Undoing Toxic Masculinity Helps Men’s Mental Health

upset man sitting in front of cigarrettes

What is a real man? Starting in childhood, many of us learn what it means to be a man or a woman. When they’re young, other boys may ridicule young men for behavior that isn’t “masculine,” causing them to either go along with stereotypically masculine traits or push back and deal with the fallout. Studies show that most men don’t buy into the characteristics referred to as toxic, but the ingrained societal expectations of what it means to be a man still negatively impact them.

The term toxic masculinity describes male behaviors that harm society and individuals. Toxic masculinity reinforces the power of men in society but can also cause men to experience harsh treatment and limit how fully they can engage with life.

At SMPsychotherapy, we recognize how toxic masculinity affects women, non-binary folks, and men who don’t engage in harmful masculine tendencies. Gender inequality, homophobia, wanton violence, misogyny, and male entitlement harm everyone. However, this blog focuses on how toxic masculinity impacts men and male-identifying people – their mental health, physical health, and relationships. We also give tips for reducing toxic masculinity’s impact on your life and explain why a more nuanced view of masculinity improves mental health.

What Is Toxic Masculinity?

The term toxic or harmful masculinity is often misused to describe how men behave. In reality, toxic masculinity refers to dangerous gender roles for men set by society—the gender roles under the toxic masculinity umbrella limit how men interact with and experience the world. Toxic masculinity also harms women and men who don’t follow these rigid gender norms.

Toxic Masculinity includes the following behaviors and gender norms

  • physical “toughness” or aggressive words and behaviors.
  • not showing emotions such as love, joy, sadness, disappointment, or excitement (although anger is generally acceptable).
  • discrimination against people who aren’t heterosexual or gender-conforming.
  • self-reliance and not asking others for help.
  • insensitivity to others’ emotions.

Common phrases that demonstrate adherence to unhealthy masculine ideals include

  • “Boys will be boys.”
  • “I’m a man; we’re not good at ______.”
  • “Man up.” or “Be a man.”
  • “Stop acting like a girl.”
  • “He picks on you because he likes you.”
  • “Real Men Don’t Cry”
toxic masculinity

Toxic masculinity, often called traditional masculinity, does not mean that all male traits or behavior are harmful or that all men or male-identifying people are wrong. All people – male, female, or nonbinary- possess feminine and masculine traits. Learning to embrace everything that makes us who we are results in more individual freedom, improved mental health, and stronger connections. There are plenty of masculine traits and behaviors that are healthy.

Healthy Masculinity Defined

sign saying you can be masculine without being toxic

If not all masculinity is toxic, how can we define healthy masculinity? Masculinity, just like femininity, is nuanced. There are so many ways to “be a man” it’s difficult to list specific behaviors, but we’ll give it a shot. Healthy masculine behaviors include

  • Embracing vulnerability in relationships.
  • Expressing a wide range of emotions (sadness, fear, shame, kindness, grief, tenderness)
  • Using healthy relationship skills such as communication, asking for consent, and offering support when your partner needs it.
  • Embracing the ability men have to nurture others, including children.
  • Calling out examples of toxic masculinity, such as aggressive or disrespectful behaviors.

Healthy masculinity embraces true gender equality because it recognizes that men can experience the world in ways traditional gender roles assign only to women. Men who embrace healthy masculinity are emotionally connected, develop deep friendships, enjoy art and culture, and nurture their children.

How Toxic Masculinity Affects Men’s Mental Health

The idea that men must be aggressive, emotionally immature, and entirely self-reliant leads to mental health problems in many men. These problems can affect men who adhere to toxic masculinity and those who discard its principles. Here are a few ways toxic masculinity affects men’s mental health.

Men May Habitually Repress Emotions

Toxic masculinity teaches young men they must be stoic, so men don’t develop the ability to experience and express the full spectrum of human emotion. They aren’t allowed to cry, show fear, express tenderness, or talk about sadness. Repressing emotions can have lasting effects, including depression, high blood pressure, chronic pain, and relationship problems. For optimal mental health, people must learn to manage the many emotions of everyday life, from the excitement of a new opportunity to the death of a loved one.

Men May Not Recognize Signs of Mental Illness

Men who habitually repress emotions may not recognize the signs of depression, such as fatigue, sadness, hopelessness, and disinterest in things they used to enjoy. For many men, depression presents as anger – the one emotion acceptable to toxic masculinity teachings.

Men May Be More Prone to Violence

Violence and aggression are standard practices in toxic masculine ideals. Boys taught to physically fight for respect or use their size to dominate others are more likely to grow into men who behave violently. This modeling of aggression leads to more arrests for violent offenses and greater incarceration rates among men.

Men Are More Likely To Abuse Alcohol and Drugs

Men are more likely than women to abuse alcohol and drugs. Substance use disorder often stems from unprocessed trauma, repressed emotion, or the inability to form close relationships.

Men Are Less Likely To Ask For Help

Toxic masculinity teaches relentless self-reliance, making it difficult for many men to ask for help with anything from fixing a bathtub drain to processing the end of a relationship. Men who grow up learning that being male means they are supposed to be mentally and physically tough may see seeking help for mental illness as a sign of weakness. Many men even avoid medical appointments when they have a real problem because they feel uncomfortable seeking assistance.

Men Have Higher Rates Of Suicide

Perhaps the most compelling reason to address toxic masculinity’s effect on men is that men commit suicide almost four times as often as women. When men repress emotions, miss the signs of mental illness, abuse drugs and alcohol, and refuse to seek help, it can lead to suicidal ideation. Embracing a more nuanced view of masculine ideals can save lives.

dark image of a manly man

Tips To Embrace Healthy Masculinity

Men deserve better than the limited role toxic masculinity defines for them. Toxic masculinity says that to be a man, one must fit into a tiny box of heteronormative male behaviors that don’t allow one to fully experience the range of human emotions and connection. Men are and can be attentive parents, loving partners, empathetic friends, and manly men.

For those of you raising men, living with men, or trying to make it through life as a man, here are some tips to undo the socialization that leads to toxic masculinity.

  • Address disrespect and aggression by calling people out when you see it.
  • Provide an empathetic space for men and boys to demonstrate and talk about a wide range of emotions
  • Give positive reinforcement when boys and men show empathy, compassion, and caring behavior toward themselves and others.
  • Allow a nonjudgmental space for men to share their experiences.
  • Check in with men you know or encourage them to ask for help when struggling.

Therapy Can Help Men Embrace Healthy Masculinity

man holding up a moustache prop

Going against culturally ingrained gender roles is difficult for anyone, and it’s common to struggle with your mental health when it feels like you’re different from everyone else. As conversations about masculinity become more inclusive, many men feel lost.

Therapy can help whether you’ve lived inside the tiny box created by toxic masculinity and are looking for help climbing out or you’ve rejected harmful masculine ideals and suffered as a result. You deserve a life that allows for rich experiences, deep emotional connections, and nurturing relationships. At SMPsychotherapy, our therapists bring a wealth of experience working with people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. They understand men’s unique difficulties and are committed to helping clients find a form of masculinity that supports the life they want without causing harm. Reach out to our office today. We’ll discuss your therapy needs and match you with the best therapist for you. You don’t have to struggle with mental health issues or health problems exacerbated by society’s unrealistic expectations for men.

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