Often regarded as the most defining feature of masculinity, whether it be toxic, fragile, or otherwise, all centers around a man’s ego. At its simplest of definitions, the ego is the internalized creation of the self. It’s literally what defines who we are and governs how we react to certain situations, and how we interact with people. The male ego is often associated with toxic masculinity or fragile masculinity but is not limited solely to these archetypes. To really understand the role it plays, it’s essential to understand how it works, and how it’s not just limited to men.
The ego is not something that a person is born with, but something built constantly throughout one’s life. From the time we are born, we rely on our parents and family members to tell us about the ways of the world. We constantly ask questions like: where do babies come from? Why does my brother get a baseball bat and I get earings? Where does milk come from? And others. Not able to know any better, we believed whatever explanation we were given, and simply never argued it. At least not until we parroted the information back to the other kids we met on the playground, who then went on to tell us were wrong because their parents had explained it a different way. We were only kids back then, but we felt deeply hurt when these things we believed in so implicitly were challenged, and we had no idea how to deal those emotions.
Of course, there was someone we could go to for help with this. We went to our moms and our dads, or whomever it was that guided us in our young lives and asked why the other kid at school said you were wrong, then pushed you.
“Don’t listen to that kid,” they would say, “Their dad is an idiot, and that kid is probably just as much of an idiot.”
Well, there’s your answer, isn’t it? The other kid is just stupid, but you’re smart. You know exactly what’s going on because your parents know exactly what’s going on.
This is how ego works, and how it’s built. Ideas, events, teachings, and life experiences all define how each one of us sees the world, as well as how we react to it. We often say someone who is very full of themselves has a ‘big ego’. Their ideas and beliefs have collected in such a big mass that they create a very specific self-image. But for others, ego is something that has to adapt and change based on life experiences.
From a very early age, we learn what life is about, and how we should react to it, based on what we learned from our parents. They set up Ego version 1.0 if you will. And it’s during this period that boys and girls are taught some of the most damaging information to their egos. Boys are taught to believe they are the masters of the universe, and they are the ones who will create the greatest change, become the next leaders, and slay dragons in the name of glory. But girls are taught almost the exact opposite. Girls are taught to be the supporters of men, to be caregivers only, and the best they can ever hope to accomplish is to one day find a good man to be with, and that bearing his children is the only way to validate their existence.
This is already damaging enough as their gender roles have been instilled in them from the moment they’re born. But things go even further from there, into adulthood. And it’s during adulthood when male ego begins to really shape itself into toxic/fragile masculinity.
When you see examples of toxic or fragile masculinity in politics, groups of guys in the club, or even at the store, and you inwardly laugh at him because you’re not sorry for his fragile masculinity, you may wonder how he became like this. It’s because of shitty parenting, right? Wrong. Well, partially at least.
As I’ve said, establishing gender roles through parenting creates Ego version 1.0, but adulthood is when version 2.0 comes into play. Our upbringing lays the groundwork, but who we become is dependant on the tribe we become part of when we first find independence. Think of how society works in prison (not that I’ve ever been to one): when an inmate first arrives, they need protection, or the other gangs will tear them apart. So the only thing they can do is find one to join, and assimilate into their culture, thus finding acceptance and safety. The same happens in early adulthood as well (without the pressure of getting shanked if you don’t).
In a time of our lives when we begin to seek identity, our first inclination is to find a tribe to join. By our most basic nature, we’re scared of being alone. If we can find a group that will accept us, we’re much more willing to change our beliefs and ideas to that of the tribe, just so we can continue to feel accepted, and like we belong. But every tribe has rules that must be followed. These rules are always arbitrary and serve no other purpose than to exist. And you know damn well those rules you follow are arbitrary! The most common one being ‘bros before hoes’, but there are others even more ridiculous like ‘What you say within the group, stays within the group’.
That’s not to say all tribes of men are the same. Some are more accepting than others, and some have really backward beliefs in place you’ll need to follow if you want to be part of it. This is why, in many small towns, even current generations are pretty racist and/or sexist. The choice of tribes to join is very small, so the beliefs one would need to adapt to is very narrow.
Earlier, I mentioned how women are raised to validate their lives by finding a man to take care of them. This itself is harmful to them but also lends itself to the male ego as well. It’s because of patriarchal influence that women are taught from childhood to be pursued by men, but not the pursuers. That their only value to men is to be used for sex and bearing children. That their virtue is the only thing that gives them value, and that value diminishes with every man they sleep with. The way they dress, act, and speak is also important, because unless they are conservative, then they are clearly advertising sexual promiscuity. Worst of all, they are relentlessly pursued only up until learning that they are already in a relationship because they dare-not intrude on another man’s ‘claim’.
When boys act as they’re told, and girls respond as their told, the male ego adapts to believe this is how society works. The tribe then solidifies this, adding more to the mass of this idea until it’s become such a large part of their ego that they have difficulty putting those ideas aside. In recent years, women have outgrown this patriarchal upbringing, and the new wave of feminism has taught new generations of women not to allow themselves to be treated like nothing more than a prize. However, many men continue to raise their sons the same way anyway. Naturally, this has caused the older generations, and part of the current generations, to feel confusion and anger from women to not give the response they expect. The resulting anger and backlash are what we now call ‘Toxic Masculinity’.
As Dr. Samuel Veissière from Psychology Today described in his article: “The human mind is not well equipped to examine counterintuitive facts that violate our expectations. Our expectations are heavily modulated by cultural norms. These are norms we all know and obey, often without knowing that we know them.” Therefore, new generations of men need to know that they aren’t being attacked for having traditional values, but that what they were being taught was wrong, and outdated.
In my next post, I’d like to address one of the greatest issues regarding masculinity, and how we express said masculinity. The issue of the pressure men face in regards to their sexuality. I’ll be asking several questions over the next couple weeks in regards to this, so be sure to follow me on Twitter if you’d like to contribute your answers. But now I want to open up the discussion to all of you. I invite all readers to contribute their own experiences in the comments section below and tell us about the people, events, and lessons you learned from that helped shape your ego and made you the person you are today. Don’t be afraid to include events that changed your understanding of what it meant to be a man, or what it meant to be a woman or someone of a different gender living in a ‘man’s world’.