The Vulnerability of Masculinity
As mental health therapy becomes more normalized and the number of people seeking counseling increases, blind spots in our development are making their way into the offices of therapists in the country. A recurring discussion that I am having in my office almost weekly is one that surrounds a topic that I, shamefully, have never put much thought into as a clinician- masculinity.
In the past year, the concept of masculinity has begun a transformation thanks to social media, increased discussion surrounding human rights, and increased acceptance and transparency with the LGBTQ+ community. The term “toxic masculinity” is common for anyone who spends time online or is present in newage social justice discussions.
The conversation that is happening inside the walls of the therapy room sounds a bit different. Young men are coming to therapy attempting to gain the ability to be vulnerable while still maintaining their masculinity. From there, the conversation typically goes to- what is your idea of masculinity? Is this an idea that you feel you fit?
This is where the disconnect begins. At this point, it becomes clear that there is little to no room for vulnerability in these young men’s understanding of masculinity. Most of them are balancing in the middle- they do not want to be associated with toxic masculinity, but are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the territory of allowing themselves to present as vulnerable or, sometimes, even human to other men.
As a clinician, I have taken the time to educate myself and be present for these young men in order for them to share their experiences. As a person, I am working to open up more discussion with my male friends to explore this area.
Here are some strategies for implementing vulnerability into the lives of your sons or any young man in your life:
Demonstrate vulnerability in daily life and do not be afraid to call it by its name. By making vulnerability normal and necessary, it diminishes the negative stigma surrounding it.
Identify the spectrum of “what it means to be a man.” Rather than relying on an outdated definition of masculinity, introduce the concept of choosing your own masculinity. By allowing a young man to make the conscious choice of what parts of masculinity he most identifies with, there is room for him to disengage with ideas such as emotional distance or need to compete with others.
Challenge bullying amongst men. This concept has become more prevalent in the realm of women, but remains popular in groups of men. Next time you hear or see a boy being called a “girl” or other derogatory name for acting differently, provide discussion around the toxicity in this behavior.
Normalize emotional vulnerability in romantic relationships. This has become ever-present in my conversations with these young men. Many of them were never able to discuss their difficulties with physical attraction without the presence of emotional connection. The amount of shame surrounding lack of physical vulnerability without the presence of emotional vulnerability is its highest in adolescent and young adult males.
While these concepts are not groundbreaking, they have the capacity to make a large impact on the development of young men. By having these conversations and receiving this corrective experience in my office, I have been honored with watching their confidence grow and their capacity for meaningful relationships increase.
As referenced in Peggy Orstein’s novel Boys and Sex, the 1950’s stereotype of what a man is no longer serves our society or our men. While the idea of the ideal woman is maturing and changing, we are overdue to include our young men in the discussion. (By C Brown)