responses to living “sick.” As men, we’re taught our value is in solving problems. Our male identities stem more from what we do than who we are. As men, we’re supposed to look after the people we love. As men, we do strong things, take the necessary risks, provide for the people we love and make their lives better and safer. If we can no longer do those things, then who are we? What happens when, despite our best efforts and intentions, we begin to fail? Maybe we can no longer do all the things we want to do (or used to do). Maybe we can still do them, but we know they’re going to be distressing. Draining. And they’ll demand a lot of recovery on the other side. And even if we’re not currently limited, we’re confronted by an ugly, fearful, and very real “what if…” Maybe the people around us don’t understand. After all, we may look the same and talk the same, but others can’t see the pain, fatigue, frustration, and distress we experience. No matter our specific diagnosis, most of what happens is going on inside us. They just can’t see that and we probably aren’t comfortable or experienced sharing those insights. When we stop doing those “manly” things, that can look like we’re lazy, uncaring, or uncommitted. But, in reality, we’re often in pain, fatigued, confused, fearful, needy, lacking confidence in our own capabilities, or simply overwhelmed. As “real men,” we never want to admit to any of these feelings, and we might find it impossible to share those real reasons. We’d rather look like an angry jerk, loner, or cad than be seen as weak. We’re facing a real fear we don’t want to acknowledge, even to ourselves: what if what I can now reliably deliver isn’t enough for anyone to want? And there we are, face-to-face with these emotions that won’t go away. You know, those things men aren’t supposed to have. But if emotions aren’t useful, why do we still have them? Why must we waste so much effort trying to ignore or deny such a powerful human force? Well, these emotions are our second oldest motivational system, right after the somatic or bodily motivators of pain and pleasure. And before we are men or anything else, we are human, and emotions are a part of that package — all of the emotions. If you think emotions are “weak,” that’s your highfalutin’, smarty-pants forebrain looking down on your ancient, primal, basal brain. Our emotions won’t be forever ignored. If we try to repress or deny them, they become stronger. Emotionally and cognitively, “what we resist, persists.” Yes, it’s true our basal brain doesn’t have all the latest software updates. It is limited and primitive. But it’s stayed around so long because it’s still useful. Emotions are simply an ancient way our system tells us that something is important enough to tag with a value that draws our attention to it and moves us to relevant action. It’s still up to us to figure out what we do with that signal. Chronic illness introduces a whole raft of new challenges and experiences into our lives. They’re all bad. Don’t get me wrong, we can find meaning and growth by facing those challenges. We can, and will, still make happy, valuable experiences from our lives. But there is nothing intrinsically “good” about being sick. It sucks. It’s alright to admit it. But that means it’s all the more important now to process those negative emotions so they don’t drown out everything good. As men, there are certain, unpleasant, “unmanly” feelings we’ve gone through our whole lives avoiding, yet now, they may become overwhelming and ever present. We may feel weak or dependent. No one, especially “manly” men, wants to feel like a burden. That may lead to feelings of shame, guilt, or regret. Shame is a feeling of humiliation, embarrassment, or distress over who we are. It’s about our identities. Guilt or regret are similar feelings over what we did or did not do. It’s focused on behaviors. Both strike to the core of our being, and they’re both difficult to open up about. But when we don’t acknowledge these negative emotions, they tend to stick around because that part of you needs to know you’ve gotten the message it was driven to send. It’s an unpleasant signal. But once that message is communicated, we need to acknowledge it and move on, so the signal stops. Otherwise, it hangs around and becomes noise. We may also feel grief as we mourn the loss of who we once were or the possibilities of futures we may now never live. Grief is complex and layered. It comes in waves. It doesn’t follow a neat process. And it takes its own time. There is no “appropriate” amount of time to grieve. (If you need to know more, check out Episode 210 of this podcast, titled, “Good Grief!”) We’re also still men and anger is our socially-approved, goto emotion. So we’re probably feeling a lot of anger, frustration, and even like the world has betrayed us. Of course, those aren’t super helpful, in the long term. They can become caustic and eat away at those around us as our loved ones must deal with our emotional fallout. But these may be the only emotional tools we have and we’re not sure how to access and develop the others. We become very much like the lion in the ancient Greek fable about Androcles. In the story, a lion had been stalking the area and everyone was afraid. Androcles was a runaway slave who had to enter the woods to escape his pursuers. He soon heard the fearsome lion roaring and thrashing angrily about. He couldn’t escape and was soon overtaken by the lion. He thought this was going to be his end, but he noticed that one of the lion’s paws was swollen and red. So he approached the lion, and the lion allowed him to pull a thorn from his paw. He and the lion became fast friends, and the lion ultimately saved Androcles, in return. What looked like anger was pain, frustration, and fear. That’s often how we men cover our extreme distress. That’s no excuse for our bad behavior, but it does point to a real solution: calming the fear, curing