A lot of men grew up hearing that they need to be strong and stoic, with pressure to look or act a certain way reinforced by cultural stereotypes of “manliness.” Exuding power, toughness and dominance was the name of the game, and for most of us, this meant bottling up our emotions, conforming to strict gender roles and never asking for help, no matter what.
But more and more, men are beginning to abandon these traditional masculinity norms and the idea that to be macho, men are supposed to reject anything labeled as “weak” or feminine. As we learn more about toxic masculinity and its damaging effects on society, mental health and gender relations, modern men are forging a new path forward and exploring the different nuances of what it means to be a man, developing their own standards that fly in the face of problematic, aggressive, or misogynistic behavior.
So what exactly is toxic masculinity, and how can we unlearn toxic behaviors that might have shaped our experiences since childhood? At Choice House, we’re unpacking toxic masculinity, what it looks like and how to address it to help men let go of harmful behaviors that negatively impact their mental health, relationships and recovery.
What is Toxic Masculinity?
Toxic masculinity refers to stereotypical behaviors or attitudes that are often expected of men. Based on outdated notions and traditional gender roles, toxic masculinity is different from healthy masculinity and imposes unfair standards that dictate what it means to “be a real man.” It’s generally associated with the following traits:
- Mental and physical toughness
- Emotional insensitivity (“real men don’t cry”)
- Aggression and dominance
- Risky behaviors
- Misogyny and homophobia
- Overemphasizing power and status
These qualities are considered toxic because they are harmful to society and men themselves, normalizing things like violence, aggression and sexual assault while shaming those who don’t conform to a stereotypical view of manhood. This can have a powerful impact that stays with us through the years, damaging our mental health and stigmatizing the need for help or support.
What Isn’t Toxic Masculinity?
We’ve looked at what toxic masculinity is, but what is it not? Toxic masculinity doesn’t refer to men’s innate traits or mean that being a man is somehow inherently wrong. Rather, it’s a criticism of rigid and stereotypical definitions of masculinity often enforced upon men. There’s nothing wrong with being or aspiring to be more masculine, but the idea that “real men” can’t be the primary caretaker of their children, ask for help, have feelings or want to take things slow in a relationship is harmful. It can discourage men from exploring any non-traditional hobbies, interests or pursuits and deprives them of a full range of expression, preventing them from becoming the best version of their own true selves.
If you’re naturally stoic, that’s fine, but convincing yourself that normal emotions aren’t acceptable for a man can harm your mental health. If you like sports, cars or working out, that’s fine too, but ridiculing or shaming men who don’t would be considered toxic behavior. Healthy masculinity doesn’t force yourself or others to jeopardize their mental health or safety to conform to hyper-masculine expectations of how a man “should” act.
The Effects of Toxic Masculinity
When it comes to toxic masculinity, no one wins. It contributes to ongoing issues like mental health stigma, rape culture and violence by encouraging men to avoid vulnerability, ignore personal traumas and act on homophobic or misogynistic beliefs. While toxic masculinity certainly isn’t the only cause of these issues, experts agree that it plays an important role and is something that still needs to be addressed.
Toxic masculinity is often viewed as harmful to others, but it has a negative impact on men themselves, too. Studies have found that it can contribute to mental health problems like depression or anxiety, and these things can take a toll when not dealt with properly. Adhering to cultural norms that encourage men to “tough it out” and reject help from others can lead to worsening symptoms and increased isolation from friends and family, as well as poor coping skills when it comes to handling stress or difficult emotions. This combination can be deadly — in the United States, men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide, a phenomenon that is due, in part, to avoiding emotional expression or feeling vulnerable. Men who adhere to toxic masculinity are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as drug or alcohol use, unsafe sex or reckless driving, harming their health in other ways.
Even simple things like self-care have been deemed “too feminine,” increasing the chance of illness or injury as some men glorify unhealthy habits and push their bodies to the limit. A 2007 study found that the more rigidly men conformed to traditional masculine ideals, the more normal unnecessary risk-taking and things like poor sleep, diet and mental health seemed.
Toxic masculinity also has an effect on society at large. It tells men and boys that strength and aggression are the key to solving problems, rather than communication. This contributes to issues like domestic abuse, gun violence and sexual assault as men are conditioned to believe they have to intimidate or overpower their “foes” so they don’t appear weak.
Certain attitudes associated with toxic masculinity, such as homophobia and misogyny, also promote bullying and rape culture. Toxic masculinity teaches men that their manhood is tied to an ability to dominate and objectify women, and one way this is achieved is through sexual harassment. All too often, this behavior is rationalized by the mentality that “boys will be boys,” perpetuating bad behavior in the workplace, in relationships and elsewhere in life. Toxic masculinity ideology also tends to shift blame onto victims and relieve men of any responsibility for their actions, reinforcing negative attitudes toward women and sex.
Toxic masculinity is a complex issue, and there’s no right way to overcome it. Ultimately, solving the problem will require a monumental shift in how we as a society define masculinity and eliminating the stigma of not conforming to hyper-masculine ideals. If you’re a man or identify as a male, there are some things you can do to limit the spread, influence and effect of toxic masculinity in your own life and the lives of others, whether at home or in the workplace.
- Learn to Recognize It. A good start is learning how to recognize toxic behavior. When you see it, don’t be complicit and call it out. Holding others accountable for their actions sends a clear message that toxic masculinity is not okay. It’s also a way to let others know that there is no “right way” to be a man, and no one should have to feel like they need to prove their masculinity.
- Give Yourself a Break. While often easier said than done, it’s important not to beat yourself up for the past. We’re all a work in progress. Keep moving forward and focus on where you are now, and where you want to be. This also includes learning how to be true to yourself as a man and a person. Feel free to explore any traits, interests or hobbies that don’t conform to gender stereotypes without judgment, and give others that same opportunity.
- Be Open With Others. Dare to show emotion, be vulnerable and show courage by asking for help when you need it. All men experience emotional difficulties from time to time. Break the cycle of keeping it all inside by opening up to your friends and family and teach others that it’s okay to give or receive support. In this way, we can help to eliminate the fear and stigma associated with mental health care and therapy.
- Do the Work. Growth and change don’t happen overnight. To undo the effects of toxic masculinity, you might have to have tough conversations with your friends and family to gain some perspective on your own behavior. Try not to get defensive and listen to what they have to say — you might be surprised to learn that certain things you did or said in the past had a different impact than what you intended.
- Ask for Help if You Need It. Don’t let toxic masculinity dictate how you live your life. If you’re struggling and need help, reach out to a therapist to talk. This is especially important if you’re in recovery for a mental health or substance abuse problem. Therapy can also help you understand the effects of toxic masculinity on your own well-being and develop healthier coping strategies for dealing with emotional distress.
At Choice House in Boulder, Colorado, we help men address toxic masculinity through community, camaraderie and proven therapeutic techniques. By showing men that they’re not alone and providing the necessary support for healing, we can break the stigma surrounding mental health treatment and learn to acknowledge our emotional needs. Since toxic masculinity and poor mental health are closely related, confronting the problem head-on is an effective way to improve your relationships, your recovery and your success in life.
Toxic masculinity is ingrained in our society, and most people feel its effects at some point during their lives. This is especially true for men with mental health or addiction issues — macho attitudes are a barrier that prevent many from getting the help they need. Learning how to recognize and address toxic masculinity is a step in the right direction. At Choice House, we’re a treatment center dedicated to the unique needs of men, helping them come to terms with these and other issues by providing care, comfort and support in the Rocky Mountains. To learn about our treatment programs, contact or call us today at 303-578-4977.