Invulnerability isn’t talked about nearly as much as it’s actually experienced in relationships.
There’s a reason you’re reading this.
Perhaps you’re afraid to approach an attractive person. Maybe you hear yourself bringing up boring topics like sports and the weather. Lots of us fall back on these topics. They’re “safe” and surface topics that don’t risk offending anyone. But that means they won’t entice anyone, either.
Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve followed the plan others told you to, and now you hate your job or despise your lifestyle. But you refuse to leave it because you don’t want to disappoint other people.
Maybe you refuse to get fitted clothes or a nice haircut because you’re scared to be noticed in a crowd. Smiling at strangers makes you feel like a weirdo, and the idea of complimenting someone openly scares you. What if they reject you?
All of these issues are symptoms of a deeply rooted issue: a fear that being our authentic self will make us unlovable. A fear that we must suppress our true intentions and desires to be accepted by others. This is called shame.
Just like you, I was raised under the traditional masculine view that expressing emotion was unmanly. The stereotypical man is strong and “on top of it.” Any faltering, confusion or weakness in the stereotypical man is inexcusable. The shame associated with vulnerability in our man code is one of the reasons that so many overtly depressed men refuse to talk about it, why men reject the “illness” and the opportunity to receive the help that could change their lives for the better, why men choose invulnerability instead.
For generations we have selected male heroes who have no vulnerable flesh – Robocop, Superman, Terminators. Our obsession with invulnerability shows little sign of loosening our grip. Ordinary men and celebrities have become intoxicated with the surface view of muscle size rather than strength. Despite our modern day talk of the “new sensitive man,” any transition in the strict code of manly invulnerability may be little more than a quote picture on Instagram.
Our culture is historically ruled by male values, and it has always favored invulnerability. But in doing so, we also deny trauma. By not attending to the relational needs of boys– the need for connection, support, the need to be nurtured, and the expression of vulnerability – we are taught that such needs are not legitimate through passive neglect.
This is why modern men struggle with so much shame — a sense that they are inadequate and not good enough for belonging. This form of detachment transfers into feeling lonely in our solo masculine culture. It leads to distance in relationships because of a “third leg” – that could be booze, work, video games, porn, an affair. As I stated in Man’s Condemned Isolation – a Heroin addict has bonded with Heroin because he couldn’t bond with anything else.
Placing a person in a happy environment and surrounding them with loved ones may change this, but the environment is only part of the puzzle. The other part is the man’s low self-esteem due to suppression. Our emotions feel insignificant, thanks to societal standards, and it hardens us. Cultural pressures make us unwilling to face the vulnerability of our own pain, and we turn to invulnerability to cope. This makes us unable to truly love someone else, because we don’t even love ourselves enough to be authentic and honest about our true feelings. If we feel inadequate, how can we adequately love someone else?
The Love Hormone is Two-Faced
When we are born, large amounts of oxytocin (a hormone associated with love) causes the mother to immediately bond with the child. This love hormone helps keep the child alive. It enslaves the mother to protect and nurture the child until it can fend for itself. It’s a powerful cocktail that causes us as humans to do anything for the people we love. Imagine if you put a mother’s child on the other side of a six-lane highway, and the kid began to have an asthma attack from the stress. Any loving mother would find a way to bolt through that traffic. If the child on the other side was someone she never knew and had no empathy for, then she wouldn’t care to risk her life to save that person. Love does this.
The oxytocin release is beautiful, but there’s a catch-22. Recent studies show that oxytocin also plays a large role in fear. 1 This is one of the few physiological explanations of why suppressing fear also reduces our ability to love and connect with others. The more we suppress our authentic selves, the less fear and love we are vulnerable to experience.
Suppression is the opposite of vulnerability.
So how does this happen on an individual level?
We’re all born vulnerable. We are widely open to experience, but as we experience life, we begin to see less value in being vulnerable and more value in invulnerability and being numb to things. We instinctively avoid things that present a possible risk of hurting us.
Possible risks are everywhere. It may be in the form of a cute girl in elementary school that made fun of your eyebrows. Maybe your parents never supported you when you tried to express yourself, and over time you began to believe that your needs didn’t matter.
