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When Your Manliness is Challenged, and You Lose

First blog article for the ‘Man Up’ project after a few months. Plenty of distractions, COVID, home schooling, keeping my day job alive. This project had to take a step back. But I am very pumped to get back into this. Plenty in the works, more articles and ideas to share, a new podcast with some amazing guests I am lining up (might wait a little bit ’til I can chat to them face to face though).
Welcome back! Here we go…
How are guys expected to respond to a threat? To a challenge that puts our manliness to the question? The bully at school that fed off any weakness he could find in you. The cock head 2ic that belittled you constantly throughout your entire apprenticeship. The bloke on the sporting field that flashed his masculinity over you like a peacock. Like gorillas fighting for the highest rock in the jungle, men battle for superiority. To be the alpha, or at least to feel as though we are the alpha. Some men couldn’t care less about this need, which often infuriates the power needy alpha further, ‘How can I proclaim my dominance without someone to acknowledge it?’

If we are to be a man we are expected to stand up, but not only stand up. Fight back. Return fire with witty remarks, defend our actions, puff our chest, huff and curse, push and shove, throw some fists. We don’t walk away, we don’t ignore it, that’s what pussy’s do. Well, in this story, I was one hell of a pussy…

After finishing secondary school I took a gap year before beginning Uni so I could gain a personal trainers certification. I always wanted a pt certificate, and I did it on a gap year for two reasons:

I didn’t want to ‘get-by’ job at a supermarket, fast food outlet or pub while I studied at university.

I was one of those ‘year younger’ kids at school. I loved being the kid that was getting through school at a younger age than my peers, but at the same time I hated the curse of being the young boy. The last to get a car, the last one that could (legally) go to the pub, the one the girls of my school year level would only ‘friend-zone’ because I was too young to go out with. It felt shit and I had had enough. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to catch multiple trains and buses from Mornington to Burwood every day for Uni when everyone else I knew was driving. Not happening.

While I was on this studying gap year, I worked at the local supermarket (but I was in fruit and veg so that’s more cool) and caught a short 15 minute bus from home to get there. With a similar weekly roster, I would often see the same people on the bus the same times each week.

On one typical midmorning weekday, a half full bus with plenty of seats available, a kind looking older man sat down next to me. I had seen him on the bus the week prior, I remember him giving me the obligatory ‘smile hello’ you give when your eyes accidentally meet in a public place. He was about 60, medium height, a very overweight round body and round face with a short ageing grey beard. I was seated window side, and him being a bit of a large fella he had me pretty well boxed in.

I would always keep to myself on the bus, headphones in. I would never spark up a chat with another passenger, but would always politely oblige someone that was up for one. Old mate was keen to talk. I cannot recall a single sentence from our encounter, but I can remember that i was receiving typical friendly questions from him, shooting back with short but polite answers from me.

My stop approached. Someone had hit the red “STOP” button before me, saving me the burden of having to try and reach over my new friend, or ask him to hit the bell for me. I began to fidget with my things, motioning my intentions to leave. But being a large older fellow, I wasn’t going to have him move for me whilst the bus was still in motion. I would just have to wait patiently for the bus to completely stop, let him get up and hope that the bus driver sees me shuffling for the door.

The moment the bus stopped I began to get ready to stand. Before I could even motion, my new mate turned to acknowledge our ride together, “Well”, he said as he firmly gripped my leg, “blu bleh blu blah blu bleh blu blu”, was all I heard as his rubbed his hand up and down my thigh, gripping tighter and tighter as he slid towards my hip.

What the fuck!? I was stunned into a statue like trance.

“Blu bleh blah,” he said as he turned his hand inwards, clearly looking to gain himself a good ‘ol fashioned cock brush, or grab, I’m not entirely sure.

This is the moment where I was supposed to pound his old arse. Make a scene. Shove him out onto the pavement and kick the shit out of him. Fuckn’ hoo rah! You old cunt!

But I didn’t.

I let out a whimpering “noo”, like a teary eyed boy after a 10 minute standoff at the dinner table refusing to eat his broccoli even with the real threat of losing ice-cream privileges looming, and I pulled his hand away. Unphased, he got up and got off the bus. I was stunned, I didn’t know what to do. I needed to get to work but he was still standing there, waiting for me to get off. I don’t know why I didn’t just stay on the bus, maybe I didn’t want to be completely beaten by him, so I hopped off. As I hit the footpath, the old fuck gestured to me again, as if his actions were not only okay, but I had welcomed it. I let out another “noo” whimper as I shouldered away and charged for the supermarket.

I worked my entire shift, I didn’t tell anybody. I took the bus back home. I feared that he would be at the stop waiting for me, but I was in the clear. When I arrived home I was confident I would be able to keep it together. I would tell my mum about the ‘sick fuck’ that groped me on the bus, brushing off the trauma I was feeling and masking it with courage and cocky bravado. I didn’t. I couldn’t even get one sentence in before falling in a heap. Blubbering into my mum’s arms like I was 4 years old again and I’d just lost my favourite dinosaur toy.

