Men, Physical Injury, and the Myth of the Immortal Man

athletes jumping over hurdlesDeep within the recesses of the mind lurk psychological forces that can drive men to push themselves to the point of injury while playing sports or exercising. Men who feel a need to push themselves past their limits, which can occur when myth or fantasy leads them to believe they are invincible, may be prone to debilitating injuries. To better understand the psychological forces that may lead to male injuries, let’s look more closely at these layers of fantasy, myth, and fear of vulnerability in the male psyche.

Unconscious Fantasy

Injuries frequently occur when men unconsciously construct a fantasy that they are invincible. This fantasy is constructed, in part, to avoid feeling vulnerable or to avoid humiliation. Paradoxically, the effort to avoid feeling vulnerable can be the cause of injury and result in even greater vulnerability.

A primary function of the fantasy of invincibility is that it can be a remedy for an emotional wound. If a boy feels timid physically and is criticized or shamed for that timidity, he might create a fantasy image of invincibility in order to protect himself from further embarrassment. The fantasy then becomes a source of motivation to become stronger and more confident.

The problem with fantasy is that it can begin to unconsciously drive behavior and may become difficult to distinguish from reality. Injuries occur in the gap between what men fantasize their bodies can do and what they can actually do. As men age, this gap widens because the body breaks down more quickly while the fantasy remains static. For “weekend warriors”—men who exercise extensively but inconsistently—especially, injury is a byproduct of the expectation or fantasy that the body is immortal and is capable of responding like it did in one’s youth.

A Living Mythology

The problem with fantasy is when it unconsciously drives behavior and cannot be distinguished from reality. Injuries occur in the gap between what men’s bodies can do and what they fantasize they can do.Another powerful psychological force that sometimes drives male behavior is mythology, in particular the myth of immortality. Myth lives alongside personal fantasy in the unconscious mind and helps one construct an image of oneself. Fantasy is a personal unconscious creation, whereas mythology is a collection of stories from a particular cultural or religious point of view. Myths often have recurring themes and are descriptive of a culture’s values.

Western mythology is teeming with images of heroic, immortal men, where ubiquitous themes of immense bravery and superhuman strength offer a mold from which man is to be sculpted. The most memorable mythological heroes—Theseus, Hercules, and Perseus—certainly fit this mold. If a man feels insecure, weak, and vulnerable, it makes sense that he might unconsciously try to feel stronger by fitting himself into one of these mythological molds.

Fear of Vulnerability

A third psychological force that can contribute to injury is an unconscious fear of vulnerability. This fear stems from a relatively common belief that admittance of vulnerability may set off an irrevocable chain of events: uncontrollable crying, increased dependence/neediness, and an inability to perform. In other words, it’s a man’s fear that he will revert to being a helpless boy.

As Donald Winnicott, a prominent English psychoanalyst, explained in his paper The Fear of Breakdown, the fear is based on a memory of an emotional wounding, when a young boy buries the pain and the depression and anxiety surrounding that pain. What man fears most, according to Winnicott, has already happened. If a man does not address these unconscious feelings of fear, depression, and anxiety, he may injure himself because his efforts to avoid feeling vulnerable can create a desire to exercise too strenuously, overextending his body.

Injury Prevention

Injury can serve as an opportunity for men to grow. By exploring and developing an awareness of the aforementioned psychological forces, men can align more with reality, prevent further injury, and change painful patterns that may keep them stuck in their lives in other ways.

Developing an awareness of what drives their behavior enables men to recognize when their choices stem from fantasy. Reality can sometimes be tough for a person to accept, but aligning with it can bring freedom and self-confidence.

To prevent injury, the first step is to develop the self-awareness to know if and to what extent these forces exist inside of you. For those of you who have sustained a physical injury, ask yourself some of these guiding questions to help you build self-awareness:

  1. What drives you to exert yourself physically? Did that contribute to your injury? If so, how? Being honest with yourself about what drives you to push yourself in exercise and sport may help you discover the forces mentioned here and other unconscious motivations that contribute to injury.
  1. Does your image of yourself reflect a mythological theme or fantasy of invulnerability? Asking yourself how you feel about your needs and limitations may make you aware of how fantasy and myth might drive your choices when it comes to physical activity.
  1. How do you feel about your vulnerability? By asking yourself how you relate to your feelings of limitation, insecurity, and fear, you can learn a lot about yourself. If you feel aversion to vulnerability, which is quite common for men, this might indicate that you may compensate for these feelings on a physical level.
  1. What feelings are you aware of regarding your injury? This is a helpful question, regardless of why you were injured. This brings you to the current moment and may help bring you out of depressive or anxious thoughts about your injury.

