Toxic Masculinity and How it Shows Up in the Therapy Office

The term “toxic masculinity” keeps finding its way into social media threads and now even
advertisements. This term is widely misconstrued to mean masculinity is bad or toxic, which
really misses the point. Masculinity as well as femininity are not inherently good or bad and much of how we define gender is actually more of a result of deeply ingrained social constructs.

What becomes toxic about masculinity is when it becomes repressive – fueling violence,
aggression and hyper-sexuality. There is also a rejection of any “feminine” traits, including emotional vulnerability. It is when dominance is seen as the most important thing and ultimately defines a man’s status in society.

Some common phrases you might hear that perpetuate toxic masculinity include “boys will be
boys” and “man up.” It can also be more aggressive like “stop acting like a pussy.” We may
excuse behavior by telling our daughters “he is just being mean to you because he likes you.”

I felt compelled to write about this because it shows up in my therapy office (and in case you haven’t seen the recent ad circulating social media, here’s the link). Many men feel like they have never been allowed to feel. They were taught at a young age that the only emotion that is okay to display is anger. This significantly impacts their physical, mental, and emotional well-being – which ultimately affects their relationships.

Without an emotional outlet men are more likely to act out of anger, which at times turns to violence. Overall, I see a lack of safe people for most men to open up to so they often don’t tell anyone what they are going through and especially not how they feel about it. This can lead to a heightened sense of shame and extreme feeling of loneliness. No wonder we are one of the most addicted, overweight and overmedicated countries in the world!

On the less severe end I work with couples who find themselves feeling very disconnected and
misunderstood. Men often struggle with the concept of “meta-emotions” – meaning how we feel
about feelings. They don’t believe it is helpful to think, feel or discuss feelings. This lack of emotional availability and connection is at many times the root of marital problems and can be difficult to change.

An interesting thought to consider is that women often set up men to fail by asking them to be emotionally vulnerable but also strong and stable. It creates an expectation that they cannot live up to. We also raise boys to “not cry” or “toughen up,” which makes it difficult for them to be okay with emotional vulnerability even in intimate relationships. They may not even know how to connect in that way.

I am by no means suggesting that men need to reject masculinity as a whole and completely
believe that there is power in knowing and developing both the masculine and feminine parts of ourselves. There is no perfect way to do this and some people resonate with the culturally defined traits of one gender more than the other. This is OKAY. I do, however, hope that by reading this you can start to distinguish the more toxic parts of our gender roles and do your part to stop perpetuating them.