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Understanding Toxic Masculinity and Why It Could Be Holding You Back

Trying to understand when he's exhibiting toxic masculinity

It’s a confusing time for men. Over the last half-century, male societal roles have changed enormously. It’s no longer assumed a man will be the main breadwinner in a couple; he might not even work. Male-dominated sectors have largely given over to non-gendered spaces, and men are encouraged to have – even embrace – a “feminine side.” What’s more, we’re expected to avoid “toxic masculinity.” It can feel like men have no purpose.

Even if you're open-minded about the changing cultural norms, these new expectations can be daunting. Many men feel under attack simply for being men. Some, like Andrew Tate (and other “manosphere” influencers), argue males should embrace toxicity. If masculinity is under attack, they argue, then men should take the fight to women. They even claim that being more toxic is the secret to financial and sexual success. And a lot of young men are buying it, unfortunately.

That sensibility might sound appealing, but it’s a dead end. Believing women are your enemy or property to possess is a path to a lonely, bitter existence. If you’re unhappy, it’s easy to blame other people, especially if you feel rejected by them. That’s immensely unhealthy, though. Instead of turning to misogyny, try understanding what toxic masculinity is and why it matters. As this article will explain, expunging toxicity can improve your life and put you on a happier path.

What Is Toxic Masculinity?

If you only ever see the term “toxic masculinity” used online, you might assume it’s a feminist creation. It is often used by women when discussing so-called “hypermasculinity.” You might be surprised to learn, though, that the term didn’t emerge from feminism. In fact, a male psychology professor named Shepherd Bliss coined the term in the 80s.

Bliss was a prominent figure in the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement. Beginning in the 1970s, this movement incorporated the teachings of historical intellectuals, including Francis of Assisi and Carl Jung. As Bliss explained, though the movement was often compared to the women’s liberation movement, it was unrelated. The goal was to give men an outlet for expression and release. Because men’s societal roles were rapidly changing, many men felt adrift.

Bliss and the Mythopoetic Movement advocated for a more positive role for men. But for men to accomplish that, they had to acknowledge the toxic traits that were holding them back.

Is toxic masculinity an attack on men?

An attack on men

As toxic masculinity has entered the popular lexicon, its meaning has often been distorted. Like “gaslighting” or “literally,” many people misuse the term. Which is why some people hate it. In certain conservative political spheres, the phrase can be seen as an attack on men. They feel it equates masculinity with harm. Essentially, they contend the whole concept is designed to feminize men.

That was never the original intent of the phrase. Even some feminists argue that the term is often misapplied. The goal of discussing toxic masculinity shouldn’t be to blame men for all the problems in the world. Nor should it be about castigating men into behaving in a specific way toward women. In fact, the idea's original conception was about men improving their own lives. It’s a personal lens by which a man can recognize and change the negative traits that are holding them back.

When it’s understood in those terms, toxic masculinity is not an attack on men; it’s the opposite. At its core, the concept is an argument that there are good men. It says, if you’re struggling as a male, maybe you’ve latched onto a damaging conception of manhood. It’s an acknowledgment that toxic men exist, but not all men are toxic. And you don’t have to be.

What are the traits of toxic men?

So, what is toxic masculinity? Well, first off, being “manly” isn’t inherently toxic. There’s nothing wrong with activities traditionally considered male, like drinking beers, watching sports, or working on cars. Nor does choosing more traditional gender roles make you a toxic man. Plenty of women feel the same. Toxic masculinity isn’t about what you do in your spare time or your sexual and romantic preferences. It’s about harmful behaviors and mindsets.

Uncontrolled anger is one of the most common traits of toxic masculinity. Anger is the root of many toxic behaviors, including physical aggressiveness, sexual violence, and anti-social attitudes. It’s not just about anger, though. Men often feel they have to be independent and stoic. They might believe that showing emotions makes them weak. As a result, they bottle up their pain and depression. Not having healthy outlets for these emotions likely contributes to the high suicide rates among men.

Often, toxic traits are exaggerations of positive traits. For instance, being strong is good. On the other hand, feeling like you have to be strong in every situation isn’t. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with having a healthy sexual appetite. But uncontrolled sexual urges can be harmful, even deadly. Toxic masculinity is a matter of degrees. It’s a fact of life, too much of anything can be toxic.

