Like women suffer as a result of society’s Madonna-whore complex, I believe that men also experience a contradictory prejudice—something of a “hero-wimp” complex.

Men are expected to be strong, infallible, and stoic. When we think of a good dad, we imagine him playing sports, fixing the plumbing and chasing our ex-boyfriends with a shotgun. But women also desperately want men to be emotional—which contradicts this desire for a “hero”.

We say, “ I want you to be open with me”, and then when vulnerability is shown, we shrink away. We want a man that cries during a sad movie but when we actually see the tears, we secretly judge.

In her TED Talk “Listening to Shame”, renowned vulnerability researcher Brené Brown says once she had a man come up to her after one of her presentations who asked her about shame in men. He told her that his wife and daughters would rather see him die on his white horse than fall off of it. This image really stuck with me. Do women only admire their men when they’re playing the hero? When he falls off the horse, is our instinct to abandon him, or help him back up?

As a therapist, girlfriend, sister, and friend, I have seen men emoting. It usually doesn’t make me uncomfortable, and I’d like to think of myself as more tolerant of emotions due to my career. However I caught myself perpetuating the hero-wimp complex with my guy friend this winter.

He just moved to Chicago from Miami and was of course, complaining about the winter weather. I coldly chastised him to “man up” and deal with it. After that I noticed that he no longer complained about the cold, and actually even started making comments like “it’s not too bad out” or “it’s warm today” when it was actually only 11 degrees. I asked him what changed, and he said that he realized that whining about the weather was not very “manly” of him.

This was my fault. I made him feel bad about showing that he was cold, acting like his weakness was unacceptable to me. It’s the same thing as telling a young boy that “Men don’t cry”, calling someone a p-word, or only practicing tough love. When a man shows vulnerability in any way, we should take that is an opportunity to validate and connect, rather than shutting it down.

In one of my jobs I work with low-income kids from a bad neighborhood of Chicago. Working with some of the boys can be difficult- they are angry, often fatherless, and in trouble with school or the law. A goal they often voice is that they want to learn to communicate better, and going along with that, identify their emotions.

Once I asked a client of mine if he would like to try communicating how he feels to his friends. His response: “You have to act hard in the streets.” He’s right—men have to project an image of being tough in order to maintain a reputation as someone who cannot be messed with. If my client let his guard down and talked about his feelings, his friends (and enemies) may see this as a sign of weakness.

So how can we reconcile this dichotomy of men as heroes or wimps?

First I would like to say that showing vulnerability is often more difficult and “heroic” than concealing it. It takes guts to admit to feeling sad, rejected, or hurt, because you are admitting that someone or something has power over you. However, keeping this inside actually gives it MORE power, because without expressing the feeling no one will be able to respond to it and nothing will change.

In addition you may act in response to repressed feelings, such as getting angry, resentful or depressed. These negative responses cannot be mitigated without addressing the feelings behind them.

I would like to call on everyone, men, women, mothers, fathers, gay and straight, of all cultures, to be heroes that have feelings. Dare to say, “I feel…” If others try to put you down for it, hold your head high and educate them about the power of expressing emotions. And don’t be the person doing the putting down. If you see a man cry, treat him with respect and appreciate the courage it took for him to let that feeling come to light.

Don’t tell others to “man up” and repress their feelings, because this benefits no one. It will be a difficult road to allow men to step off the pedestals we have put them on, but it will be worth it to set a new example for this generation.

Author: Grace Norberg, AMFT