Expressing our whole truths can be a challenge under any circumstance, but it seems men’s relationship with emotions may be particularly strained. Why is it so often a challenge for men to be vulnerable? Perhaps it is as simple as consulting the dictionary definition of this word:“Capable of or susceptible to being attacked, damaged, or hurt.”
Starting when we were little boys, many of us were taught to embrace some pretty stark thinking: that vulnerability is bad and a weakness, while putting up a strong barrier is good and manly (insert caveman grunt here). While there has been increasingly more discourse on these stereotypes and limiting beliefs, little progress has been made with vulnerability being widely accepted by men. The expectation to be “macho” continues to prevail as the dominant and accepted behavioral approach for how to embody the cisgendered idea of manhood. Anything less can elicit the questionability of one’s “man card”.
If we look closer at why vulnerability is a challenge for men, the cause seems to be rooted in fear. This fear manifests in a number of ways: fear of being hurt, harmed, or ridiculed to name a few. Although vulnerability in one sense can evoke the feeling of leaving oneself open to attack, in reality, it can actually be the key to mental fortitude and strength. When we let down our walls, even just a little bit, we open ourselves to experiencing a wider range of emotions and experiences, individually and collectively. Being vulnerable can help us to better know ourselves, while cultivating and strengthening our relationships with others. It can also help us better understand our opportunities for growth, enhance our self-awareness, and flex our emotional intelligence muscles.
The Benefits of Vulnerability
- Strengthens mental health. Suppressing our feelings and emotions is a lose-lose proposition. Not only does this approach fail miserably in handling our emotions, but it is short-lived. Those emotions and feelings may appear to go dormant, but they often tend to reemerge at the most inopportune time, sometimes causing us to erupt—albeit unintentionally. This eruption can have a number of negative consequences in the short and long-term (some of which are captured in the Help Break the Cycle section below). A healthier approach to this issue is to acknowledge, experience, express, and then release our feelings so they do not build up to the point where they hurt us and those around us when we least expect it. This approach is backed by science, including a brain study from UCLA psychologists that found verbally expressing our emotions lessens the intensity of sadness, anger, and pain. It is hard to believe that simply speaking one’s truth helps soothe and heal some of the hardest emotions we face as humans. So instead of continuing to allow emotions to bottle up, try wielding the power of vulnerability to cope with emotions in the present and strengthen your mental health in the long-term.
- Improves relationships. Regardless of whether we admit it, we all have emotional needs in our relationships. When they go unmet, it opens the door for distrust and resentment. Numerous studies have shown what many of us know anecdotally: we all have varying emotional needs, with some people preferring emotional connection before physical connection and others who need physical connection before feeling an emotional tie. By being vulnerable with prospective or current partners, men can help meet these emotional needs. Apart from intimate partners, showing vulnerability is a great way to build trust with anyone in your life. If you are willing to be open, transparent, and, yes, even put yourself “at risk,” it sends a clear message to the other person that you trust them with the most intimate parts of yourself. This simple act helps build a foundation for a lasting relationship, romantic or otherwise.
- Helps break the cycle. There is an acute epidemic festering in many societies today that plague young men. The toxic attitudes and faulty beliefs many kids are fed often lead to adults who unintentionally, and in some cases intentionally, wound others. Repressed feelings built up over time are much like a pressure cooker. Study after study points to toxic masculinity as a significant contributor to sexual violence, traffic accidents, road rage, bullying, violence, alcoholism, depression, and even suicide. Those are massive price tags to “pay” to spare the perceived risk of being in touch with oneself and sharing those tough feelings with a trusted source. The irony in the fear of appearing weak is that being vulnerable is actually associated with higher levels of self-confidence, not lower. We want to raise young people to embrace vulnerability as a strength, not a weakness. But to do that we need to start by removing the stigma around feeling and showing emotion. In other words, men will need to reshape our widely held attitudes and beliefs around the opposition to not just talking about, but also feeling our feelings. We must learn to embrace that being human—imperfect and, yes, vulnerable—in no way erodes our masculinity. Adding vulnerability into the mix might be the key that helps us move away from this unhealthy behavior and instead help us raise well-rounded, stable, and healthy young individuals.
It takes A LOT (of time, energy, patience, openness…) to shift perspectives and unlearn the long and deep history of taboos related to vulnerability and masculinity. Too often, it takes hitting bottom or, at the very least, a brick wall to bring about a shift in perspective. Even then, it may not take. However, when we acknowledge our feelings, the rewards are rich, deep, and lasting—allowing us the freedom to grow, cultivate more meaningful relationships, and develop our own definitions of who we can be more wholly. Embracing vulnerability and being your authentic self allows you to:
- Have a stronger sense of identity, allowing you to be who you truly are.
- Be more focused, showing grace to yourself and others for imperfections.
- Focus on self-investment and personal development.
- Be content with loving yourself and being wholly who you are, rather than who you think you should be.
Ready to get started? Here are a few ways to practice being vulnerable:
1. Try to train your awareness toward catching if you say something harsh or restricting toward yourself. Anything you wouldn't say to someone else, don't say to yourself either. For example: Would you tell someone in your life to "man up" when something difficult happened to them? Would you tell anyone else they “should” act in this or that way? Try treating yourself with grace and openness to feel and be whatever resonates with you.
2. Check out a wellness wheel, like the one here. It can help to dig a little deeper into what parts of ourselves we may be neglecting and how we can better nurture those areas of our lives. Need help putting your feelings into words? You can also practice speaking your truth using emotions and examples from The Feelings Wheel. If you feel up to it, both of these explorations could be used to dive deeper into vulnerability through journaling!
3. Consider speaking with a trusted loved one, behavioral health coach, or therapist to get started with practicing and flexing your vulnerability muscles. Like any learned skill, this can be challenging at first, but gets easier over time as you practice.