What does it mean to be masculine?

Is it your ability to carry all the groceries in a single trip without needing help? Or going to the gym to lift heavy weights when it already feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders? Perhaps it’s being the provider for your family, ensuring your loved ones are supported and safe – when you yearn for support yourself. Maybe even, it’s being able to do challenging things, brush off painful emotions, push through dark moments with a brave face, without letting anyone know how hard it really is.

If your definition of masculinity incorporates diminishing your valid needs for the sake of manhood, you might be focusing on toxic masculinity. But there’s an alternative: masculine vulnerability. The conversation below may bring a new perspective. 

The mental health landscape for males

Today’s mental health landscape for the male-identifying population is the most tumultuous and unsettling it has ever been. Suicide is nearly 4x more common in men and almost 70% of all suicide deaths are men. Devastatingly enough, the population at the greatest risk for suicide is the same one that rarely seeks professional care. Less than 50% of men with diagnosed depression or anxiety will ever receive treatment. This tragedy has been perpetuated by the unrelenting urge to “man up”, “toughen up”, and “get over it”. A suffocating climate in which men believe that they can not and should not feel the things that need to be felt. An environment in which masculinity possesses dangerous undertones of toxicity.

What is toxic masculinity?

  • Unwavering Independence – You feel you can do everything on your own
  • Internalization – You believe opening up is a sign of weakness
  • Constant Toughness – You have to be okay all the time
  • Steadfast Crutch – You have to support everyone else in your life

As a result of these stereotypes associated with toxic masculinity, manhood has become interwoven with deeply rooted characteristics like aggressive bravery and unwavering strength. 

Negative consequences of toxic masculinity

These traits have been so intensely intertwined with what it means to be a man, that any contradicting feelings, contradict manhood itself. Reaching out for help is seen as weak. Admitting you are struggling paints you as fragile. These stereotypes have pushed a narrative that vulnerability has no place in masculinity. It has created a stigma that has trapped many men in isolation. It has silenced male voices. It has closed doors that need to remain open. Doors that lead to necessary conversations about our health, well-being, emotions, fears, passions, joys, and so much more.

Toxic masculinity erases male complexity

These conversations are a necessary component of not just manhood, but personhood itself. Our lives are complex. We are full of complexity. You should never be expected to face that complexity on your own. We deserve to have a space to feel, share, and experience our emotions, not just extinguish them.

Redefining masculinity

Aggressive bravery and unwavering strength are at the foundation of today’s definition of masculinity. Possessing an unrelenting aura of bravery and doing whatever it takes to appear strong. Although these terms are seemingly positive, they may carry a harsher definition when it comes to toxic masculinity.

Aggressive bravery may leave us battered and afraid. Unwavering strength may leave us brittle and worn. These character traits are simply not sustainable. Bravery should not require endangerment. Strength should not come at the cost of depletion. 

Instead, why not try something new? Mindful bravery and emotional strength. Rather than letting toxic masculinity define us, why don’t we redefine the components of manhood. Let’s embrace Masculine Vulnerability. 

What is masculine vulnerability?

If the thought of vulnerability sounds scary, that’s because it is. It’s okay to feel terrified of letting someone see the real you. Not the facade we so often display to appear brave and strong. To share your truest, most genuine self is exactly what masculine vulnerability is designed to enable. 

To replace toxic masculinity and fully embrace masculine vulnerability we must accept a few things. For starters, opening up is brave. Past stereotypes may have considered opening up to be giving up, when in reality, it is the refusal to give up. Seeking support is an immense act of strength. It shows that you are willing to put in the work, welcome the fear, and seize the opportunity to begin your journey towards masculine vulnerability.  

The cycle of vulnerability, connection, and strength

Not only is opening up an act of bravery, but it is also an imperative step in building connection. Getting to know others at a deeper level. Connection is a natural human need. It helps us achieve the best version of ourselves. We find strength in our support system and can better combat the challenges we face. Vulnerability fosters connection. Connection builds strength. There is strength in vulnerability.

The firewood analogy

One of my favorite analogies happens to incorporate one of the most stereotypical manly things you could imagine – fire.

Let’s say for a moment that you are a piece of firewood. If you light yourself on fire, sure, you may warm those around you for a few moments, maybe even a few hours if you come from the burliest tree. Eventually though, you will undoubtedly burn out. Your flame will extinguish.

