Harris O’Malley explains how traditional masculinity demands that men be out of touch with their emotions, and how damaging that can be to your relationships.
Over the years if there’s one thing that I’ve learned (much to my friends’ sorrow) is that one can find lessons in just about everything, no matter how seemingly disconnected. My man-crush on Jax Teller from Sons of Anarchy? Boom: inspiration. Doctor Who? Here’s why you should be following Captain Jack, not Mystery.
Even after devoting 2500+ words to the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito harassment debacle, I realized that there are some important takeaways.
Paging Dr. NerdLove: We use every part of the news-cycle buffalo.
So stick with me here for a second. I know I promised we were going to get back to the dating advice after a couple of issues-heavy posts; trust me, this will all make sense in a moment.
You see, one of the things that comes up when we bring up the subject of “traditional” masculinity is the way that men are socialized to be out-of-touch with their emotions. Even now, when it’s presumably more accepted for men to be more sensitive and more emotionally aware, we still have to wrap the idea of “feels” up in a “but MANLY” way. Thus we get the joking-but-not-really “manly tears” over something sad. Men are still taught that they have to betough… and part of that toughness means – oddly enough – being overly concerned with how others perceive that toughness. After all, you wouldn’t want the Gender Police to take away your man card for admitting to having your fee-fees hurt, would you?
Except… that’s not “tough”; that’s craving validation of your supposed masculinity from others. Real toughness comes from not giving a damn about what others think about you.
Case in point: Jonathan Martin1 . By all accounts, he’s quiet and a little withdrawn… a solid guy on the field but not A WARRIOR who BREAKS THE OTHER TEAM and PLAYS THROUGH THE PAIN NO MATTER WHAT. And yet he just proved that he’s tougher than a 320 lb ginger sack of rampaging anger-management issues because he came forward, admitted he was having a problem and went out to get the help he needed, ignoring the jeers and insults of his teammates and their weekend-warrior Twitter followers.
And in that moment, Martin proved a critical point: one of the key components to improving your life is to embrace being vulnerable.
The Difference Between True Vulnerability and Weakness
Vulnerability is a concept I’ve brought up before, and it’s one that a lot of guys seem to have a problem with.
When we talk about “being vulnerable” we almost immediately associate it with being weak and timid. We picture a wuss. A wimp. Somebody who lets other people hurt him or who tries to suck up to others in order to avoid being hurt. Why the hell would we want to be like that?
Except that’s not vulnerability.
Embracing vulnerability isn’t about being weak; in fact, vulnerability requires a great deal of inner strength. Vulnerability is about willingly, even deliberately, opening yourself up to rejection, to judgement and humiliation. You are choosing to say or do something regardless of whether or not it’s popular or cool. It’s the emotional and social equivalent of being the person who knows that the Popular Kids in school are going to give him shit for playing Magic: The Gathering in the cafeteria and doing it anyway because fuck those guys.
Somebody who is obsessed with being “alpha”, or only doing what’s “cool” or popular, for example is displaying weakness; no amount of “bro, bro, check these guns bro” or trying to bully and browbeat others is going to hide that they’re overly concerned with how other people see them. Choosing a career or curating one’s appearance by what makes one more “alpha” or “high-status” is a form of validation seeking; it’s the mark of somebody who feels insecure in who they are. They’re looking for the approval of others.
Vulnerability on the other hand, is about not conforming to other people’s expectations just in order to be liked or trying to avoid doing or saying the unpopular thing for fear of social criticism or even mockery. But at the same time, it’s also not about standing steadfast against change no matter what. Someone who’s comfortable with being vulnerable is capable of admitting when he’s fucked up or when what he’s doing hasn’t been working.
Protect Ya Neck
Many of the issues that guys have with dating often comes from trying to protect one’s self-esteem. We want people to like us. We want people to think we’re cool. We want to belong. Which is why we’re often loathe to rock the boat when one of your friends starts going off about how his father only lost his job because the Jews and the Lizard Men control the International Monetary Fund.
