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Masculinity and Vulnerability

The Role of Gender,

And What Guys Typically Learn While Learning to Be Guys

Gender is a complicated thing, and there are lots of exceptions to any pattern that I could describe.  With that in mind, I'm going to start here with some sweeping generalizations, and then I'll circle back around and talk more about the complexity of it.  Here are your sweeping generalizations:

  • Boys and men are often socialized to believe that it is kind of shameful to show fear and sadness.  So we don't express vulnerable emotions.  Girls who are sad or scared tend to get support and sympathy, for as long as they are sad and scared.  Boys who are sad or scared get some sympathy, but as they get older they get more and more messages that toughness is admirable, and fear and sadness are weak and shameful.

  • Often when women lead with vulnerability, men don't respond by being vulnerable in return.  Even in the role of listener, men often get have trouble giving a vulnerable response.  We can be mad on your behalf, but have trouble being sad for you when you are sad. 

  • Our gender socialization is partly conscious, and partly unconscious. Partly consciously and partly unconsciously, we learn to feel what we are allowed to feel and express what we are allowed to express. 

  • To be weak is to be inferior.  For men, status in the tribe is based on strength and confidence.  Alpha males aren't scared and sad.  Males who are scared and sad are somewhere down the pecking order. 

  • If we won't be vulnerable, it is hard for you to be close to us.  To a great extent, we humans feel close to each other during moments when we share how hard life can be, and when we feel like we are going through hard or confusing things together.  To a great extent, that can't happen if I have to keep up the facade that I am never scared or sad or confused.  You can't share the struggles of being human with me if I won't be human back.

  • Giving advice fits perfectly into the the masculine role we want to play.  If you are sad and scared, I can't say, "I know how you feel," because that means that I might sometimes be sad and scared too.  But if I start telling you how to fix it, I am steping into a role that I love: Now I am the strong, confident hero, rescuing the damsel in distress.  I'm the expert.  I'm the one who knows stuff about stuff.  Of course I want to give you advice rather than just being sad with you. 

So, that is the basics.  Now let me dig into the complexity of some of these things. 

Some Caveats, and My Point of View

As soon as we start talking about gender, a bunch of caveats are needed.  We assume that gender is largely cultural, and largely taught through the ways that parents and others encourage some behavior and discourage other behavior.  That means that different cultures and different families convey different messages about how males and females are expected to behave.  Some families have powerful messages about gender, with love and approval strongly tied to compliance.  Other families are much more accepting of gender roles that don't match the stereotypes.  So, one might think of gender roles as a set of culturally encouraged tendencies, but any given person or family might or might not fit the patterns described here.  There lots of women who show a more typically male pattern, and lots of men who show a more typically female pattern. And there are plenty of people who are gay or lesbian, or who experience and express their gender in ways that don’t fall into the conventional male and female patterns.

In this article I am talking in part about a frequent heterosexual experience that occurs when someone with a male pattern of defenses is in a relationship with someone who has a typical female pattern.  If that doesn't apply to you, try this translation:  I am talking about closeness through vulnerability, and the way that gets messed up if someone has defenses against being vulnerable.  As you read this, you might ask yourself, "am I able to be close to people by being vulnerable?"

And this is probably a good place to state some of the biases that I am aware of having about gender roles.  I'm a huge fan of people having a wide range of behavoir in our repertoires.  I want men and boys to be able to be nurturing and vulnerable, to talk about emotions and relationships, and to often set aside any impulse to be alpha and be in charge.  I want women and girls to be able to be assertive, to feel like they have a right to be heard and a right to lead when they want to, and to feel able to aspire to being tough and resourceful. 

In these articles I am often focusing on relationships and on closeness.  I am a big fan of the form of closeness that comes through vulnerability and self-disclosure.  Because of that, it will be clear that much of what I have to say in this article is directed at men, and the idea that, in general, men need to get better at some of the skills that are involved in this kind of closeness.  These include the skills of thinking and talking about how you feel, of showing vulnerability, and of responding to someone else's vulnerability with vulnerability of your own, rather than with an "invulnerable" response, such as advice giving.

Various research has shown that from quite early ages boys and girls show different patterns around self disclosure, vulnerability, and how we talk about emotions, and especially vulnerable emotions like fear and sadness. (Deborah Tannen wrote a fine book a few years back, “You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation” that covers a lot of these patterns quite nicely, and some of what I have to say in this article is drawn from her. I find her book to contain more careful thinking and more scientific findings than the well known book, “Men Are From Mars; Women Are From Venus.”)

