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The Zero-Sum Game: Making Men Feel Better

Cain Parish

In This Article:

In the balance of gender dynamics, men and women are competitive. I, and dozens of others, think that doesn’t need to be true. Read now, and discover what a healthy philosophy on improving a large chunk of the human population looks like.

A man alone inside a desert, looking dejected and excluded.

Table of Contents

It’s tempting, I feel, to search for a finite solution to life. We understand that life is full of variables, some consistent and some rapidly fluctuating. I am a person, perhaps like you, that finds comfort and solace in identifying patterns in those variables. It gives me a temporary feeling of control to seek some consistency in the complexities of life. 

At least, that was something I thought to be true of myself. 

I was recently introduced to a concept named ‘Rejection Sensitivity’. I capitalise this term because I do very much consider myself sensitive to rejection in other contexts. Rejection Sensitivity, the capitalised version, is a phenomenon that children or people in inconsistent or abusive households begin to display over time. Chronic people pleasers should be very familiar with the idea. 

In short, it describes the tendency of those afflicted to identify excruciatingly subtle cues in their surroundings, and instinctively and quickly use those cues to determine something about themselves, usually negative. This leads to negative self-esteem, and the namesake of rejection, possibly brought on before the other person even opens their mouth. 

If you’ve ever gone to say something to someone who has responded negatively, even in a perfectly minute and unrelated way, and felt overwhelmingly rejected and shut down, you know what it is to be Rejection Sensitive. 

For a long time, I’ve been Rejection Sensitive AND sensitive to rejection. I suppose I missed a crucial step where external feedback was supposed to be less and less important to me. In some form of arrested development, my ability to regulate my emotions is deeply and sorely lacking when faced with externally perceived negativity. 

Instead, I try to find meaning in the coagulated mess of external variables around me. I knew I was a stereotype when many a psychological lecture on Rejection Sensitivity would somehow cherry pick examples from my life to demonstrate the condition. I search for meaning amongst the cosmos by looking at the small things. 

As it turns out, you’re not supposed to interpret a text message left unopened as a sign of some personal failing. This came abruptly and shockingly to me, who has made somewhat of a career divining the truth of a person’s mind through their Snapchat reply cadence. 

If I can’t glean my self-image from the people around me, it calls into question many of the cause-effect relationships I hold(held?) as sacred. One such important relationship in my life is that of mine with sex. 


Oscar Wilde is credited with saying that everything in life is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power. To live by such an aphorism is very interesting, and in a lot of ways, very disturbed. It used to be a simple relationship in my brain. At a key moment, equally formative and traumatic, I was shown that in my relationships, sexual interest is inexplicably and irrevocably linked with personal power and agency. And that link has persisted my entire adult life. 

As a man, whether it be culturally or personally, I have been beaten over the head with the rhetoric, time and time again, that my worth in not just a masculine sense, but in a deeply personal and self-actualising way, is tied directly to my ability to inspire sexual interest from the people around me. 

Is it any wonder then, that the slightest hint of negativity, the most vague whiff of rejection leaves a disproportionately painful sting and throws my entire identity into chaos? 

It does sound dramatic, I agree. But what option did I have? This isn’t a choice, a hand picked selection of values. It is my psychological makeup, a series of neurons linked for better or worse that I’m doing my damnedest to undo. So are millions of men. It fucking hurts when we’re rejected, because despite the platitude that rejection is skin deep and superficial, I and others like me have poured years of blood, sweat and tears into making sure we never have to feel the sting of rejection again. 

Call it insecure, call it vain, call it unhealthy. It is all of those things, and yet those dismissals don’t deal with the problem. Like it or not, for many, many men, the external rules their internal environment. And god, oh God, are we trying to have some control over it. Therapy and meditation, weight training and endless cardio, Tinder and streams of vapid validation. Our bandaids are failing. We have nothing to replace them with. 

If you’re paying attention, this essay is essentially a cis white male bemoaning the fact that he didn’t get laid in high school. Which is a silly problem. On the face of it, I shouldn’t care. It’s not world hunger or global warming or a hot-button political issue. Nobody is dead because of it. 

Except, oops, that last part might not be true. 


