For a lot of men, gentleness is one of those words that makes them cringe.
It is often seen as unmanly. It can be interpreted as acting with a ‘woman’s demeanour’. There’s an encouragement, socially, towards aggressiveness in men, a conflation between anger and assertiveness. Gentleness is associated with meekness, womanhood, and a genuine lack of respectability: your voice won’t be heard if you don’t insist it be.
In my view, gentleness is simply the acknowledgement of another person’s sensitivities, fragilities, emotions and experiences. It’s an appreciation for the impact of words and tonality of voice. Gentleness is not about poor boundaries or low self-esteem. It’s not a call to stand around and be yelled at and humiliated. Instead, such responses might even help some situations avoid reaching that point. Very often, on the path of gentleness, you have to learn to not react immediately to comments that hurt or feel accusatory, you have to compartmentalize certain response, such as biting back and making the situation worse. You have to say, “Okay, I can see you’re very upset, but I don’t understand where this anger is coming from. Can you explain to me why you feel that way?” rather than “Don’t talk to me like that, you fucking dick!”
Gentleness, simply, is the way we respond to someone or something. It’s a means of communication. “I appreciate you feel that way,” “I can see how you might think that,” are possible examples. “I understand this is a stressful time for you,” is another example. Gentleness is a mix of validation, respectfulness and honesty. It’s not about avoiding conflict: it’s a response to conflict that values the acknowledgment of the other person’s feelings. It strives to step away from invalidation and shame — two of the more destructive interpersonal forces. It strives to find an adequate means to resolve conflict without chaos. Too often the ‘masculine’ approach towards conflict or intense disagreement is a call to physical violence as a response to insulting or hurtful stimulus, and develops into a harmful social problem. The ‘manly’ way is often threatening someone into submission, usually building up an impressively embittered response.
My conception of gentleness is that it is not about saying dishonest things, nor is it walking on eggshells around the person’s feelings,unable to express yourself properly. Nor is it validating their possible (or deliberate) misinterpretation or distortion of something: be it your motives, behaviour or otherwise. One of the key traits of gentle responses is to avoid getting into shouting matches, physical confrontations, or unnecessary hostilities. It takes a situation, acknowledges the other person’s views and feelings, and aims to respond to them respectfully. It seeks to combine empathy with honesty.
Shaming people tends to frustrate them and push them away from you. Your point is lost when you respond over-aggressively and things are perceived as an attack. For a lot of men, it feels the natural urge to stress the importance of something by stating it as angrily as possible. Taking a moment to consider, measure the situation, and potentially empathise is often the harder but more meditative pathway. During an emotionally charged situation saying, “Stop being a wimp and man up!” is more likely to get an enraged or defensive response than, “I think we need to take a moment to look at this situation and see what we can figure out about it!” Another gentle response, for example, would avoid telling someone they’re “crazy” or “insane” however weird and ridiculous you mind find their perspective or unnecessary their emotion: it shows an underlying respect to not ridicule them for their struggles.
In my time, I’ve seen a lot of fights break out, and it usually occurs when someone responds to an accusation or an aggressive statement with equal levels of aggression. Instead of asking the person why they think or feel a certain way, the respondents shame, berate, dismiss or threaten them. And if that keeps up, someone will surely be hit. Some men grew up in conditions where physical aggressiveness and threats were the primary mode to stress points or to be heard: for some, rage becomes synonymous with feeling safe. For these men, not behaving in such a way is interpreted as sacrificing your respectability; it makes you ‘look’ weak. It makes you feel like prey. Some consider backing down and avoiding dangerous conflict a form of weakness. I wonder if, at some point in their early lives, such people needed a gentle and encouraging listener to hear their troubles and guide them away from a life of violence. I also sometimes wonder if the damage is often already too extensively done.
