Three people in my social circle have committed suicide in recent years. They were all dads with wives. From the outside, I think most people would wonder why in the world they would do such a thing.
I don’t have the answer, but they’re not alone. Statistics on suicide show that middle-aged white men are among the highest at risk (70% of all suicides were by white males in the latest figures).
Many have suggested that a reason for this is that men tend not to talk about their issues and have less of a support system. I think this is true, which is one reason for the creation of our private dads group.
However, I believe there is more at work here. I think that much of this goes back to what I’ve called the three myths of manhood. As men, we grow up feeling that our worth is tied to our physical, sexual and financial success. As we get older, we see our physical and sexual prowess fade even as many of us realize that we will probably not be wealthy.
The emphasis on these success factors (contrived though they may be) in the lives of men is tied to the notion of status, or where we “rank” in society. The Art of Manliness has an excellent series on status that you might want to read. Some of what it states is that status for males is both biological and cultural (females are not wired to seek status like males).
In the animal kingdom, the males that have the highest status have access to the best resources (food, shelter) and are most likely to continue their lineage as they procreate more than those with lower status. It appears that humans are not immune to this biological drive for status.
Culturally, there are many status symbols: jobs, wealth, possessions etc. We learn about status and its components through our experiences and through media consumption and marketing messages. We are often shown, through media and marketing, that the most successful people are the most beautiful and wealthy.
In fact, in the study of marketing, much of what you’re taught is psychology. That’s because as a marketer, you’re trying to figure out how to get inside people’s heads to make them feel like they need your product.
One concept that’s often talked about in marketing is the consumer’s “ideal self-concept.” You try to position your product in a person’s mind so that it aligns with what they feel would represent the best version of themselves. You can sell many more BMW’s if you make people think it puts their high level of status on display.
So you have a biological need for status. You have status shoved in your face and wired in your brain through programming and advertising. In many ways, the cards of status and success are stacked against you before you’re even born.
But an interesting thing about status is that it’s relative. For example, you may have heard about very poor people in some remote village that are all very happy. This is partly due to the fact that everyone they know is in the same situation as them.
But everyone you know is not in the same situation as you, are they? For example, if you make $50,000 a year, you might feel pretty good about yourself (and you should since you’d be in the top 1% of earners globally). You might feel like you’re doing your part and providing for your family. But then you find out that your good friend makes $70,000 a year. Suddenly your income seems inadequate. Now you start to feel bad about yourself.
Of course, there’s no end to comparisons like this. Someone will always make more money. Someone will always have a better house or car. This is exacerbated by the fact that it doesn’t even have to be someone you know anymore. Through the Internet and social media, your social circle is now the world. Every five minutes, you’re reading about some amazing person or friend of a friend that has done all the things you wish you had and more.
So there is biological pressure, cultural pressure and the pressure of comparison weighing on you, making you feel like a failure. And I promise you, none of us are immune to these feelings. I certainly feel like a failure sometimes. It can hit me when I don’t feel like I’m reaching my goals with this blog. It can hit me sometimes when I think about my work. But in reality, these things have nothing to do with my worth or success. I have the ability to change my mental framework and reason my way out of these thoughts.
Here’s what I mean, and I want to speak specifically to dads right now. I can tell you absolutely and unequivocally:
You are not a failure.
Don’t be tricked into thinking that wealth or career path are what define your success. You have the most amazing and precious gift in the universe in your child or children. You may also have an incredible gift in the form of a spouse or partner. Don’t squander your gifts. Take time every day to appreciate them. Give endless gratitude for them. Show your appreciation by enjoying them, talking with them, playing with them. You have a grand purpose in this life: be the best dad and partner you can possibly be.
There is no sum that could be offered that would be enough to trade for your family, so no amount of money or material success will ever compare to what you have right now. You are immeasurably important to your family; they need you, you matter to them. So, in fact, you are already a success.
As you go forward in life, I want you to first think to yourself, I am already a success. You’re about to change jobs… I am already a success. You’re about to start a new business… I am already a success. You’re going back to school… I am already a success. Start everything from this standpoint, because the big things in your life are already taken care of. I understand that there are bills to pay and that you need an income, but you’ll feel much better about it starting from this mental framework.
You are so much more than the money you can earn.
And a note to the wives and partners: help your man feel worthy. Let him know what a success he is by being a good dad and a good partner. If you see him start to drift away from the family, pull him back in. Make him talk through what he’s experiencing. Let him know just how loved and worthy and successful he is; he needs to hear and feel these things.
The truth is that we all battle with the internal voice that likes to tell us we’re afraid or purposeless or a failure. Maybe you’ve been listening to this voice and feel this way right now. Well, you can turn it around and focus on the important things, the good things that are in your life today. And you can start with this little reminder: you matter. You’re important.
You’re already a success.