Vulnerability: Expectations in Men
*Originally published April 12, 2019*
As Brene Brown has stated in her text, the concept of vulnerability carries with it a heavy paradox for most people. It is the first thing we want to see from someone else, but it is also the last thing we want others to see in us. Even though from a logical standpoint we understand and acknowledge that a partner being vulnerable with us will strengthen our bond/relationship, we still recoil at the idea of what that other person will think about seeing us in a vulnerable state.
For the most part, a lot of us believe that if we were to truly let ourselves be seen, people will be repulsed at the sight. We fear that our partners, friends, and family will grow upset with the qualities that we don’t feel are completely resolved within us. Particularly in romantic relationships, I feel that this hits men pretty hard especially.
A lot of American men have been raised with a “man up” mentality. This mentality has led us to multiple generations of men who never properly learned how to process their hard emotions in a healthy manner. It lies true for all people but I feel it impacts [heterosexual] men in a hard and unique way. Vulnerability is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”, and if you have spent most of your life being conditioned not to risk exposing your hard emotions, the action of vulnerability itself seems very daunting.
The actual act of “feeling” is made out to be a weakness. According to Brown, the mistake stems from the fact that our society confuses the concept of "feeling" with "failing", and regards emotions as liabilities.
When Brene’ started her research on the concept of shame/worthiness, for the first four years she focused solely on women. She admits that this decision was in part due to her mindset that women were the ones who “really” struggled with worthiness. But when she did start including men in her research, her expectations of it being a new world were correct. It was a world full of “unspoken hurt”. She learned this firsthand at one of her book signings when a married middle-aged man told her:
“We have shame. Deep shame. But when we reach out and share our stories, we get the emotional shit beat out of us….Before you say anything about those mean coaches, bosses, brothers, and fathers being the only ones…My wife and daughters–they’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but c’mon. You can’t stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that”
I’m not going to lie, when I read that line I was a little shaken up. I actually had to take some time and reflect on my past romantic relationships as well as just my interactions with guy friends. Have any of them truly opened up to me? Have I seen many of them cry? When was the last time I saw my Dad cry? Wait, have I ever seen my Dad cry? After reading that passage of Daring Greatly, I really started reevaluating some things. Often times I’ve heard some of my girlfriends or even just random women say things like: I wish he would just open up to me. I don’t understand why he won’t talk to me about this. There’s something eating him up and I don’t know what it is. Why is it so hard for him to communicate with me?
It’s easy to pin the lack of male vulnerability on other men and the influences of toxic masculinity. And those things still play a huge contributing factor. But I don’t think a lot of women have stopped to think that they could also be contributing to this problem due to internalized misogyny.
Hyper-masculinity, Vulnerability, and Men’s Shame
When Brown did further research on male shame, she asked them to describe what it is. Many of the participants referenced it as a failure, being wrong, being defective, showing fear, receiving criticism, and receiving ridicule. All of it comes down to the idea of: You can never be perceived as weak.
But it isn’t enough to just be seen as “not weak”, he is also expected to be powerful, masculine, charming, strong, brave, a provider, a protector, a defender, and all that other stuff. This added pressure would most definitely bring down and suffocate anyone. And it’s even worse when that attitude comes from his mother, his sister, his wife, or his daughters. On one side, we constantly want the man to “just be more open” but on the other side of that coin, would we even know how to react? In the case of one of my ex-boyfriends, I could tell that he was going through some internal struggles. Not only would he not confide in me or express what exactly was going on, he instead would lash out and get angry with me. Of course, I harbored resentment toward him for that. After all, how can I help if he won’t tell me what’s wrong? What right did he have to get angry with me when he wouldn’t even talk to me? While it’s true that lashing out at me wasn’t a good thing to do, over time and after getting more familiar with the concept of vulnerability, I’m able to see now that it’s likely he thought I would just worsen the shame he felt. To be honest, even in the situation in which he confided in me or maybe even cried in front of me…how would I have reacted? I would certainly hope to think I wouldn’t be disturbed, disgusted, or judgmental. There is no doubt, however, that there is a certain degree of discomfort for a lot of women who may encounter a man close to them expressing their shame.
“[Women] ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it. In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust”
Of course, we can’t talk about hypermasculinity without touching on the subject of sexual relations. While it is usually women who are regarded as feeling insecure, inadequate, or vulnerable during sex the same definitely holds true for men. When we think about it, men are inadvertently taught that it is their responsibility to initiate sex. Because of this, being rejected is huge when it comes to male shame. In this context, rejection is just deeply painful.
