How Trauma Creates Toxic Masculinity

September 28, 2015

Written by

Claudia Black Young Adult Center



By Dan Griffin, MA, Senior Fellow at The Meadows

Last week, I was somewhat 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 “toxic masculinity.” Calling attention to the darker side of how men are raised is incredibly important 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.

The hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile was started by Anthony Williams, a sociology major at UC Berkeley, to call attention to violence against women.

Unfortunately, a lot of the nuance and complexity necessary to have a productive conversation about toxic masculinity is missing. (But, then again, it is Twitter; How much nuance can you express in 140 characters?)

Is Masculinity Always Toxic?

My work over the last 20 years 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, especially traditional masculinity.

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

The Role Trauma Plays in Toxic Masculinity

The biggest missing piece in this Twitter conversation is the role of trauma and shame in men’s emotional development. The process of becoming a man in this society is in many ways 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…

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

…not be traumatic? 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.

And here is the kicker: At the heart of the Man Rules is safety. As boys we learn that following these rules will keep us safe. If you attack that which is protects me and that which I hold dear as part of my identity, how can I feel safe? What about the Man Rules is going to allow men to even be aware of, let alone talk about, their feelings and, perhaps most importantly, their not feeling safe?

Because a man admitting that he has had trauma is completely against the Man Rules, that trauma has been mostly hidden from men, their partners, and families, and society as a whole as it eats away at the hearts of men and slowly destroys us and often times 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 by men reacting negatively to the idea of them being fragile when acknowledging any type of weakness is antithetical to the Man Rules? And how can we expect the men who could benefit the most to hear the message if it is done in a shaming way? Shame will never heal shame.

When I am asked if there is another term for men with the 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 the hurt, sadness, embarrassment, fear, etc., is the “Asshole”.

How sad that those carrying some of the greatest pain are often raised to act in such a way as to create and live in disconnection,and in a way that does not engender any real sympathy or affection when they so desperately need it. Sadly, there is great truth in the saying: Hurt people, hurt people.

Healing Through Compassion

We can’t have this conversation without compassion. 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 how to do that without sounding like we are somehow excusing men’s violent and abusive behavior. That is very complicated.

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