Not every moment where we go along to get along is quite so dramatic, but often our lives can be full of moments when we choke how we feel back because we don’t necessarily want to “cause a scene” or risk getting other people angry at us. There’s an incredible amount of pressure to “go with the flow”, to subsume our own identities into the group, to not make waves or cause trouble, even when that’s exactly what needs to be done.
Many men get so caught up in needing everybody to like them to like them that they wedge their personality down into a tight little ball and hide it away at all costs. They become the people-pleasers, the “yes men” of the group who can’t stand conflict. They try to avoid “drama” at all costs, even if those costs are to themselves.These are the ones who get caught up in toxic relationships because it’s easier to just roll with it than to actually take a stand. It’s a way of protecting themselves from the risk of not being liked; they never show what they really think or feel, bundling everything up and repressing it as hard as they can.
To bring things back to Jonathan Martin for a moment: he could have gone along with things, as many have suggested he should have. He could have “manned up” and swallowed the shit being served to him by Incognito and his teammates and hung in there for the paycheck and waited for the next class of rookies to take the heat of of him.
But at what cost? He already was paying a psychic cost from all of the harassment. How much more psychological damage – to accompany the physical damage that NFL players face, especially brain damage – should he be willing to suck up in the name of maintaining the front that he was ok with all of this and that he was willing to accept it in the name of “being a team player”?
Living With Authenticity
Not surprisingly, trying to avoid vulnerability is a perfect way of making yourself absolutely miserable. The stress of continually putting up a false face and hiding how you feel will tie you up in knots. And like any sort of emotional repression, it tends to come out of you in unexpected ways – the growing sense of bitterness towards others, the feelings of persecution because you know you’re special inside and why can’t anyone see it?
This is why making yourself vulnerable is so important. It means that you’re living as your most authentic self instead of putting up a false front.
We see this all the time, especially in the age of social media, where we carefully curate our lives so that everything looks as amazing as possible… even when you’re quietly dying inside. When we project images of ourselves to hide our supposed flaws and socially airbrush our faults away, we make it that much harder to actually connect with other people. We aren’t being ourselves, we’re being what we think other people want us to be.
And worse, it becomes a way of limiting ourselves needlessly. It ends up holding us back because we can’t be honest with the people we are supposedly closest to… or want to be close to. How are we supposed to connect with people on any level when we hide how we feel or worry more about being judged or made fun of than we do about expressing ourselves honestly and openly? Masculine friendships, for example, suffer when men can’t allow themselves to be open with one another. Because of the stringent definitions of “masculinity” and internalized societal homophobia, even close male friendships maintain a distance from one another. Even in this day and age of greater acceptance of emotional intimacy between men, we hold back; we label close friendships as “bromances” because we equate emotional intimacy with romance and so we give it a mocking label to say “no homo”. It’s the verbal equivalent of the three-pound man-hug.
And if it’s affecting our platonic friendships, imagine what it’s doing to your dating life?
Dating And Vulnerability
Dating requires vulnerability. Full stop. You have to be willing to express yourself fully, to ownyour feelings and be willing to express them without reserve. When you let a fear of potential rejection hold you back from approaching somebody, you’re trying to keep yourself from being vulnerable.
To pick an example of how a lack of vulnerability hurts your dating life, let’s look at Nice Guys. One thing that all Nice Guys have in common is that they absolutely abhor personal vulnerability. They don’t admit to their true feelings – that they are attracted to their crush and want to date her – because to do so means that they are no longer living with Schrödinger’s Relationship; by actually saying “I like you as more than friends and want to date you”, they’re collapsing the waveform and going from potential (she might be interested!) to the actual (she says no and EVERYTHING IS RUINED.)
And yet being willing to be vulnerable and to own your attraction to others is the best thing that you can do. It’s a way of displaying confidence, showing that you’re not only comfortable with your emotions, but that you don’t think that your attraction is something to be ashamed of. It’s very matter of fact: “yes, I like you. What of it?” And why should you be ashamed of being attracted to somebody? Wanting to sleep with, say, the quiet librarian-type who sits two seats away from you in your Econ 102 lecture isn’t something to be embarrassed about; the problems are in the expression of that desire, not in the desire itself. But when you’re hesitant, when you play the “Would you like to hang out some time, maybe…” game of plausible date deniability, you’re intrinsically saying that you think that you are too mortified by your own feelings to express them openly.
