My dad liked to tell the story of being a young man, about 15 years old, and getting into fights. His favorite yarn entailed getting the crap beat out of him by this one particularly tough kid who clocked my dad right in the gut so hard that he doubled over in pain. This gave the kid the opportunity to grab the back of my dad’s head and yank it down low while he brought his knee straight up into my dad’s face, knocking him out cold. This, according to my father, was a really great move and earned that son-of-a-bitch some respect.
It was post-WWII/Korean War America, and my father was the typical young man enthralled by the stories of greasers and tough guys, heroes and villains, and the like. My generation might imagine a young Keifer Southerland and his roughneck crew of hoodlums in the movie Stand By Me to capture the essence of the time. But who among us hasn’t heard the stories of our fathers, grandfathers, and other male family members who espoused the glory of fighting, standing your ground, showing them who’s boss, and “manning up?” Not many.
In our evermore polarized world, right and wrong, good and evil, and fighting and bloodshed are normalized. “I don’t let nobody take my kindness for weakness,” was the common refrain from patients of mine who lived in rough neighborhoods in Baltimore and needed to appear tough for safety’s sake. That’s no way to live.
As one of my favorite authors Brené Brown writes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
But as men in the world, it is culturally unacceptable to reveal that vulnerable side of ourselves. To appear vulnerable is to appear weak. To appear weak is fundamentally un-masculine and leads to ridicule, bullying, and further efforts to numb out or overcompensate for this weakness or sense of defectiveness. Again as Ms. Brown says, “We’d rather go get a beer and a banana nut muffin.” Drinking and binge eating are pretty common co-morbidities in men in the eating disorder world for a reason.
So what to do about this? For me, it’s a matter of leading by example. I can change that culture in my family and I endeavor to do so daily. I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it, and sometimes when I don’t just so my loved ones know that I trust them to be there for me. I’ve shared my history with depression, anxiety and an eating disorder with my family, my patients, the professional community, and in my book Man Up to Eating Disorders. And I cry. I cry for sadness, anger, and joy alike. Each man is responsible for his own demonstration of vulnerability, so share his softer side, to speak of his anxieties and sadness, and to share their ability to overcome those feelings rather than hide from them.
Slowly, person by person, we can shape a new cultural expectation that men are not weak for allowing their feelings to be seen, or for putting down the guns, knives, fists, and rhetoric. By redefining “manning up” as an act of being vulnerable and loved, not feared, we can hopefully create a more peaceful world for our children and their children to grow up in.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C - Founder, Executive Director, Psychotherapist at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 443-602-6515 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.