6 Ways ‘Tough Guys’ Are Actually Weak

The following story first appeared on the Good Men Project. 


Did you know there’s one thing every man (and woman) seeks from the world—more than love, sex, or money, more than power, pleasure, or fulfillment? More even than a sense of identity or a life that holds meaning? This thing we seek, that we’re wired to seek, is validation—the feeling that we’re worthy of acceptance, that our thoughts and opinions align with others, the security of knowing there’s a place where we fit in.

Validation is a powerful human desire that leads us to form beneficial relationships. But it also allows damaging and discriminatory belief systems such as racism, sexism, and homophobia take hold, when the cultural forces that validate those systems are stronger than the forces that disavow and invalidate them. Put more simply, if a man’s sexist colleagues or a boy’s homophobic peer group accept and validate him when he follows their lead, that man or boy must consider the risk of exclusion and invalidation when challenging the group’s bigoted beliefs. Mark Greene and others have referred to this constraint as the Man Box. The box limits men’s range of behavior by defining what’s strong and what’s weak and exacting a price for weak behavior. Breaking out of the box requires us to shatter the fallacies used to trap men in toxic behavior patterns. But breaking out is hard, because the box’s primary enforcers are so-called “tough guys.” And tough guys can be, well, kind of scary. Unless you know they’re not really tough at all. 

1. Tough guys call you names—like “wimp”—if you won’t join them in putting down others, particularly the vulnerable, with hurtful remarks. Strong men stand up for respect and compassion and build others up instead of tearing them down.

2. Weak men are insecure and need everyone in their group to be followers: refusal to follow brings expulsion and banishment. Strong men develop leaders and encourage challenge.

3. Tough guys need everyone in their group to be dependent on them for approval. Strong men know that you only need your own approval, or as Robert Burns put it: “Thine own reproach alone do fear.”

4.Tough guys feel entitled to the loyalty and servitude of others. Strong men know that loyalty and respect are earned.

5.Tough guys dominate others through a culture of fear, offering a choice between pain and sacrifice. Strong men recognize and respect each person’s free will, including the freedom to disagree and depart.

6. Tough guys want others to stifle emotion and reject the feelings in their own hearts (as they themselves have) to gain validation and acceptance. Strong men honor and express their feelings and want others to do the same, even when that means losing approval.

The Man Box asks, “If a man’s not strong, is he really a man?” The way out of the box is knowing what strength truly means. 

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