How Trauma Creates Toxic Masculinity

September 28, 2015

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Claudia Black Young Adult Center

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By Dan Griffin, MA, Senior Fellow at The Meadows

Last week, I was surprised to see a huge conversation about masculinity happening on Twitter. The hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile was started by Anthony Williams, a sociology major at UC Berkeley, to call attention to violence against women.

I appreciate the intention behind this conversation. It attempts to call attention to what many call the signs of “toxic masculinity.” Drawing attention to the darker side of how men are raised is essential because of how much pain and trauma it causes to boys and men, women and girls, and our society as a whole. Taking a stand against the violence associated with toxic masculinity is imperative for any progress we hope to make in our society. Although, I wish we would take a stand against violence against all people.

Unfortunately, much of the nuance and complexity necessary to have a productive conversation about toxic masculinity is missing. Then again, it’s Twitter, so how much nuance can you express in 140 characters?

Is Masculinity Always Toxic?

Over the last 20 years, my work has been dedicated to gaining a better understanding of what it means to be a man in the 21st century. I also use the term toxic masculinity, but I talk about it in a larger context. I strive for conscious masculinity, being able to consciously choose the man I want to be in any given situation while not demonizing masculinity, mainly traditional masculinity.

We must make sure that we distinguish between what’s great about traditional masculinity and feeling the effects of toxic masculinity. There’s so much good about how men are raised, and we often leave that out, which causes many men to feel attacked.

The most significant missing piece in this Twitter conversation is the role of male trauma and shame in their emotional development.

The Role Trauma Plays in Toxic Masculinity

What causes toxic masculinity? The most significant missing piece in this Twitter conversation is the role of male trauma and shame in their emotional development. In many ways, becoming a man in this society is inherently traumatic. We kill off core parts of a boy’s (and future man’s) spirit through the inculcation of what I call the Man Rules – those messages we learn very early as boys from men and women and other boys and girls about how to be “real” men.

How can such damaging messages as these not be traumatic?

  • “Don’t cry,” 
  • “Don’t be weak,” 
  • “Don’t feel feelings other than anger” 
  • “Don’t respect or value being a girl/feminine”

As that message is beaten into us figuratively – and literally for some –over and over again for years, the result is very often varying degrees of toxic masculinity.

Here’s the kicker: Safety is at the heart of the Man Rules. As boys, we learn that following these rules will keep us safe. How can I feel safe if you attack what protects me and what I hold dear as part of my identity? What about the Man Rules that will allow men to be aware of, let alone talk about, their feelings and not feel safe?

Because a man admitting that he has had trauma is entirely against the Man Rules, that trauma has been mostly hidden from men, their partners, families, and society. It eats away at the hearts of men and slowly destroys us and — often — those we love the most.

Shame Is Trauma’s Accomplice

Shame is trauma’s accomplice in wounding the human heart. The message of shame is: There is something inherently wrong with me. While those driving the conversation on Twitter say they want to distinguish between the effects of masculinity and the men themselves, how do they expect so many men not to hear something like #masculinitysofragile as insulting? 

Why would we be surprised that men react negatively to the idea of being fragile when acknowledging any type of weakness is antithetical to the Man Rules? How can we expect the men who could benefit the most to hear the message if it’s done in a shaming way? Shame will never heal shame.

When asked if there’s another term for male trauma, I always provocatively say: “Yes: asshole.” Because many men tend to externalize the effects of trauma through anger, rage, and violence, the most wounded men are sometimes the biggest assholes. Men have shame-based responses to various comments, interactions, and experiences; the external effect of that, protecting us from feeling hurt, sadness, embarrassment, fear, etc., is the “Asshole.”

How sad that those carrying some of the most significant pain are often raised to act in such a way as to create and live in discommon, one that doesn’t engender any genuine sympathy or affection when they so desperately need it. Sadly, there’s great truth in the saying: Hurt people, hurt people.

Toxic Masculinity and Mental Health

Sexism harms women and leads to toxic masculinity within our society. Researchers have associated a significant link between traditional masculinity and mental health for several decades. Studies conclude that men who conform to conventional norms are likelier to have poor mental health outcomes and less likely to seek help. Harmful toxic masculinity traits, negative emotions, and seeking help are toxic masculinity’s three most damaging aspects.

Harmful Traits

Many men conform to the sexist facets of toxic masculinity, otherwise known as the “playboy” and the “power over women” norms. These men only view women as sexual objects and seek many partners. They don’t view men and women as equals, so they seek to control and gain masculine influence. Self-reliance is also linked to poor mental health because men prefer to solve problems on their own instead of asking for help. Conforming to male toxicity can isolate men from society, their friends, partners, and coworkers. 

Negative Emotions 

Men who conform to these norms are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression. These norms also negatively affect men’s social functioning. They often feel lonely, and hostile and are less likely to form healthy and loving social bonds. Many experience mental health issues from exhibiting these toxic masculinity traits because of poor relationships with their partners. 

Seeking Help

There are many resources for men to get help when they’re struggling with their mental health due to exhibiting toxic masculinity. Therapy can help men develop better social skills and help manage their stress, anxiety, and depression. 

Although counseling is readily available, most men still find it difficult to seek help. Finding someone in their life who can relate to what they’re going through and talk to them is an excellent first step. For men who are intimidated by formal therapy and counseling, encouraging mentorship or coaching can be a more effective approach. In this case, a life coach can double as a counselor to help address these behaviors and deal with their underlying mental health issues. 

Studies conclude that men who conform to conventional norms are likelier to have poor mental health outcomes and less likely to seek help.

Healing Through Compassion

We can’t have this conversation without compassion. We must address toxic masculinity and gender roles. We must help men be responsible for their behavior and take a stand against violence, but it has to be done with compassion. The challenge is to do that without sounding like we’re somehow excusing men’s violent and abusive behavior. That’s where it gets complicated.

What my experience, both personal and professional, shows me is that if you challenge me and who I am—which is essentially a result of how I’ve been raised—without some degree of compassion, your message will fall on deaf ears. Until we genuinely help men heal and change how we raise boys to be men, our society will not heal, and the violence against all will not end. We’re all fragile to some degree, and that reality should bring us together, not pull us further apart.

It can be hard to ask for help, and we see men every day struggling to address their issues and fully commit to getting help. The Claudia Black Young Adult Center provides intensive, experientially based inpatient treatment specifically tailored to young adults ages 18 to 26 using our proven Meadows Model. Contact us or speak to an admissions coordinator at (866)-690-1906.