What is healthy masculinity?

Hint: the opposite of fragile

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

It is telling of our ideas about masculinity that this is the first image that comes up when you search for “man.”

The fragile masculine: you’ve seen him or you’ve been him. The cat-caller who turns to threats when ignored. The boss who turns to domineering when questioned. The nice friend who turns to rage when rejected. The man whose “masculinity” spirals into vitriol and violence when it feels threatened in any way.

If you haven’t heard, this phenomenon is called fragile masculinity.

In an age of rising feminism, of #MeToo, and of the Internet allowing us to share our previously private stories and experiences widely, many men are left wondering what it means to be healthily masculine. There’s a lot they know they’re not supposed to do anymore, but not enough they seem to know to start doing.

Those of us who are not men are often left confused and disgusted by the men who are so fragile. In truth, I often am too. I find compassion hard to muster when on the receiving end of someone’s shattered Ego trying to stab me with their own brokenness. I don’t believe this pattern of behavior is excusable, even if it’s understandable, and I do kind of understand it. It’s conditioning, it’s pressure, it’s lack of awareness, all rolled up into one.

This article is for anyone struggling to understand masculinity, but especially for men. I don’t claim to know what life is like when you’re brought up or identify as a man in our culture. I wasn’t and I don’t. I also know, in my personal life, you guys don’t always listen to what I have to say about feelings, but maybe if I wrote it out? Well, here goes:

To answer What is the opposite of fragile masculinity? requires understanding two things: masculinity, and the opposite of fragile.

What is masculinity?

Masculinity, like femininity, has been made a complicated phenomenon. I reject definitions too caught up with adjectives like strong or… strong or… is there anything other than strong? These may be correlations, but specific ideas or identities are still not the thing itself. Amidst all kinds of ideas about what it means to be masculine, I can only raise my hand and offer my own perspective:

  • Masculinity and femininity are just energies: ways of engaging with the world.
  • “Masculine” energy just means directed, forward-moving energy.
  • “Feminine” energy just means open, receptive energy.
  • If you don’t like viewing these energies as gendered, I wrote this workbook talking about them as flags.

Both energies exist across all genders, but our ideas of manhood and masculinity live entirely in masculine energy. The “unhealthy masculine” kind of strength is about only resisting obstacles and pushing ahead, and resisting yourself when you experience feelings of pain or vulnerability.

Do you resist in order to change, or embrace in order to understand? Do you listen and receive, or advocate and defend? Do you allow things to be, or seek to change them? Both energies can be helpful and harmful. We all balance them, and both always come out in our responses to everything. For everything you change, you’re accepting something too.

Though I am a woman, I have a great deal of what I’d call masculine energy. My main way of dealing with life is primarily forward-moving. I wish to change things — push them ahead — myself and the world included. I advocate and improve. My fragile masculinity is impatient, angry and domineering.

At its weakest, this is how this energy reacts to threats. It bites. At its strongest, it builds and catalyzes.

A man I once loved had a great deal of what I’d call feminine energy. His way of dealing with life was primarily in openness and allowing. He wished to be seen and embraced, and he saw and embraced others in turn. He listened and accepted. His fragile femininity came in deflection, indecisiveness and inertia.

At its weakest, this is how this energy reacts to threats. It wilts. At its strongest, it nurtures and empathizes.

I used to shame myself for operating in the world like I do, and especially not like this man did. My mother had the embracing and nurturing thing down pat. Why couldn’t I? I thought it was a bad thing — immature or egotistical — to push instead of to embrace. But I’ve learned that it’s not; it’s just a different thing. Both energies are vital to all life. In realizing it was okay that I liked to change and improve more than embrace and allow, I embraced and allowed myself.

In leaning into my masculine energy, I’ve expanded my feminine energy. In sticking to what I know I like, I’ve grown my comfort zone. In advocating for myself, I’ve become more accepting of others. In supporting myself and those around me, I’ve come to embrace and understand them. I feel so much healthier in myself, growing in a new way, expanding out the more I hone in. By leaning into the side of myself that is more traditionally masculine, I’ve become more authentically feminine.

