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Stop Telling Us to Be Vulnerable
It's Not that Simple
Since Brené Brown went from unknown social worker and researcher to YouTube sensation with her 2010 TED Talk, the word vulnerable has appeared more and more frequently in our lexicon. But, like many messages that go from obscure to mainstream, having been repeated by one person to another, then another, and another, what Brown reported to us regarding vulnerability has become more diluted the further it has travelled from the source.
Fast forward a decade or so, and people who have never heard her name, let alone read her work, in matters of the heart, repeat an imperative derived from a watered-down, inadequate version of her message: “you have to be vulnerable.”
We all know, when we lose the master copy of the document and put the copy in the Xerox, it’s not quite the same. When this happens repeatedly, when a copy becomes the master copy, over and over again, eventually the copy barely resembles the original.
That 2010 TEDTalk was called “The Power of Vulnerability.” She carefully explained how her research shows, in order to achieve real connection with the people we love, we must summon the courage to be seen, and to do so, we must be willing to endure some measure of vulnerability.
Imagine all the people who, since 2010, sat in a therapist’s office, paralyzed by fear at the prospect of revealing how they truly feel to anyone on earth. The therapist encouraged them to walk through that fear, saying “be vulnerable.” Now, imagine all those same people who happened to be women, married to men who were disconnected from themselves and their emotions, sitting across from their husbands amidst marital conflict, saying “you have to be vulnerable.”
I presume most women are a bit more attuned to the nuance of this concept. For the women I know to recognize a need to withstand the discomfort of baring their souls to cross an emotional hurdle of some sort seems realistic. However, the men in my world . . . well. If I give them the dumbed-down version, and say “you have to be vulnerable,” I will see their gaze awash with some combination of confusion, dread, and inward hostility. Or, to put it another way, they’ll look at me like I have three heads.
By definition, vulnerability is synonymous with weakness. So, in this culture steeped in patriarchal norms, where we systematically train men to detach from their emotions, we’re telling them the answer is to “be vulnerable.” In doing so, we continue to reinforce the dangerously problematic belief that to be emotional is to be weak.
Especially with men, we have to throw away the copy and go back to the original. If we continue to tell them to “be vulnerable” the message will continue to stick. But, it will never work.
When we suggest to someone that they should “be vulnerable,” we are challenging them to demonstrate the courage to be real. We’re not telling them to be weak. We’re asking them to be strong.
So, despite what the culture warriors who populate the manosphere are saying as I write this, we don’t want men to be less masculine. We want them to be more masculine.
Describing men in our culture collectively - the way we’re indoctrinated to believe we’re not supposed to feel, and what that does to us - the author bell hooks called us “divided souls.” But, you don’t have to be a feminist to see it. Even most meatheads would acknowledge that this indoctrination does more harm than good.
The truth is, when a man becomes grounded in himself and connected to his heart; when he becomes emotionally literate, he becomes powerful in a way that would not otherwise be possible.
Strength is one of the few common traits found in the prototypical man, across all cultures and religions. Almost never do we all agree. But, we agree men should be strong.
If we ever want men to be better partners and better husbands and better fathers and better friends and altogether better people, we have to be better communicators who convey better messages.
Words matter. We have to stop telling men to “be vulnerable.” It probably hurts more than it helps.
If we really want to help men, we have to say what we mean, because language has power.
Challenge a man to be courageous, to be strong, to be real, and you won’t see that look of fear and confusion on his face. You’ll see confidence. You’ll see determination. You’ll see power.
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