Invitation for Well-Meaning Men
TRIGGER WARNING: Murder & Calling our brothers in for self-reflection.
There’s been a relationship dynamic that has emerged for me over the past few months. It is a quality that I’ve witnessed in many people, including myself, however, it seems to be pervasive and particularly powerful (and unapologetically expressed) in white men.
This week has been filled with an intense amount of emotional tenderness over traumas I’ve moved through in relationship to men who have been taught that their will and desire is the law of the land, and have been taught the value of dominance over reverence.
First I want to say that the men I’ve witnessed this dynamic in have a lot of really great qualities. I’ve seen a lot of helpfulness and generosity, and there’s even been elements of protectiveness and stepping in as providers. The toxic problem rears its ugly head when there is ANY request to reflect on behavior that may be (even unconsciously) having a negative impact on someone else (especially female identified beings).
There seems to be an idea, and I’ll stress again that I have seen it in LOTS of humans, myself included, but most pervasively, unapologetically defended, and toxically in white men, and this idea is that if you do a lot of really nice things, then that alleviates you from taking accountability for harm (even unintentional) you may be causing for someone else.
The request to look at this dynamic ended my last relationship swiftly and my simple request to acknowledge the impacts was met with a quick exit. The dynamic has come up in a male relative who has chosen to avoid a real healing moment by just sending some nice messages instead of actually acknowledging some toxic behavior.
This dynamic just arose again with a male “friend,” who had done, again, some really nice things, but then violated some boundaries. When I started to speak about the boundaries, there was an instant denial, minimizing, and now, several days later, I have received a lengthy diatribe that is toxic and attacking.
For me, personally, it touches on the traumas I’ve experienced since I was a child. A dominating father who always had to be right, and who imposed extreme punishments for the great sin of having a voice and speaking up for what I felt to be right. At thirteen, my mom’s sister was murdered by her husband, which was an even deeper message about the very real threat of going against the opinions of the “man of the house.”
I know that there are a lot of old pressures put on men from the past, and now the present, to show up in ways that are intense and even traumatizing. The same is true for women, and people of color, (well, people of color get this in spades, don’t they)? We as humans are all waking up from old, unhealthy expectations and pressures to be a certain way and prove ourselves in certain ways.
We’ve all learned unhealthy and inaccurate ways of proving ourselves and perceiving and engaging with others who are different from us.
We all need to be willing to take in the reflections from others when we are having an impact that we don’t intend. Most harm, I believe, is unintentional, but the harm will continue if it is met with denial, deflection, and diminishing the voice of the one who is asking for a change.
The biggest defense that has come up to me from the “harming” men in my life is “I have done all of these things for you! You must be ungrateful to accuse me of doing something ‘bad,’ when I’ve done so many nice things for you.”
MEN: YOUR GOOD DEEDS DON’T EXCUSE YOU FROM TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR HARM YOU CAUSE.
The “bread winner” doesn’t have permission to abuse his partner and children. The helpful friend doesn’t have permission to break boundaries.
Your harmful behavior doesn’t make you a bad person, and your good behavior doesn’t absolve you from the responsibilities of accounting for your harmful behavior.
I’ve really applied the pain from this toxic dynamic to myself as a white person. It doesn’t matter how many helpful or good things I may have done or be in the process of doing. If I create harm for a person of color, I still need to clean that shit up. It doesn’t make me a bad person; it makes me a human. The “badness” only comes in if I deny the harm based on my good intent and fail to grow and see where I am having a harmful impact.
MEN: You have been taught a LOT of fucked up things about the world. Some of those things you may not even realize you’ve been taught. Some of those things you may not even realize have become integrated into your thoughts, feelings, and justifications for your actions towards others. It is there. If you want to truly be a safe person, be willing to accept when someone, especially a woman or a person of color, shares with you that you have done something that needs some clean-up. Not intending to cause that harm is not the same as not causing harm.
Jeff Wright, the president of Medicine Path Native American Church says “Having a good excuse to behave badly is not the same as behaving well.”
Not intending to cause harm, and not realizing you’ve caused harm are not the same as not causing harm. You will never be able to grow into being a more safe human if you meet each reflection that includes a request for a shift in perspective and behavior with denial.
You may not mean it, men, but the message and impact you send when you deny your harmful impact is to shut down the voice of someone who has less privilege than you, which also sends a message that they are not valuable and their experience doesn’t matter.
The men who have recently caused harm and been in denial have activated in me a deep and tender vulnerable place. This week has been filled with tears. So many tears. And exhaustion. The trauma from the abuse as a child, and the subconscious message that men are out to literally kill the women they love . . . it’s all up in my face right now (or more accurately, my heart). The good news is, I know how to allow this to be a healing experience, even though it is just me in the dynamic to do the healing with (because the men have run away or proven to be unsafe and unavailable for actual healing), that is the most important focus. The message “men are not safe,” has been swirling through my mind, my emotions, and my body. I am doing my best to love it and let it go. I deeply desire, and need to feel safe with the masculine. I have beautiful brothers around me who are kind, loving, helpful . . . and because of the pervasive pattern, there is a deep voice in me I want to heal that says “If you go deep enough, that ugliness will rear its ugly head.” I pray to heal that up.
No one is responsible for healing my trauma from the past except for me. The intense feelings are so tender because of my past, and I acknowledge that. I’m not even angry at the former partner(s) and this most recent male acquaintance who can’t see what impact they are having on others, but I am fucking tired of seeing it happen over and over again. It rips me open and wears me out.
If someone says “I was hurt by something you did,” please do your best to be compassionate and curious to hear what they have to say. You are not being accused of being a “bad” person. You are being asked to be a safe person by learning about how you have played a role in causing harm.
I know the tendency to self-protect when faced with a situation where someone was harmed by something I did. It’s hard to hear. I consider myself a kind, loving, considerate person and it feels painful to learn that my good intentions have not only missed the mark, but have caused unintended damage. The only way to make it all feel better is to have the courage to soften and open and say “I’m sorry,” and “What can I do to make it better?” and then DO what it takes to make it better.
This has been welling up inside of me for days, and I pray that it creates some helpful expansion of thoughts, opening of perspectives, and softening of hearts.