I have been pondering a question for some time: what if we let men be themselves? Without any of the societal pressures, role assuming behaviors, or passed down expectations? What if we did not force men to succumb to any of the actions or conventional behavior of what a man is supposed to be? What if we just let men be free from all the identity destroying expectations we have placed on manhood? As I ask myself that same question over and over in my head, I have come to the conclusion that one of the ways to get to this point is to not shame men for showing vulnerability.
There is a stigma, a thought held with all of us, that if a man shows any kind of vulnerability he is not a man. This vulnerability can come from fear, pain, weakness, upset, or being in need of any kind of emotional help. This is taught to us at a very young age. Women are allowed to be emotional creatures, expressing any feeling they want. Men – we are supposed to be strong all the time. If we cry we hear, “Stop that, crying is for girls,” “Shake it off, it’s nothing”, and the ever present “Man Up.”
If there was ever a phrase that has severely hurt men’s growth, it is “Man-Up.” To say that to an adult male is one thing, but to hear that as a child is another. I cannot tell you how many times in one way or another I have heard that phrase. It’s almost as if boys are not allowed to feel any kind of discomfort, or that being hurt is one of the rites of passage of growing up to be a man. Having older people say that to a young boy, as well as shit like, “Pain is weakness leaving the body”, can and does have a negative effect. It forces men to bottle up our pain until it comes out – either through substance abuse, extreme behavior, violence against our partners, or ourselves. This teaching to young men discourages any type of real closeness between fellow boys. The friendships that result in this usually involve machismo, bravado, and alpha male chest pumping.
I didn’t start having deep friendships until my mid-twenties. For me up until that point, friendships meant talking about music, cars, video games, movies, sports, and women. It was nothing too deep because we are all frontin’ like we got it all together. This is what we thought being a friend was all about – getting drunk, fighting, picking up women, calling women bitches, helping them fix their car, and talking crap. Any attempt to go beyond that was met with being called a sissy, mama’s boy, and “talking like a bitch.” This was all we saw men doing. It wasn’t until I started seeing confident brothers of all races talking about more pensive things, not putting down women, not expressing this fake bravado, that I began to question my upbringing and manhood.
A turning point for me was when I heard one man say to another man: “I love you.” It was so casual, so natural. Two male friends had been having a conversation and as one was leaving the party, they gave each other a hug and the other friend said it. This guy was so secure in himself. He was self-assured and didn’t worry about anyone thinking he was soft, weak, or gay. I admired that about him and from that moment, I wanted to emulate that. Shortly after, I dropped the phony tough guy act that I was never good at anyway. That was the moment I decided I wanted to be better, more evolved person.
As I started to become more in touch with who I am, I started to like myself more. One of the first things I did was accept who I am. I am a sensitive guy; I always have been. I care very deeply and sometimes I am moved to tears. I realized there is nothing wrong with that. Men are human and crying is a part of life. Once I started being completely honest with myself, it was easier for me to express what I felt without worrying about what people thought. It is not easy, especially being a young Black man, but at some point I said, “Screw it, this is who I am.” I believe that was the first step to being more in touch with who I am, and through that, the things that I thought a man should be disappeared. I kept it real with myself – I was never a tough person, not overly masculine, but not effeminate. I grew up reading books, watching soap operas, and cooking – not working on cars or playing football, so why should I act like it? As a result of me feeling and becoming more vulnerable, my relationships with my family became better. I started to express my feelings towards them and how I felt about them. My bond with my brother was solid to begin with, but then it became unbreakable. I started to see my parents as human, and not perfect, and my friendships got stronger. I began to have in-depth conversations with my friends. During one particular conversation, a great friend of mine was unsure about how he felt about his now wife. He and I talked out their relationship for hours. There was no “This bitch” or “I’m just out here messing around” comments; it was two men who let their guard down exposing how they felt, and it was beautiful. We were all growing. This world of phony expectations of manhood had fallen to the wayside and I had my friends to support me.
It is important for me, a Black male in his late 30’s to show emotion and to be vulnerable. We are not monolithic. Too many of us are wrapped up in this stereotype of manhood where the only emotion is anger or excitement over violence. We have no model of how to express our feelings. I didn’t learn to be open until my mid-20’s. That’s too darn late. I want young Black men, heck young men of all races to stop buying into this harmful crap of “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” To me, pain is growth. I want us to support each other. I want men to have other men’s back. Stop the disparagement, stop the bullshit. When men can be vulnerable, then they will be better partners and parents. The aim here is to help the new generation. So many problems can be solved if a man had a friend he could call and say, “I’m feeling real bad right now. Can you talk?” Do you know how many men that would help, to let them know you are not alone?
In April 2016, Men’s Health published a report that showed men’s overall suicide rates have risen 24% in the last 15 years. What is even more troubling is that men from the ages of 45 to 64 have jumped 43%. While the reasons may vary, men are often taught to “keep things in” or “just press on.” As we see by the suicide statistics, this is not a healthy way to live.
Recently I received a call from a friend who experienced a death of a close friend. He spoke of being very sad and had been crying a lot. I could relate because two months ago, I also lost a friend who had touched my heart. Without any hesitation, I asked if he wanted to meet up for a drink. Later in the week, he and I got together and I just let him talk about his loss and how much the person meant to him. I had not been in this situation before – being there emotionally for a male friend who had needed someone to talk to. It felt different; foreign, but good. I felt great being in a position to listen and comfort someone who truly needed that. I don’t toot my own horn very often, but I felt very proud of myself.
To show vulnerability as a man and around other men is essential. We need to move beyond the stereotypical “A man should soldier through pain.” Men fail, have doubt, experience fear and heartbreak, cry and there is nothing wrong with that. Men are sensitive people and should embrace that. Neglecting feelings that we have and pressuring other men not to feel is not only unhealthy, but it stunts our growth. It stops men from evolving into what they could be. It stops relationships with other men from being what they should be.
This was a really hard piece for me to write. I wrote it two or three times because there is so much to say about this subject. I care about the future of man. We are lost if we don’t allow ourselves to sit in our feelings, process pain, and become comfortable with showing our emotions. The fragility of man is real and it starts with us.