Continue asking yourself these questions and listen for the answers, not from your head but from the source of your injury.

Talking with a therapist is also an effective way to continue exploring the psychological source of your injury. A therapist can also help you cope with the injury itself and help you develop psychological tools to prevent further injury. Therapy is an environment created to listen to unconscious thoughts and feelings that otherwise remain silent. Once you are aware of the psychological forces at play, you can make healthier decisions regarding how you exercise.

Reference:

Winnicott, D.W. (1974). Fear of Breakdown. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 1:103-107.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, therapist in Berkeley, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Steven

    Steven

    August 24th, 2015 at 10:34 AM

    I see a lot of guys at the gym and stuff who seem like they are always trying to prove something to themselves and everyone else when they are lifting. I am pretty sure I didn’t get that need to impress gene because I do what I can and that’s what I do. Bu they do, always trying to show off and pick up girls and to me, I want to feel better, not so something that could hurt me or worse!

  • Ben

    Ben

    August 25th, 2015 at 12:32 PM

    Hi Steve, good that you can notice this and make a distinction for yourself! It makes a difference in terms of staying healthy and happy.

  • Claudia

    Claudia

    August 24th, 2015 at 4:08 PM

    Don’t you find that in so many ways women have fed into this ideal? I think that this is the kind of man we have expected for a long time now so they feel like if they do not mythologize themselves and in some cases try to be superhuman then women will not be attratcted to them- and in some cases this is true.

  • ronnie

    ronnie

    August 25th, 2015 at 9:31 AM

    In some ways I think that this could also apply to emotionally how we push ourselves too. There comes a time when we could all break, but as a man and the head of the family in many cases in terms of making most of the money for the home, there is added pressure to do more and bring in more because there are always those bills to pay. I think that this alone can cause you to actually break down a little more quickly physically and take a toll on your health in maybe ways that you didn’t expect.

  • Ben

    Ben

    August 25th, 2015 at 12:29 PM

    Yes, Claudia, I do think women are participants in this ideal, just like men are (very active!) participants in the painful ideals that women often feel pressured to abide by. To me, much of these ideals derive from fantasy in both men and women. Perhaps, in part, women who want this all powerful man in their lives has a fantasy of being protected, fully desired, devoured, wanted at all times? Certainly not the only driver of this but something to think about? Thanks for your comment.

  • Ben

    Ben

    August 25th, 2015 at 2:55 PM

    Hi Ronnie,
    YES! A very familiar dynamic. Emotional pushing is very closely aligned to physically pushing. Similar underlying anxieties can be at play. This is very much the place I tend to look, the external pressures like fatherhood, being a husband, etc that can cause us to bypass our own limits. Thanks for the comment.

  • Tiff

    Tiff

    August 26th, 2015 at 9:46 AM

    we are all invincible… until we hurt ourselves doing something that really we should n’t have been doing :/

  • Ryanne

    Ryanne

    August 27th, 2015 at 10:34 AM

    I do agree with this to a certain extent but I also know that to achieve greatness you have to set some goals for yourself. And achieving these goals in life can sometimes be hard. I don’t think that we can be afraid of hurting a little to get what we want because there may be some sacrifice and of course some hard work along the way. I think that when we become afraid of that then we get lazy and complacent, so to be truthful, I want to feel just a little like I can push myself a little more, because that is when you are going to see some real accomplishment.

  • Ben

    Ben

    August 27th, 2015 at 9:49 PM

    Hi Ryanne,
    Yes I agree that it is good to set goals that you must, at times, push yourself towards. We wouldn’t be where we are as a civilization without doing what seemed impossible. However, my article is a counterpoint to this because I believe that we over emphasize “achieving greatness” at the expense of our well being, and that we are constantly compensating for what we believe we lack by proving ourselves. It’s great but, especially as men age, the pursuit of greatness becomes more and more of a fantasy. There’s other worthy pursuits in life for men other than achieving greatness. How about service to others? Getting involved in a cause they believe in? Just some thoughts. Thanks for writing.

  • carette

    carette

    August 29th, 2015 at 11:54 AM

    No man or woman either one likes that feeling of being vulnerable. That is when you feel like you have to let down your guard and there is nothing there that will protect you from feeling hurt and pain if you come across it. I think that this is a big part of putting up those walls and not allowing someone in, because you feel like if you do not always display that strength then someone is going to see that as a real sign of weakness and they might take advantage of that.

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