There are many different influences that teach boys and men to conceal difficult emotions. Such an idea is drilled into men by parents, other family members, friends, people in one’s peer group, and mass media and cultural products (such as TV shows, adverts, music, films, and magazines).
While this idea of being stoic may seem to be central to self-development and well-being for many men, it often backfires. This is because trying to conceal emotions all the time means hiding shows of openness and vulnerability, which is important for your personal growth and mental health.
I would like to clarify what it means exactly to be open and vulnerable and why so many guys are uncomfortable with this very human and healthy way of relating to oneself and others.
What Does It Mean to Be Open and Vulnerable?
We can say that being open means being as honest as possible about your internal state, including your opinions, beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and feelings. Vulnerability, in a sense, is a step further than openness, in that it involves being open about mental states that are sensitive and challenging, material that leaves you feeling exposed, and vulnerable to judgement, mockery, or humiliation.
The barrier to being vulnerable is the feeling that whatever you reveal will ruin your reputation, make you appear inadequate in some manner, or give a reason for another person to reject you.
Why Men Struggle With Shows of Vulnerability
For men, being both open and vulnerable is hard because there is the feeling that the personal emotions and feelings to be revealed could threaten one’s masculine identity. Since so many men are inculcated with the idea that sensitivity and vulnerable emotions are feminine and a stoic attitude is masculine, showing any sign of vulnerability – or even wanting to – can be viewed as effeminate, weak, soft, and generally unmanly.
Many men have a fear that showing certain emotions (such as sadness or anxiety) or expressing certain feelings (such as hurt and insecurity) will emasculate them, rob them of their manhood. Even when talking to close family members, male friends, or one’s partner, there is a strong pressure to hide difficult emotions. There is a fear that if, as a man, you show any negative emotion or signs of not coping well, that you will be seen as less of a man – or not a man at all – in the eyes of your parents, siblings, friends, or partner.
Men, sometimes more so than women or just in a different way, have to hide vulnerability for the sake of maintaining an impression, a façade based on cultural expectations placed on men.
Learning to Be More Open and Vulnerable
The benefits of openness and vulnerability cannot be overstated. When you can be honest about your inner world and what you are like as a person, this leads to greater authenticity and well-being (since getting stuff off your chest is cathartic, stress-relieving, calming, and uplifting). Developing the virtue of honesty can have important ripple effects in all areas of your life, improving your work and relationships.
However, it is often difficult for men to be as open and vulnerable as their female counterparts. It requires – from the perspective of the man, at least – a higher degree of risk. There is certainly a stronger barrier to overcome.
Developing openness and vulnerability can be a gradual process. It can start with small conversations with a few trusted individuals about challenging emotions and life circumstances. It doesn’t always have to begin with a massive reveal about a hidden mental illness, although sometimes that is needed to, especially in times of crisis.
There is no right and wrong when it comes to being more open and vulnerable. What’s important is making a conscious effort to be more real with people, especially those who matter to you and who you matter to. Whether you respond honestly to a question of how you’re doing a particular day or you make a big step in reaching out to someone for emotional support, the very act of vulnerability will be a weight off your shoulders.
Being vulnerable in front of others does carry risks. For men, some of the most pressing risks are what this show of vulnerability will mean for their masculinity. In truth, however, vulnerability usually leads to rewards. The rewards are a masculine identity based on honesty and deeper and more meaningful relationships.
Openness and vulnerability may be tough to get right at first, but they're critical for building the life you want and deserve.