Certainly, I am unharmed, as I live and breathe to write this passage. But a litany of men have taken the lives of themselves or others around them in grotesque acts of violence, motivated in large parts by the links they have established for themselves in their own lives. Manifestos and complaints abound from incels and school shooters alike. I am not spinning the wheels of revolution here. This is a known issue, and I certainly hold no sympathy for those that feel able to commit violence and terror upon others. 

But yet, there seems to be a missing thread in the discourse. Some way, some how, discussing issues of a class or demographic has become a zero-sum game. This type of sentiment is by and large labelled unsympathetic, bordering on misogynistic, despite the fact that I have mentioned women a grand total of zero (0) times in the above passages. If I was equally struggling with my same sex relationships, nothing about these principles would have to change, which certainly puts a hole in the idea that I’m badgering the poor women about this topic. 

Not every issue is about men. Not every conversation needs to be about men. But this conversation is, and this conversation does. I refuse to blame women or any other demographic, in stark contrast to some of the affected men I spoke about earlier. Not only that, but I am by no means self-flagellating my own gender. We are not victims, and nobody has perpetrated a single thing upon us. We are simply affected by an issue that individually, men have been working to solve for years. You don’t blame a group or singular person for smallpox. You do work towards a vaccine.


Fearing that I might have strayed too far into gender politics, I will recap. In my personal journey of self-actualisation, I have discovered an unintentional link between my external sexual validation and my masculinity and self-worth. I fear that I am not alone, and can not help but look around at the symptoms of this issue that are present in our world. Violence, assault, harassment and a deep lack of empathy pervade the worst offenders. 

But, in some ways more pressingly, the average man, who is not violent, not a harasser or perpetrator of assault, deals with this issue much more internally. We choose our values young, as all people do. The things we’re shown are important are what much of our life begins to revolve around, and for most people, that never changes. Those that grow up poor or facing a lack of resources will go to their grave craving money, and the material resources it provides. Grow up in a desert, and a single drop of water begins to define your entire life. 

My life is defined by raw sexuality, and the external vapid metrics that seem to coincide with our sexual culture. I mistakenly thought it was the act of sex itself that was responsible for these qualms. Not so. Whatever rampant symptom of testosterone it is that causes my sex drive, it is irrelevant to the problem. I have become the archetypal rat, pushing the button that lights up my dopamine circuitry at great cost and expense, the rest of the world and common sense be damned. 

One common response to this line of discussion is usually ‘So what?’. In many cases, it’s accompanied with dismissive or downright misandrist rhetoric. And in a lot of ways, I understand why many people are quick to toss out this conversation. Everyone is dealing with their own issues. Male loneliness is not a trendy topic, and when there is anger towards men, much the same as the anger men are able to project outwards, it’s hard to dredge up much sympathy.

But this is the tragedy of the zero-sum game. Like a couple’s therapist, I find it necessary to remind everybody that the blame game is useless, and chasing our tails trying to find a scapegoat has no value whatsoever. Similarly, just because I find it critical, absolutely vital to try and tackle male loneliness and the ripple of effects that it has on mental health, other societal issues are not invalidated by any means. 

Our smallpox vaccine did not cause malaria to run rampant through the streets. 

Working towards making men feel better does nothing negative to the rest of society.

Like any widespread issue, there is no simple solution. It’s a frighteningly difficult concept to understand how to give men more relationship agency without it being at the expense of the people on the other side of those relationships.

But I do wonder, how much education and support does it take to move the needle? What do we need to be preparing the minds of men with before this problem begins to taper off and find a resolution? What environments do we need to introduce or take away? Somewhere in that logic is a solution, giving men the psychological fundamentals that prepare them to not attach such significance to their sexual identity.

I think it’s worth working towards.

And look, we had this whole conversation without blaming women once.

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About

Cain Parish

Cain Parish is the owner of cainparish.com. A prolific writer, educator and relationship coach since 2019, he specializes in dating, relationships, emotional intelligence and social skills. He is also the author and creator of the world’s largest and most comprehensive database for dating and relationship advice, which can be found on his website. His first book, I’m Sorry I Egged Your House, is due to be published in 2024.

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