"He's got a bit of a chip on his shoulder."
That's a saying most of us have heard before, probably long ago when it was in fashion, and likely said by someone of an older generation.
Yet I couldn't help thinking – while finishing HBO's show The Staircase, featuring Colin Firth's characterisation of alleged wife-killer Michael Peterson – this guy lived life with a "chip on his shoulder".
This personality trait is something I recognise in some of my male relatives, but I've never been sure how to define it. That "chip" is somehow both more and less than straightforward arrogance. It's a sense of being "hard done by".
As if the world owes you something. Or like you're always trailing behind but it's always someone else's fault and not your own.
Uniquely, that chip on one's shoulder seems to be a specifically male trait. Women don't really seem to have that chip – perhaps because when you earn 83 cents to the dollar and your bodily rights are often under threat, your sense of being left behind is more literal than figurative.
Why is it some men feel so hard done by? In my experience, those with the biggest chips seem to come from the most privileged group in society – they're normally straight, white, middle-class men. Somehow, despite not experiencing discrimination like the rest of us, they may still feel like the world is out to get them.
A chip on one's shoulder is "an ingrained feeling of resentment deriving from a sense of inferiority and sometimes marked by aggressive behaviour".
Allegedly, the term originated during the 19th century in the United States, where the lore was that people wanting a physical fight would carry a chip of wood on their shoulder, daring others to knock it off.
I've met a fair few guys in my life that walk around like that: angry, seemingly holding implicit grudges, readily provoked, a constant sense of being treated unfairly. And guess what? They've all been straight white men from decent socio-economic backgrounds.
They have always been, in every sense of the phrase, "average Joes".
This low-key hostility – not quite aggressive, not quite inferior – pervades the life of one with a chip on his shoulder. He might begrudge anyone with a higher-paying job than him. He might be convinced that all bad luck – be it a basic bad day, a car crash, or the loss of an investment – is something "done" to them by a higher power to punish them.
And when everything is going well in the world of one with a chip on his shoulder? He is somehow not that happy. He's a bit melancholic as if he's waiting to feel aggrieved again. He might even seem like he has malaise for his chip to be propped back up firmly on his body.
What has society done to these men to make them behave like this, I wonder? Like many things I'd say it starts in childhood and would guess it has a relation to how you perceived your parents treated you - especially compared to your siblings.
Maybe your birthday presents weren't cool enough. Maybe you weren't the "smart" one. Maybe your sibling was a better athlete than you. For every individual, I'm sure it's different. I find it hard to believe a chip on one's shoulder could be the result of genuine, objective disadvantages in life. Like those women and minority groups face. Rather, just the perception of them.
Of course, nobody with a chip on their shoulder acknowledges it. They would be wildly offended if you told them so. The rest of us, therefore, just live with men with chips on their shoulders.
Maybe one is your husband, your dad, your brother, or your co-worker. We allow these men to go about their lives unchallenged with said chip, knowing that if we ever tried to mention it we would become the target of their begrudging nature.
Forbes magazine argues a man can use the chip on his shoulder to actually drive greatness. Having a chip on your shoulder can keep you vigilant and sharp. The feeling of having "something to prove" is what can lead you to excellence – something I, as a queer person, know all too well.
Yet the world would be a better place without chips on men's shoulders. If you think you might have one, consider addressing if it really makes your performance in life better. Maybe it's your perception of yourself that is always tripping you up, and not any external factors?
Mindful, a wellness website, tells you that you can trade the vindictive mindset for one that says, "I actually deserve to be here".
And you do deserve to be here. We all do. Victimising yourself only creates narrow expectations and puts you in a cycle of negativity. Throw away the chip and realise that everyone struggles, everyone hurts and everyone feels disadvantaged sometimes. This isn't a "you" thing. It's a human thing. Both you and the rest of us will be much happier if you accept that.
I'll leave you with a quote. "The creation myth of the Buddha alleges that a young prince grew up in luxury, protected from all the world's woes. Unhappy at every turn of his privileged life, the prince escaped to see the world, then decided to live as a beggar, vagrant, left behind.
"On the unhappy realisation that this made him no happier than privilege, the prince meditated into the Buddha. Their philosophy that all life includes some suffering is understood by many adherents."
Mark Manson's The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** uses this parable to make the following point: everyone will be unhappy until they figure out what is important to them and where to concentrate their energy. Perhaps plenty of chips on shoulders could be knocked off not for a fight, but by focusing one's efforts on what does fulfil you.