Becoming a Man (Regardless of Your Age)

Most of us have grown up with suboptimal home lives to one degree or another stemming from outright abuse, mild neglect, or even distant or anxious parents who pass on their shortcomings. Psychologist and author Ram Dass says that just by virtue of socialization our self-esteem is at a net negative by the time we reach adulthood. We often try to compensate for that net negative by imagining ourselves as “better than” or other grandiosity behaviors.

Adding to that is the fallout from our post-industrialization society where parents are off at work all day and stressed or distracted while at home, assuming both parents are even present. For men this leads to a lack of the “male mode of feeling.”

Our children then reach adulthood with various degrees of stress disorders and without a solid sense of themselves. Simultaneously our culture debases masculinity and Corporate America sells them on shallow values and a life of consumerism. There are basically no initiations, no rites of passage to welcome them as men, and our elders and shamans are few and far between. The result is most of our population is cut off from their deep inner strengths and powers.

Before industrialization most fathers did not go somewhere else to work. Boys would often work alongside and learn a trade, to hunt or to farm. In doing so, they would gain an understanding of what it means to be a man. In many tribal cultures, the boys were taken from their mothers (and fathers) when the elders deemed it was time for them to become men. The boys were subjected to a challenge, such as having to live in the jungle on their own for a year. Assuming a boy survived, the elders would welcome him back into the tribe as a man. These concepts are discussed in Iron John (Bly, 1990) and King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (Moore, Gillette, 1990).

In mythology, a boy’s challenge might be to slay a dragon. Author, professor, and comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, calls this type of challenge a “Hero’s Journey” and divides it into three acts:

  1. The Departure Act: the Hero leaves the Ordinary World
  2. The Initiation Act: the Hero ventures into unknown territory (the “Special World”) and is birthed into a true champion through various trials and challenges
  3. The Return Act: the Hero returns in triumph

Campbell says, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” The implication is that anyone can become a hero but it involves a painful transformation that is a prerequisite to greatness. In fact, he claims that “It’s a fundamental experience that everyone has to undergo, we are in our childhood for at least 14 years, and then to get out of that posture of psychological dependency, into one of psychological self-responsibility, requires a death and resurrection, and that is the basic motif of the hero’s journey, leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring you forth in a richer or more mature or other condition.”

It is likely, then, that as a young (or older) man in our society you have skipped the hero’s journey and are missing at least some of that “male mode of feeling.” “What are the drawbacks?” you might ask. The answer is this: When you do not feel grounded with deep masculine energy, you will look to the adolescent masculine ideals to compensate. In the book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover the authors say,

The drug dealer, the ducking and diving political leader, the wife beater, the chronically “crabby” boss, the “hot shot” junior executive, the unfaithful husband, the company “yes man,” the indifferent graduate school adviser, the “holier than thou” minister, the gang member, the father who can never find the time to attend his daughter’s school programs, the coach who ridicules his star athletes—all these men have something in common. They are all boys pretending to be men. They got that way honestly, because nobody showed them what a mature man is like. Their kind of “manhood” is a pretense to manhood that goes largely undetected as such by most of us. We are continually mistaking this man's controlling, threatening, and hostile behaviors for strength. In reality, he is showing an underlying extreme vulnerability and weakness, the vulnerability of the wounded boy.

What Can We Do?

Based on my own personal experience, as well as my work with excellent therapists, professional training, and coaching men of all ages, I believe the solution is to:

  • Understand and acknowledge where you are on the journey from boy to man.
  • Undertake a hero’s journey (see below).
  • Discover your purpose in life. Make it outward focused.
  • Create a vision.
  • Move forward into adult manhood, harnessing your deepest energy. Enjoy knowing who you are, what you care about, and what you want to do for yourself and those around you.
  • Continue growing indefinitely. Becoming a man is a lifelong journey, not a destination.

