Why it’s scary for men to be vulnerable and why we need to do it anyway
I remember my first underwater breath in SCUBA school. I was on a small island in the Philippines, visiting a good friend in the Peace Corps. My diving instructor was a skinny French guy named Pedro, he smoked cigarettes endlessly and cooked garlic fried rice for every meal.
I knew absolutely nothing about being underwater. Logically I knew that I would inhale and oxygen would flow from the tank, through the receiver and into my lungs — it made perfect sense. But when I went below the surface, it took several tries before I was able to force myself to take a breath. My mind knew I could but my body wasn’t sure, a lifetime of not being able to breathe underwater made it scary, in the way of simple survival or self-preservation. I did it, and it opened up a world of beauty that deepened my life substantially.
I see a similar hesitation when I work with men to help them open up to their emotions and feel what’s actually true for them. There is often a mental understanding that they should, but there is a natural resistance that’s been set in place, confirmed by culture and daily life. Just like breathing underwater, being a vulnerable man is a paradigm that we know is possible, but putting it into action takes a real jump of trust. A deep and powerful fear that rears up in many men’s chest when they are asked to soften, be honest, and be vulnerable.
It goes without saying that men do have feelings — plenty of them. What most men do not have, most of the time, is a great grasp on how to fully experience and express them. There is a great deal of repression that goes on, and this repression has been studied and clearly shown to be a maladaptive way of living. Ignoring emotions make us less creative, less able to connect, diminishes our ability to collaborate, and actually makes us more emotional.
We’re often currently at an impasse — we know men need to open up but we don’t know how to make it happen.
I have some great news. I can unequivocally share that when men are given some simple instruction and a safe place to practice, dropping into their emotions is fluid and natural. It’s a normal human skillset that feels like home, and when a man reclaims this part of him — life changes for the better.
When I was struggling to trust my breathing apparatus in dive school, Pedro just came over and quietly checked in. He explained to me how it all worked, and he had me take a breath through the receiver above water. He gave me just the right combination of support and “come on man just do it”. It worked and I then spent the next two weeks experiencing the most incredible physical beauty I’ve ever known. I’ve never seen color and life in such a vivid and wild way since.
And so it is with men and their emotions. We we get just enough instruction, support, and a loving kick in the pants — we can begin to experience life augmented with the deep and meaningful inclusion of our emotional reality. Relationships fundamentally change, confusion decreases, and overall wellness improves. The energy men have spent keeping their feelings at bay is available to be poured into anything and everything else.
There is a current rise in the popularity of men’s group, which are to men’s emotional literacy and health as gyms are to physical fitness. Men get a great boost from learning and practicing this in a community of men, but the practice itself is simple and straightforward. There are 3 simple steps any man can use to dive into this process at any time.
Here they are:
1) Slow Down
2) Feel your physiological and emotional reality
3) Share it with another Human
Slowing down: This begins a cascade of mindfulness — it separates one’s experience as deliberate, recognized, and intentional. By creating a side channel from the busy forward momentum of life, slowing down for even the smallest breath starts the process to deeper connection.
Feeling: This may seem very basic, because it is and that is exactly the point. We skim or skip over the baseline truth of our experience most or much of the time. When we ask ourselves the question “what do I feel right now?”, we’re able to take an accurate snapshot of what is true for us. Grounding it in what our bodies are experiencing and the most present emotion gives it a framework and simple format.
Sharing: When we simply, directly, and clearly share exactly what we feel, the physics of human relating kick into action. Sharing is vulnerable, vulnerability creates connection, and connection creates more safety — and the cascade of positive effects ramp up and multiply. Connection, vulnerability and safety all work together to deepen relationships and create connected, support, healthy people.
Put together, it looks like a man slowing down and saying something like this: “I feel so unsure of what to say right now my stomach is in knots — I’m scared because I feel like I can’t give you exactly what you need.”
This stuff excites me insanely. It costs no money to practice this. We have and continue to spend a wild amount of time and energy focusing on how we eat, how we sleep, and how me move. I believe we’re on the cusp of a revolution that gives the same attention and focus to our basic human interactions, and therefore gives us a new and more solid platform to relate to one another in healthy ways that are good for everyone.
I also believe its revolutionary for men to be fully part of that conversation and that transformation. Men can not only participate in the shift, they can and should have an equal voice and equal contribution.
It all starts with slowing down, getting in touch, and having the courage to share. There’s a whole new world under the sea.