My Toxic Masculinity is Getting in the Way of Being a Good Therapist. And I Bet Yours is Too.

Jeff Guenther on Sep 08, 2019

I hate toxic masculinity. And most of all, I hate the toxic masculinity that’s inside of me. In this week’s podcast, I share some personal stories where I was confronted with toxic masculinity and how I dealt with it. I dive into these life moments and talk about the effects that I still have to deal with today. I keep getting feedback from my podcast listeners that they like when I’m vulnerable, so if you’re into emotionally raw stories this episode is for you. Click play below or listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

First, what exactly is toxic masculinity? I like this definition from a NY Times article on the subject. “Toxic masculinity is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be ‘tough all the time’; that anything other than that makes them ‘feminine’ or weak. (No, it doesn’t mean that all men are inherently toxic.)” I would agree with the last line that not all men are inherently toxic, but I don’t think I’ve even met a male identified person that doesn’t have some toxicity present at some level. And I can probably guarantee that we all deal with toxic masculinity to some degree everyday. Whether it’s reading about and feeling the effects of Trump, interacting and dealing with aggressive men throughout the day or coming to terms with your own toxic masculinity and how it effects your relationships with others and yourself.

More specifically, I want to talk about how toxic masculinity gets in the way of being a good therapist with my male clients. And even though I have no idea what your therapy practice is like, I have a hunch, whether you’re female, male or non-binary, that toxic masculinity plays a role in your relationship with your clients as well. I’ll explain.

But first I wanted to let you all know that Toxic Masculinity has been added to the list of mental health issues on TherapyDen.com. So if you are a therapist that knows how to work through toxic masculinity issues in counseling, then you should login to your account and select it on your profile. Or create an account by clicking here.

The client

I’ve had this client for about 8 years. He’s in his early 40’s. He comes in every week. He really values our time. He takes therapy seriously and is an all around nice guy. He’s white, cis gender and straight. He first came in primarily to process a divorce he was going through. He’s now remarried and feeling good in his relationship but romantic relationships remain our main topic. Every now and then he talks about his feelings about women and feminism. Even though he’s a progressive guy that lives in Portland, his views on women can feel dated or conservative. He’ll put them down by making fun of how sensitive he thinks they can be. He gets hyper-focused on how emotional they are and how weak they can be because they “always end up crying” in an argument with him. It’s clear to me that he sees emotions as something he looks down on. He rarely ever gets emotional in session. He uses humor as his primary defense against feeling his feelings.

It all seems pretty obvious that there is some toxic masculinity running through his system. And even though we are in therapy, where we are supposed to talk about our feelings and get in touch with them, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to encourage him to do that. There is a toxic part of me that wants to join with his defenses and protect him from feeling his feelings. I want to allow him to continue being a “tough guy”. There is a toxic voice inside of me that tells me being sensitive and crying is for girls, not men like us!

This is what I did

I brought up my inner dialogue with him and told him about how a toxic part of me wants to join with the toxic masculinity in him. I was really nervous to say this. I don’t feel that type of anxiety with some of my female clients who are able to embrace their emotions with less shame. My client brushed off my disclosure about toxic masculinity and I got this look of disgust from him. Like I had let him down. Like we’re bros and I just violated the bro code. I knew it was possible I’d get that reaction and that’s why I was so nervous. And I felt ashamed. I really did. Even though it’s my job to challenge him I felt like I went too far. I retreated and changed the subject. After the session I felt like a failure. I felt like a shitty therapist. I felt like I was defeated by a bully and now I was left humiliated. I felt like I let my client down because I violated an unspoken agreement.

He started seeing me eight years ago when I wasn’t as evolved on this issue as I am now. It’s easier for me to bring up toxic masculinity with new clients. I don’t think I really understood what it was eight or ten years ago. And because I started seeing him when I wasn’t as evolved, I felt like I owed it to him to continue being un-evolved. I felt like I had changed too much and I’d let him down by appearing like the “highly sensitive women” that he doesn’t respect.

This is how I recovered

After that embarrassment of a session, and after a handful of other sessions had passed, I brought up what happened previously when I talked about toxic masculinity. I recounted our conversation and was open about the anxiety that I felt, how I felt like I stumbled over my words, how I was afraid I’d offend him, how I was worried he’d be disappointed in me, how the look he gave me triggered humiliation. He stared back at me blankly. He said he had no idea what I was talking about. He had zero memory of this conversation. Which maybe was true? I sure felt things more intensely then he did. But it might not have been true and it could have been him signaling for me to shut the fuck up and drop it. That’s what was running through my head. My toxic masculinity narrative was saying “Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up!” And trust me, I wanted to shut the fuck up badly. But I didn’t. I stayed in the uncomfortable place and told him that he was paying me to challenge him. That I thought this was a growth area for him and for me. That others in his life may be turned off by his toxic masculinity, including his wife.

Again, I was nervous the whole time we talked about it. I felt like I was betraying him as a man. Shame swirled through my body. I couldn’t stop fidgeting. He became quiet while I talked. I couldn’t read his body language. The session dragged on for what seemed like forever. The next time he came in I started right where I left off. I was determined to get though to him. I kept bringing it up whenever I felt toxicity in the room. Whether it was on my end or coming from his words.

Now I can bring it up more easily. He’s open to me pointing it out. I don’t think he really enjoys it. I think he’s got an internal eye roll going on every time I point it out. But I feel like he is evolving on the issue and I feel like I’m a therapist with more integrity.

What about you?

No matter what gender therapist you are, I imagine you feel similar with your clients who are displaying toxic masculinity. Maybe you don’t want to offend their ego. Maybe you can tell they want to appear strong and non-emotional. Are you doing something to uphold that? Have you ever been through experiences similar to the ones that I talk about on this week’s podcast episode? Because if you have, then you probably have some pretty engrained toxic masculinity that needs to be unpacked. And as you unpack it yourself, or in your own therapy, you might start to feel liberated from their shackles. The more we therapists become aware of the effect of toxic masculinity on our own lives and on our own personalities, the more we can help heal our clients.

Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.

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