I recently spoke with a mental health case manager about the importance of male vulnerability. He shared with me that most of the men who use his services do so because they never learned how to process and express emotion beyond two extremes: happiness and anger. I was unsurprised by his admission, because I have long observed and grieved the intense cultural pressure on men to suppress their emotions and by extension, their humanity.
It’s a problem I’ve seen in both male-female and male-male friendships. Men are usually socialized to believe that emotion itself is indicative of weakness. In the gender dichotomy, emotional vulnerability is associated with femininity. Men often reject what they perceive as feminine, because their masculine identity exists and thrives in stark contrast to feminine identity. This is a result of both secular gender messages and patriarchal gender myths in the church.
While this is by no means a universal problem for men, it is still a serious cultural problem. Many men learn to reject, deny, suppress, and silence their emotions. But emotion does not disappear, no matter how unwanted our grief, pain, self-doubt, and disappointment. In order to remain emotionally healthy, we must learn to express emotion appropriately, as well as identify what we are feeling and why.
Men face an impossible dilemma. Because of their socialization in both secular society and the church, many men equate emotion with weakness and emasculation. But men feel because they are human.
For some men, this dilemma results in being emotionally unavailable in relationships. For others, it makes it difficult to form meaningful, lasting relationships. For still others, it can foster aggression and even physical and sexual violence.
Emotion must go somewhere. So we must ask ourselves: if the church discourages emotional expression in boys and men, where does that emotion go? And what are the consequences when we force men to live without vulnerability?
My heart aches for men who have never known the freedom to express their own heartache.
I have no experience with cultivating emotion in sons or brothers. But I have male friends and relatives who struggle with this very problem. And in August, my sister will have her baby. If the baby is a boy, I pray that his parents will give him the freedom to feel, hurt, and cry. If he is a boy, I pray that I will make space for him to be vulnerable as he grows up.
So how can we make space for male friends and family members to be vulnerable? How can we make space for men to be vulnerable in the church?
1. Redefine Strength
Just as women struggle against the notion that femininity means weakness, so men struggle against the myth that masculinity requires self-suppression and complete control. Men often accept the false premise that there is only one way to be strong, and the church has rarely contradicted that standard.
Male vulnerability has often been seen as the opposite of strength, because it requires men to sacrifice their power. But power and strength are not the same. Jesus showed us that when he died on the cross. He made himself vulnerable, gave up his power and displayed, in that act of vulnerability, his strength. When men exchange power for vulnerability, they emulate Jesus’ work on the cross.
Vulnerability requires immense strength. When we narrow our definition of strength, we often exclude women and suppress men. But if we expand our understanding of strength to include transparency, vulnerability, and emotional authenticity, we give our brothers the freedom to feel deeply. And we all look a lot more like Jesus.
2. Never Shame
Boys don’t cry. Be a man. Suck it up. Don’t be a (insert derogatory word). These sayings and messages cause many boys to disassociate vulnerability with masculinity. And that disassociation continues into adulthood. Men encourage each other to suppress their emotions using shame and emasculation. And often, women participate in emotion-shaming boys and men, as do parents.
We have to break the cycle. We should not shame men for their humanity. Their ability to feel deeply is a gift from God.
David is a prime example of a deep-feeling person. His character and life were deeply flawed, but he is a great testimony to unashamed male vulnerability and emotional expression. Though much of what we read in the Psalms is directed at God, we still witness David’s willingness to feel the entire spectrum of emotions. From the depth of grief to the height of joy, David was a feeling man.
So instead of shaming boys for shedding tears when they skin their knees or lose their favorite toy, let’s teach them to regulate their emotions in a healthy, human way.
3. Create Safe Spaces
People remember how we respond when they trust us with their hurt. If we respond negatively, shut them down, or dismiss their story, they will conclude that they aren’t safe with us. Odds are, they won’t choose to be vulnerable with us again.
Men need safe spaces to lay down power and take up vulnerability. Because when we are vulnerable with each other and with God, we are taking a risk. We are placing ourselves in a position to be hurt.
We can create families, churches, and communities that are safe spaces for men to be vulnerable. We can respond positively when men trust us with their stories. We can honor what many men have been forced to hide for far too long.
We can encourage men to embrace a new kind of strength. A strength that embraces vulnerability. A strength that allows for weakness. A strength that no longer demands power. A strength that relinquishes control. A strength that thrives in relationship. A strength that is human.