Is Self-Compassion Manly?

With Father’s Day coming up in a few days – along with the fact that I’m a 50 year old psychologist and father specializing in men’s issues with a focus on fatherhood – I pretty naturally get to reflecting on the whole dad thing. Given my profession and my personal life experience, this topic runs pretty deep with me and I tend to ping-pong back-and-forth between noodling on the latest research articles I’ve read and whatever recent parenting fail that I personally authored with one of my boys.

Like most dads (and parents in general), I really want to do right by my wife and my kids and so I work at it. And like most dads, I tend to get hung up periodically ruminating about how I’ve fallen short and take myself to task with self-criticism and catastrophizing about the future in a way that I’d never do with someone I really care about who did the exact same thing. This is an example of what cognitive therapists call the mental distortion, “the double standard.”

Family photo of grandfather, adult son, and grandchildren in front of a lake

Dr. Singley with his father and his two sons.

It’s pretty common, and basically boils down to the tendency to show more empathy and compassion to others than we do to ourselves. So as I see the look in my teenager’s eyes when I snapped at him, or realize I’m now mindlessly scratching at the bottom of a Pringles can way past dinner, or woke up with the shame and anxiety that goes with an “emotional hangover,” or caught an insight too late to share with one of my patients during their session, I get going on my own brand of self-criticism. At the same time, I’ve always had difficulty accepting praise or compliments, in particular from the people who I care about the most – which is the tricky other side of the double-standard coin. I’ve had a series of uncomfortable-yet-important eye-opening experiences throughout my adult life in which I basically minimized a kind, positive comment from someone – and the person was willing to call me out for shutting them down with snarky self-deprecation that was more about dealing with my discomfort than acknowledging their kindness. I’ve made gains on that front, but the trick is that it’s not just thinking abstractly about myself in a kind way that shows grace that’s so hard – it’s actually feeling it that’s taken mindful attention. That’s where my question about compassion – in particular self-compassion – comes in.

In many ways, the work I do in the psychology of men is controversial. It’s tricky for me – a cis- het- overeducated White guy with all the attendant privileges - to stand up in front of hundreds or in some cases thousands of people and talk about the importance of showing compassion to fathers, men, and boys. “Dude, you people already have all the power – and now I’m supposed to feel sorry for you?” is a short version of one common point of pushback I’ve gotten a number of times. And I get it – but the point bears some unpacking.

Most importantly, compassion is about kindness and recognizing the universality of the breadth of human experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly - not pity or making excuses for bad behavior. Solid research shows that – as we tend to do with most areas of our emotional lives – people consciously and unconsciously assign judgments about gender to the whole concept of compassion. And for most people living in Western countries, compassion is generally considered to be a noble feminine trait, but a sign of weakness when men show it. It gets more complicated when you consider the fact that compassion can be directed inward (self-compassion), toward others, and can also come from others directed toward us. It's that first one – self-compassion – that’s lately caught my attention as well as well as a number of experts in psychology.

The bottom line is that it’s often a real challenge for anyone to genuinely feel a sense of self-compassion in the midst of regret, shame, sadness, conflict, or anxiety – which ironically is when we could really benefit from it most. This point goes doubly for men, who from an early age are socialized to be tough, stoic, independent, and of course successful. So when we fall short, we’re usually the last one to have a balanced, compassionate view of ourselves. In my case, my life experiences caused me to develop pretty thick defenses to shut others down when their caring, compassionate message to me contrasted with my own self-critical inner dialogue. And to be clear, that doesn’t mean I always say anything snarky out loud, more like their kind, heart-felt words just simply bounced off. I heard it, but wasn’t really listening in a way that I could really take it in.

So now, I’m on a mission – starting with myself – to reframe showing compassion to others and to myself as a damn manly move. In part, this is self-preservation because the research clearly shows that when guys are only willing to be that tough, stoic, independent version of a man, then we also tend to die five years younger, get divorced more frequently, are lonely and depressed, and attempt and die by suicide more often. But when we learn to have the courage to be flexible – the “guy guy” in some situations, and to show compassion, empathy, a willingness to ask for and accept help in other situations where it’s called for, then we lead longer, happier lives. And if you’re reading this rolling your eyes thinking, “What a wussy,” then you’re basically proving my point:

Men showing compassion to others and to themselves in the context of regret and suffering are bucking manly-as-usual by having the courage to step outside the guy box in a way that takes guts.

So this Father’s Day – if you’re a dad, then I’m asking you to take just a quick mindful moment to reflect on both what’s good and strong about you, as well as how that mental splinter you use for self-criticism is really just part of being a person who’s learning as you go and doing the best you can with what you have.

And if you know a dad or father figure – who isn’t perfect, no matter how great you think he is - then think about taking the time to let him know that you see him for all that he is and you see what’s right with him. And while you’re at it, take one of those mindful self-compassion moments for yourself, especially if that dad has some kind words for you!

Sincerely,

Dr. Dan Singley

Resources to check out if you’d like to get more information about men, fathers, and compassion include:

International Fathers Mental Health Day – I started this about nine years ago with a few of my buddies who have lived experience with struggling with fatherhood and real difficulty with parental self-compassion. The day is always the Monday after Father’s Day, and the idea is to draw attention to the fact that fathers often have some difficulties with the transition to fatherhood. It’s on July 17th this year!

International Fathers Mental Health Day Logo

The Men and Boys Compassion Initiative – My good friend Dr. Daniel Ellenberg has pioneered this group as a way to underscore the transformative nature of compassion, the need for males to experience compassion directed inward, outward, and from others. There’s even a fatherhood special interest group that I’m a part of!

Global Compassion Coalition Logo

Compassion Focused Therapy and Parenting – Another buddy of mine, Australian professor and psychologist Dr. James Kirby is doing research and leading the way in applying compassion to psychotherapy with a specific emphasis on parents. He’ll be leading a webinar series on the topic in July 2024, and more about his work and the webinar series is here.

Photo of James Kirby Compassion Psychologist

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