For too long, I was terrified of my own power.
For many years, particularly during my twenties, I unconsciously kept myself small and powerless in the misguided belief that it would keep me and others safer.
I so often tried to hide the strength of my body, the intellectual hunger of my mind, and the expansive wisdom of my spirit in the belief that it would make me more loved in relationships, more welcome in workplaces, more accepted among friends.
I did not believe that the world had room for ALL of me.
Looking back, I particularly see how this dynamic was expressed in my relationship with my body.
As anyone who has met me in real life knows, I’m a big guy. I’m 6’3”, currently 235 pounds, and I’ve been more or less this size since my junior year of high school. In fact, I even earned the nickname “Gigantor” among some of my high school friends because I was significantly taller and bigger than anyone else in my friend group.
Around 17, I discovered weightlifting and realized that my body was very well suited for building muscle. I inherited good athletic genes from both of my parents. My father, in particular, had a real passion for weightlifting and bodybuilding in his younger days alongside his career as a professional baseball player.
I had all the physical potential to be a very big, muscular, powerful man.
But I actually struggled quite a bit to feel at home in such a large body.
You see, alongside that season of after school weightlifting, I was also beginning to write poetry, to listen to heartfelt music and sensitive songwriters, to read books on philosophy and spirituality.
I knew that within this chest was a big, open heart that often held strong emotions. I discovered that I was actually quite comfortable expressing my feelings (contrary to the stereotype about men) and deeply enjoyed listening to the feelings of others.
With that fluency in emotion came a very empathetic personality. The highest value in my worldview was compassion, to be able to feel the pain of others and to do everything in one’s power to alleviate another’s suffering.
To this day, one of my greatest fears is doing any kind of harm to another person. I absolutely hate the feeling that I’ve hurt someone’s feelings or offended someone unintentionally.
As I grew into my early 20’s, my personality and value system were all centered around being as kind, considerate, sensitive, gentle, and loving as possible.
All these sound like noble virtues and worthy intentions, right? But all things in life, including the highest virtues, can have an unconscious shadow, an unseen dark side.
For instance, during my 20’s, I absolutely sucked at setting boundaries. I would let people walk all over me sometimes, all while having a big, warm smile on my face. I was understanding to a fault, often letting people take advantage of me or dump all their emotional needs on me.. and I would willingly take it because I could empathetically “feel their pain” and saw it as my moral duty to be as compassionate as possible.
As I look back on this era of my life, I’m struck by the way these patterns were expressed in my relationship with my own body.
You see, somewhere along the way, I began to internalize the idea that all these loving & kind values - not to mention my love for poetry and a capacity to feel emotions deeply - simply didn’t match being a 6’3” muscular, powerful man.
I didn’t want to make anyone feel unsafe or intimidated by my physical presence, nor did I want people to assume that I was unintelligent or just another emotionally insensitive jock because of the way my body looked.
I think I also began to absorb the message that masculine strength and power is inherently harmful and toxic. I was very aware of the long history of male violence and oppression towards women and all things feminine - and I wanted no part in that horrible tradition. I did not want to contribute to the legacy of abusive male power - whether physical, political, economic, or cultural. As a result, I often felt much more at home with my own “feminine side” - the part of me that was creative, emotional, intuitive, and caring - and I typically formed deeper friendships and connections with women than with men.
I had absolutely no notion at that time of what healthy masculine power could look like, or how the strength and size of my masculine body could contribute any good in the world.
And so I gave up weightlifting somewhere in the middle of college and didn’t touch a barbell for close to 15 years.
Instead, my main physical practice throughout my 20s was yoga. Now, I deeply honor the role yoga has played in my life, particularly the way it introduced me to brand new ways of looking at spirituality and its relationship to the body. But looking back now, I find it telling that I traded in a weightlifting practice - which emphasizes building strength and power in the body - for a yoga practice that is typically geared towards the body becoming more flexible and relaxed.
My body was a mirror for my inner self, which was in a state of deep imbalance. I only saw myself as acceptable when I was peaceful, loving, kind, and accommodating. I unconsciously accepted the belief that it was more virtuous as a man to be small, to be harmless and powerless, to be endless understanding and compassionate.
I had lost touch with my natural capacity to be powerful, to be strong, to set boundaries, to take up space, to embody all the qualities of the good warrior.
My intentions may have been honorable, but they had major shadow consequences.
I stayed way too long in an unhappy marriage where I was cheated on, constantly sacrificing my own needs to “make her happy.” I followed a career path that wasn’t really my heart’s true calling in order to “play it safe” and please others. I kept my spiritual interests & gifts hidden from most people, for fear that they would be judged or misunderstood.
But thankfully, ever since I entered my 30’s, I have been on the path of reclaiming my power.
It took a divorce and a whole lot of heartbreak & disappointment to finally get me on that path, but now my feet are walking the path of the warrior.
I learned to create a business so that I could make a living in alignment with my soul’s calling and my creative & spiritual gifts.
I moved out of a city that was no longer nourishing my spirit and bought this beautiful home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
And the work I’ve done in men’s circles has taught me that there is goodness in masculinity, that there is a healthy way for men to express their authentic empowerment and strength.
And so a year ago, I got serious about weight lifting again. I slowly started building a home gym, which now serves as my sanctuary of strength, a temple to the spirit of the warrior.
And now, in my mid-30s, this is the biggest, most muscular my body has ever been… and I LOVE it.
I love that I can now balance a kind heart with a strong body.
I love that I can have the embodied confidence to stand up for myself, to set and enforce boundaries, to protect others, to say NO when I mean NO.
And I love receiving feedback from the women in my life who report that they actually feel safer in my presence because of my size and strength, reversing the story I held that a strong masculine body could only serve as a potential threat to women and the feminine.
The gold I have discovered in this body of mine is this lesson: that the best way I can truly serve this world is to be my most authentic self… with a big body, a big heart, and a big spirit.
And that is the message I want to share with all humans, but especially to the good men out there: There is goodness in your strength. There is nobility in your power. There is gold that only the inner warrior in you can discover.
At age 36, I’m finally grateful for this body and its capacity to hold ALL of me.
In this body of mine, I am both Warrior and Poet.
And I am no longer fearful of being the warrior poet that I am: a man with some big muscle and an even bigger heart.
- Matthew Foley
A final note: In early 2022, I will be launching my first coaching group for men called Warrior Poets Men’s Circle. I’ll be calling together good men into a brotherhood to inspire our growth, to hold our selves accountable, to honor our full humanity: our strength and our sensitivity, our courage and our creativity, the warrior and the poet. If you are a man interested in joining a brotherhood like this, or you know a man who would benefit from such a community, send me a message today.