Masculinity with Vulnerability
Once I had a boss who seemed like a Greek God. He was tall, athletic, handsome, and rumor had it that he posed as an underwear model when he lived overseas. He was also funny, charismatic, smart, self-deprecating, and radically candid. While he was a manager at the time, everyone knew he was on track to be a partner at the firm.
I idolized him.
One day I delivered a presentation to him and the team. Afterwards, he let me know how bad it was. It hurt to disappoint someone who I admired so much, and yet I respected him even more for his truthfulness. It was my initiation to real feedback at work. Delivered in a group session, it was also vaguely humiliating. Later, we finally sat down for a real one-on-one.
What he said in that conversation shocked me.
He didn’t feel like he was very good at his job. He shared his concerns about what the client thought of him, what his boss thought of him, and what our team thought of him. He alluded to challenges in his personal life due to working crazy hours. Then he asked me a question.
He asked me for advice on how to be a better boss.
Life inverted. The walls came crumbling down.
What I learned that day is being macho isn’t what makes a man, it is being vulnerable. Poker-faced is easy. Emotive is hard. Stonewalling is easy. Engaging — when you are flooded with emotions — is hard. Aggressive is easy. Gentle is hard. Meanness is easy. Kindness is hard. Casting aspersions is easy. Loving your enemies is hard.
Sometimes I get quiet with my wife. I hide. I can’t handle the feelings I’m having, or I don’t want to share them, so I don’t say anything. I steam, I sulk, I self-loathe, and I scheme. If I spend a lot of time in this state, a divide can widen. Then I remember: tell her how I feel. Bring vulnerability, not pride. It’s not easy, but eventually, and sometimes with help, I get there. She softens. Icy waters turn warm. Conversation happens. Healing begins. She ends up being remarkably understanding, and generous of spirit, when I am.
We mirror each other.
A colleague recently told me that vulnerability mirrors vulnerability. You offer it, you get it back.
Michael Kaufman, a gender equality writer and thinker, believes that one of the things that all men have in common is our fear of other men. Fear of violence, fear of conflict, fear of not measuring up, fear of being cuckolded, fear of not being as attractive, fear of not marrying up, fear of not marrying or dating at all, fear of being sexually inferior, fear of being socially inferior, fear of being poor, fear of not being wealthy, fear of not being successful, fear of those who are different, fear of those who are the same, fear of aggression, fear of being gay, fear of coming out, fear of being killed, fear of competing, fear of losing, and fear of being a loser.
Perhaps the ultimate way for men to neutralize those fears and to transcend toxic masculinity, misogyny, and homophobia is to become vulnerable — drawing people of all types closer, and inviting them to know us, and to see us as we are rather than the macho way we have previously projected ourselves.
Perhaps it is most important not to do this just with the people we love and know, but also with the people who we do not know but want to, and the people who want to know us.
In the process, we don’t just open ourselves up to being more vulnerable. We open the doors for all humans to embody all human traits.
Maybe being vulnerable is not weak.
Maybe vulnerability — and being able to show it, share it, reckon with it, and emerge the better for it — is what makes us strong.