Justin Baldoni Is on a Mission to Redefine Masculinity“We don't realize that we are the burning building, and it's so much harder to run in and save ourselves.”
If you remember Justin Baldoni as the handsome hotelier Rafael in Jane the Virgin then you probably wouldn’t guess that insecurity and emotional fitness are two issues that have been top of mind for him. As the leading man behind Man Enough—the book series, podcast, newsletter, and legit movement—Baldoni is filled with insightful gems about what it means to be “a good man,” and why we all deserve to throw a tantrum now and then.
[This interview originally appeared in a May 2022 edition of the Wondermind Newsletter. Sign up here to never miss these candid conversations.]
WM: What advice would you give to men who are struggling to open up about what they’re dealing with emotionally?
JB: We have to, especially as men, redefine what bravery looks like and what strength looks like, because right now so much of it is tied to physical attributes. We have no problem reaching out to a buddy and saying, “Hey, you wanna get a workout in?” or “I’m out of shape,” or whatever it is. We have no problem jumping in sometimes to maybe physically save somebody—to be the hero. If somebody's in need, we can jump in because there's a part of that that we're conditioned to believe is our mission here: to save a damsel in distress. [We’re taught] that’s bravery: to run into a burning building.
But emotional bravery is not something that we really discuss as men and we really teach. I would argue that it's much harder, strangely, to reach out to someone when you are in a depression or when you have anxiety or when you feel like you're going to lose everything, or if you have problems at work or in your marriage; it's much harder to reach out to another man and admit defeat, if you will, and that you need help, than it is to run into a burning building and try to save somebody's life. We don't realize that we are the burning building, and it's so much harder to run in and save ourselves.
WM: You have two young kids, a boy and a girl. What conversations are you having with them around mental health?
JB: For us, it starts with modeling. Before the kids could even talk, we found it very important to talk to our children like they're adults and to not hide our feelings or our emotions. My kids have seen me cry so many times, whether I'm happy or whether I'm sad. It's really important for them that they see their father showing emotions and being in touch with his feelings.
And then I have to allow them the space to feel. Because what happens with children? They'll have a full-blown tantrum for a few minutes, and then they're like, “OK, I'm hungry now. Can I eat?” And they're fine. Why? Because their body has cleansed themselves, it’s purged all of the trauma they experienced that day. All of those stress hormones have come out and now they're free, they're able to move, and they're happy. That is their body actually saying this is what it needed.
We, as adults, can learn something from our children. We need to create a space to do that. I have had full out-of-body experiences, tantrums, screaming, crying, yelling over the last two years when I've allowed and created a safe space for myself to feel. And then right afterwards, I'm exhausted, but I'm like, Oh, I feel amazing. Now, I can't do that in my everyday life at my job. But at the end of my day, if a lot of little things have happened to me, a lot of little traumas or a lot of frustration, or if I had a bad day and I don't allow myself to feel those things, if I don't get in the gym or if I don't move my body, if I don't allow myself to process it and scream, and sometimes even cry, it'll just get stuck in my body. It'll build up and eventually I'm gonna explode. And this is what happens to all of us.
WM: You’ve spoken before about dealing with body dysmorphia. What has been most helpful for you in working through that?
JB: What's worked the best for me has just been constant reinforcement that those things that I don't like about myself, those insecurities that I have with my body, have nothing to do with me. They're coming from a wounded, younger version of me that was bullied or berated or made fun of for something.
The thing that's helped me the most has been honestly looking in the mirror and as uncomfortable or weird or awkward as it sounds, making eye contact with myself and saying, “You're beautiful. You're handsome. You're awesome. Your shoulders are big enough. You don't need to have bigger shoulders. Having bigger shoulders is not gonna make anybody like you more. Look at all the things your body can do.”
It's telling myself the things that I will tell my 4-year-old. And then writing them down every morning, training myself to actually believe them. And little by little I've started looking in the mirror and being like, “Oh, I actually look pretty good today.” Whereas before that was impossible; I would only see the things that were negative about myself. Don't get me wrong. I still see the things that I wish I could change, but, if I go deep down, the only reason I want to change those parts of my body is to be accepted, liked, and loved. We have to train our minds and our bodies to see the good in ourselves.
WM: Your next book, Boys Will Be Human, is aimed at a younger crowd. What advice do you wish you could go back and give to your 12-year-old self?
JB: I think the most important thing for us men or for young boys—for all of us, really—is to learn how to sit with our feelings and our emotions, to actually be able to process them and understand what they are. if I could tell my younger self something—aside from the fact that I would tell him that he's enough—I would tell him that your feelings, your sensitivity, your empathy, your emotions that other kids make fun of you for are the very things that make you human and will be your superpowers one day.
WM: I have to ask a Jane the Virgin question as someone who loved the show and sobbed through the finale. Did playing the role of Rafael influence how you think about masculinity or mental health?
JB: You know, if anything, I think that my personal journey influenced the role versus the other way around. Man Enough was an idea I started before Jane the Virgin, but Jane the Virgin gave me the platform to be able to make it a reality.
Rafael was such a great character because he was a guy who was just stuck in himself and stuck in the cycle. And for many of us men that have been there, it takes a woman telling us the truth to help us get out of it. And really that was the journey of this guy who had a terrible relationship with women … just had so much trauma in his life, and really at his core was a good man, but didn't know how to be. And through becoming a father and [being with] Jane and all this, he stumbled and stumbled and eventually found his way.
But what made Rafael also great was he was a deep-feeling, caring man that wanted to be better than he was. And that's how I feel about myself. I want to be better than I am. I don't like the fact that I have negative thoughts about myself. I don't like the anger that comes up, ‘cause I don't know where it comes from, but I need to process it to understand so I can be better. I don't like that I'll interrupt my wife when she's talking despite knowing that I shouldn't. These are the things that have been drilled into me for years for survival that I'm constantly unlearning. And that's what makes Rafael, I think, an interesting character is that he wanted to figure it out and he was willing to figure it out. And also he cared a lot about his family and he wanted to be a good man.
I think most of us men want to be good men, we just don’t know where to start. And we think being good men is just being the provider and the protector and being all of those things. But there's so much more to being a good man than that. Being a good man starts with doing this hard work of heart work, as I say in Man Enough, and really working on emotional fitness and mental fitness so that we can not just become the best husbands and fathers and people for the other people in our lives, but also for ourselves. And I go back to that saying: We all should desire to become safe places—not just for everybody else, but for ourselves. And until we do that, nobody's gonna be safe.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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