Awakening to the ‘Man Box’: My first step into Men’s Work

It’s no secret. Male violence is a HUGE issue. It ‘may even outrank disease and famine as the major source of human suffering’ [1].

And by male violence, I mean violence towards women, other men, and suicide. Psychological violence is also included (where the violence of words can bludgeon the spirit of another).

In the past, there were moments when I’d hear about some horrific acts of male violence, and I’d think to myself ‘yeah but not all men’. Because yes, it’s true: most men don’t commit violence against women. It’s a minority that does. And I wasn’t one of those men. So, I was off the hook, right? I remember feeling irritated by the outrage against ‘all men’ because it was unjust. I now see things differently. I look back and see that I was unconsciously avoiding facing myself. And facing the fact that as a man I play a role in this society, a society that creates the fertile ground for male violence to take place.

I’m now wondering:

What is the most effective way of helping other men to awaken to what we’re a part of?

As I step into the vital domain of men’s work, where soon I’ll be speaking to many young men and boys, I’ve been reflecting on my past experience in an attempt to answer this question. It feels valuable to ask because if the majority of men take collective responsibility if we turn inward and own our part in it all, we can shift the culture to a point where men are no longer socialised in a manner that leads to violence.

So, firstly how are men socialised?

The Man Box

Tony Porter, author, educator and activist describes the following collective socialisation as ‘The Man Box’.

There’s plenty we could add e.g. having a ‘large penis’ or having ‘large muscles’ but it’s a start.

‘Yeah, but I don’t view women as property that’s very extreme’ – I understand this reaction I really do. All I can say is, I didn’t begin to see the ‘Man Box’ within me until I started a process of self-examination.

It was in the act of observing myself that I awoke to the reality that there was a voice inside my head.

The moment this became clear to me was on a 10-day silent retreat (Vipassana). This is where you do nothing but meditate for 10 hours a day, whilst not talking or looking at anyone. During day 3 I was having a wee and I remember hearing this very loud voice in my head.

‘You’re a dickhead’
‘Don’t do that’
‘That blokes a twat!’.

‘I love you’.

It was all over the place. I thought I was going insane. And then it dawned on me: nothing had changed. In the quiet space, the retreat provided I was merely noticing this voice for the first time.

The voice is a part of me. But it’s also, kind of not me.

We can have both voluntary thoughts and involuntary (automatic) thoughts, right? Well, it was here I realised the ‘Man Box’ can be observed within the involuntary thoughts I have. And according to the National Science Foundation, the average person has about 12k to 60k thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are negative and 95% are repetitive and automatic [2].

With this new awareness, I was learning to look within myself, curiously examining what I observed with compassion. This was the most excruciatingly, valuable thing I’ve ever done and am continuing to do. Upon examination, I discovered a whole host of thoughts, beliefs and views on the world I wasn’t aware of.

Here are some examples:

  • There was a voice that would say ‘she/he/me is so fat’ (body image socialisation)
  • There was a voice telling me not to explore my sexuality due to how ‘disgusting and shameful’ it would be to kiss another man (heterosexual socialisation)
  • There was a voice that was saying ‘she can’t handle it she’s a woman’ (devaluing women, manhood socialisation) 

This is a tiny glimpse into what I discovered. After these discoveries, I felt shame and guilt (I felt ‘bad’). My inner educator came rushing up (a voice that emerges when I’m less than perfect): ‘you’re a bad person!’ it said. Trying to educate me through punishment.

Feeling ‘bad’ is certainly necessary as the feelings can guide me towards a higher version of myself. But as Marshall Rosenburg (Founder of Non-Violent Communication) says we want to feel a ‘sweet bad’ [3]. A sweet bad is where I feel bad enough to learn from the experience but not so bad, I hate myself. For in hating myself, it will be a lot harder to learn and make amendments moving forward.

I’m of no use to the progress of the world if I’m paralysed in shame.

Where had I learnt to think and feel this way?

(My guess: TV, parents, school, internet, books…)

Once I saw the socialisation within me, I no longer felt separate from the men who are violent. Because yes, most men aren’t violent but there are very few men who don’t get caught up in the objectification and devaluing of women. And at the very least, men hold an awareness of the ‘man box’, we can understand it. In fact, a more truthful reflection would be that a ‘good man’ is a man who notices the ‘man box’ within himself and is doing his best not to act on it.

