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Toxic masculinity is terrible shorthand for a real problem plaguing men

Rigid stereotypes about what it means to be a man are hard to change, but accusations reinforce rigidity in even people who want to grow.
Image: Man with head in his hands sitting on park bench
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There is a popular (and controversial name) for the concept that men can suffer negative psychological consequences from trying to live up to traditional ideas of what it means to be men: “Toxic masculinity.”

The idea, which has taken root in popular culture, originally started as a concept along the lines of what Olivia Petter once wrote in "The Independent": That toxic masculinity “dictates that men should be stoic and strong, both emotionally and physically,” and recognizing that as a problem provides men an opportunity to rethink “what it means to be a man today, and what is generally expected of them by society.”

But outside of academic circles, it's seemingly taken on a meaning — that all conceptions of masculinity are bad — that may be as toxic to men as the negative ideas it was initially meant to tease out. Psychologist Gad Saad, for example, has written that the term “toxic masculinity” itself pathologizes masculinity “in ways that are harmful to the existential sense of self of young men.”

That misapplication of the term is probably why the recent discussion of the American Psychological Association’s new “Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men” (an attempt to reconsider the image of masculinity that, until recently, was considered the norm for all psychological development) has had a wider audience in lay circles than was likely intended.

The concept of “traditional masculinity ideology,” as the report calls it, is a standard for maleness held by large segments of the population that involves “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence” and is linked “homophobia, bullying and sexual harassment."

The APA report was not, however, an effort to impose the concept of "toxic masculinity" on practitioners of my profession. Rather, it is an attempt to undo some of the very real rigid bands of stereotyping that can affect therapists, therapy's utility to men and the broader understanding of why men and boys behave in certain ways. This means, first and foremost, recognizing that both men and women can be victims as well as victimizers.

But it also means understanding that rigid stereotypes have also led to “disproportionate rates of receiving harsh discipline (e.g., suspension and expulsion), academic challenges (e.g., dropping out of high school, particularly among African-American and Latino boys), mental health issues (e.g., suicide), physical health problems (e.g., cardiovascular problems), public health concerns (e.g., violence, substance abuse, incarceration, and early mortality), and a wide variety of other quality-of-life issues (e.g., relational problems, family well-being),” according to the report.

As a psychotherapist, I often work with men and women who are struggling to come to terms with their sense of who they are. This psychological battle often includes questions about their strength and vulnerability, which is often translated into questions about their "masculinity" and "femininity."

For instance, some years ago, a couple told me that their 3-year-old son’s preschool teacher had said that he seemed a little fragile. They were — not surprisingly — concerned whether he was going to grow up with emotional problems. When they asked the teacher what she meant, she said, “Well, he cries and says he’s upset sometimes, especially when the other boys are roughhousing. He likes playing with the other boys, but I’m worried that he’s not going to grow up feeling comfortable with himself as a guy. He’s more like the girls, actually.”

Beyond cases like that, many of the men with whom I work in psychotherapy come in at the request (or demand) of someone else — a spouse, partner, parent, or someone at their job or school — rather than because they feel the need for help. Research cited in the APA report confirms that my experience is not unique: It states that “many men do not seek help when they need it,” in large part because help-seeking goes against many cultural, psychological and often religious or familial images of masculinity.

But, as psychotherapists and the general public review and revise our understanding of what it means to be masculine, we also need to make room for differences in personality and in experience. Some men and women are quite comfortable with feelings; some are not. Similarly, some women and men fully buy into traditional images of masculinity and femininity, while some do not.

Still, balancing our desire for our sons (and brothers, husbands and fathers) to find a balance between feeling "masculine" while embodying positive traits stereotyped as "feminine" is not as unrealistic as we sometimes think. The real trick is to recognize and respect the multiple facets that make any person who he or she is, without focusing so specifically on the qualities that define traditional gender differences.

And in my decades as a therapist, I have learned that change occurs only when we are able to acknowledge and accept our flaws and our strengths. Rigid, unexplored stereotypes are hard to change, while accusations and attacks reinforce rigidity, making it hard for anyone to shift their position, even if they want to.

This does not, of course, mean that we should ignore unacceptable behavior. Women and men still need to stand up against perpetrators of sexual, emotional and physical violence and, if the broader APA definitions help therapists and patients understand that masculinity need not by definition be toxic while pushing back on behaviors that are, all the better.

An important goal of therapy, however — for individuals of whatever gender — is to learn to pay attention to, understand and manage feelings rather than to focus on external definitions of who we are or how we should be. Simplistic categorizations (like “fragile” or “toxic”) can interfere with this process, in therapy and in life; the APA has offered some useful ideas for broadening these categories.

It has also offered a framework to allow therapists to look at ourselves more clearly: Many of us are affected by these belief systems about gender even though we think that we are outside of them, which is why it is so important for all of us to pay attention to the ways they impact us. But even as we recognize the negative impact that narrow stereotypes about masculinity can hurt both men and women, the phrase “toxic masculinity” can, as author Colleen Clemens puts it, “seem wildly insulting, even bigoted.” The behaviors and beliefs need to be addressed — but defining male-ness as inherently negative can cause a person to harden their stance rather than to change.