What’s the Harm in Teaching Men to be Tough?

In sociologist Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability and shame, she relates the story of a man who comes up to her at a book signing and asks why she doesn’t write about men.  She just doesn’t, she says.  He retorts, that’s convenient, leaving Brown a bit flummoxed.  But then, in a moment of deep vulnerability, the man goes on to say that his wife and three daughters, whose books Brown just signed, would “rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down.”

It’s a moving scene, and Brown uses it to illustrate her point is that it’s not just male teachers, coaches, mentors, brothers, fathers who teach men to be emotionally invulnerable—it’s the women in their lives.

My personal experience with this is varied, but it largely holds true.  Though I didn’t lose anyone close in 9/11, something about the nation’s shared trauma and outpouring of grief, by both men and women, loosened something in me—gave me permission to feel my own difficulties more honestly.  That winter of 2001, at age 24, I found myself at a point in my life where I could admit to being lost and confused in my life, depressed, and deeply unsure of myself—so deeply that, for the first time in my life, I was actually willing to seek help.  At the time, the women in my life did not support me to do so; instead, perhaps like the man’s wife and daughters, they gave me the message that I was fine.  Just straighten up and fly right was the message I got—be more positive and success-minded.

Thankfully, I took a stand for myself, and I did get the help I needed, and it became the beginning for me of a long journey toward a version of masculinity that incorporates vulnerability—the ability to admit failure, doubt, confusion, flaws, and harms I had a part in, and to have a rich, honest emotional life that allows me to feel grief and loss as well as empathy and connection with others.  All this has led to real, durable  happiness and a sense of inspired purpose.  Today, I think of this vulnerability as a deep gift that opens me to life in a way I never was before, and it also is the key to being deeply authentic in an empowered way—and this is my greatest strength.  The vitality in my body, the love in my heart, the steadiness in my voice, the clarity in my thinking—none of these would be available without this empowered authenticity, and this authenticity is just not possible without vulnerability.

Looking back now, the women in my life support this happier, stronger version of me completely, but as it was developing, it wasn’t so easy.  I can’t say if the female projection of invulnerability onto men is a universal experience, but I do know from all my conversations with men over the years, that this pattern is very common—perhaps much more common than the women supporting men in vulnerability.  As Brown mentions, it is the rare woman who is free enough of her perceived need for the men in her life to project status and success that she will just meet male vulnerability with openness, support, and simple care.  Instead, these qualities may be there, but are often mixed with fear, avoidance, and denial.

For a man, it can be existentially difficult, as in life-or-death-scary, to break through the expectation to have thick skin and never show weakness, especially when the close women in his life do not support that possibility.   But, it’s also clear to me that this is a vicious cycle in our broader society—as Brown points out from James Mihalik’s research—men are normed to project emotional control, pursue status, put work first, and project the capacity for violence.

A vulnerable, authentic, empowered masculinity that incorporates and transcends these norms toward higher ideals of emotional balance, genuine usefulness to those in need, and non-violence requires many men to break free of the programming that the women in their lives might initially prefer.

The stakes are high.  Globally, most of our large social institutions are still run by men, and the culture of male invulnerability runs so deep that even when women are in positions of power, they often feel they must conform to it, or else be cast aside.  Invulnerability leading to inauthenticity has real consequences—every major improvement in the direction of world institutions, whether medicine, banking, transportation, politics, food & agriculture, environment, any area of human endeavor—requires the individuals leading institutions to be strong enough to admit things are off course, to own the part they themselves and their institutions have played in things being off course, and to chart a new direction.

So it’s my hope that we all find our way to an empowered authenticity, for our personal happiness and for the greater good.  It’s my hope that the traditional gender roles men and women have played, can continue to evolve forward into a more mutually supportive space—where men support women in finding their strength and their public voice, and women support men in finding their vulnerability and their inner truth.

Published September 23, 2014 on now-defunct blog, the He-Said-She-Said Forum.

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