The typically observed pattern is that men and boys are reluctant to express experiences and emotions that might lead to being perceived as weak. We aren’t born this way. Lots of good observational research has noted that adults treat boys and girls differently when we are expressing pain or sadness or fear. A friend and colleague captured it nicely when he somewhat humorously noted that his father’s typical response to one of his childhood injuries was, “shhh. You’re not hurt. Shhhh. You’re not hurt.”

By the time we are men, we guys understand that manliness involves showing strength, and strength doesn’t include showing or saying that we are sad or scared or confused. We are supposed to convey that we are strong, that we have things under control, and that we know the answer to this question, whether we actually do or not. As a shorthand I will call this, “typical male defenses,” while noting again that some women also show these defenses, and some men don’t.

Problem Number One:  We Don't Express Vulnerable Emotions

It has been noted by various authors including Deborah Tannen that women are much more prone to express vulnerable emotions, like fear and sadness than are men.  Men are most likely to express just two emotions, anger and happiness.  (You'll notice that there is very little vulnerability involved in either anger or happiness.)  In this typical pattern, a man is far more likely to come home from work and talk about something that makes him angry than to admit that what happened at work left him sad or anxious or confused.

One part of male defenses is that we often avoid talking about negative stuff at all.  Often if we come home after a bad day, we don't particularly want to talk about that day.  Several times I have had men in my office explain to their wives that, no, they don't want to talk about their bad day.  "I just lived through it.  If I talk about it, I just have to go through it again.  Why would I want to do that?  Let's talk about something else, to take my mind off of it."  It isn't that men never want to express pain and receive sympathy, but it is much less automatic.  And if our response to a hard day is, "I need a distraction and a beer," a loved one isn't going to feel like we are letting them in. 

Deborah Tannen describes observational research in which women simply spend a lot more of their conversational time talking about relationships and emotions.  In general, women become more skilled at talking about emotions, and more accustomed to it.  A part of the reason that men don't express vulnerable emotions is that we don't put them into words even to ourselves.  We are less likely to think, "I'm sad, and here is why," and because of that we have a harder time explaining how we feel.  Women ask men how we are feeling, and are suprised that at times we seem unable to describe what we are feeling and where it came from.  Often, it isn't that we know how we feel, but won't tell you.  We used distraction, and we put it out of our minds, and half the time we don't know ourselves exactly how we feel. 

Problem Number Two:  We Don't Commiserate Properly

I love the word "commiserate."  It perfectly captures the male dilemma about what we should do when someone we love is sad.  We often use the word as if it just means "sympathize," and that isn't too far off, but look at the roots of the word.  The roots are "com," which means together, and "miser" or "miserari," which means to be miserable.  To commiserate is to be miserable together.  That is exactly what we males tend to suck at.  You tell us how bad you feel, and we could join you in your pain, saying things like, "I'm so sorry; that is so awful; you must feel so bad."  We could say things that convey that we are with you, that we get what you are going through, that we feel really bad for you.  To commiserate I need to be miserable with you.  I need to feel your pain, or your sadness, or your confusion.  But that's not masculine, not strong, not confident.  So what I try to do instead is offer some kind of help that doesn't involve being sad and confused along with you.  What kind of maneuvers are those? 

One of the things I can do is be mad on your behalf at whoever is making you miserable.  It's that perfect male alchemy, where I turn sad into mad.  Me being mad on your behalf can even feel like I'm on your side, and I have your back.  We can be mad at your boss together.  I can join you in that.  That might actually feel good to both of us, so that can be fine.  

Another thing I can do is explain to you why you shouldn't feel that way.  "You are feeling bad because you are interpreting it this way, and if you interpreted it this other way then you wouldn't need to feel bad."  So, rather than joining you in the bad feeling you are having, I can explain to you why you shouldn't be having that feeling.  Problem solved.  (This is an expecially good trick if you are unhappy with me.  I will be happy to explain to you why you really shouldn't feel that way.)

But the most common and most classic thing for me to do to avoid being miserable with you is to give you some advice.  You have a problem that is making you feel bad; I tell you how to solve it. 

Of Course I'm Giving You Advice.  Aren’t We Here to Solve This Problem?

I'll say a lot about what goes wrong when I give advice, but first I want to point out what a perfect solution it is to the problem of how to be masculine while my loved one tells me about her sadness and her confusion.  To "commiserate" would be to admit that I don't have a solution either, and to affirm that what she is going through is really sad and really confusing.  But that's not masculine.  That doesn't even feel to me like I am doing her any good.  What good is it to tell her that I'm sad with her and I don't have a solution either?  That just feels like failing.  But notice how that all changes if I give her some advice. 

