As a 22-year old, I have noticed the way our society defines masculinity has remained largely unchanged compared to my parents’ generation.

I grew up with the expectation that men must embody a rigid, army-tough mindset, one that values perfection over honesty, stoicism over vulnerability, and hyper-independence over intimacy. To avoid being viewed as “soft,” we needed to follow the unwritten, yet repeatedly reinforced, “bro” code: you must play X sports, have X academic/career interests, treat your male-identifying friends in X fashion, and your non male-identifying friends in X fashion.

To “man-up” carries the assumption that you must oftentimes mask your true feelings, avoid any arena where you fail, and internalize potential challenges rather than seek outside support. Aggressive and callous behavior remains glorified in our culture, brushed off as “boys will be boys.”

This is a definition of masculinity that is no longer sustainable. Men are reporting unprecedented levels of loneliness, depression, and addiction, with suicide rates among men on the rise since 2000. Simultaneously, men are much less likely than women to seek support for mental health assistance.

At a time when boys and men are in need more than ever of increased social connectedness, authentic friendships, and a supportive safety net, it is a shame that too often what they receive is a culture that assumes men can navigate the rapidly-changing world on their own.

It also took me too long to come to this realization, that I could embody a different kind of masculinity and work towards shifting existing norms that I felt were detrimental to my own well-being.

Too often in my childhood I chose to hide my emotions under what I thought was an impenetrable shield, embodied a fake persona of toughness to avoid being ostracized, and resorted to unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with emotions I felt were inappropriate to publicly display. For example, I would engage in excessive amounts of negative self-talk when I did poorly on an academic task or athletic event, or would avoid socializing with others when faced with high amounts of stress, competition, or worry.

When it would have been best to speak with a peer or adult figure, I largely decided to deal with it on my own. There were the celebrities, athletes, and characters that I felt pressured to emulate because they were macho and powerful, but were rarely the ones who modeled compassion, responsibility, or thoughtfulness.

I have striven in my young adulthood to express a new form of masculinity. My hope in taking these steps is that through expanding this definition of manhood, we can live emotionally healthier lives, have more genuine relationships, and have greater confidence in charting a life with purpose.

Here is what I hope being a man in 2021 means:

To be tough means to be vulnerable.

It takes incredible courage to open up and admit there may be obstacles, both literal and psychological, that you cannot simply deal with on your own. Whether that is a challenging school assignment, relationship, or internal conflict, you can be much better-off after having that difficult conversation with a trusted peer or professional.

Be authentic and embrace your entire identity, even if outside of societal norms.

Be confident in your own personality and your own interests, not simply those that are dictated to you by your surroundings. It can be convenient to simply latch onto traditional norms of masculinity, but no one individual can fit into that singular mold. In finding your own purpose and interests, you can become a more confident and accomplished person.

Self-worth is not only measured by your own accolades, but how you treat others.

Your net worth or résumé doesn’t determine your sole value in society. It is important more than ever to have a sense of responsibility for your peers and your larger community. Through exhibiting values such as empathy and integrity, you can positively impact others and become a better leader and mentor for others.

No one can do it all. Being successful requires empathy, collaboration, and learning from failure.

Taking everything on your own shoulders can seem like a sign of strength, but oftentimes you will end up carrying more baggage than you can handle. It is normal to be in positions where you need to tag-team or accept a position of loss in order to grow.

Rather than viewing support through a lens of shame, you can actually be better equipped to take a position of leadership having overcome the common obstacles in times of adversity.

I am working everyday towards living by these values, and have dedicated myself professionally towards advocating for a stronger emotional safety net for my peers. As the Chief of Staff at The Jed Foundation — the leading national non-profit dedicated towards protecting emotional health and preventing suicide for teens and young adults, I am proud to be working directly with

schools, youth-facing organizations, and other like-minded advocates in advancing a healthier future where boys and young men are supported by a comprehensive mental health system and culture of care.

As we acknowledge male mental health this June, my hope is that increased awareness of these issues can contribute to a future where men are not defined by a single narrative, but one where they can be more free to express their unique selves.


  • Henry Zhu

    Chief of Staff at The Jed Foundation