I am accused, from time to time, of being afraid of being vulnerable. I’m told that I fear exposing my vulnerability would challenge my maleness or my “manhood” or my sense of personal man-centered strength. And I’ve bought into the suggestion, wishing I weren’t so reticent to expose my weaknesses. But I’ve also considered that being vulnerable is not considered a positive attribute by a huge swath of the population. Consider two primary definitions:

Vulnerable (adjective):

  1. capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon: a vulnerable part of the body.
  2. open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc.: an argument vulnerable to refutation; He is vulnerable to bribery.

Admittedly, “capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt” is not as damning when one considers the “weapon” might be psychological. But, still, it’s an acknowledgement of weakness. Weakness is not an attribute most people, men or women, strive to achieve. So what is it with the encouragement to allow oneself to be vulnerable?

The question is rhetorical. Authenticity brings with it vulnerability; when we are real and true to ourselves, we expose parts of ourselves that are, by nature, vulnerable. We open ourselves up to be wounded. And while that opens us up to pain, it also opens us up to intimacy that’s impossible to achieve while holding a shield in front of us. I know this to be true. Yet, still I (and most men, I think) cling to that shield and hold it firmly in place for protection.

I hear and read about men today making comments, in response to any revelation of vulnerability, like “you’re a snowflake,” or “buck up, buttercup” or other such derogatory comment meant to embarrass or demean expressions of emotional vulnerability. Those comments come from people who, in my view, hide their own vulnerability both from the world and from themselves. I suspect their hard outer shells protect equally hard inner shells. And, in my biased way of judging, I think that hard inner shell takes the place of intelligence and intellect, leaving an empty hulk incapable of empathy, compassion, or caring. Yeah, I’m pretty judgmental.

But, back to vulnerability. What would it take for men to be willing to open up about their fears and concerns; what would it take to acknowledge fragility where it exists? And what would it take for us to accept vulnerability and fragility as normal, natural, but temporary, states? I think we need more women in positions of power and authority. And those women should not model themselves after hard-nosed men but, instead, after soft-hearted women. And they should express disdain for the practice of concealing emotions or holding them out, away from view. Eventually, men would get the message. Maybe.

When I’m told I need to open up more, to expose my vulnerabilities, I think how easy it is to give that advice but how hard it is to take. Our society has long devalued vulnerability, in men especially. Breaking through to change that valuation is incredibly hard. And who are the people who tell me to expose my vulnerabilities? Women, generally, who see cracks in an otherwise solid shield surrounding me. They seem to think it would be easy to just pick at the crack in the shield and peel it back like removing the shell from a hard-boiled egg. In fact, that “egg” was cooked too long, so much of the shell is permanently attached to the tissue beneath. Ripping off that shell will entail tearing away big pieces of the egg inside. But the shell must eventually come off. The right women in power might accelerate the process.



About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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