The hero's journey concept can be found in many cultures, even in cultures that were geographically isolated from each other. Many scholars believe that "shared mythological themes" arose because the myths evolved from common human experience. In today's world, the journey could be an experience such as joining the military or joining the Peace Corps, where you enter with a commitment to serving others and come out the other side as more of a man. But that only works sometimes. Instead, think of "slaying a dragon" as a metaphor for facing your own demons and the pain of growing into an adult. That is, giving up the mother's care and the immaturities of boyhood -- and then taking on the responsibilities of a man. The more pain you live with the more difficult the journey can be. The journey may be more difficult, but also more rewarding and transformational.

Your specific challenge, then, is to fully connect with your deepest joy, love, and pain. Focus on what you have and what you like to do. Acknowledge the love you have received and the strength that it brings you. Face your own dragon and create a frank, honest, and cooperative relationship with it. Realize your past painful experiences can drive you toward growth and a deep understanding of the suffering we all endure. Process these feelings (see Connecting With Your Deeper Feelings). Develop compassion for the people in your world. Understand that dysfunction and pain are passed down from generation to generation and that it is in all of our lineages.

Especially important for sons who have had an absent, distracted, or otherwise limited father relationship is to realize that each son has a hole in his heart the shape of his father. Bishop T.D. Jakes comments that you can fill this hole by

  1. acknowledging what you didn’t get but embracing what you have right now and to allowing it to fill the vacancies of what you didn't get yesterday
  2. connecting with surrogates -- that is, find mentors such as uncles, teachers, or even friends
  3. giving what you didn’t get -- by giving what you want it will come back to you

Elaborating on the third point, what you give is love and compassion. Having a hole in your heart suggests you are somehow inadequate, but giving love and then receiving it will help to fill the hole.

What am I giving up?

You may be giving up dependency on your mother’s care and energy. If you don’t, however, there may be severe penalties in store. In Priapus and Masculine Inflation (1989), James Wyly says that a man who has split off from the deep masculine energy “... is peculiarly subject to inflation, which occurs as a defense against the disturbing experiencing of seeing himself as feminine.” That deep masculine then subconsciously subverts the inflation through deflation and humiliation. An example of this is the brilliant investment banker who makes a fortune only to lose it, repeating the cycle over and over. Or the duplicitous televangelist who builds an empire and then loses it all when he gets caught in a sex scandal.

What Will I get?

Your journey will result in mental clarity and compassion for your family and friends. It will result in self-compassion because your family and friends live in your emotional body. It is part of the transition from boyhood to manhood. It will result in more energy, a feeling of fulfillment, resilience, optimism, and higher levels of dopamine and oxytocin in your brain. You will have an overall improved sense of well being (see Brain Chemistry).

Beyond that, knowing you are living your life the best possible way will give you confidence and inspire others. You will likely receive more praise when you present yourself as a positive-thinking individual who likes to support his friends and community. This is not to be confused with dependence on external validation. Receiving praise for following an admirable path will contribute to your feelings of acceptance, and in turn support your mental health.


Boy Qualities Man Qualities
Playful Risk-taking Strong (mentally and physically) Committed
Pleasure-seeking Philandering Leading Loving
Fun Aggressive Community-focused Persevering
Energetic Sadistic (bullying) Kind Assertive
Adventurous Cowardly Compassionate Decisive
Curious Condescending Wise Honorable

The overall idea in moving from boyhood to manhood is that the longer you wait, the more you have to lose.

You do not have to give up your boy qualities. Authors Moore and Gillette tell us “the boy is father to the man ... the adult man does not lose his boyishness ... the mature man transcends the masculine powers of boyhood, building upon them rather than demolishing them.”

As a young adult, if you do not begin the building process you will be split off from your deep masculine energies (strength, love, compassion, community). Then you are left with feeling “less than” and weak OR you will try to cognitively create the feeling of manhood by grandiosity, conquests, and risk taking. This may sustain you for a while, but it will wear you out, leave you depressed, or lead to failure.

You can begin the “building” process, that is, building on your best Boy Qualities (column 1 in the table) by taking the steps in the “What Can We Do?” section above. Then enjoy the knowledge you are becoming a true adult man and that you are moving toward living your life in the best possible way.