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Gentle Men: The Healing Power of Vulnerability (


Growing up, I was taught that traditional male attributes are things like toughness, emotional reserve, strength, power, and staunch individualism. This image of a “traditional man” feeds into once-clear-cut roles like winner and provider. Edward M. Adams and Ed Frauenheim suggest that this version of masculinity is confined: both limited and limiting. In their 2020 book, Reinventing Masculinity, Adams and Frauenheim write, “Confined masculinity focuses more on a man’s sense of separateness rather than his sense of belonging. For example, many believe they should keep their emotions to themselves, be self-sufficient and show no vulnerability.” By accepting that these qualities are somehow inherent to masculinity, and essential for success as defined by our cultural power structures, we create the space for a society that frequently and casually pardons even abusive behaviors from men. “The phrase ‘boys will be boys’ is designed to make us think that boys are naturally more aggressive and competitive and less emotional, empathic, or in need of close same-sex friendships than girls,” says Niobe Way, professor of developmental psychology and the founder of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity at New York University.

The patterns of the confined-masculine stereotype have caused me to reject parts of myself—of my own vulnerability—inflicting deep wounds. I was conditioned to keep quiet about my inner strife. And I’m not alone. Research from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that about six million American men suffer from depression every year. And they’ve been documenting how the traditional male role, “which restricts emotional expression and encourages a preoccupation with success, power, and competition,” is associated with negative physical and psychological consequences, such as depression, anxiety, and relationship problems. Men are less likely to receive treatment for mental illness, and in the US, men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women. This disconnection from our emotional lives can be isolating. It contributes to men having a higher rate of alcohol abuse—and being about two times more likely to misuse other drugs—than women. And it’s a sobering metaphor for how confined masculinity plays out that men represent 93% of the people in prison.

Freeing Ourselves Through Mindfulness

Bringing healing to masculinity is not a men-only project, but I believe it can be led by men willing to engage in the process with a sense of hope, generativity, and “beginner’s mind”—an attitude of openness, willingness, and nonjudgment that is nurtured through meditation and mindfulness practices. For me, this awareness dawned 20 years ago when I was given mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness as a gift. In the first chapter, he tells a story about a father named Allen, who is able to reframe his loss of personal time (as a result of having a family) through cultivating a beginner’s mind. Allen learns to shift from a poverty mindset, where self-reliance and separateness prevail, to a mindset of abundance, collaboration, and connectedness. This story opened me to new ways of seeing my embodiment of masculinity: I remember noticing that the metaphorical “man cave” I inhabited suddenly seemed brighter, more spacious, and more nuanced with color. I no longer felt like an abandoned prisoner in that cave. Instead, I could see myself as an empowered creator of my own life, within a community of care.

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