Self-compassion for men – The courage to be authentic

by | May 4, 2023

I had been living in South-East Asia as a Buddhist monk for about 6 years. When I came back to Europe in 1988 I fell into a strong culture shock and identity crisis. I remember one of the things that really supported me was reading a book by Guy Corneau: ‘Absent Fathers, Lost Sons’. The title of the book may already point out that this book was aimed at a problem which is felt by many men. 30 years on there hasn’t been much change, many men are still desperately searching for their masculine Identity.

Nathan Vos wrote a book in 2017 titled ‘Man o man’. It is written about his brother who committed suicide. He mentions that ‘self-help among women is a booming business but men often don’t take their happiness very seriously’.

I have been teaching mindfulness and compassion for many years, and it is indeed remarkable to notice that – except in the prison where I sometimes teach – the majority of participants are always women. You might assume that men don’t need mindfulness, kindness and compassion so much. I fear however that this is not correct. Statistics show that men can also suffer from fatigue and burnout, but usually they have a smaller social network than women, and men don’t like to talk much about their problems as it is often even seen as a sign of weakness. Because of this, men will tend to isolate themselves much more easily when there is a difficulty. They do this for example by working hard or by using alcohol or drugs.

In general, fewer men than women are diagnosed with symptoms of a burnout. But when it does happen the symptoms have become much more serious. And if we go one step further the number of men committing suicide in European countries is almost twice as high as for women. For me this was pretty shocking news.

As Soren Kierkegaard once wrote: ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’ We cannot change our past, we have to live with what we have. However, we can develop mindfulness and compassion in this moment, in looking at ourselves and in looking at the world we live in. This requires courage, namely the courage of vulnerability. It may show itself in starting to recognise inner habitual patterns and in developing new patterns. This requires practice but in this way we can gradually develop understanding and a more compassionate attitude towards ourselves.

We can develop two types of compassion: yin-compassion and yang-compassion. Yin-compassion has a gentle expression and may show itself by being kind and not overly demanding of ourselves as men. Yang-compassion has a fierce and strong expression and may show itself as courage or as a non-wavering determination in the midst of difficulties. It may manifest itself in speaking out when we experience injustice, or in saying ‘no’ when we feel something goes too far.

Sometimes we may need yin-compassion, other times we may need yang-compassion. Developing mindfulness brings us the sensitivity to inwardly listen and attune to what is most needed at the moment.

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