If you really want to know a man, forget about vulnerability!
The last twenty-five years have seen the emergence of what could be termed the ‘new man’. He is ideally, balanced in his masculine and feminine energies. Both comfortable in his strength but also connected to a soft, tender part of himself. He lives with an un-armored heart, but he also has his shit together and is ’showing up’, is being all he can be, giving his unique gift, offering leadership, etc, etc.
He is both a man’s man and also a woman’s man.
In relationships, he deftly navigates the paradox of this duality. On Monday, he is a strong and confident, masculine man. Instigating, outwardly active, demonstrative. Giving his woman space and freedom to relax into her femininity. On Tuesday, he may suddenly be required to be open and emotional, to express his deepest fears and longings to this same woman. On Wednesday, it’s back on his stallion and off to slay dragons.
This narrative, this new idea of a balanced man, one that is encouraged to seek out and harmonize the masculine and feminine energies within, can sometimes begin to feel like a set of contradicting expectations and demands, and one of the most prominent of those, is that men should be able to be ‘vulnerable’.
Now, (and I have researched this a bit), not all, but many people, of all genders, see vulnerability as being able to show emotions. It means being able to be open and authentic in a relational context, able to express inner thoughts and feelings directly to another.
For women, this is very often the reality but for men it seldom is! Let me explain why.
What does being vulnerable actually mean?
Have you ever looked up the term in the dictionary? No? Here it is.
adjective: vulnerable – exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.
Sounds like fun right? I mean, who wouldn’t want to experience that?
Have we ever actually thought about what we’re asking of a man when we say we want him to be vulnerable? Remember, vulnerability is not an emotional state. It describes a situation or circumstance. It is the rational recognition of an actual threat. It is asking a man to feel exposed, fearful, and in danger.
Now in order for a man to organize and deal with the feeling of being unsafe, his subconscious will immediately armor itself. This response is beyond just whether a man is ‘self-aware’ or not. It is a genetic imperative protecting the organism. Fight or flight. Kill or be killed. Trying to override this response is like trying to stop yourself from sweating or breathing. It is reflexive
Obviously, we have come a long way from our stone-age past but we are still deeply influenced by the visceral and evolutionary forces that developed in us over tens of millions of years. Having had to survive in the harshest of environments and circumstances, the primordial capacity of a man to face danger, to physically and mentally manage the threat, is deeply programmed and, in that subconscious equation, for a man, being emotionally vulnerable in the normal sense is a liability!
Anger, rage and even violent aggression are more likely to result in survival. This is as true for men as is the inner pull in women to find a mate that is strong and powerful enough to protect her. To then have him pass to her the genetic lineage of strong healthy offspring and then carry, birth and nurse those offspring, in what was at that time a very dangerous and brutal existence. Women were truly vulnerable, especially with young, and without the protection of a male, survival was improbable at best.
We, of course, live in a different physical and social world now. A ‘civilized’ world. But we still inhabit that same chemical landscape of our ancestors. Our hormones, our pheromones; all the messaging systems of our entire neural and endocrinal functions are all still active and of huge influence. The genetic emphasis that created us remains and will continue to drive us to adapt and evolve.
And we have adapted from those early ages of man. Some changes for the better, many for the worse. Now, masculinity is expressed in the male obsession with competitive sport and in the prevalence and glorification of violence and aggression. Not just in the horrors of real war and conflict but also reflected in the on-line games and virtual worlds where death and aggression are built-in. Vulnerability in this context is life-threatening and in the male psyche, it is used to a large extent as part of a strategy to achieve dominance and power over an enemy.
My point is that for men, on a deep, instinctive level of survival, vulnerability is a weakness. No matter how deeply a man has worked on his own conscious evolution.
For women, being emotional and expressing those emotions is not subject to this evolutionary block. But for men it is. The difference has to be understood. It is so much more than just the conditioning we receive as children. As a young boy, I was never told to stop crying or to suck it up and be a man, at least not by my parents. They both allowed my expression of pain in all its forms to be full and unrepressed. They held me in silence and allowed me to cry freely. I have also, in turn, allowed my Sons to grow up feeling safe and held when they felt sad or were hurt. Tears and emotions have always been accepted and yet, and yet, my Sons and I still find it extremely difficult to fully express our tears in front of others. Especially women. And for a man to open his heart, feeling emotionally vulnerable is the last thing he needs.
