The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I finally learned to accept my own vulnerability as a man. It helped.


Not long ago, I gave a talk about what gives us meaning and satisfaction in life. When I finished, a woman who appeared to be in her mid-70s rose with a question. “I had a good career,” she said. “I was a college professor, and for a number of years, I was the chair of my department. But I’ve also loved my retirement. Most men my age seem lost when they stop working. Why do you think that is?”

Her observation saddened me. What she described was certainly true of my father. I hope it will be less true for me than it was for him and men of his generation, and even less for my two sons-in-law and three grandsons when they reach retirement. But to one degree or another, it also reflects an underlying reality I’ve observed in nearly all the men I’ve known.

My wife and daughters have an ease in hanging out — talking, making meals together, relaxing without any agenda — that I can’t match. They are all strong, independent and successful women in the world, but they also have a much greater capacity for intimacy than I do. I love each member of my family dearly, and I revel in my growing brood of grandchildren. Even so, I’m aware that I often feel safest and most secure by myself, combining words into sentences and paragraphs that help reassure me I am worthy and that I matter in the world.

The culture still tells us that to be a real man, one must project an image of strength, toughness and implacability. To exhibit weakness, vulnerability or even tenderness can feel uncomfortable and shameful. Too often, men transmute these emotions into competitiveness, one-upmanship and aggression.

Why are boys so lonely and violent?

The greater the sense of inner emptiness and impotence men feel, the more likely they are to lash out. Sometimes, without even realizing it, they belittle, underestimate, discredit, objectify, silence, ignore and gaslight women. At their most extreme, men can become violent sexual predators, as the #MeToo movement has made so painfully clear in recent months.

“Too often the wounded boy grows up to be a wounding man, inflicting upon those closest to him the very distress he refuses to acknowledge within himself,” writes Terry Real, author of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It: The Secret Legacy of Male Depression.” “We raise boys to live in a world in which they are either winners or losers, grandiose or shame filled, perpetrators or victims. A common defense against the painful experience of deflated value is inflated value.”

My mother was a pioneering feminist who fought all her life to make the world a better and more equitable place. This was a gift to me, because I grew up believing that women were every bit as worthy of respect as men and, perhaps, more so. But my mother was also critical, volatile and demanding. To win her love and approval, I knew I had to be tough, aggressive and outwardly confident in a way that my father was not. In pursuit of the love and acceptance I never felt was my birthright, I became a relentless achiever. Like so many men, I sought affirmation — a sense of self — through my work as a journalist. Over two decades, I had more than my share of success, but the solace it gave me never lasted for long. By contrast, even small rejections cut me to the core and lingered in my consciousness. When I fell short, I felt diminished, small and angry at those around me.

In my search for male role models in the 1980s and 1990s, I was drawn to men who had achieved the levels of success and acclaim I sought and which I imagined somehow inoculated them against the sort of pain and disconnection I often felt. The men I profiled and initially idealized — among them Gay Talese, Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, Billy Joel, Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, William Styron, Tom Wolfe and Steven Bochco — all had remarkable achievements. But to my serial disappointment, I quickly discovered they were no more comfortable with themselves — and especially with their fears and vulnerabilities — than any other men I had met. None of them struck me as role models for the man I wished I might become.

Several of the men I wrote about have since been accused of sexual assault, most notably Donald Trump, with whom I wrote “The Art of the Deal” 30 years ago. It didn’t surprise me when women came forward to accuse him during the presidential campaign, not least because his insecurity is as vast as his grandiosity.

I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’ with Trump. His self-sabotage is rooted in his past.

Only decades later did I fully recognize that while I would never assault a woman, I did share some of Trump’s insatiable hunger for affirmation from the external world. At the time, observing those distasteful qualities in him, in such an exaggerated form, I felt more righteous about disowning them in myself.

“The ultimate motive for seeking extraordinary success, power, or fame,” writes the psychologist Sue Bloland, daughter of the famed psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, “is to make sure that our feared rejection, born in childhood, never happens.” But fame, she concludes “is not a successful defense against feelings of inadequacy.” Bloland’s insights grew out of observing the yawning gap between her father’s external success and his inner torment.

What men need most is a willingness to own our vulnerability, weakness and even shame, alongside our strengths. This is where real liberation begins. The most profound shift in my own life occurred when I found myself able to say, “Yes, I have shortcomings I wish I could be free of — but they are not all of who I am.”

This is work we all need to do, but especially men, who are so often more disconnected from their emotions and deepest humanity. What we need is more of what women have long been encouraged to nurture: selflessness, gentleness and compassion — not only for others, but for ourselves.

I wrote “The Art of the Deal” hoping that it would be successful enough to make me feel more secure. Something unexpected happened instead. In observing Trump up close, I realized how poorly the search for external validation had served me, and cost me.

My time with Trump prompted a dramatic change in the trajectory of my life. I left journalism and founded the Energy Project. For nearly two decades now, the work I’ve done in the world has focused on creating more humane workplaces by helping leaders better understand what fuels them, what blind spots stand in their way and how they can grow.

Of course, it’s far easier to teach and preach than it is to walk the talk. What counts most, for all of us, is accepting and taking on what we find most unacceptable in ourselves, so that we don’t feel compelled to inflict it on anyone else.