While women may worry about what their partner will think about their body or expertise during sex (which, from what I understand, is typically not on the average man’s mind at all) men have similar feelings of worry when it comes to being good enough, being desirable, and being loved. Some may give a rebuttal saying ‘Well what about one night stands?’ but this is a problem specifically geared towards someone with whom you care for deeply (i.e. partner or spouse).
However, the media tends to paint the picture of guys being hyper-sexual. They seem to be “always ready”, always pining over someone, always thinking about it, etc. It’s not often that we receive the narrative of guys being just as apprehensive about sex. And in the times they do, it’s usually seen as a negative instead of a norm. Look at this loser, so awkward and self-conscious. We tend to look at it as a joke when in actuality it can be a huge reality for a large number of men. So the thought of carrying thoughts of insecurity itself is very alarming because they are often fed the narrative of This isn’t how I’m supposed to feel, it’s not normal that I feel this way.
Anger, Silence, and ‘Going it Alone’
It’s this type of shame that can make a harmless remark insight into a huge verbal spat between man and wife. You might want to update your husband about your good friend who is going to be able to be a stay-at-home mom next year. But for a man who has not developed shame resiliency that could easily translate to: Her husband makes more money. You’re less capable. It must be nice having someone who can provide. Why can’t I be in that position?
Before a man is able to practice shame resilience, his primary reactions will typically be hypermasculine in nature: get mad or shut down. A lot of men are under the impression that converting their feelings of shame into anger is the best way to go. Just push forward and roll over anyone who gets in the way, steps on your toes, or challenges you. Oftentimes if the method proves to be effective in particular situations, it’s easy for a guy to think he can roll with it in every aspect of his life. In a way it makes sense because feelings can’t necessarily disappear, they have to be converted into different feelings.
Conversely, ‘shutting down’ would suggest a feeling of numbness. The idea is that the emotional pain and shame can just be ignored and we can convince ourselves that we just don’t feel them. The ‘Strong Silent Type’ may make for a good character trope but has no place in real life. Men are especially susceptible to the idea of ‘suffering in silence’ and ‘going it alone’. It’s very easy to get caught up in that narrative, so much so that you’re not actually doing the whole ‘pull myself by the boot straps’ to press forward; you’re doing much more damage than good.
The concept of ‘going it alone’ is very ideal because it is something that we are all taught is a great thing to do. People who go it alone are considered admirable, they appear to be in control of their emotions, and they pulled themselves by the bootstraps, and didn’t make excuses. While the concept seems great, it actually plays with a dangerously false narrative that being closed off is something to be praised. Everyone needs support, everyone needs encouragement, and everyone needs a small number of people with whom they can be vulnerable.
I cannot stress this enough: Ignoring your feelings and not dealing with your feelings are not signs of emotional stability, they are signs of emotional numbness. Emotional stability happens when you are able to acknowledge your emotions, accept them, and properly hash them out in an open (yet appropriate) manner with the right people.
Combat Norms and Facing Vulnerability
American society has created very specific criteria when it comes to what makes a man a man: risk-taking, violence, dominance, self-reliance, pursue status, womanizing, homophobic, etc.
It is for this reason that we have to be aware of some of these keywords that can tie into the ideals of toxic masculinity. As a side note, please understand that this is not an attack on masculinity, just aspects of it that can be extremely toxic to the man or others around him.
For a guy, it means not buying into the narrative that you have to be one specific way in order to be considered a man. It means knowing that fear, insecurity, and doubt are extremely normal and natural occurrences for anyone and it doesn’t make you less of a man to experience them. Just like women, men also have to be highly selective of the circle of people they allow themselves to be vulnerable with. Understand who you can go to and for what, and also work to grab a better hold of what specifically triggers your shame. Is it when you lose your job? When you’re corrected? When you’re short on money? When you can’t buy a gift for someone? When you’ve been cheated on? When you’ve been dumped? When you’ve been rejected? Whatever it may be, understand that your circumstances don’t define you.
I’m not a guy. And I’m never really going to grasp a full understanding of what it means to be a guy in a society that is constantly telling you how to be a man. As a woman, I have my own insecurities, duties, and societal pressures to worry about. Our problems aren’t ‘better or worse’ than the other, but they are vastly different. But one of the things we have in common is that in order to create valuable and important relationships, we must be willing to put away our pride and learn how to deal with our shame. Please remember that vulnerability is not a weakness, it’s not a strength, it’s just necessary. And it’s for everyone.