I grew up as a Tomboy. I was the only girl in the Boy Scouts, spent my days climbing trees and wore jeans and baseball caps. I grew up feeling empowered to do anything that my heart desired and I did just that, especially when it meant beating the guys at their own game. In fact, I took pride in beating the guys. Whether it was swimming in the Scouts, showing my boyfriend how to build a campfire after watching him fail miserably, or outsmarting boys on tests. Anything they could do, I could do better and I was sure to let them know.
As I grew older I did start to dabble in some more feminine activities but when I found myself working in the construction industry for my first graduate job, I fell back into my old patterns of showing the guys that I was better than them at everything. In that industry, I felt it was the only way to become successful and sometimes the only way to survive. The thing is that I actually loved being in this environment and I took pride in the fact that these guys got shown up when they got outsmarted by a girl. It was as though I was fighting some kind of war for all the women who had been suppressed throughout history and I was taking no prisoners.
When this approach starting to seep into other areas of my life, especially in my relationships, it turned out to be more toxic than successful. I started to notice this when my boyfriend of three years started to experience depression. I didn’t really understand it and after becoming so estranged from any kind of vulnerability within myself I simply didn’t know how to handle this situation. For the next year and a half, I stayed with him out of loyalty but couldn’t help getting frustrated with his situation and watching all his family and friends pander to him when my response was much less sympathetic. As much as I feel ashamed to write this, at the time I saw his depression as a weakness.
I didn’t know at the time but the reality was that I was scared. Scared of admitting those vulnerabilities within myself and scared that I might be the problem. When I couldn’t take it any longer I took an opportunity to do an internship abroad for a few months to give both of us some space. Those months away allowed him to empower himself and work on his depression, without me there to take his empowerment away he managed to pull himself out of that negative space. Needless to say, this lead to us breaking up as I was part of the problem.
At the time I didn’t learn from this experience and spent the next couple of years travelling, running away from any deep connection and any other opportunity to be vulnerable. That was until I fell in love again.
This time, however, I fell in love with a guy who wouldn’t open up because he was so vulnerable after experiencing a variety of traumas in his childhood and adult life. He was like a closed nut with a magical light shining from the inside and I desperately wanted to see more.
My response? To try and prize the nut open.
Back then this was my response to most things. Fight with determination and win—after all, I was empowered. I was strong and vulnerability (weakness as I saw it) wasn’t something that existed in my world. Despite all my efforts, this strategy backfired.
We broke up and the following year I learnt what real vulnerability was, through experiencing my own series of traumas that invited intensely vulnerable emotions into my consciousness from depths that I never knew existed inside me. I learnt that my “empowerment” had silenced the men in my life and highlighted them as weak against my own strength of will. I had shamed them for having vulnerable emotions, and my “being soft is weakness” attitude didn’t allow them to show vulnerability in my presence, so instead they suppressed it. For the guys that stuck around—family, friends, and romantic partners—these suppressions slowly crept towards depression as these men were frequently rejected by the empowered women in their lives who paraded the same message as me.
What I’ve come to realize is that as an empowered woman I can suppress men if I don’t show my vulnerabilities as well as my strengths. As women, it’s socially acceptable for us to be emotional as much as it is now for us to fight our corner. As empowered women it is important that we do this to break down the shame that surrounds vulnerabilities. If we don’t acknowledge those vulnerable emotions then we don’t create the safe emotional space for men to do so either. That’s when our empowerment silences men, rather than empowers them.
In order to help empower the men in my life, I’ve taken it upon myself to make the first move and show them my vulnerability. It’s not easy and there is a lot of work to do, especially after the way I’ve acted for such a long time. Sometimes it leaves me feeling quite exposed and awkward but mostly it leads to an emotionally safe space where we can both talk about how we feel and release the silent loads that have weighed us down.
Since I’ve started this approach I’ve seen the men in my life grow and build closer connections in their own relationships and friendships. I’ve seen them become more confident, dynamic and authentic in their way of addressing life. I’ve watched them become more empowered with me, rather than opposed to me. The only thing that needed to change was my attitude.
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