by Norman M. Brown, PhD |
One way to conceive of the male ego is as a shield which each man carries with him on the road of life, in order to cope with the myriad challenges he might encounter. It’s as if he were setting forth each day on a heroic adventure, with about equal chances of glorious success and ignominious failure. At least this is a way of concretizing the male ego if you are a male person who has had a chance to notice what others could call your male ego, especially if they are female people. Most men aren’t aware that they have a male ego most of the time, until some exceedingly awkward circumstances bring about what can feel like an excruciating unpeeling of the skin from their faces. But we don’t want to delve into this phase of the male life cycle until the time is ripe.
Let’s start with the assumption that there are two kinds of age-mates that a boy needs to cope with as he grows from childhood into adulthood, boys and girls, and two main stages of life, preteens and adolescence. As preteens, many boys are happy to run around in boy-gangs, where they learn how to think and act like the gang, as either leaders or followers. Among those not in gangs some seek best-friendships and others seek solo paths of self-development and/or suffer from social rejection, whether real or imagined.
At the onset of adolescence the world of age-mates becomes much more complicated–on the inside because of hormonal changes and on the outside because of the task of dealing with many different social groups. But it’s the appearance and behavior of girls that excite a boy more than he can cope with. If he lacks practice in intersexual relating, he’ll habitually put the brakes on his giddy heart and feel the burning rubber of a shame he has to hide. So he’ll withdraw from exposure and then either blame himself or the girl(s) as the obvious source of his suffering. (see Compass of Shame)
But there’s another way to avoid either withdrawing or feeling bad or mad. It’s a very versatile tactic, because it can be hidden inside the mind of the person using it. A pocket guide of thoughts and actions can be applied to a wide variety of socially uncomfortable situations, like a shield for all embarrassing mistakes.
Instead of berating himself every time his attraction to girls results in painful awkward moments, a boy emerging from childhood can spend lots of his time alone developing his familiarity, knowledge and skills in some arena where he has had good experience and success. After some specialized independent study that has earned him respect from somebody, he has an personal competence that enhances his self-worth. In social situations he can be unaware of any awkwardness, because he is instead aware of how especially accomplished, skilled, interesting or even entertaining he has become. This shiny new suit he has fashioned for himself, like a peacock’s flaring feathers, is his male ego.
If he has come up into adolescence through a boy-gang, then he’s likely to have a well practiced way of acting that fits in with his young buddy group and a few personal merit badges to highlight his self-worth. He’ll be naively confident that everything he does and says is acceptable to everyone around, including the girls. He’ll have a thick ego shield, and he’ll feel good to himself, whether his performance pleases onlookers of both sexes as well as it does him or not.
But some boys, perhaps even the majority, were either too different from available boy-gangs, or too introverted or sensitive to cope with their competition, aggressiveness and ridicule to develop a battle-tested male ego. Their thinly shielded egos may not be ready for public exposure until much later and may need the shelter of a supportive club, school or church group to develop any public façade at all.
These two paths of development lead to different public outreach among boys and young men: The more group-trained males can enjoy flashing their skilled or entertaining feathers to be noticed or attract females. But the introverted males are likely to quietly look for someone whose plumage seems like their own or just wait for anyone else to open the door and draw them out.
Thus, the traditional male ego may be developed from a camouflage uniform whose support comes from unconsciously belonging to a subculture, or it may emerge from more conscious effort where childhood culture has yet to provide a pseudo-tribal identity. In the new age of Internet dating and Followership-trolling, a far more elaborate Tarot deck of ego facades has grown up. But that subject is more than I’ll take on at this time.