I can remember being in a sophomore in high school, around the ripe age of 15, having the distinct and auspicious pleasure of navigating roles within the National Honor Society, Future Business Leaders of America and the Student Government Association. Additionally, I had the choice in being a lead actor in Drama Club or playing baseball and running track (the two sports simultaneously conflicted with Drama Club). As a tall, lanky young fellow, who was just as quick-witted as he was on the track field or in the baseball diamond, I was often made to feel less of a man because I chose to be in Drama Club my sophomore and junior years. Often, I heard that Drama Club was for sissies or gay men and a real testament of my young adult masculinity could be proven on the field.
Masculinity and masculine images are portrayed in media and socially as men withholding emotion, engaging in sports, lifting weights in order to bulk, participating in dangerous activities such as drag racing and obtaining a multitude of sexual conquests. Aligning with patriarchal cultures, masculinity often requires a sense of control, power, and authority in addition to providing, stabilizing and decision-making. What is promulgated throughout culture is that men have no room to be weak or reveal that weakness, especially in the presence of women. Society consistently focuses the outer appearance of strength rather than the inner works of what makes a man a man. As a result, we have placed different social constructs and pressures on men and what it means to be considered masculine.
Often, the mismanagement of messages of masculinity contribute to higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and insecurity. Additionally, without teaching men how to process emotions such as hurt, sadness, loss, abandonment and disappointment, we relegate men to relieve their stress through aggression and anger, both of which may not always hold positive consequences. On the flip side, society also teaches men to suppress on hold in their intense feelings rather than expressing them in healthy ways, which is equally destructive and may hold the same negative consequences as the dichotomy of only releasing emotion through aggression and anger. These feelings are akin to shaking an unopened soda bottle and opening the top, watching the excess burst through and spill over the top onto the floor or ground.
As mentioned, toxic masculinity has a variety of outfits. It may look like men controlling every aspect of their lives or it may look like a domestic violence case. It may look like the inability to provide nurture to a child or it may look like toxic binges of drunkenness or sexual activities. It may look like a blank or emotionless stare or cold feeling of contempt or disdain. What it feels like in the body is anger and confusion, frustrating complexities of assimilating manhood into a mental construct. Thus, insecurities form when we cannot make sense of a particular construct. Insecurities are often expressed in an overcompensation of abilities, self-sabotaging relationships and opportunities, and aggressive or age-inappropriate behavior.
As therapists, we are trained to identify and diagnose issues which hamper the client’s inability to live life on life’s terms, and possibly, on the client’s terms. Often, toxic masculinity shows up in the counseling room (and every other room) as depression, anxiety, PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) or even sexual dysfunction including addiction or sexual trauma. Throughout the therapeutic alliance or relationship, we begin to uncover the thoughts, behaviors and feelings that are tied to the aforementioned diagnoses, most of which is masked by toxic masculine behavior.
The contrapositive theory to toxic masculinity is vulnerability. Vulnerability is toxic masculinity’s kryptonite, so much so that it involves clients utilizing a different side of the brain in order to process emotions, feelings, often some that go against logic. Vulnerability allows men to process feelings and allows them to express these feelings to others, including feelings of shame, hurt, sadness, loneliness, fear and physical expressions of those feelings including crying. Therapeutic theories such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), person-centered therapy, psychodynamic therapy or even exposure therapy highlight strategic ways in which therapists can approach and elicit vulnerability from our clients. When we make the choice to be vulnerable, it gives others the opportunity to be vulnerable as well.
Written by Aaron Kimble, LPC Intern