"Stand back.  I can figure this problem out.  I know what you should do.  Let me tell you about it."  Doing that lets me step into the role of expert, of resuer, of hero.  And notice the status difference between the hero role and the role of commiseration.  If I commiserate with you, it feels like you and I are equals; we are in this together, having a moment of shared humanity.  But if I am giving you advice, I am the wise one, the one who knows how to fix things, the one who can figure things out.  As soon as I lay claim to the hero role, I am casting you in the role of damsel in distress, the one who can't fix things or figure things out.  That is why it so often feels bad when someone starts giving advice.  It is almost like saying, "you are sad and clueless, but I am resourceful and clever."

Women can feel particularly irritated at advice giving from men, because at times it can feel like men are always working on the project of establishing our place in the pecking order, and always seeming to imply that we are higher in the pecking order than you.  We won't be vulnerable and admit that we are sad or scared or confused.  And then when you are vulnerable, we jump to giving advice, claiming the expert role, acting like we have it all figured out, even when our solutions aren't any better than yours. 

Keep In Mind: Advice Feels Like Criticism

So, your loved one comes home from work, clearly somewhat upset, and she tells you, “it was like this, and then this happened, and my boss said this. Can you believe it?” And you helpfully say, “you should have just done this, and then you should have told her that...”

And her internal response is, “wait; I just told you about what I went through and all I get is an analysis of what I did wrong? I don’t want to hear what I did wrong; I want someone who is on my side, and all I got from you was criticism.  I'm a smart person and I've been puzzling over this all day.  I come home and start to tell you about it, and thirty seconds in you are giving me advice, giving me the first idea that occurs to you.  For that to be helpful, you'd have to be brilliant, and I'd have to be an idiot.  I didn’t tell you about this just so I could feel inferior."

Giving advice will feel to the other person like you are stepping into the expert role, like you are implying that you can figure things out far better than they can.  Don't expect them to appreciate it.

The Dilemma of Masculinity

Men face a dilemma.  Like women, we are wired to form attachments, to fall in love.  Like all humans, we want closeness.  We want to be known and understood.  But we also get the very clear message that it is admirable for a man to be strong and confident, to be tough and independent.  I've pointed out that closeness often comes from sharing our vulnerable emotions and the areas where we don't have all the answers.  In addition, most of us want to feel needed by those we love.  If a man is so strong and independent, how will the person he loves ever feel needed?  So, to be vulnerable and to need your partner are things that are somewhat at odds with classic masculinity.

 What To Do About All Of This?

Let me offer a few suggestions for how to push back against the patterns described above. 

  • For men, work on being more aware of your emotions.  In my article on How To Practice Mindfulness I describe some really good exercises for becoming more aware of your emotions. 

  • Try to be more vulnerable and share more with your loved one.  Your loved one wants to know you.  They want to know what you are thinking and feeling.  They want to feel like you are letting them in.  If you never let the in on anything vulnerable, they will just feel like you are keeping your guard up and keeping them out.

  • If you loved one is sharing, try to commiserate.  As I've noted elsewhere, the main goal is to leave your loved one with the feeling that you get it, and you care.  You want them to feel like you understand what they are going through, that you are in this with them. 

  • Don't give advice unless someone asks for it.  If you are tempted to give advice, first commiserate.  Along with the commiseration, put your arm around them.  Say a few more sympathetic things, like, "aw honey, that sounds really crappy."  Once they feel like you really sympathize, then you are allowed to ask, "would you like some suggestions, or would you rather just have me listen?"   Don't give any advice unless they say that is what they want.  In the mean time, practice doing everything besides advice.

You Don't Have to Be a Guy to Develop Defenses Against Vulnerability

It is worth mentioning that it isn't just guys who have defenses against vulnerability.  Whether you feel comfortable being vulnerable has a lot to do with your life history, and how people responded when you were a child, and were upset or hurting.  If people responded well, then you probably learned that it is OK to express your needs and OK to express your pain, that someone will probably respond and try to take care of you.  If you were taken care of in that way as a child, you will have a much easier time expressing your needs as an adult.  If not, you will probably have a deep sense that having needs is a problem, and that no one wants to deal with your needs. 

There is a field of research studying attachment which looks at exactly this question, and has found exactly the pattern described above, which I write about in my article about Attachment Theory.  The addictions field has noted a similar pattern, noting that the children of alcoholics often learn to ignore how they feel, and to not talk about what they need.  So, the pattern of avoiding vulnerability is often connected to gender socialization, but it can develop through other life experiences as well. 

In closing, let me offer this caveat once again:  These gender patterns represent a tendency, and there are endless variations on this tendency, and exceptions to this tendency.  I am talking about gender patterns here as a framework for talking about vulnerability and defenses against vulnerability.  Whether they line up with gender or not, defenses against vulnerability come at a cost, and often get in the way of closeness. 

Copyright 2019, Paul Hutchinson, Ph.D.

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