For many, vulnerable emotions can be challenging. For men in particular, vulnerability is oftentimes especially uncomfortable for several factors that this article will address below. In this Modern Intimacy podcast episode, Dr. Kate Balestrieri and Modern Intimacy Clinical Associate, Raquel VanLoon, LPC, CADC, CSAT-C disucss the unique challenges male identifying folks often face when it comes to sharing their thoughts and feelings with others.
What Exactly is Emotional Vulnerability?
There are a few different definitions of vulnerability, but when it comes to this podcast episode, emotional vulnerability is the feeling of being “at risk” when divulging intimate emotions. The feeling of vulnerability is what you might notice when you share something personal with someone and experience a pang of anxiety or fear that you will be emotionally hurt. This anxiety could be due to a fear of being rejected, misunderstood, pitied, or being viewed as attention seeking.
One’s ability or struggles with expressing vulnerability usually stem from personal and relational experiences. For example, if you were told to “suck it up” when you cried as a kid, you might learn to equate showing emotion as a sign of weakness. Another example in the context of vulnerability and men might look like being told to “man up” or being called a “pussy.” If you were attuned to and validated expressing emotions throughout your life, it’s likely easier for you to genuinely share how you’re feeling with other people.
Sharing authentic parts of ourselves with others can be incredibly anxiety inducing. Many people just want to be seen, loved, and understood by the people around them and it can be a stock to the system when your attempts at vulnerability are treated without care and empathy. This is usually where people resort to bottling up their feelings and put on a inauthentic happy face, even when they are suffering and could benefit from connecting with others.
Why Do Men Tend to Struggle with Vulnerable Emotions?
In many cultures, men displaying emotions like sadness, loneliness, grief, and anxiety are seen as weaknesses. For many men, there is a felt pressure to be masculine which usually comes with traits like stoicism, toughness, and emotional shallowness as they feel any emotion besides happiness or anger will make them appear feminine. As such, some men feel they need to put on a tough exterior and never let anyone know if and when they are suffering.
You likely have come across men who struggle with vulnerability in your life, whether it’s a family member, friend, romantic partner, or maybe yourself. This is because of socially ingrained patriarchal values placed on men and the threat of being perceived as “less than” a man if they step out of the tough guy role.
As stated earlier, this is learned behavior; men are not born inherently less emotional range than women, despite what some will say about differences between women and men. Men are often taught by society to be cut off from their emotions and as such often struggle with relationships and their mental health.
The Importance of Allowing Men to be Vulnerable
Men not feeling the ability to be vulnerable has catastrophic impacts. One of the most significant impacts is the high rates of death by suicide amongst men. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the highest suicide rates occur in middle aged white men and men tend to die by suicide 3.88x more than women. It is often theorized that men die by suicide more than women due to having less outlets and social acceptance around opening up about mental health struggles.
It is incredibly important that we create a society where men can feel safe to be vulnerable. This is why movements like feminism are so important because toxic masculine ideals are a product of patriarchy, which feminists work to dismantle. Society has to do better; men’s lives depend on it.
How We Can Help Men Feel Safe to Express Vulnerable Emotions
Changing harmful and limiting socialization practices starts with education and a willingness to change what’s broken. No matter what gender you identify with, everyone can play a part in allowing men to get more comfortable with expressing themselves. Below are some tips if you need some help getting started.
Validate men’s emotions and experiences
Empathy is one of the most crucial aspects of human connection. It allows people to connect with each other on deeper more personal levels. When someone is not empathized with, it can be incredibly emotionally painful. When men share their experiences, even if it’s something you have never experienced yourself, it can help men practice vulnerability if they feel their emotional expression is respected.
As a note, this does not apply when someone is acting abusively or manipulating you. In those cases, please protect yourself and your emotional wellbeing.
Don’t enable toxic masculinity
Toxic masculinity is a term that explains why some aspects of masculinity, such as lack of vulnerability, are harmful on an individual and societal level. When you interact with men, avoid making statements about their emotions that could be perceived as judgmental. For example, if your mentions they want to start therapy, support them instead of questioning why they need someone to talk to.
Encourage men to go deeper with their feelings
Due to feeling less free to express vulnerable emotions, some men need some help exploring their feelings. If your partner tells you every day that their day was “fine,” can you probe a little bit and see if they can define a more specific emotion.
Additionally, emotional attunement can be a great way to pick up on non-verbal cues if your partner struggles with verbal emotional expression. Try to notice if your partner has a tell that they are struggling such as changes in eating or sleeping habits, uptick in irritability, or anything else that feels off.
Dr. Kate talks with Raquel VanLoon, LPC, CADC, a Licensed Professional Counselor in IL, a Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor, and a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist Candidate. She earned her Master’s degree in counseling psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology with a specialization in treating addiction.
Raquel works with clients feeling overwhelmed with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, stress management, life transitions, trauma, substance use/abuse, building coping skills, body image, and lifestyle balance, to name a few. Raquel meets clients where they are and supports them through getting where they want to be.