By leaning into the side I’ve long avoided or shamed, I’ve stepped into the side of myself I wanted to be from a place of authenticity.

What is the opposite of fragile?

Well… Antifragile. While I am not certain that it was Nassim Nicholas Taleb who first coined the term, it is from him that I first learned it.

Antifragility is the opposite of fragility. A thing is fragile if it breaks or weakens from being subjected to challenge, stress, threat or shock. A thing is robust if it remains unchanged from being subjected these forces. A thing is antifragile if it gains or grows stronger from these forces.

If masculinity is caught up with being “strong,” what could possibly be stronger than antifragile? A strength entirely built on resistance may not always be futile, but it is fragile. A strength built entirely on allowing and accepting is robust, but only a balance of the two can be antifragile. In my view, being antifragile is the both strongest and the healthiest one can be.

This traditional notion of “masculine strength” is far too one-sided to be healthy for anyone, and so it is fragile. It’s forced to be a kind of “strong” no one can always be. Of course it will break when threatened. But rather than channel that into a more traditionally “feminine strength,” a strength that embraces and understands, shutting down one’s own feminine energy causes the masculine strength to spiral out into vitriol and violence.

No one has infinite armor, and continuously trying to build armor can quickly turn to building weapons. We defend ourselves until we feel too threatened, and then we attack. Everything is defensive until it’s not anymore. So maybe… open your throat for a change. Get vulnerable, to get stronger.

What is antifragile masculinity?

What I’ve learned is that antifragility is not a quality unto itself. It is the quality that emerges from a space of authentic balance between robustness and fragility. The way ecosystems weaken in small ways to grow healthier as a whole, but obliteration is obliteration. The way some hardship in our lives can make us stronger people, but too much hardship can fracture us. The way some exposure to harmful bacteria can make us immune, but too much can make us sick.

This is the fine line between fragility and antifragility. Antifragility requires a certain amount of robustness and a certain about of fragility. There is no “one-size-fits-all” balance, no map to tell you what your unique balance looks like and how to get there.

There is a compass, and that compass is found from accepting your feelings (embracing) and meeting your needs (moving forward).

For many men who have for too long ignored the more feminine energy actions of allowing vulnerability, becoming aware of feelings, embracing and accepting, and listening to and receiving others, leaning into this side may help you reach a harmonious balance. In leaning into something that doesn’t come naturally to you, you are both pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and embracing a new option. Both energies are still at work.

The compass that points you towards your natural state of antifragile balance — that dynamic equilibrium of being able to roll with punches, grow from hardship and improve from difficulty — requires a deep connection to your own feelings, an acceptance of difficulty and weaknesses, and usually, an embrace of help.

Antifragility comes from a healthy embrace and acceptance of oneself and a healthy movement to change and improve oneself. If you’re entirely focused on improving yourself without ever embracing yourself for who you are and what you feel, you are leaning too far to one side of a healthy equilibrium. From there, the next step is to tack with the wind and lean the opposite direction: to embrace more. To trust more. To open more.

To be healthy is to be whole, full, in your unique state of authentic equilibrium. But that state is always dynamic. How you choose to react to its changes can spiral you into what is unhealthy and what is fragile. It is a counter-intuitive process: when you feel threatened, to react by becoming vulnerable and trusting others.

All I know is, for me — embracing the aspects of myself that feel masculine have made me feel so much more authentically and healthily feminine. I would hazard a guess that it works the same in reverse.

What I can say for certain, as a straight woman, is this: I care far more about you feeling healthy in yourself, and therefore able to treat yourself and others around you in a healthy way, than I do about your biceps or your paycheck.

If you’re unsure how to embrace feminine energy, the energy of openness and acceptance, you can always ask for help, especially from, you know… the kind of people who’ve been taught to embrace feminine energy all their lives.

Conviviologist. Disorderly organizer. Writing for a world where many worlds fit || www.allgodsnomasters.com

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