I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend a night in a mausoleum than ascend the creaky stairway to my addled psyche. Ghosts, goblins, and that dude in the hockey mask are no match for my tortured thoughts of death and inadequacy.
We all have them. But unlike women, who freely gab about what frightens them, we men keep our fears locked in the bell towers of our souls. The only thing worse than facing our own twisted horrors is letting someone else know how creeped out we get.
For example, I doubt I’m the first guy to bolt upright in the middle of the night, heart pounding, suddenly aware that one day I’m going to die. But I can’t be sure, because it never comes up while I’m eating chicken wings and watching the Red Sox with my buddies. (I’m also deeply troubled by circus clowns, but who isn’t?)
It’s too bad men don’t talk about this stuff, though, because our anxieties thrive when buried beneath bravado and “No Fear” T-shirts. Experts say our private dreads are like vampires. Let them prowl around in the dark of our subconscious, and they’ll suck us dry. But lead those snaggletoothed bastards out into the light of day, and poof!–they’re vaporized.
“The first, biggest step in handling any fear is to acknowledge it to yourself,” says Ethan S. Gologor, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at City University of New York. “Only then can you effectively deal with it.”
Still a little frightened? That’s okay, follow us. We’ll lead you through the haunted house of men’s most awful fears, room by room. The shutters will clack, the wind will howl, and your gut will twist with dread. But it’ll be worth it. A fear faced is a fear conquered.
LOSING YOUR JOB
Women and advice columnists love to tell men not to worry so much about their jobs. “It’s not who you are,” they say. Well, yeah, it is. A man’s attachment to his job is “programmed deeply into his emotional design,” says Gloria Vanderhorst, Ph.D., a psychologist in Towson, Maryland, and an expert on men’s issues. “Women put down men for defining themselves by their work, but it’s not superficial, it’s real.”
Even in today’s booming market, men are being laid off or shunted aside. That’s why it’s emotionally dangerous for you to identify too closely with one job or company. But that doesn’t mean your work should be meaningless. Acknowledge how much it matters, and hone your abilities. `Transferable skills are crucial,” Vanderhorst says.
Next, network and seek new opportunities. If you have options, the thought of losing your current job will lose its bite.
Most of us will have sex thousands of times in our lives, so it’s stupid to think we won’t ever have a performance problem. Still, there are few things more frightening than not being able to deliver on demand. We ponder the causes (stress at work, our trick knee, a loss of libido) and the implications (I’ll never have sex again, I’m getting old, my wife doesn’t turn me on). “It can be terrifying,” Vanderhorst says. “Everything that men are is crystallized in the act of sex. If the penis makes the man but he can’t use it, what does that mean?”
Worse, most women aren’t going to pat your hand and tell you it’s okay. They’re too busy worrying about what your soft serve means to them (you’re cheating on her, you think she’s fat, she’s no longer sexy). “Women immediately question themselves and the relationship. Impotence unleashes her insecurities and suspicions,” Vanderhorst says.
All this emotional wrangling makes it more likely that the problem will recur. And next time it could be worse. Rather than endure embarrassment and another suspicious look, a man is more likely to pick a fight so that there’s a reason–other than his wilting erection–to end the lovemaking.
So if you experience a false start–and trust us, you will–first reassure your wife that it’s not her and it’s not you; it’s that complicated delivery system dangling between your legs. The majority of one-time failures are just that–one-time–so don’t trouble yourself with imaginings. Look for possible causes, such as fatigue, that new bike seat, or the four mai tais you just threw down at the neighborhood luau. Then, like that time you fell off your Harley, climb right back on. If your problem becomes chronic, see a doctor. Chances are it’s something that can easily be fixed.
BECOMING YOUR FATHER
Your toddler spills ice cream on the new leather sofa, and you explode. About halfway through your diatribe, you feel your spirit leave your body and watch from the ceiling as you rant at the little guy–just like your father.
You swore it would never happen. You pledged to be more understanding than your dad, to see the big picture. Now, as you clean up the stain, and then junior’s tears, you feel a chill of fear similar to the one you felt when you were the kid ruining the furniture.
Dads are more threatening than moms. We’re bigger and stronger than moms, and we’re the disciplinarians. It’s natural that a son wouldn’t want to do that to his own kids. So when you hear yourself using the same phrases and tone of voice Pop used while reaming you out, it strikes a terrifying chord.
But you aren’t doomed to repeat his pattern. If you catch yourself being overly harsh, admit to yourself that you need to chill, then consider bringing your wife in on the project. Ask her to give you a silent signal when she sees you steaming up beyond reason. “Women are great at observing and picking up on patterns, so she will probably see it before you will? Vanderhorst says. Just stress that she shouldn’t nag you about it. There’s no reason she has to turn into her mother.
Men are trained to seek independence. So it can be indescribably painful when a guy who was once utterly self-reliant is forced to spend his last years in a nursing home, wearing a drool bib and a rear-vented gown.
You want scary? How about lying immobile in an automatic bed, receiving a sponge bath from an orderly named Hank. Or dropping the remote control with the channel tuned to The View and not being able to reach the nurses’ call button. Being totally dependent is Guy Hell. Men are designed to be strong and competent. We want to die with our boots on, not live through a slow, humiliating decline.
But life doesn’t always cooperate. Though exercise and smart eating can ease the effects of aging, we are all at the mercy of fate to some degree. The only real solution is to accept the notion that letting people assist you isn’t such a horrible thing. Even Michael Jordan needed some help from Scottie Pippen. (Someone had to hold the trophy while he talked to Ahmad.)
Too many of us accept the myth that men can’t admit weakness. That myth is what keeps us from developing the type of relationships that can sustain us when we grow older and need help.
NEVER REALIZING YOUR DREAMS
There may be nothing scarier than approaching death and realizing you never really did what you wanted to do. Whether your dream is starting a band or opening a bait shop, accomplishing a life goal–in essence, living on your own terms–can spell the difference between contentment and regret.
But too few of us make conscious choices about what we want in life. “You can’t have it all,” says Herb Goldberg, Ph.D., a psychologist and author. “If you want the mainstream life–money, house, nice car, wife, and children–you can’t also have the excitement of freedom.” Goldberg says too many guys rush into a career, and marriage, and kids, before they’ve had a chance to explore who they are. “Men are afraid that if they pause, they’ll fall behind in their careers and never catch up,” he says.
A word of advice to those who find themselves at midlife with most of their decisions already made: Running off with an aerobics instructor won’t make your life better. To fight the fear, Gologor suggests, change your perspective from what you’ve achieved in life to how you’ve lived it. Great accomplishments seem to be the purpose of life when we’re young, but the perspective we gain as we age can help puncture this myth. “Looking back on a life lived with integrity and purpose can be enormously satisfying,” Gologor says.