I grew up never telling anyone that I loved them. Not even my parents. The word “love” used to feel too feminine, too emotional, too vulnerable.
As a young man impacted by old masculine norms, there was no room for love in my vocabulary. Even with my best friend, the closest I got to expressing my love and appreciation for having him in my life was to say “I love you, man.”
Sure, I told him I loved him. But why did I feel compelled to include “man” at the end? It always felt distant and passive. Why couldn’t I just tell him that I loved him – straight up? What was I afraid of?
Looking back, I can see that I was afraid of being perceived as weak; I was afraid of – and confused by – my emotions; and I was afraid of being seen as gay or not appearing man enough. Underneath it all, my deepest fear was that I would be outcast and ostracized by my peers; that I would no longer be accepted, valued, or worthy of love and belonging.
As I’ve begun the journey toward more mature masculinity, I’ve started to see the many ways that fear and shame have held me back. Over the past few years, I’ve learned some useful practices for flipping these experiences of shame into empowering expressions of love and authenticity. This list is clearly incomplete, but it’s a damn good place to start:
1. Love Freely
Don’t hide your love or shy away from sharing how you truly feel – and I don’t just mean this in a romantic sense; I’m talking about everyone you care about. Express your love freely and unconditionally. Release the fear of looking or sounding weak. Speaking your truth is never a sign of weakness; it is an indication of courage.
Love freely now. Let go of expectation, control, and attachment to outcome. Your love will not always be reciprocated. Who cares? Reciprocity assumes that you are playing a finite game where the more you give love to others, the less you have left to give.
Love does not follow those rules – love is an infinite game: The more you give, the more you have to give. So long as you share your love freely, respectfully, and authentically, you can never lose.
2. Take 100% Responsibility
One of the greatest sources of needless suffering in the world is the victim mentality. This is the voice of fear, shame, and blame that often makes us believe that other people are at fault for our own struggles and shortcomings. This mentality allows us to ignore our own responsibility for the situation and deny the agency we have in each and every moment to define our own experience.
Taking 100% responsibility for our lives means cultivating the capacity to name and claim our feelings in the moment, through mindful self-awareness. It means inviting feedback regarding the impact we are having in the lives of the people around us. It means listening deeply and being willing to adjust our behavior so that our impact in the world moves into ever-closer alignment with our intentions.
It means living our values and doing what we say we’ll do. And being honest, accountable, and receptive when we fail. And it means loving ourselves and others well through all of the ups and downs.
3. Give Real Hugs
Dude, guys – let’s be honest: We’re seriously afraid of hugging each other. WTF? I mean, yeah – we’ll give each other the standard handshake-to-lean-in-with-the-two-fist-slaps-on-the-back‘ man-hug bullshit. Or sometimes the hyper-masculine yeah-i-work-out-a-lot-so-don’t-try-any-funny-business squeeze. But when was the last time you actually gave another guy a real hug? I mean an actual heartfelt embrace, not a headlock or a ‘lean-in’..?
You gotta get your hips into it, man! Are we really that afraid of running into each other’s ‘junk’? Or ‘looking gay’? Get over it! Next time you go in for a hug with another guy, make it real. Take a breath and stay there for at least 3-4 seconds. The guy and the tiger do a good job of modeling this, in the photo above. I mean, if a guy and a tiger can give each other a real hug then surely two of us guys can pull it off, too.
Note: Consider what has stopped you from giving another guy a real hug in the past…? This simple act of mindfulness can be illuminating. Of course, be sure that your hugs are always offers, rather than demands. Ask for consent! Hugs are only great when you’re both into it.
4. Uproot Homophobia
Speaking of the fear of ‘looking gay’: Why are we so afraid? Homophobia is one of the most common and toxic expressions of the old, fearful culture of masculinity. For many heterosexual men, it’s that voice of fear in our heads that keeps us from expressing our softness and releasing into the power of our authentic feminine energy (yes, mature masculinity is an embodied balance of both traditionally “masculine” and traditionally “feminine” qualities & expressions).
This voice in our heads keeps repeating “don’t be weak,” “don’t act like a girl,” or “don’t look gay.” We allow it to dramatically diminish the range of our authentic expression and keep us locked up in the Man Box.
Although I’ve made a lot of progress, I know that homophobia still affects me. And I’m clearly not the only one. It’s too ingrained in the culture we’re swimming in for us to escape its influence completely.
But what I’ve learned over the past few years is that my fear of homosexuality has been a result of my personal insecurities, and especially my insecurity with my masculinity. As I’ve become more comfortable with who I am, I have released more and more of my defenses. And I’ve become less and less worried about what other people might think.
5. Be You
Learn to live life as the fullest expression of yourself. All that old masculine posturing may have helped ‘protect’ you back on the playground, but not anymore. What we gave up back then in order to feel ‘safe’ – emotional expression, intimacy, touch, etc. – is exactly what is missing from so many of our lives right now. And it’s what’s keeping many of us from experiencing the love and belonging that we so deeply long for. Re-discover it. Cultivate it. Teach it!
Express yourself. Lean into creative vulnerability at every opportunity. Move through your fears. Break through your limitations. Let go. Sing off-key at the top of your lungs; roll around and play outside like you’re 5 years old again; dance like you have ants in your pants, giggle like a little girl, laugh from the bottom of your belly. Be yourself fully! It’s worth the risk.
With fierce loving compassion,