Hi, my name’s Karim. I’m almost 22 years old and I’ve just finished my BSc Economics Degree at The University of Manchester. I’ve been reflecting recently on my time as a student and wanted to share some of my story.

Overall, I think my university experience was a good one, which is surprising considering that I dropped out at the start of my third year. The crippling depression and anxiety that had been creeping in since my mid-teens had finally come fully to the surface and I needed to take time to face my issues head on. So I took a year out, went though counselling, and then returned to finish my degree. I definitely can’t say that I’m glad that happened, but it’s brought me to where I am now and is part of my story.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised the importance of talking about your experiences  and communicating your emotions. I’m sure everyone has their challenges in this area but it seems to be a particular struggle for many men. Both the Jamaican and English sides of my family have always communicated that vision of manhood that says size and strength are the most important things. It’s only really recently that I’ve started to learn that manhood can show itself in more intangible, less stereotypical forms – emotional intelligence, security, and humility for example.

Most people who know me would probably consider me confident. Someone who talks a lot, someone who is lively, someone who is open. But even though I’m loud, I can be insecure. I might portray confidence, but at the same time I can be dealing with more issues than I care to mention. Life is not black and white. There are a million and one shades and colours in between, and that’s ok.

“It’s only really recently that I’ve started to learn that manhood can show itself in more intangible, less stereotypical forms – emotional intelligence, security, and humility for example.”

What I have come to understand though is that there is a difference between transparency and vulnerability. Transparency lets people know what happened; vulnerability lets people know how that made you feel. Up until recently, I didn’t think vulnerability was a masculine trait. It turns out that I couldn’t have got it more wrong –  vulnerability is vital if you want to live the full life that you are called to live.

Masculinity on Campus

Life at university provides the perfect opportunity to evaluate yourself by external factors. I can judge myself, and especially my masculinity, by the grades I get, by the girls who like me, by the popularity I experience (or lack), by my appearance, by my body, by how cool I am (or not)…

The problem with judging yourself by these external measures is that they need a reference point, and that means that you end up comparing yourself to others: “My grades are better than theirs” – “More girls like me than them” – “I’m more popular than this person” – “I’m better looking than this person”. And, on the flip side: “I’m not as attractive as them” – “They’re better than me at this”. “They’re more successful” – “They have more money” – “They have nicer clothes” – “They have cooler friends”.  The list goes on and on. For me, my view of my own manhood required me to excel in all of these areas, and more, and if I ever fell short (which I often did), a persistent voice would tell me, “You’re just not man enough”.

Sadly, university can be the perfect platform to amplify the insecurities that you never realised you had, and tempt you to compare yourself with the thousands of other individuals you’ll be meeting. Throw in social media and it’s a pretty toxic cocktail. It can result in pride, in overcompensation, in you belittling others. It can weaken your compassion, diminish your empathy, and ultimately erode your sense of self worth, changing how you value those around you, and often how you behave towards them.

Sadly, university can be the perfect platform to amplify the insecurities that you never realised you had, and tempt you to compare yourself with the thousands of other individuals you’ll be meeting.

This culture also served to reinforce those falsehoods that I had already internalised about my masculinity. And as I became more and more aware of the difference between the man I saw in the mirror and the idealised standard of manhood that I aspired to, I was left feeling pretty empty inside. The result was an endless need for validation through competition, and the affirmation of others.

Another Way

But let me tell you, there are other ways to live.

When you’re not comparing yourself to others, it frees you to really understand who you are. Despite what I had previously believed, learning to stop comparing and to be empathetic with your own emotions, as well as the emotions of those around you, is not a trait reserved for femininity. Being vulnerable is not weakness. I think, as a man, it’s the hardest thing I’ve done. To choose to not brush over the cracks, to not use the women in my life for validation, to let my friends know when they’re going too far, to make it clear when I don’t agree, and to not let my insecurities lead my decision making.

I think the greatest gift I have been given, and the greatest gift you can give yourself, is the permission to stop comparing and to be honest with yourself, emotionally. The permission to be sad, to be hurt, to be happy, to be nervous, scared or excited. The permission to like the things you like. The permission to have real connection in friendships. The permission to wait for real love instead of lust.

I think the greatest gift I have been given, and the greatest gift you can give yourself, is the permission to stop comparing and to be honest with yourself, emotionally.

This is one of the greatest gifts God has given me, and I pray it will be a gift that will help you become the fullest version of yourself throughout university. I pray that you will allow yourself to develop, cut yourself some slack when you think you don’t measure up to the people around you, and instead let God’s opinion of you speak loudest – because He couldn’t possibly think any higher of you, just as you are. I also pray that in becoming more honest and content with yourself, you can free those developing men and women around you to be more honest and content with themselves. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Karim Stoddart, a recent graduate from the University of Manchester.