the pain, soothing the distress, and resolving the frustration actually address the root problems and improve everyone’s quality of life. (If you want to understand more about the surprising world of fear, stress, and pain, check out Episodes 218, 219, and 220.) It’s easy for us feel as if we are alone, even amidst our closest loved ones. As men, we’re not encouraged to talk about emotions or reveal our fears. We don’t want to feel like a “burden.” So maybe we don’t share enough about what’s going on with our health, our health care, or our prognosis. In my own case, I was told on diagnosis that I needed to prepare myself for no longer being able to walk within a decade. That’s now over 15 years ago, and I’m still walking pretty well, most of the time. Heck, on good days, I still fly. But that’s a prognosis that really weighed on me that I never shared with my then wife and children. Part of the masculine role is that we learn to value being reliable and consistent. Life with a chronic illness can make us seem erratic and undependable. When we’re feeling relatively well, we try to live as much life and get as much done as we possibly can. We might promise things we have every intention of doing. And then the feeling worse part comes around again. Despite our best intentions, we may not be able to follow through, and those around us cannot see why. And men tend to suck at sharing our emotions. That’s not because we’re naturally bad at it. It’s because we didn’t grow up practicing it. We weren’t encouraged to do it. In fact, the man culture actively discouraged it — and, if we’re being completely honest, the women in our lives probably dismissed our halting efforts because they also believe men aren’t good with emotions. Like everything else, it’s a skill we must practice, and we must be prepared to do it badly before we learn to do it well. In short, there’s a long list of challenges that arise from this collision between being “sick” and being a “man.” And, really, we’ve only hit some of the most common problems here. So I’ll let you decompress for a few moments while we take a break. And on the other side, we’ll close with some practical takeaways that you can use to improve your lives and relationships. SEGMENT 4: I’m just a “guy.” I lift weights, wear boots, drive a truck, am often scruffy, adore my swords and knives, watch football, and still sometimes practice the martial arts. I believe in a “women and children first” ethos. As a young man, I was drawn to adventurous activities with risk, heights, speed, pointy objects, and a little bit of aggressive over-competitiveness. I’m still a skydiver, and some people think of that as a dangerous thing to do. There are also some “masculine” things I do that aren’t good. When I’m sad, it tends to look like anger, even though that’s not what I’m feeling. I still sometimes have difficulty sharing my sadness and fears — largely because I never want to be a “burden.” I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining, because I am truly grateful. My good days are still pretty good. But I must admit my bottom is lower and the bad days are more common than I would like. I often think to myself, “others have it worse.” Yeah, so what? Am I, in this moment, overwhelmed, injured, traumatized, failing? Then that’s bad. There’s no hierarchy of pain, fear, or trauma. It’s all bad. It’s never a contest. Even though I know better, I sometimes put an unnecessarily brave face on it so I don’t look “weak.” As I said, just like other guys, I’m still sometimes a prisoner to my socialization. But I’m better about it now. And I keep working at it. We’ve talked about the ways the culture and experience of being men and being sick introduce some additional problems into our lives. Now, like most of these episodes, we’re left with the question: what can we practically do about that? It begins with awareness. Now that you’re aware of these issues, you’ve been primed to notice them. And, I predict, you’ll notice them everywhere. It also means you, and those around you, need to develop the habit of calling them out, talking about them, and deciding on better alternatives that work for everyone. Then, as you’re all trying to make those alternatives your reality, be mindful that you’ll fail. Changing deep set, long-standing behaviors is difficult. Extend some tolerance and grace to everyone involved. I want you to think differently about your health condition. For a moment, forget about your specific diagnosis, symptoms, or treatment side effects and focus on their real, practical life consequences. How does your health get in the way of doing what you want and need to do in the world? First, you’ve got real, physical limitations. They might come and go. They might not be limitations others can see. But they’re still real and you’ve got to plan and accommodate them. Second, you’re faced with a scary, uncertain future you can’t get away from. Your condition will confront you with Edges you didn’t used to have. It will hold you on the Edge for extended periods. It won’t let you rest and recover as easily or completely as you otherwise would. Third, you, and those around you, can internalize mistaken ideas about your “sickness.” You can start seeing yourself differently. Others can, too. This is the “biopsychosocial” view of sickness. There are biomedical, cognitive, emotional, and relationship outcomes. All are real. All have effects. All must be addressed. None of it can be ignored, or they will become overwhelming through neglect. And the popular version of “masculinity” we’ve internalized and reinforced hinders us on all three fronts. It’s not just this list of medical signs and symptoms you must now accommodate into your life. It’s not just a set of treatments and therapies you must make room for. The experience of always being “sick” with an uncertain future is distressing, scary, fatiguing, and painful. Your illness represents a