Masculinity, Small Groups, and Internalized Assumptions
In spaces of authenticity and vulnerability, our unspoken assumptions and internalized messages play a profound role. Here, Wendell Moss, LMHC, a member of our Teaching Staff, reflects on the assumptions he has encountered—from himself and others—as both a facilitator and participant in groups. Wendell reflects on the courage of letting himself be fully present in a group, and the vulnerability of letting himself be seen.
Over many years of working in groups, I’ve had various experiences as a male—first as a participant, then as a facilitator. I’ve been part of groups where I can just blend in and hide. There were groups where I actually left feeling more alone. There have even been groups where I’ve barely felt safe enough to share my name! I have also experienced, though, groups that are based primarily on vulnerability, honesty, and authenticity. In my experience as a man—and an African-American man—those transparent, authentic groups have been the ones that I’ve found myself both loving and fearing the most. I believe this is because those groups invite me to wrestle with the assumptions that are often present and unspoken in groups.
One particular experience comes to mind. It was a co-ed small group that took place within my first two years of graduate school—a reading group assigned to talk together through assigned texts as well as engage how we were impacted. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was being invited to speak vulnerably, sit with what I was feeling, and engage in a way where I was very inexperienced. Fear, ambivalence, and guardedness were most present in me. I wanted to both leave and be there, simultaneously.
I found myself particularly struck by the men in the group. They weren’t like many men I’d experienced in a group before. They both felt comfortable to share with vulnerability while also displaying their tears. While I wanted to shame them for that, at the same time I envied their courage. And I was also impacted by the women’s kind response to their tears. My experience had not involved being invited to share tears or to consider moments that had shaped how I related (even to other men). To be seen in this way felt dangerous, vulnerable, and like I was setting myself up to be humiliated. Essentially, I felt that my “masculinity” was on the line. What I was experiencing of those men not only disrupted my assumptions of them (and the group), but also my assumptions about what was expected of me.
As a man, my assumption in any small group was that I was to portray a man who was confident, strong, and competent. But in my mind, tears and vulnerability portrayed a deep lack of those very ideals. (These aren’t just personal assumptions. They’re very connected to cultural messages, which we’ll talk about in another blog.) My being a bigger man has also brought many to assume much about me and what I will bring to the group. These assumptions were heightened even more in all-male groups!
Speaking generally, I’ve often sensed initial fear and/or curiosity from women, and from men a sense that I am strong, intimidating, or someone to test—as both a leader and a participant. Those are the prominent assumptions that I came to anticipate in groups. And my tendency was to be who the other members were possibly perceiving me as. In most groups this led me to portray myself as someone who didn’t have much need—even though I longed to portray otherwise. This was especially true in all-male groups. Truth be told, to live out the assumptions felt much safer than trying to go against them. It felt easier that way, until I was confronted with men and women who were inviting me to have the courage to confront these assumptions that I’ve known so well for so long.
Truth be told, to live out the assumptions felt much safer than trying to go against them.
Living within these assumptions had left me feeling that I couldn’t be authentic, or I’d actually feel more shameful. This often led me to not having the capacity to receive well, not being able to create and step into authentic spaces. I was bound to the assumptions that others might have about me. But there were days when I allowed myself to bring my vulnerability and tears—not that tears are the only gauge of authenticity or vulnerability, but they were major for me because I had so wanted to avoid them. In those moments, these men and women in my group were inviting me to consider how I might give less weight to the assumptions about who I am.
Over the last decade, as a bigger male who participates in groups as well as facilitates them, my work has essentially invited me to much courage and humility. As a group facilitator, I often have the privilege of hearing, at some point, the internalized messages that others held coming into the group. Some of their words fit the different messages I’ve heard, and some do not. Either way, I have to have the humility to allow those who journey with me (as a peer or someone under my leadership) to sense that I am having to live out the same courage that I’ve invited them into.
Several years ago during one of our Recovery Weeks, one of my male group members named that directly: “I was just waiting to see if you would have the courage to be real so that I could, too.” He let me know that he wasn’t going to do so until I did so. Still today, his words haunt me.
When I think of my work as a male facilitator, I find myself having to wrestle with the fact that those assumptions and unspoken dynamics will continue to be there. Because those assumptions are based on cultural messages, stories, and many past relationships, I don’t expect them to ever fully go away. However, when I think of that reading group I mentioned above, or that particular Recovery Week participant, I still find that a call and challenge are placed before me. I am continually called to a humility that opens my heart to courage—the courage that allows me to be a big guy who is authentic, vulnerable, and marked by a strength that tells the truth about himself.