The good news is that there is actually no reason to seek this of men. The fact is, we are not asking for vulnerability at all. If we want to see what lies in a man’s heart, we have to ask not for vulnerability, but for courage. Men can do that. Courage is the active response to vulnerability. It is what a man needs, to move into an exposed place. It allows him to act in spite of fear.
A call to be courageous resonates with the deep drivers in the male unconscious. It aligns with the genetic imperative. It comes naturally. And this is not just a question of being pedantic. It’s not just about naming something differently. Asking a man to be courageous through his direct verbal expression and communication is very different from asking him to be vulnerable.
For women, vulnerability is felt like a very immediate and real experience and it elicits the desire and the drive to communicate and express emotions directly, right at the moment. For men, vulnerability is not something to be confronted and expressed directly in the same way. Men live with and process the experience of opening their interior world in a very different way.
They do it through creativity.
Flashback again to 1,000,000 BC. Our hairless bodies and small teeth, our clawless hands and feet, left us vulnerable to large predatory beasts. It was our brains that allowed us to compete. We had to learn, we had to imagine. We had to be creative or become extinct!
First with our environment, using what we found around us as weapons and tools to survive. Then we got more creative, tools and weapons were developed and, through trial and error improved. Then we began to use tactics, systems, methods to hunt, store and preserve food and to overcome dangers in the environment. And, of course, we learned to create and control fire. These adaptions were then passed on down the generations. For adolescent men, this involved learning to overcome emotions, to override pain and to gain a stoicism and toughness that would equip them for a life of threats, conflict, and competition. This is still seen in the demanding and dangerous rituals of initiation for young men in tribal communities from Australian Aborigines to the jungles of the Amazon and to the African bush.
Then a new level of expression evolved. the very Human notion to reproduce those real-life experiences in an imagined and representative way, as seen in early primitive art and cave paintings. This was the dawn of Human creativity, and it’s at the core of how men have expressed themselves ever since.
Look at the world around you. Everything you see that is ‘man-made’ is an expression of creativity. Roads, cars, buildings, new technology, space flight, infrastructure, industry, art, music, film, it’s all born out of Creativity. Of course, we know that creativity is not an exclusively male domain any more than emotionality is exclusively a female one, but what I am saying is that if we can set aside, just for a moment, the modern notions of gender equality, the dominance of patriarchy, or the rise of feminism and just look at it from an anthropological perspective. Consider for a moment, how many female architects you can name? How many female explorers, composers, designers, artists, engineers, inventors? Yes, of course, there are and always have been many extraordinarily creative women. My point is that in the way that emotional expression is natural for women, so creative expression is natural for men. Even in affairs of the heart, creativity is where men can open up.
John Lennon wrote the lyrics “Woman, I can hardly express my inner feeling and thankfulness.” This is where men access their vulnerability and express sensitivity. Through creativity. It’s there in the poetry of Yates, Keats, Byron, and Dylan. In the music of Mozart, Chopin, and Vivaldi. In the scripts of Shakespeare and Dickens. The art of Picasso, Van Gogh and Klimt.
When Charles Darwin was about to reveal his thesis on the Origin of Species, it was the most vulnerable moment of his life. He was exposing himself to possible ridicule and even accusations of blasphemy for his work, even though it was based on evidence and scientific rigor. When Einstein published his theory of relativity, ( The core of which was realized while taking a bubble bath), he too was putting his entire professional credibility on the line – since his theory was based on postulations that were unverifiable at the time. A huge risk that took immense courage.
So to understand how men open their hearts and minds and even their bodies to some extent, it is essential to see the connection between their creativity and their courage, between the expression of their inner world and how they choose to communicate that. For men, it is a call to become aware that it is ok to not want to be vulnerable, to not accept that they have to be more like women in their expression in order to be authentic and real. Men are not defective women! They are running on a very different operating system and for women, this is a call to instead seek courage and fortitude in men. To honour and acknowledge the differences in our expression and communication. This understanding can allow compassion and acceptance towards the difficulty men experience in expressing emotion.
Male vulnerability is a myth. We can allow men to show their authentic selves as warriors, both spiritual and material and in the end, it is I believe what women really want.