In each of the five different graduate schools I attended, I usually undernumbered women one to three, sometimes one to five. In the doctoral program I completed at ITP, I was one of two men in a class of 22.
The first year there I was pretty much treated as Vanilla Man by most of the women in the class. Near the end of that first year though, the class elected to have a Good at the End closing ritual. I agreed to make benches for people to sit on for the ceremony. The morning I showed up wearing my tool belt, I noticed the eye pupils of several female classmates open wider than they were the day before. Suddenly, I was no longer this milque-toasty, aspiring psychology student. I was now a Man – a Man with Tools and Skills. If this psychology thing didn’t work out, Vanilla Man had suddenly transformed into someone who could still provide food and shelter for a family.
This mostly unconscious evolutionary need for many women (but obviously not all women) to have men be strong, protective and competent lies at the root of much suffering in my experience. With so few suitable outlets already absent in the culture for men, young and old to express vulnerable, embodied feelings, there is an even greater need to be able to do that at home. Having unconscious needs orchestrate against such authentic emotional expression leaves us all in quandary wrapped inside a paradox enveloped in a dilemma. Not to mention leaving very little opportunity to confront, move through and drop the Dirty Dozen Defense Mechanisms.
Leaning into the Discomfort
Nevertheless, qualitative researcher-storyteller, Brené Brown is an advocate for “leaning into the discomfort” of our vulnerability, for vulnerabil-ity is essential for replicating one of the brain’s (and life’s) most fundamental processes: connection. And as Brené indicates the single most adverse experience that works in our lives and in the world to prevent connection … is shame. At its root, shame makes us feel unworthy of connection. The need to feel worthy of love and belonging has to begin at home, ideally in our family of origin. If, for whatever reason, it didn’t originate there, then it has to be designed and created in the homes we make away from home. Home needs to be a sanctuary for the vulnerable heart.
Without that sense of inherent worthiness, love and belonging, many of us will make decisions that do not ultimately serve our best interests, for actions rooted in fear and shame invariably end up breaking our hearts. The research evidence suggests that fear and shame literally disconnect critical neural connections in the brain. When you lose those connections, along with them you lose much of your capacity for being vulnerable. You lose the realization that a lot of what makes us vulnerable is also what makes us beautiful. But unfortunately, we’re mostly only beautiful to those who have suffered and worked through their own shame and fear and can authentically encounter that beauty.
Despising the Ill and Infirm
But intolerance of vulnerability isn’t solely the province of some negatively conditioned women. UCLA neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel makes the astonishing confession that much of his training in pediatric medicine made him learn to hate the people coming in to see him as patients, solely for their vulnerability. As a pediatric intern, faced with his own unbearable painful emotions, and having received zero training in how to skillfully and effectively manage them, the only option left to Dan was to shut them down. But of course, that’s impossible to do for very long, and so they would leak out energetically as disdain and contempt projected onto the weak and the helpless. And in my experience this emotional ignorance is rampant in allopathic medicine. It’s one reason why I religiously do my best to avoid hospitals and doctors.
Men need to be able to confess hard and soft truths to women, to doctors, to each other. And we need to be able to do it in ways that allow such tender feelings to be compassionately received, rather than negatively reacted to. Which is not easy in the least, since we can’t simply wake up in the morning and select the feelings we’re going to have arise during any day. The world doesn’t work that way; nor does our neurophysiology.
It doesn’t really take courage to be vulnerable, either. Rather, I think vulnerability and authenticity (along with forgiveness) are essentially by-products that result from healing, strengthening and reconnecting neural circuits that flow into and out of “the heart in the brain” – the anterior cingulate cortex. I’ve written about this area of the brain before: it’s the seat of compassion where mirror and spindle neurons make their home. As Andrew Newberg points out in How God Changes the Brain, it’s the juncture where thought marries feeling in the brain, and we would all be well served to passionately support that union.