We must always be reexamining the two-dimensional tough guy image of manhood.
“Men walk this tightrope where any sign of weakness elicits shame, and so they’re afraid to make themselves vulnerable for fear of looking weak.” ~ Brené Brown
John Wayne. Batman. Jason Statham.
Samuel L. Jackson on an airline whose main clientele is a buttload of serpents.
Jet Li. Bruce Willis in Bruce Willisy films. Squint Eastwood.
These are steely characters, “manly” men who haven’t waxed their eyebrows and dabbled with the Botox stabs. They have dirty minds and dirty fingernails and say hugely questionable things like “Yippie-kaiee, motherfucker” and “Everybody knows, when you make an assumption, you make an ass out of you and umption.” They can mow down a dojo of culotte-wearing ninjas and have probably yet to take on a soufflé.
They also all have another thing in common (aside from shoulders with chips in them). These characters have put up an elevated version of the Wall of China around their hearts. Their feelings. Their mental health. Their truth.
In short: they are emotionally constipated.
This is a fantastic state to be in if you are stealth-kicking the nut sack of a 70’s porn-star wannabe in a barn, but somewhat of a travesty if you side-stepped the O.K. Corral gunfight and are trying to find yourself a partner (in life, not crime). Life partners are looking for authenticity and honesty. Fortunately, there is emotional Dulcolax® in the form of sharing your vulnerability.
A man friend of mine recently referred to the internal, culturally pervasive defense structures men feel inclined to erect as “man walls.” He discussed the unspoken expectation of a man to keep his fears close to his chest, to maintain a steady air of composure and don a bullet-proof facade in the face of uncertainty or anxiety. “What do men feel they have to keep hidden?” I asked.
Fears about money. Managing anxiety or depression. Not being able to support a family. Job security. Worry about hairlines that are braving expeditions to uncover the contents of your back pockets. Having The Rock’s hard abs. Some ask, “Am I a good enough lover?” “Am I a good enough father?” “How can I keep my shit together?” “Am I good enough?”
This resonated with me. Not being able to share your concerns allows them to sit inside you, sinister and billowing, gorging on your stress in damp isolation. They pump out toxic gasses, poisoning your mood, outlook, and daily interactions until eventually there is a rupture. An outburst. A meltdown. It’s worth noting that certain cancers and volcanoes around the Pacific Ring of Fire also behave this way.
Concealing any part of your identity is a disservice to you and the people around you. You are misrepresenting, essentially wearing an emotional merkin. Nobody wants to interact with a facade of a human being, or 50% of a person. We seek to spend time with the complex flavors of the whole ambrosial, sauce-smothered enchilada. We can respectfully acknowledge that these fears are yours, but there is no need to sequester them.
Fear’s worst fear is being named.
“I’ve learned that men and women who are living wholehearted lives really allow themselves to soften into joy and happiness. They allow themselves to experience it.” ~ Brené Brown
Some gentle suggestions:
- Don’t bottle things up (unless it’s your home brew). It’s wonderfully freeing to talk about your struggles. Two brains on a challenge are generally better than one. Lighten the load and brainstorm solutions with someone. Share honestly with your loved ones in a safe environment. By blocking vulnerable feelings, you’re blocking out the good stuff too—love, compassion, the feeling of freedom, validation, and acceptance. Bottling things up is detrimental and also why The Hulk can’t successfully secure homeowners insurance.
- Don’t be afraid to cry. Showing genuine emotion is a sign of great strength. One evening, I turned to my husband while watching the sentimental period piece that is MasterChef Junior. He whipped his head away from me and said, “I’m not crying, my eyeballs are leaking.” Please note: everyone would much rather you show an innate response to emotive stimuli than cop to an acute bout of conjunctivitis. Your tears show me you are human and not a cyborg assassin sent back in time from the year 2029 to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor. They help me relate to you because I too am struggling with Gordon Ramsey’s decision to dash the dreams of a seven-year-old culinary wizard.
- Be open and present. Take a deep breath. Use your strength to take responsibility for your emotions. They don’t control you, they are driftwood in the Pacific Ocean of life. Be gentle and kind from a place of strength, become the Jedi Master of your emotions, Kung Fu Panda in the face of pain. Being present allows you to choose an effective response instead of a rash exhibition to prove your machismo. It takes tremendous fortitude to not allow the actions of others derail you from being kind. Never mistake cruelness for power or kindness for weakness.
- Embrace Your Squishy Bits. I mean the parts of you that feel terrifying to expose. The parts of you that—GASP!—are culturally mislabeled as “feminine.” This might include a damn good cry at the end of Rudy or the entire season of MasterChef Junior, your dog’s death, sad ESPN documentaries, your love of commercials that contain horses (Clydesdale or miniature). You like scalp massages and those spa treatments where transparent fish cannibalize your feet? Who the fuck cares?! That shit is unique, intriguing, and should be celebrated.
We must reexamine the tough guy image. It’s two dimensional, which men most certainly are not. Real “tough guys” and true “heroes” stand up for themselves and those that are less privileged than them, those smaller in stature, those with marginalized voices. Being open and expressing vulnerability makes you more of a man.
And if you are unabashedly wearing your vulnerability like a gloriously voluptuous man bun, I applaud you and ask that you keep doing it because you are a role model. Chuck Norris would finger-gun salute the roundhouse kicks you are giving male stereotyping.
It takes a great deal of courage to be vulnerable, to admit what’s on your heart, to speak from a place of calm authenticity.
It takes a badass kind of self-assuredness to make space for richer relationships, because when your security is anchored in the self, you are less likely to respond to a minor denigration with a hail of gunfire.
That type of fearlessness is about the manliest manly dude guy thing I can think of.
So whip out your emotional nunchucks, set a wrecking ball to those man walls and tap into the delicious depths.
Go ahead, make my day.
Photo: Paul Townsend/Flickr