Understanding Toxic Masculinity

Sophia O'Connor, MA, LPCC, Ph.D (cand) on Sep 10, 2020 in Mood and Feelings

“Don’t be a momma’s boy,” “boys don’t cry,” “man up!” Most men hear these messages, and others like them, throughout their lives. Men receive these messages starting when they are very young, and they learn that being a man means following strict rules.

We often take masculinity (and femininity) for granted, as though there were natural behaviors that make a person inherently masculine or feminine. However, we learn to be masculine or feminine from our culture. It is learned behaviors that create these boxes, they are ultimately quite arbitrary and random. One study, titled “Understanding Men and Masculinity in Modern Society,” describes masculinity as “a performance, a set of stage directions, a ‘script that men learn to perform in accordance to.” Masculine scripts tell men to be “rugged” and endure hardship without complaint, to be forceful when interacting with women and prioritize sex over emotional connections, and to always seek control and assume leadership. When we tell men to follow these scripts without question, we can enforce harmful behaviors.

A common name for these harmful behaviors is toxic masculinity. Our culture sets up many unrealistic standards for men and pursuing these standards can be alienating. When advertisements for men’s clothing depict muscular men as attractive and masculine, men with different builds learn that they are ugly and must change their bodies. When we tell men that acknowledging emotional pain is “weak,” they avoid seeking help or talking with others about their problems. Men might wear certain clothes, change the way they talk, or even avoid seeking medical help when sick because they fear non-masculine behavior will be ridiculed. Men may damage their self-esteem, their bodies, or develop hostile behaviors that harm themselves and their loved ones for the sake of these performances. Toxic masculinity suppresses the human need for connection and vulnerability.

What is American Masculinity?

If we want to challenge toxic masculinity, we first need to recognize it. We need to learn the traditional scripts and stage directions that American men are expected to perform. Psychologists and sociologists have many different tools for evaluating masculinity; one model for evaluating masculinity is the Brannon Masculinity Scale (BMS) by Robert Brannon and Samuel Juni. The BMS measures how Americans think about masculinity through four big themes:

  • Being respected and providing for one’s family
  • Acting courageously and not being afraid of violence
  • Hiding one’s emotions and avoiding feminine behavior
  • Working hard and being physically tough

Many of these values can be positive under the right circumstances; it is the rigidity of these values that make them toxic. If men can only build their identity from these external expectations, they cannot find self-worth in their own desires. When we transform these behaviors into rigid rules, we rob men of their individuality.

American masculinity is two-dimensional. Men are not allowed to embrace and explore their emotions; they aren’t supposed to be gentle, emotional, or concerned for others. In short, men are all expected to behave in the same ways. Men learn this from a very young age.

In 2018 the American Psychological Association (APA) produced guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. Negative aspects of traditional masculinity identified throughout the document include:

  • Competitiveness
  • Forcefulness
  • Stoicism
  • Heterosexism
  • Resilience
  • Self-reliance

“It’s when the attributes seen as masculine become rigid that they can become harmful,” says Matt Englar-Carlson, one of the authors of the APA guidelines, “It’s false that there is only one way to be a man.”

What Are the Effects of Toxic Masculinity on Men?

“For many men there is a lack of preventative care, engagement in risky behavior, and a range of health behaviors detrimental to their well-being,” notes Englar-Carlson, “men struggle to mobilize social support or networks.” Rigid masculinity discourages vulnerable personal relationships between men. Men are expected to see one another as competitors, blocking meaningful, emotional connection.

The rigidity of masculine behavior can be the source of identity crises in men. Men find that who they want to be conflicts with who they are “supposed” to be. Men are not encouraged to talk about these problems, which isolates them from any kind of support.

This kind of identity crisis can be the source of emotional turmoil. The APA describes several negative consequences:

  • Long-lasting aggression
  • Emotional coldness
  • Intensified mental illness
  • Fear of seeking professional help
  • Abusive behavior towards loved ones

Men often feel nervous about expressing their emotions; they feel like they need to “go it alone” rather than seek support. Because society expects men to be stoic and unemotional, many men find their concerns and feelings invalidated by others. Some men avoid expressing themselves at all, avoiding problems rather than solving them. Another coping mechanism is to blame others for their emotions.

Instead of saying “I feel sad because of what happened,” men might say “you make me sad.” Thinking this way is harmful because it gives up control. When men give up responsibility for their feelings, they will feel powerless. Instead of engaging in difficult conversations, problems become unsolvable, because they always come from someone else.

What Does Healthy Masculinity Look Like?

Embracing healthy, respectful masculinity is linked to improved emotional wellbeing and physical health. Men who express their emotions struggle less with depression and anxiety; they are also more likely to feel confident in their relationships with others.

Positive masculinity embraces virtues that we all value, regardless of our gender: respect, honesty, curiosity, and care for others. Toxic masculinity forces men to betray these values to fit a stereotype. In addition to stoicism and aggressiveness, this stereotype encourages men to treat women as objects. Toxic masculinity treats femininity as inferior and something to control. Men can break free from toxic masculinity when they value being a good man over being a “manly” man.

The principles of positive masculinity include:

  • Embracing positive and negative emotions
  • Accepting fear and asking for help
  • Valuing the lives of all people, never bullying or controlling others
  • Condemning bigoted language and stereotypes
  • Listening to and valuing women beyond sexual attraction
  • Acting as a role model to other men and boys

Overcoming toxic masculinity can be difficult, but it is also empowering. When we escape toxic behavior, we find it easier to control our own lives and to help others.

Therapy is one way we can learn to express ourselves and embrace our emotions. If you think that therapy could help you understand and overcome toxic masculinity, schedule a free 20-minute session today, and we can discuss what counseling might offer you. I look forward to talking with you!

Sophia O'Connor is a Sex Therapist in Denver, CO.
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