Unfortunately, all of us have had bad experiences that influence this. Belief systems that create self-fulfilling prophecies that make us feel bad. Suppressing our feelings may numb the pain, but it also removes the potential for love. In other words, your psychological protective mechanisms, even if they’re unconscious, limit the amount of pain you can experience. They also limit you from experiencing love.
Suppression leads to repression, while vulnerability leads to empathy.
When any event happens in the outside world we make a decision based on our perception. Is this experience a good thing or a bad thing, and what does that mean to me? If it’s a bad thing and causes pain, we seek to avoid the pain. This leads to a conscious inhibition, or an impulsive desire, which is known as suppression.
Our suppression can lead to repression over time; the unconscious inhibition of desire or impulse. This is the worst of the two because we’ve now lost the awareness to the behavior. It becomes an unconscious behavior that sabotages our true needs. Our protective mechanism, when left to its own devices, may in turn lead to self-sabotaging behaviors that prevent one from getting what they truly want and reinforced invulnerability.
Jacob is 27, single, and he has approach-anxiety. When Jacob was 15, he asked Suzie to his homecoming dance. He went all out; he bought her flowers, wrote out an entertaining note, and even bought her favorite candy. Jacob poured his heart into this. He was scared of the rejection, but he really wanted to take her to this dance. So he asked her.
Suzie laughed at him. She made fun of him for hoping he had the chance. Even though Suzie was simply insecure and she had to use other people to make her feel good about herself, Jacob took this personally. As if it wasn’t her that was wrong. It was him. He wasn’t good enough. He wasn’t deserving of love.
This was traumatic for Jacob. In the moment, Jacob was open to the experience of love and belonging. But the rejection caused so much pain that he never wanted to feel this again. So he suppressed himself and numbed the feelings inside. He perfected the art of invulnerability. Years went by, and eventually Jacob built up a tiny bit of courage to talk to a girl he found attractive. When he did, his unconscious behavior – the limited eye contact, slumped shoulders and quiet tonality led to an inevitable rejection. This behavior, as you know, is unattractive. It shows low self-confidence.
Jacob’s suppression led him to repress his emotions and beliefs to a point that he was incapable of recognizing how they affected him. He behaved in ways that reinforced his bad beliefs without knowing he was doing it. He only witnessed the results of the girls rejecting him. Repression, in a desire to protect ourselves, partially disregards our role in the conflicts and situations because consciously we are unaware that we did it. We don’t recognize our own impact.
The good news is that we don’t need to know that we did it. We just need to believe that the answer is vulnerability, and we need to be conscious of opportunities. When we find them, we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Men struggle with emotions because of unrecognized emotional traumas, which cause major feelings of anxiety, shame and neediness. The trick is to uncover these emotional traumas and confront them consciously. We must become open to the experience of pain in order to be open for the amazing experience of love.
The amount we trust others, is the amount we trust ourselves to recover if they disappoint – Usha Tunnel.
To really receive love, one must express themselves authentically; pick-up lines and checklist behaviors don’t cut it. Those tactics are suppression and a social strategy that reinforces the belief that you have to use someone else’s words and behaviors to be loved. This is false. Using such behavior only attracts people who like you for that behavior and delays the inevitable breakups and heartache. It reinforces the bad beliefs and insecurities about yourself.
Vulnerability, on the other hand causes you to become comfortable with your failures and insecurities. If you become comfortable with your failures and insecurities, then how can any person intimidate you again? By exposing your weakness, you’ve become defenseless. How could anyone hold power over someone that is open to love and hurt? They can’t.
Unattractive behavior is rooted in shame and bad beliefs. The way to uproot this shame is by exposing it. This exposure not only elicits sympathy and affection from others, but it will build self-confidence.
There are different levels of confidence, and I’m not referring to the “Dude I just did my 500th approach!” kind of confidence. I’m talking about the real, deep down in the base of your existence – lifelong confidence.
- The Love Hormone is Two-Faced by Marla Paul (2013) ↩