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Masculinity Needs to Learn Kindness as a Skill

It’s time for traditional norms of masculinity to change.

Pixar’s new short film “Purl” highlights the negative power of toxic masculinity in the workplace. The main character, Purl, initially participates in the unhealthy culture at B.R.O., dressing in a mannish style and mimicking stereotypically masculine behavior. But when another woman—er, ball of yarn—is hired, Purl discovers she has a skill that is more powerful than masculinity, and that skill is kindness.

The film makes clear that it’s time for traditional norms of masculinity to change.

According to the American Psychological Association, while traits traditionally considered masculine like courage and leadership are positive, most classic norms of masculinity are damaging. Fear of vulnerability, anti-femininity, and anger impair behavior regulation and lead men to perpetrate acts of violence toward women, other men, and themselves.

Intentional kindness practice can help. Learning to practice intentional kindness—moving beyond feelings of empathy with kind words and actions—as a skill-set can empower men to understand how their defensive brains work, build empathy, and regulate emotions that can shift the masculinity paradigm to a healthier and more inclusive model.

As the director of education at Ben’s Bells Project, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing kindness, I’ve been struck by the idea that we can learn kindness as a skill. Often, this teaching starts by helping people understand the nature of our social and emotional brains and why it is sometimes difficult to be kind. As human beings, we all have in common a defensive brain that is wired for “fight, flight, or freeze,” and that activates in moments when we feel threatened. Learning to identify threatening moments and practice techniques to calm our minds helps us accurately identify our emotions. When we do that, we move into our higher-order thinking where we can regulate our behavior, choose our words carefully, and act with kindness.

Social norms for masculine behavior cause many men to experience social isolation and loneliness. Weak social ties negatively impact health outcomes and increase mortality. NPR reports that gendered expectations for masculine social behavior create a greater likelihood of loneliness for men, with increased rates of suicide in men ages 50 to 54. According to former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, loneliness and inadequate social connections can be more dangerous for our health than smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

Practicing intentional kindness can offset the harmful impacts of traditional masculinity by helping men build empathy for others—and for themselves. Developing kindness skills helps us manage our human inclination to be fearful and empowers us to instead develop a “sense of inner strength”. Rather than being ruled by our “negativity bias,” which keeps us in our defensive brains, men (everyone really) can build self-awareness, and awareness of others, through developing kindness skills that value connection and communication. Self-kindness practice can also help men see—and value—our common humanity.

In shifting to a paradigm of kindness as masculine, men are being asked to re-assess traditional masculinity and choose behavior that differs from the long-dominant cultural norm. Biology is not destiny, and practicing kindness as a skill helps us build self-awareness and awareness of others. Regulating behavior in a culture that endorses male anger poses a challenge—especially for men who have been socialized to see any expression of emotion as negative, or who have embraced traditional notions of masculinity. Any changes to that narrative may be perceived as threatening.

But building awareness can help lead men toward feeling more connected to their partners, children, friends, and colleagues. These are the connections that can sustain them, combat the loneliness epidemic, and lead men toward understanding that intentional kindness is a powerful and strong skill-set that can create better relationships with themselves and the people in their lives.

Intentional kindness helps men take pride in seeing their sons problem-solve using their words, rather than their fists. It helps men move away from words like “sissy” (or worse) when dealing with emotions, and instead values emotional intelligence as a strength. By shifting the focus to kindness and masculinity, we invite a conversation focused on empathy, care, and kindness, rather than one that is solely based on judgement and competition. And that is certainly something we want our kids—regardless of their gender identification—watching today to learn before becoming the leaders of tomorrow.

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