MALES IN SOCIETY ARE SOCIALIZED OUT OF VULNERABILITY
Every person longs for community, connection, and feeling heard or seen. We all experience pain, embarrassment, and shame— these are all just parts of the human experience. However, because we are implicitly taught ways to behave in social accordance with our assigned gender, men are often restricted in the ways they can acceptably show their vulnerability.
One of the defining features of traditional masculine norms is self-sufficiency: men should not be dependent on others, men must work through things on their own or else their effort and success do not count.
A series of studies from 2015 investigated whether male leaders in the workplace put themselves at a disadvantage by asking subordinates for help. It revealed that when male leaders ask for help, they are viewed as less competent, capable and confident; when they make themselves vulnerable by disclosing a weakness at work, they are perceived to have lower status.
Appearing competent is a key aspect of leadership, and leadership is yet another normative stereotype attached to the male gender role. Men being socialized out of vulnerability is problematic, as not seeking help when you need it or admitting areas for improvement inevitably leads to mistakes.
The gendered trait of self-sufficiency can also create serious restrictions on practicing personal self-help strategies, while preventing people from seeking help through common outlets like therapy— all due to a resistance toward relying on another source for aid.
The standard to push through crises and stressors until all signs point to getting help, rather than seeking therapy through an urge of wanting more from life, is a common theme in the binary male character that our society often idolizes.
Our culture permits women to seek help but does not do the same for men, further fueling an unequal gender standard that says women are expected to act “fragile”— associating emotions with weakness. Meanwhile, traits like resilience and grit are reserved for men; the demonstration of manliness in society breeds the dismissal of emoting.
More often than not, men’s value is measured through achievement rather than the quality of their engagement or connection with others, which reinforces a fleeting sense of masculinity. Masculinity, consequently, is condition-based and can be taken away at any given moment. This further reinstates the need to constantly prove one’s “manliness.”
Although the expectations associated with binary “manliness” have become less rigid in recent years, the level of sensitivity men are allowed to reveal is still socially limited.
Oftentimes, we see two types of men depicted in the media: the compassionate, intellectual “sensitive man” versus the tough, aggressive “strong man.” These gender roles create clashing ideals that polarize self-expression, generating mixed messages and unclear expectations about what modern masculinity “should” look like.
For example, the idealistic “sensitive man” glorified in TV shows often acts empathetic and thoughtful while still maintaining underlying characteristics of protectiveness, resilience and emotional strength. This is not a realistic portrayal of vulnerability in any person.
Society does not at all push the process of developing emotional capacity for men as a skill or something that should be practiced. The spectrum of gendered behaviors is so narrow, and the preexisting character traits attached to the binary male role are already frequently rewarded in society.
A lack of fluidity to operate across this spectrum hinders a person’s development of self-identity. The issue is that there is no underlying incentive for men in society to explore past these roles of “manliness” because it is much of what is still expected and accepted.
Openness about insecurity, pain, intimidation, and fear is often only acceptable for “sensitive men” in small doses. Society categorizes sensitivity in men by their ability to be emotionally aware and communicative, but not by the level to which they can actually allow themselves to make their raw, authentic feelings plain and visible.
Emotional expression is like a muscle, and allowing yourself to feel comfortable appearing vulnerable can be a challenging task for anyone— this makes it all the more important to practice.