Now sure, part of it is that you fear rejection, and I totally understand that. Rejection sucks. But by trying to weasel your way into a date, when you play ambiguity games, you’re not actually avoiding rejection, you’re just kicking it down the road a little. It will still happen, but then it will be so much worse because you’ve built it up into something bigger than it had to be.
Somebody who’s comfortable with vulnerability is somebody who is confident enough in himself that he realizes rejection isn’t the worst thing in the world; in fact, in many ways, it’s doing you a favor. Rejection is, more often than not, an indication of a fundamental incompatibility; trying to avoid it doesn’t magically negate the underlying issue. Embracing your vulnerability and being willing to risk rejection makes dating vastly easier because you no longer waste time or emotion on people who simply aren’t into you. You like somebody, you ask them out, they say no. OK, it’s a shame they said no, but now you know your next move is to go and find somebody who is interested in you; you’ve simply marked off one more person who just doesn’t work with you.
To see this in action, take a look at the number of geeks and nerds who still think that being a geek is a detriment to their dating lives; many people still believe that you have to hide your interests in order to be attractive to women. They worry that if they accidentally disclose that they have more than a passing interest in, say, the Avengers, then they’re going to face a life of nothing but rejection over and over again.
Of course, this asks an obvious question: why would you want to date somebody who would reject you for being a geek in the first place?
If an anime lover dates somebody who thinks that all cartoons are purile vomit, then it’s never going to work regardless of how well he hides things. But let’s say he’s embraced his vulnerability and freely admits to watching anime. Her rolling her eyes at his love of Naruto is possibly the best thing that can happen to him: why would he want to try to form a relationship with somebody who couldn’t at least respect his passion if not share it. By being open about his nerdy interests, he’s being more authentically himself and – critically – finding out that his date may well not be compatible with him early on. She makes fun of him for being a nerd, he calls it an early night and now is free to go on and find somebody who is compatible. Yes, it’s going to suck that she rejects him, but again: why would her rejecting him later be somehow better than now?
No Time For Pitying Fools
So how do you make this work for you?
Well… to start with, you have to accept the fact that it’s going to suck It’s hard, especially in a society that equates manliness with negative emotions like anger and rage and where admitting to faults or weakness is a sign of a character flaw. Being vulnerable means being willing to face your faults and say “yup, I’ve got them” without judgement or self-rancor… and that can be incredibly hard to do. It means being willing to take ownership of when you fuck up without passing the buck or explaining why it’s not your fault; you admit that you made a mistake, you apologize (without trying to dodge responsibility) and doing your best to make things right.
Being vulnerable means being willing to express your honest feelings even in the face of disapproval or “causing drama” because you’re not going along with the group or because you’re pointing out something that others would rather pretend doesn’t exist. This doesn’t mean you have license to be a jerk, just that you have to be willing to express yourself honestly, even when you know it may cost you.
All of this is hard. Society has taught us that emotional honesty and openness is to be avoided, that discussing our feelings and being straightforward with them is to be avoided at all costs. You’ll question yourself. You’ll hurt. You’ll wonder why you’re directly inviting rejection and judgement into your life.
But when you hold on, you’ll find that you are no longer afraid of judgement; you don’t worry about the scorn of strangers because you don’t rely on others to validate you. You’ll realize that you have less time for toxic individuals and for suck-ups. Your relationships with women will be all the stronger and more vibrant when you’re coming from a place of openness and vulnerability because you won’t have time for the ones who might fault you for it; you’ll move on to the ones who are worth your time and attention. You will be living a more authentic life, free from the fears that hold so many others back and convince them to put up false faces.
And that sounds like strength to me.
Originally appeared at Paging Dr. NerdLove