Men and Vulnerability: A Caged Bluebird
Men, Vulnerability, and Bukowski’s Poem “A Caged Bluebird”
Men have a vulnerability problem. We’re all familiar with the stereotype that men won’t stop for directions–that men will take the long way around before admitting they’re lost. Counselors face a similar resistance with men. Just like directions, men tend to avoid asking for help.
Research supports this tendency with men. Researchers John Vessey and Kenneth Howard combined several large epidemiologic studies to research who seeks out counseling. They found that women account for roughly two thirds of all counselor visits. (Vessey, Howard, 1993) And according to Amy Cynkar, in a featured article in the APA, even in the profession of counseling, men only make up one quarter of the workforce. (Cynkar, 2007)
While many factors may contribute to the gender disparity in these trends, the avoidance of vulnerability is likely a big one. Therapy requires vulnerability, and acting vulnerable can be incredibly difficult for men. Brene Brown, a popular author and researcher on the subject of vulnerability, writes in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead:
“Basically men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak.” (Brown, 92)
Men experience pressure to appear in control, confident, and powerful. In contrast, acting vulnerable usually exposes weaknesses, insecurities, and inadequacies.
Men Self-Destruct in Silence
Avoiding vulnerability has it’s consequences. Brene Brown aptly describes what happens when we avoid being vulnerable with others:
“…regardless of our willingness to do vulnerability, it does us. When we pretend that we can avoid vulnerability we engage in behaviors that are often inconsistent with who we want to be.”
If men avoid vulnerability, and if Brene Brown’s quote is correct, then shouldn’t we see men engaging in more behaviors “inconsistent with who they want to be?” The easy answer is yes, we do! Research sites significant disparity between genders for many issues with psychological causes. Two big issues jumped out to me in the comparison–drinking and suicide rates, both significantly higher for men.
- According to the CDC, Men (21.7%) were considerably more likely than women (6.6%) to be moderate drinkers and somewhat more likely than women to be heavier drinkers (5.7% and 3.8%, respectively). Men (29.8%) were more than twice as likely as women (11.9%) to have had five or more drinks in 1 day at least once in the past year.
- Also According to the CDC, males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and represent 77.9% of all suicides.
Vulnerability is Risky For Men
Wouldn’t the risk of suicide, along with other extreme behaviors, provide enough motivation to overcome the pressure to stay silent? But let’s not underestimate the pressure men experience to remain strong. Not only do men experience general cultural pressure to appear strong, but often experience even greater pressure from the ones they love the most. Brene Brown describes this pressure in a surprising twist her in research findings:
“Here’s the painful pattern that emerged from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it. In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust. And men are very smart. They know the risks, and they see the look in our eyes when we’re thinking, C’mon! Pull it together. Man up.” (Brown, 95)
The Conundrum of Vulnerability for Men
So here’s the conundrum for men: Men need counseling, but continue to avoid it due to multiple pressures and risks associated with appearing weak, inadequate and out-of-control. And it’s not just researchers and counselors who recognize this issue in our culture. The arts, among other disciplines, have pointed to this problem.
Charles Bukowski, in his poem, “The Bluebird” so aptly captures the problem of vulnerability for men. If you’re unfamiliar with Bukowski’s poetry, I’d strongly recommend reading some of his work. His “The Bluebird” poem begins:
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
Later in his poem, Bukowski admits the dangers of vulnerability
stay down, do you want to mess
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
Bukowski’s poem concludes with a secret pact of silence to keep the bluebird caged, in spite of his own sadness and isolation– which is clearly expressed in the poem.
Finding The Courage To Release The Birds
While it has its risks, finding the courage to be vulnerable with those we love does not go unrewarded. Vulnerability is essential to discovering authentic connection with others. In fact, vulnerability with each other provides the bond we experience in meaningful relationships. In vulnerability, others see themselves in our story and we see ourselves in their stories, and we feel connected. Brene Brown also emphasizes the importance of vulnerability,
“Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.” (Brown, 33)
As men, let’s begin to defy the pressure to stay silent. Let’s take greater emotional risks in our lives with those we love. These risks will usually start small and grow over time with trust. May we not miss out on the richness that comes with “Daring Greatly” to be vulnerable.
Discover The Writers
Here is a reading of Charles Bukowski’s “The Bluebird” by Tom O’Bedlam on Youtube:
To purchase Brene Brown’s book on Amazon, follow this link:
To purchase a book of poetry on Amazon by Charles Bukowski that includes “The Bluebird,” follow this link:
For children’s literature on the toughness mandate for men (and for bulls) check out “Ferdinand the Bull.”
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.
Bukowski, C., & Martin, J. (2007). The pleasures of the damned: Poems, 1951-1993. New York: Ecco.
Fact Sheets – Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Men’s Health. (2016). Retrieved May 23, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/mens-health.htm
Fact Sheets – Violence Prevention. (2015). Retrieved May 23, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/violence prevention/pdf/suicide-datasheet-a.pdf
Cynkar, Amy,: The changing gender composition of psychology, Monitor, Vol 38, No. 6, June 2007, 46.
Vessey, John T.; Howard, Kenneth I. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol 30(4), 1993, 546-553.