The direction words such as these take us depends on our lived experiences and perception of self. When my grandfather first gave me this quote on a desk ornament, I was immediately validated and inspired to be great. The cost comes, however, when our vision becomes fixated on being the lead dog, and blinds the rest of our experience.
Being a man in this society has been defined as earning our place. To do so, and be known for it in some way, is to be a success. Imagine what is necessary to reach the top in a fast-paced, media-driven, instant gratification-dependent world. Many search for external validation — looking to others to determine how great we are. Time and again, this becomes a problem for our society.
In this sense of self, we learn our identities from others. If we do not perform to the level expected by others, or others lose interest due to a bigger and better performance, do we cease to be relevant, or worse, exist?
There is nothing wrong with being the lead, or even engaging in a little healthy competition. Without the anxiety from competition with self or others, many would unlikely discover their potential beyond assumed limits. However, the toll endless competition, instant gratification, and external validation take when they are our sole motivators is quite taxing.
We become stressed and overwhelmed. Our sense of self becomes solely dependent on being right or being on top. This sense of self and lifestyle decreases tolerance for irritability and daily stressors, leading to automatic reactions intended to make the stressors go away.
Many men know what this looks like, regardless of whether you are open to outwardly acknowledging this experience. These experiences are where you snap at your partner or children. You notice you are angry more often than usual. The things you used to enjoy seem less appealing, or even exhausting.
People accuse you of being an angry person, which feels insulting, and the anger grows. The other people are making you angry, right? If they would just stop doing whatever it is that makes you angry, all would be fine, right? Well, as right as that may sound, it’s not entirely accurate.
What happened? Your brain has formed new neural pathways, causing you to now automatically respond to stressors or minor annoyances with vast, grandiose reactions — insulting, belittling, manipulating, or yelling.
What can you do? Well, when angry guys come to see me, we take a look at what is happening now and how familiar it feels. We look for patterns, and find where and why that negative automatic reactions began, which is only the beginning. Next comes self-acceptance — learning you are good enough right now.
Working toward improvement is a process, and you will get there. Having a sense of validation and accomplishment from within is crucial. You know who you are and who you want to be. Use external criticism and validation as information — how close you are to the whole you that makes you happy. Make adjustments when needed, and be thankful for who you are now.
Happiness is not dependent upon anyone else. In this process, you learn that being right isn’t always necessary. In fact, much happiness can be felt without being right. Let’s face it, you’re human, and cannot always be right. When you begin to acknowledge this reality, you may find others are more willing to acknowledge and validate you when you are correct.
Finally, there are some basic skills I encourage everyone to use.
- Stop. Even a three-second pause can help you make a healthier decision. If you are able to remove yourself from the situation, do so. Sometimes you can’t, and that’s okay.
- Breathe in for five seconds, hold for three seconds. Exhale for eight to 10 seconds, hold for three seconds. Repeat until your muscles relax, heart rate slows down to calm, and breaths become slow and easy.
- Picture and imagine a safe peaceful place — real, imagined, or a combination of both.
- Squeeze a small, soft object, like a stress ball, until you notice the pace and pressure of your squeeze match the calm, slow, relaxed pace and pressure of your breath, muscles, and heart rate.
Skills are only a part of the equation. Alone, they will not help you learn to be comfortable with stress or difficult emotions. If you are having trouble controlling your anger, consider seeing a mental health professional for assistance.