real, existential threat to your life or your quality of life. The clash between “sickness” and “manhood” is most serious when we get trapped in the “strong, silent” stereotype. Always projecting strength and competence doesn’t work, even if we’re young and healthy. Everyone is overwhelmed, sometimes. Even you. Often, we don’t speak because we’re unsure of how to express ourselves. We should expect this because many of us don’t have much practice speaking about our internal lives. We don’t have practice encouraging and supporting other men to do the same. Men are not trained or encouraged to be kind. We’re reward for being tough. But we can confuse toughness with having to put on a rough facade all the time. Yet kindness is more profound when it’s an obvious choice. What a person is perfectly capable of being tough, yet chooses to meet a circumstance with kindness, gentility, and grace, that’s a powerful statement. Choose to meet yourself with that grace. Not to digress too much, but human relationships have a horizontal and a vertical dimension. In our cultural stereotypes, we’ve assigned all of the horizontal to the “feminine” and all of the vertical to the “masculine.” Men tend to be more comfortable with competitiveness and dominance than we are with emotional intimacy and openness. I’ll repeat something I find myself saying more and more often: be kind to your self. Men are not taught to be kind. We’re not encouraged to be kind. We’re not rewarded for being kind. But we have the same hearts as everyone else. We have the same immense capacity for kindness. But kindness is vulnerable. It’s risky. It’s the sort of chance we’re not used to taking. We hold ourselves to unrealistically high standards. We compare ourselves. We stride into conflict with confidence because that is a familiar arena. But that’s not all of life. We deserve to allow ourselves to growth in these ways, too. Men can nurture, and that can be a powerful experience. With a chronic illness, we are forced to confront our humanity in uncomfortable ways. So be kind. Don’t just “man up!” Pause and actively reflect on what kind of man you want to be and focus on the specific aspects of manhood you really value. You get to choose which of those masculine values you express — and when and how. You get to choose when you’ll no allow yourself to be limited by that “man script.” You don’t have to let your belief about other’s expectations (which is likely wrong) make that decision for you. They will adjust. Too much of any good can become a bad. When we’re distressed, all our primal brain can suggest is “more of the same is better.” If you find yourself thinking that way, pause. Really. Just pause and give your forebrain time catch up. Mindfully pick your values, and demonstrate them in moderation. Focus on what you can cultivate. Be creative. There are many “masculine” values worth preserving: being emotionally and physically strong and resilient, loyalty, responsibility, determination, protectiveness. Being willing to share the depths and struggles of your journey is strong, and it’s a way to lead and to mentor other men. It’s a way to show your concern, love, and respect. Men often focus on doing. Sometimes, our health gets in the way of what we intend to do. Acknowledge that, then before you do something for another, ask what they really need. Don’t presume. Save yourself the effort and focus on what matters. Be more mindful of your real resources and constraints so you can deliver the most value to the people you love. Then, don’t just “do” — be. Get in touch with your emotions. Practice experiencing and naming your emotions. Practice sharing your experience with others. If we only “do,” and never share what’s inside, others can only learn to value us for what we do and not who we are. Be open and supportive of other men. Take the lead. Be the example. Be kinder to yourself. Understand that you must adapt. And share how you are adapting, as well. Just do these things. Even if they’re strange, scary, or awkward. We naturally catastrophize — believe an outcome will be worse than it actually turns out to be. That’s sometimes protective and helpful, but it often gets in the way of real growth. This isn’t easy, but it is worthwhile. Every man needs to feel we can still be powerful, edgy, dangerous. We now must become judicious in how we deploy it. At least occasionally, we need to feel we are heroes, but we cannot live there. I’ll confess that my condition forces me into some difficult decisions. Do I do this thing because it appeals to my manly, do-it-myself inclinations, or refrain because the longer-term consequences just aren’t worth it to my future self? I don’t easily seek help, although I’m getting better. And the people around me didn’t easily accept that I would or should need help. It was outside our script. That caused a lot of problems. There is so much more to say on this topic, and I promise we’ll return to it in future episodes. But our time this week is at an end. So I’ll close the episode by asking for your help: share Your Life Lived Well with someone who can use it. Subscribe, leave five stars and sparkly reviews — it’s all really helpful and deeply appreciated. Be sure to join us next week for Episode 303 of the Your Life Lived Well podcast, titled “Willpower.” Life with a lasting health condition often means there are things we want to — or have to — change about our behaviors. Change is difficult. If you’re relying on “willpower” to do it, you will fail. If you believe you are “weak” because your willpower has failed you, well, you’re wrong about that, too, and you should be kinder to yourself. We’ll dig into the “whys” next week on Your Life Lived Well — or support our mission at for early access, as well as a live discussion with me where I answer your burning questions. In the meantime, go forth, be well, do well, and do good.

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