Gentleness is a good emotional technique to practice for yourself as well. Many people, regardless of gender, have a berating inner monologue, one that accentuates flaws, makes demands to ‘be better’ and calls them ‘stupid’ ‘useless’ or ‘an idiot’ when they make a mistake or fail at something. Training yourself to offer a more forgiving inner monologue can promote a healthier outlook and more productive perspective. Shaming yourself ultimately leads to feeling inferior. Gentle responses to errors promotes forgiveness and willingness to try again. For men, specifically, there’s important ‘detoxing’ from aggressive and shameful emasculatory language that might have been drilled into us like ‘be a man’ ‘man up’ or ‘stop acting like a woman’. These comments reinforce the shame of failing to live up to our gender expectations possibly even encouraging us to be less willing to open up to others for help. We may even shame ourselves for having problems and instead convince ourselves that ‘bottling up’ is a more noble goal. Men, on average, tend to experience greater fear about being emotionally vulnerable: the social stigma of being seen as ‘too frail’ haunts our daily lives. We feel discomfort in being fully human.
The most extreme rejection towards gentleness can be seen in the persons who often show utter hatred for emotionally expressive people. Those who berate others for being weak, who express callous rejections to a struggling person. “Stop being so needy!” they might snap at someone who is emotionally in need, even their own children, causing immense devastation to that person psychologically. People carry around a lot of emotional baggage, most of which we can’t see. For some people, especially those with substantial narcissistic injury, disagreements and criticisms can be read as attacks. Following this, the person then feels justified in attacking back, often much more aggressively. Gentle responses can assuage some of this, assuring the person that you appreciate why they took it this way, but offence was not your intent. Still, it’s best to take such outbursts as a warning sign and aim to keep a healthy distance from this type of person: long-term exposure to narcissists is usually a soul-destroying prospect.
It’s important to understand the limits of gentleness. It cannot heal a deeply troubled person to health, only make interactions with them less intense or slightly more productive. One should always gauge how a certain person might take a certain kind of response: there’s no point engaging in a long running, endless struggle with someone who won’t hear even a modicum of constructive criticism. Much of this behaviour stems from chronic invalidation and abuse in their own backgrounds, would that they might find it in themselves to seek help.
For others, much of the rejection of gentleness is the fear of emotions. We deem sadness, loss, uncertainty and vulnerability as ‘unmanly’. They feel bad and often require a great deal of introspection to understand. Gentle approaches can soothe that process, fighting back against the shaming narrative we’ve adopted. Many men experience feeling mocked and shamed for crying; in response, they must sentence those emotions to a internal dungeon: they must not be acknowledged, or allowed to let breathe, otherwise it confirms that they’re weak and pathetic. Crying, of course, is a healthy emotional response, a way of releasing pain. By not releasing it, men live with it, and feel it gnawing away at them — unexpressed and unresolved for years.
This isn’t a call against anger. It’s an important emotion — anger is boundary defining. You often have a right to be angry. But it’s also important that you can express anger or disappointment in ways that don’t exacerbate issues, make someone feel threatened, or without bashing a keyboard over their head. It’s important that you can have a dialogue with your anger that balances things out between it and effective action, and doesn’t shame you as a ‘wuss’ for not acting out more. It’s important you can feel mistreated by someone without calling yourself a ‘pussy’ in response. A big problem for men is trying to live up to a social expectation that relies on shame to force them away from grappling with the complex emotions of their inner lives. The inability to express oneself is a serious issue. Histories of invalidation and shame have been found to correlate strongly with aggressiveness, depression, alcoholism, drug use, self-harm and emotional suppression.
For many men, it’s the fear of being emotionally open with another about difficult topics — anxiety, depression, struggle, uncertainty, loss, sexual problems — and not receiving a gentle approach, but instead a rage-inducing mocking one. Too often men find themselves alone, with no one to really reach out to. In many cases the responses from male friends are short, well-meaning, but also avoid getting into the real meat of the struggle or problem. Instead they give ‘helpful’ platitudes like ‘that sucks’ and try to usher the conversation towards distractions when the need to simply listen and be there is more tantamount. Women sometimes report that they feel overwhelmed by the men they’re close to’s emotional needs. For women, gentleness and emotionalness are usually less stigmatized. They have, generally speaking, a variety of sources to seek help from. For men, a close female friend or partner might be the only one he can speak with in any depth, or with any certainty of being heard. With his male friends, that well might very well be dry and lacking nourishment.
Perhaps a goal should be to try to work on becoming the person that someone can, sometimes and within reason, rely on for that softer support.