My mum insisted we go directly to the police, but I was reluctant. I didn’t want anybody to know that an old man sexually assaulted me. Moreso, I didn’t want anyone to know that me, a fit and strong, football playing, athletically charged 17 year old pre-man couldn’t handle himself against a beat down old sex predator. How humiliating. How embarrassing. I was ashamed of myself. A shame that was further highlighted when I was forced to tell my uber-cool fruit and veg boss. He was a genuinely cool, laid back guy, especially for someone that worked in a supermarket. He didn’t seem to belong, which is probably why I liked him. He learnt my story a week later when my creepy old mate returned, visiting me at the supermarket. Facing away from the entrance, he came in and surprised me with a gentle rub across the back and a harmless sounding “hello”. “Noo” I once again blurted out with the same whimpering weakness. A week onward and that was still all I had in me. “Noo”, you fucking pussy. I bolted for the office, told my boss the story and informed the police so they could come and grab the creep.

“He did what!? What did you do? I would have fucking pounded the cunt!” Dave proclaimed. And he probably would have.

“I, I just pulled his hand away and rushed here.”

“Oh.”

Shame.

I have never really been able to identify the differences between guilt, shame, embarrassment and humiliation. They were somewhat different, but I was unsure. So I have always used the terms interchangeably. There is although quite a significant difference between them all. It is important to understand these differences, especially when guiding ourselves through trauma, relationship issues, work issues and the problems that occur as a result of our own mistakes or poor choices.

Brene Brown describes shame as ‘the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.’ Huh? Let’s man it up a bit for you using my situation. I felt intense pain, believing that I was somewhat of a soft cock for struggling to stand up for myself in a ‘manly’ way, like all real men would have. I felt unworthy of being deemed manly and therefore unworthy of belonging to mens “stuff”. Like being one of the boys at footy, or a part of the lads banter at the pub. I felt disconnected.

Shame is different to humiliation in that when people experience humiliation, they don’t feel they deserved it. Whereas with shame, they feel it was warranted. Let’s say you are an apprentice chippy and your boss is riding you and calling you useless for making a small error. If you felt shame it would mean you in some way agree that you are useless. If you felt that your boss was out of line and that you believe that you are in fact useful and, being an apprentice, you are expected to make errors from time to time. That’s why you are a bloody apprentice! You’ve felt humiliation.

Shame and guilt is different in that guilt refers to doing something bad, whereas shame refers to “being bad”. “I really stuffed up that job for everyone by ordering the wrong materials, that was a stupid mistake” (guilt), “Oh man I am so bad at this job, I can’t even order the right fucking materials” (shame).

Embarrassment is more fleeting. It is when we do something, or something happens to us that at the time feels uncomfortable or stupid, but we don’t feel alone. Like slipping over in the mud on site in brand new work gear. Classic! Your work mates enjoy a good kak at your expense, but eventually wind up sharing stories of their embarrassing apprenticeship mishaps.

When our manliness is challenged and we fail, more often than not we feel deep shame:

When you can’t pay the bills on time.

When you can’t pay the bills on time because of your (gambling/alcohol/drug) addiction.

When you hide your addiction.

When you arrive home from work and the kids are already in bed, again.

When your continued absence or rising body weight is causing your wife to lose attraction to you.

When you feel unwanted, unneeded or irrelevant at work.

When it seems that all your mates are upgrading and stepping up in life, and you are right where you’ve been the past 10 years.

When you are too overweight to chase the kids around the back yard.

When you are busting your arse, but it never feels like it is enough.

When your wife takes the kids away and moves them in with her new, better man.

When your boss berates you for stuffing up, again, in front of the entire crew.

When an old man sexually assaults you, and all you can do to defend yourself is puff out a wobbly little ‘noo’.

We fella’s aren’t very good at dealing with shame. It is unmanly to show shame. So we hide it. But hiding shame doesn’t remove it though. As much as we try to bottle it up it still manages pops it’s ugly little head out just to remind us of that horrible thing we did, or that terrible person we are. When the card declines on your wife at the supermarket, when the kids no longer bother asking you if you will be home on time, when the rowdy bloke at the pub starts getting violent and you have zero confidence in your ability to handle yourself is shit goes sour.

When we don’t talk about our shame we carry it with us. It wears on us and weighs us down. We often try to mask the burden by numbing it away. We drink, we gamble on horses and sport, we do lines, we have Call of Duty all nighters on the Playstation, we scroll and scroll and scroll on social media. Anything to give us a little short term gratification, a distraction from our burden. But these numbing tactics don’t fix the issue. The shame is still there and it is not budging.

The road to removing the burden is longer, more challenging and less appealing. In order to move past our shame, we are required to face it, to feel it, to acknowledge it. It will hurt, it will be uncomfortable. Our ego’s will take a hit, something most men can’t handle above all else. Honest truths will be had with those closest to us. But if we truly want to be rid of the burden, this is what must be done.

We have spoken previously on the power of vulnerability. How facing uncertainty head on is in fact brave. How showing your true self, your true fears and your true faults is in fact courageous. Courage and bravery are the noble behaviours of real men right? Far more so than looking tough, having all the answers, and acting as though you don’t give a fuck. That’s not bravery, that’s bullshit layered on top of bullshit to hide that fact that you are full of bullshit. It is an act. Maybe a real man is a man that admits when he has failed, when he has let someone down, when he has let himself down. Maybe a real man is someone who seeks the help of others in order to build everybody up, rather than pretends he knows all in order to appear above all? Maybe the fight for the highest rock doesn’t even lead to true feelings of ‘manliness’? Maybe that is where the false and the selfish sit. Maybe the real men sit amongst the other gorilla’s, in the jungle.

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