Even better perhaps, would be to challenge the other men in our lives with love to notice the ‘man box’ within themselves.

But how do we challenge men and boys to see what they’re a part of in a manner that empowers them to make a change?

I currently have two suggestions:

A new generation of manhood

Firstly, we need to outline what being a man in society could look like.

The role a man traditionally had as the sole breadwinner and a ‘provider for his family’ has changed. So has a woman’s role – culturally speaking she is no longer required to simply ‘care’ for her family. A much-needed change (personal opinion). However, the male role hasn’t been replaced to include ‘caring’. This is an issue. One of the benefits of having a distinct role is you’re not lost. You have a map of the world. ‘This is what being a man is’. As the late British social scientist, Geoff Dench wrote: “The family may be a myth, but it is a myth that works to make many men tolerably useful.” [4] Well, now the map has been torn up.

And many men and boys are lost.

Leaving space for ‘menfluencers’ like Andrew Tate to captivate an entire generation encouraging men to go back to the ‘man box’. And from what I can see doing so in a hypermasculine, boastful and caricatured manner to spark outrage and online traffic his way (article to come exploring this further).

How do we move forward?

As Richard Reeves states in ‘Of Boys and Men’ “certainly the answer is not to try and roll back the gains of the women’s movement… a reinvention of fatherhood based on a more direct relationship to children is the answer” [5].

The reinvention of ‘Being a Man’

  • Men and boys see value in ‘non-romanticised’ friendships with women
  • Men and boys are in touch with both the masculine and feminine within themselves
  • Being vulnerable is considered brave
  • Supporting other boys and men is ‘cool’ and raises status
  • Asking for help is seen as a form of strength

Speaking to Boys

Secondly, we need to communicate the message to boys in a way that empowers a call to action rather than reprimands them for being socialised this way.

As Jackson Katz puts it:

“The rise of violent misogynist Andrew Tate shows if feminists and progressives can’t find a way to speak thoughtfully to young men, the right will. And women will suffer accordingly.” [6]

Jackson Katz

This is no easy task. If I’m working with a group of boys who are steeped in ‘lad energy’ having a conversation where we’re listening to each other is difficult. But not impossible. If they sense my judgement, they will certainly shut down and become entrenched in their position. Another approach is one called ‘Non-Violent Communication’ (NVC) [7]. The premise of NVC is ‘empathy before education’. If we’re able to truly listen and empathise with these boys, we can get to the unmet needs and feelings behind their words and behaviour.

For example, I was walking through a park recently and I noticed a man shouting at a female dog walker who didn’t have her dog on a leash. The conversation went something like this:

MAN: (to the woman.) You think the rules don’t apply to you! The dog must be put on a leash!
WILL: Excuse, me. Please can you stop shouting?
MAN: What?
WILL: You’re shouting and I’m finding it hard to hear.
MAN: She’s not listening to me!
WILL: I understand that, and you make a valid point. The rule is that dog walkers must have a collar on. But the way you’re communicating the message is hard to listen to and receive.
MAN: (calmer.) Yes, but you see what I’m trying to do?
WILL: I do. And I appreciate that you’re looking out for the people in the park.
MAN: Exactly! That’s what I’m trying to do.
WILL: Is it fair to say though that your message is getting lost in the communication?
MAN: (pause.) Yes… Okay then.
WILL: Thank you. Have a nice day.
MAN: You too.

I wasn’t studying NVC when the above happened so I’m not using the process accurately. But this experience did teach me the power of empathy to open a dialogue and connect. Through the lens of Non-Violent Communication, a group of ‘misogynistic lads’ might become a group of boys feeling lost and needing guidance. Or feeling lonely and needing connection. Seeing the unmet needs and feelings beneath the harmful behaviours and language will allow me to access empathy. When empathy is present, education can happen and it’s in this place we can awaken our boys to the realisation that their words and behaviours have consequences for other people, girls, women, men and themselves. Right now, this seems to be the only way I can see that will help to liberate future generations of men from the ‘man box’.

And liberation is the goal.

For as Tony Porter says:

‘My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.’ [8]



[1] Archer, J. (Ed.). (1994). Male Violence (1st ed.). Routledge.



[4] Dench, G. (Ed.). (1996). Transforming Men: Changing Patterns of Dependency and Dominance in Gender Relations (1st ed.). Routledge.





Published by WillAdolphy

Integrative Psychotherapist & Wellbeing Coach for actors + creatives.

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