Now let’s say you are a piece of firewood amidst a bundle of other logs. You light yourself on fire and share your flame. The other logs engulf as well, sharing their flames with the entire bundle. Soon your mutuality has created an inferno. Warming everyone for the entire night.

This warmer and brighter flame is what we must strive for. We can’t do it alone.

Becoming a vulnerable person

It’s important to recognize this journey doesn’t happen overnight. Replacing toxic masculinity with masculine vulnerability will take time.The first step to begin is a small one, even if it feels like a giant leap. Finding a portion of your life, where you are willing to be vulnerable is where we want to begin. If it’s scheduling your first therapy appointment, that’s fantastic! If it’s taking five minutes a day to start practicing breathing exercises, that’s amazing! If it’s dedicating one night a week to spend with loved ones, that’s perfect! 

Find a starting point that works for you. Demonstrating to yourself that you’re able to practice these self-support strategies will build confidence. As confidence builds, the stigma deteriorates. 

Embracing vulnerability through mindfulness

I am so proud of you for embarking on this journey of mindful bravery and emotional strength. They are the first steps towards embodying masculine vulnerability. This adventure will be full of joy and heartache. It is important to be intentional in our navigation. Much like we must stick to a routine to see improvement in our physical health, the same goes for our mental health. Consistency is pivotal. Max Schneider, a former management consultant turned mindfulness advocate and founder of Sand & Salt Escapes shares some of his favorite beginner mindfulness tips below:

  • Start Small – Choose something you know you can commit to
  • Do Things You Like – It could be music, exercise, reading, etc., pick something you enjoy
  • Try New Things – If it’s not working, try something new. Explore your own mindfulness
  • Let it Be – Don’t set expectations, just embrace what is happening
  • Allow Yourself to Have Good and Bad Days – Mindfulness doesn’t happen overnight

These plans aren’t meant to be a one size fits all model. Some components may work better for you than others. Try them out, mix them up, tailor them to what you need.

Advice from a friend

When asking Max what advice he would share with someone starting their mindfulness journey, he mentioned the following:

Mindfulness is in every sense of the word, a practice. Think back to any other activity you’ve learned whether it’s a sport, a language, a game – anything. It probably felt a little clumsy at first. You probably had moments where you felt you thought ‘I have no idea what I’m doing.’ But eventually you start to settle in and feel more comfortable. After enough practice, things start to click.

Mindfulness is the same. In a society that’s trained us to never be bored, finding time to sit and just ‘Be’ can be a challenge at first. Be patient with yourself and remember the practice, itself, is the destination”

Spreading brotherly love instead of toxic masculinity

We are on this journey together. Consider our community here at Supportiv to be the first piece of your support system. Share it and build it. If you’re struggling, share how you feel. If you see someone struggling, let them know you care. Spread some brotherly love. 

If you’re looking for ways to start the conversation around Masculine Vulnerability, here are a few ways to begin. Dr. Jennifer Wright-Berryman, Ph.D shared some of her favorite conversation starters:

  • Ask about a shared interest – build a foundation
  • Share a story of a challenge you are facing – let them know you are human
  • Talk about things that help you – provide coping strategies and support
  • Inventory Relationships – demonstrate a care for others, gauge support system
  • Ask about specifics – instead of just “how are you feeling?”, ask “how are you feeling about XYZ?”
  • Highlight Success Stories – people who have opened up like athletes and movie stars*

*A former Sports Journalist, and friend of mine, Brandon Saho, has a tremendous series of Podcasts called The Mental Game featuring celebrities like Terry Crews, Chad OchoCinco, Sam Hubbard, and Nate Burleson discussing their journeys. 

Chances are, many of the men in your life could benefit from shedding the constraints of toxic masculinity and embracing masculine vulnerability themselves. A single conversation can save someone’s life. You can catalyze a positive shift in manhood. Not just for yourselves, but for everyone you touch. Tell your people that you love them. 

So, what does it really mean to be masculine?

For you, it may be reading this article. It may be finding what mindful bravery and emotional strength look like in your own life. If you’re here, you’re taking noble first steps. If you haven’t heard it lately, I’m proud of you. I love you.

For me, masculine vulnerability looks like this.

  • It means truly prioritizing exercise, nutrition, and wellness because it actually works.
  • It means admitting that I am terribly afraid to see my biggest supporter move across the country.
  • It means scheduling my first ever therapy appointment and truly opening up.
  • It means acknowledging that my emotions deserve to be felt.

I deserve this. You deserve this too.