Males are Hard Wired to be Heroes
I think it was about a year and a half ago that I was working with a teen boy, aged 14, in therapy. When I asked his mom about her concerns, what behaviors were troubling her and what he needed help with she said something interesting that caught my attention.
“I’m worried because he has violent thoughts,” she said.
“Violent thoughts?” I probed. She went on to say that her son told her that he sometimes thinks about what he would do if someone broke into their home and how he thinks about how he would shoot that person. As a mom, this was upsetting to her but I knew and understood immediately something that she doesn’t.
I have taken an informal survey of males on this topic, including just recently when I was doing family therapy with a father and his three teenage sons. All four of them confirmed to me that they have had fantasies, daydreams or whatever you want to call it in which their loved ones were in danger and they stepped in and saved them from whatever the threat may be. My informal survey has turned up that 100% of males do this. I even remember having heroic fantasies when I was really young, as young as five years old in which I had at the ingenuity to save my family from some kind of threat.
Males are hard-wired to be heroes. It’s part of their inherent psychology. We’re born with it. This is something that girls and women don’t experience and don’t understand. I would bet the farm that they have a different type of daydream or fantasy that has to do with their loved ones in which they do something good for them but I can’t say what that is. I’m not a female and welcome any of them to fill me in but it doesn’t surprise me to hear a mother express that she’s concerned that her son is having “violent thoughts” because she just doesn’t understand that boys want to be heroes.
Being a hero is part of the male identity. It’s what gives them a sense of who they are and a sense of purpose and I believe that every time a boy is born male, you have a natural born hero though it tends to go wrong in dozens of different ways but I’ll go back to that later because it’s important to understand how this can become misguided. Males want to protect, rescue and save. They are just hardwired that way and unfortunately, it becomes extremely misguided and also bumps into other things that drive us innately like the desire for power and freedom. I would argue that chivalry is born from this innate desire to protect, rescue and save and it’s really important to talk about some of the ways that this can go wrong.
Heroes and Villains
While I was working in a public high school as a mental health therapist, I was brought in on a situation in which a sixteen-year-old boy had voiced a plan on bringing a gun to school and opening fire. When I met him I realized that he had certain mental and cognitive limitations and that he was best described as not being neuro-typical but in this young man’s mind, he was planning something heroic. There were certain people at the school that were, in his mind, villains and those villains needed to be taken care of.
My favorite male archetype is the warrior and according to Jungian archetypes everybody must be a hero before they can be a warrior with the difference being that heroes are reckless. They make mistakes because they are high in ambition and low on wisdom because of their lack of experience. This teenager was a hero because he felt ambitious but was horribly misguided. Young, inexperienced heroes can end up doing a lot more harm than good. In my own efforts to address mental health and social problems in my community it’s frustrating when young activists want to show up and take over. Their ambition combined with their lack of experience makes them a problem. They step on toes, they get in the way and they cause problems. By being an overly ambitious hero they can actually become a villain. This is how I approached this teenager, he had in it his mind that he was being a hero but would definitely be a villain.
When you are a hero it’s important to turn your ambition into learning or you will end up being the villain. There’s nothing wrong with being a hero, being a hero is great but you must know when to sit down, listen and learn. That’s the way of the warrior.
The Dark Side
The heroes journey in movies and fiction is a classic trope that we all know and love and for good reasons, the most basic and simple one is that we relate to it. We are kind of like that, we face challenges, discover our identity and mature with the difference being that we don’t usually face epic villains, the truth is a bit more mundane. I like how the hero’s journey is depicted in Star Wars because it catches an interesting aspect that others have missed. THE DARK SIDE. Our would be hero Annakin gives into anger, jealousy and his desire for power. When it ends up harming people that he cares about, it pushes him further down the dark road.
There really is a dark side to our tendency to want to be heroes, especially when it’s eclipsed by powerlessness, anger and the desire to take our power back. Our tendency to want to be heroes has a tendency to push us to look at others as villains. When you couple this with a victim point of view, we will certainly start seeing others as deserving of being harmed and that is a dark place indeed. This is obviously very real for some people because we see them succumb to their inner demons.
Trying to Rescue People who Don’t want to be Rescued
Yeah, I get it, it’s hard to turn the mechanism off but over the years I have seen too many guys, guys that we have come to dub as “white knights,” jumping in and trying to be a hero when a hero isn’t needed. I have firm rules when it comes to helping people and the first rule is don’t help anyone unless they specifically ask for it. If you crusade around looking for proverbial damsels in distress and assign yourself as someone’s hero when they haven’t asked for it, you actually end up being controlling and narcissistic. How and why do you get to be the one to decide when someone needs help instead of them? Helping people when they don’t specifically ask for it is a good way to get into the villain express lane. Trying to rescue people who don’t want to be rescued is something that often backfires, big time. I’ve seen these guys in the aftermath, they find themselves in distress because they were “just trying to help” and in the process the only thing that they got was being painted as a monster.
People grow when they are allowed to work through their own struggles and when you crusade around and help them when they don’t need your help. There’s that old metaphor that if you help a butterfly out of their cacoon or a bird break out of their egg you will actually cause them substantial harm and drastically decrease their chances of survival. The struggle that they experience is what makes them strong, resilient and capable and people are the same way. Don’t go around rescuing people just because you need to satisfy your own need to feel like a hero and at the end of this article I will tell you what you need to do instead.
Putting Heroics in the Right Places
You really have to be careful about being a hero or you often end up being a villain and I truly believe that most males are born heroes even though it goes wrong for so many. I use this as a talking point for modern narratives that want to paint all men as bad. There are uplifting stories every day of males being heroes in small and big ways but as one of my favorite psychologists has said, you don’t hear about the airplanes that land safely and the loud man haters hand pick instances where men do horrible things and attempt to make it appear as though it represents all men while conveniently ignoring all the good things.
It’s great that males want to be heroes but if they don’t understand how to manage it and place it, they will be turned into villains. The pursuit of personal excellence is the answer to most of the problems. Focus on yourself and work on yourself. It’s hard to know where to start guys but at Orion we are paving the way and putting the blueprint into the hands of guys like you.