Examples of Toxic Masculinity

As I’ve stated, toxic masculinity can be harmful both to others and to yourself. But you might not realize which traits are harmful. If toxic masculinity was the norm during your upbringing, it can be difficult to see with a different lens. Some examples may help.

Toxic masculinity in the world

Holding a gun

Let’s focus on the toxic masculinity examples that are most prevalent in the world. Those include the degradation of women and homophobia, but also violence between men. Consider how many men have ruined their lives because of a stupid bar fight or road rage. The fact that men feel compelled to resolve disagreements with violence instead of dialogue is detrimental to all. It’s why men are responsible for almost all gun violence in America.

Then, of course, there’s domestic abuse. Study after study finds that most murdered women are victims of husbands, boyfriends, etc. In such cases, domestic abuse prior to the murder is common. Discussions about domestic abuse can be contentious because abuse of men is underreported. I know men aren’t the only ones capable of abuse or violence. But it’s a fact that domestic abuse against women is too common, and they are almost always the victims of murder-suicides. Male-on-female violence is a problem. Men need to be the ones to solve it.

Fixing toxic masculinity in society is the job of men. We are responsible for our own actions. That means correcting our own behavior, to start. But it also means calling out our male friends when they are exhibiting toxic traits. We must learn to defuse angry situations and not give in to hateful behavior toward women and non-heterosexual people.

It might be hard to change your behavior or contradict your friends, but it’s worth it. The rewards are happier lives, healthier romantic relationships, and more well-adjusted families.

How Not to Be a Toxic Man

I know the topic of toxic masculinity makes many men defensive. Maybe it makes you feel unfairly stereotyped as aggressive or violent just for being a man.

Remember, though, the toxic masculinity concept grew out of male spaces. And it’s modern men who are working to establish new standards of masculinity. Not just to have healthier relationships with women, but to have healthier relationships with themselves. Instead of seeing it as an attack on your manhood, think of it as refining it. Just as exercise can hurt physically but ultimately make you stronger, fighting toxic masculinity will make you a better man.

Recognize your toxic habits

Addressing his toxic habits

The first step is recognizing your toxic habits and behaviors. As I discussed with the examples of toxic masculinity, these behaviors are often external, but they can also be internal. External behaviors, like abusing women or mocking less “manly” men, are easier to see. It’s the internal tendencies – your mental roadblocks – that can be hardest to recognize and change. Once you do, though, you’ll start to see improvements in both how you think and act.

Do you berate yourself for not being sufficiently “manly”? Do you equate your self-worth to sexual prowess or physical strength? Again, there’s nothing wrong with being sexually active or working out. But if you feel worthless without constantly attaining new sexual conquests or looking like a Marvel superhero, that’s toxicity. Goals are healthy; obsessions can be deadly. Give yourself the space not to be perfect. Perfect isn’t real.

Also, recognize toxic traits in your relationships. Do you call all your exes “crazy”? If you had multiple ex-girlfriends who seemed crazy, consider that the common factor is you. Or maybe you’re angry at women because you’re a “nice guy” but they never seem to acknowledge it. If you’re only being “nice” in an effort to earn sex, that isn’t nice. That’s manipulation, and it’s just another form of toxic masculinity. Women don’t owe you their bodies, no matter what you do for them.

It's easy to blame others for your unhappiness, but the first place you should look is always inward. So, what can you do to change your unhealthy mindset and habits and be a better version of yourself?

Develop healthy masculinity

A good way to break the hold of toxic masculinity is to find positive male role models. That isn’t just men who appear outwardly successful. The men who go out of their way to peacock and display their great worth are rarely truly happy. If they were, they wouldn’t feel the need to show off constantly.

Instead, look to the men who appear fulfilled and content with themselves. If you want to have a happy relationship, seek out men who are happy in their relationships. If you want to be a better father, find men who model that type of fatherhood. Good men, men who aren’t imprisoned by toxic masculinity, aren’t going to be the ones selling their “secrets” to manhood. They’ll just be living their lives and doing the best they can for those around them.

Ultimately, you have to take responsibility for your own actions and thoughts. Figure out what traits are holding you back and work to overcome them. Overcoming toxic masculinity isn’t something that happens overnight. But like any journey worth taking, in time you’ll find yourself in a better place.

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