Shame researcher and author Brené Brown was at a book signing, when a couple and their kids approached her. After she signed their books, the wife grabbed them in her arms, said "Come on babe, let's go" and made to leave, but her husband stayed put and said, "No, I want to talk to her for a minute." His wife, a little confused, said, "No, come on, let's go". There was some tension in their conversation, and not wanting any awkwardness Brené just wanted them all to leave her to her signing. But he stuck to his guns and his wife and family went to wait by the exit.
He said, "I really liked everything you said. I really like this idea of reaching out and telling our stories and showing up, but you didn't mention men." Happily, Brené explained how she hadn't studied shame and vulnerability in men. "That's convenient," the man replied, and Brené's heart dropped to her stomach.
He continued, "We have shame, we have deep shame, but when we reach out and tell our stories, we get the emotional crap beat out of us." And he said, "And before you say anything about those mean fathers and those coaches and those brothers and those bully friends, my wife and three daughters, the ones who you just signed the books for, they had rather see me die on top of my white horse than have to watch me fall off." Then he just walked away.
Die rather than fall
Brené tells this story to highlight the expectation that us men can never fall off our white horses, for fear of appearing to be weak. That the experience of shame--that feeling in the pit of your stomach that you're not good enough, bad or broken--is felt viscerally by all of us, and that for men, it's the appearance of weakness that is the biggest cause.
I can relate. There have been times when all my efforts went on appearing to be just fine, when all I wanted was to curl up in a corner and sob. There have been times when I had no idea what I was doing and needed help, but puffed out my chest to maintain the illusion that I was in control. And there have been times when I've swallowed down emotion and pushed people away rather than risk being seen as weak or flawed.
The expectation that men need to be strong is toxic like an arsenic enema, setting out the need for men to be strong for others (gotta be strong, gotta be in control, gotta keep my guard up), not only in response to our own insecurity and fear of vulnerability, but also because of those same fears held by people around us (I need him to be strong, I need him to be in control, I need him to keep us safe).
Strength is the wrong response to vulnerability
The experience of vulnerability is the deep vein of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure, and it's these things that we pull back from out of self-protection and in service of those flawed expectations.
But life is filled with moments that are uncertain, risky or require emotional exposure.
Walking into a new job on day one into a building full of strangers. Going on a first date after a spell out of the dating game. Starting a difficult conversation with someone who might not be expecting it. Meeting a friend for coffee when you want to share a painful, challenging or even joyful experience (yes, easing into and expressing joy requires vulnerability too). Asking your team for help when you're out of ideas for how to nail a challenging project. Initiating sex with a new partner or wanting to try something new with an old partner. And many, many, more.
Just imagine how cold, hard and small life would be when your response to situations like these is to "be strong".
Avoiding vulnerability at all costs is like donning armour--layer after layer, your skin gets protected and hidden.
Armour presses in and makes it hard to breathe. Skin is built to breathe naturally.
Armour asks that you trust in its' hardness. Skin nurtures trust in the air that moves across it.
Armour deflects blows but bruises what's underneath deeply. Skin bleeds when pricked but shows you what it is to heal.
Armour keeps the wind and dirt out. Skin is there to feel the world.
Taking off the armour...
The antidote to the expectations of strength and the donning of armour, is, I think, confidence.
Not the kind of strength-based confidence that sees you delivering a great talk, running a tight meeting or having all the answers. That's outer confidence, and it's just more wall-building.
I'm talking about inner confidence. Natural confidence.
The capacity to soften into uncertainty, without pretence or expectation.
The understanding that the discomfort inherent in being without armour is a rich and vital part of your experience.
The ability to stand in the midst of all your imperfection and to still feel good enough.
You can be trembling in your boots in the face of a challenge or in response to a situation, and natural confidence will be the thing that tells you, "Yeah, this feels way uncomfortable, but look, you're already whole and worthy, you don't have to prove anything and you're not going to die."
You get to apply natural confidence right at the point of choice or change without needing to have all the answers and without your worth being dependent on what happens next.
It's the kind of confidence that opens up fresh dialogue, whether with yourself about your own expectations and assumptions around strength and weakness, or with the people around you, those who expect you to be strong, regardless.
It might not make it comfortable, but confidence will make your approach into uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure okay. Necessary, even.
The point where your armour ends and your skin begins isn't constant and isn't obvious. You just have to seek the air on your skin, and not pull back when you feel it.
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
To blog for Building Modern Men, email email@example.com. If you would like to read our features focused around men, click here