When Is It Enough?: Toxic Masculinity

Have you ever said to yourself or out loud; “I am tired. I’m tired of being tired. More importantly, I’m tired of feeling like I have no outlet”? You aren’t alone. Let’s face facts. Men don’t have an outlet to which they can be vulnerable. Whether it’s because of media, perception, admittedly sometimes our own stupidity, or even because of learned behavior; our communities and our social relationships have instilled in us that it is better not to speak up, ask for help, or reveal how we truly feel. Otherwise known as “Toxic Masculinity”, it starts with the male upbringing and the way we are taught to stay “strong”, “silent”, and “unnerving”. We looked to our own fathers as role models, blissfully unaware that he learned this same behavior from his father, who learned it from his father, thus continuing a long line of learned behavior. Furthered by the crippling “macho” male archetype; from sports athletes to action heroes, men have been conditioned since birth to follow and emulate these emotional displays and consider them…normal. Mind you, because these traits of toxic masculinity have been passed down through the generations, some older generations often think there is nothing “toxic” about this form of hyper masculinity. To them, grit, strength, how much pain can you endure, and how stoic you can be are all traits of a proper “man’s man”.

The first time I ever encountered traits of toxic masculinity that I can remember, as sitting at my grandfather’s kitchen nook table. I couldn’t have been much more than 6 or 7 at the time and at that time and rather enjoyed drawing the Disney VHS covers to some of my favorites; Oliver and Company, Aladdin, The Lion King. During this particular memory, I remember spending so much time painstakingly recreating the VHS cover for Oliver and Company. Each line carefully put to paper, each stroke as close to the original as I could possibly make it. Once I was done, I was so proud of my accomplishment, I couldn’t wait to show my family. I raced to the living room where you would often find my grandfather passed out on his favorite sitting chair, newspaper in hand, head slightly tilted back, mouth fully ajar and woke him to show him my master piece. Once he settled back out of the dream reality where he previously dwelled, he shuffled his glasses taught to his face, focused in on my artwork, smiled and said “mhm yeah, that’s real ugly”. REAL UGLY?!? Later and still crushed, I ran to my father and asked him “why did pop-pop say my work was ugly”?. He saw the tears well in my eyes and replied; “He didn’t mean anything by it. For him that means he likes it. He’s never been one to really say anything like ‘I’m proud of it, or I love You’. He shows it through his actions. Now man up, don’t cry, it will be ok”. Without knowing it, my grandfather and father served a healthy double dose of toxic masculinity that day. Like a 2 for 1 special, and I was the lucky 500th customer. What both of them taught me that day was to A: understand that my grandfathers why of saying he was proud of me and liked my work was to tell me “it was ugly” i.e. positive outlooks equal negative reinforcement and B: that in order to be a man, I’d have to not show my hurt or sadness while also accepting someone else’s negative action and reaction. Sadly, this wouldn’t be my last trek into the realm of toxic masculinity either. 

As we mature and grow, our culture further shoves this notion down our throats. Heard over playgrounds, stadiums, locker rooms, and practices around the world – “Man up”, “Don’t be/You’re acting like a girl”, “Don’t be a sissy”, “That’s gay”, “Don’t be a “F#!got”. These statements stick and stay with us as we age, making it harder to properly emote or even for that matter want to emote how we feel. Added on to this fact that in some scenarios of personal and family relations; your concerns, faults, and fears can be thrown back at you in the heat of anger – commonly traits of verbal abuse. The sad truth about this trait is that by being cycled and recycled through our culture, it is no longer just our men that now subscribe to this culture. Women hold just the amount of blame as well. Next time your male friend, or partner, husband, or boyfriend (especially if you are a female reader) four questions:

  1. Has anyone ever thrown your insecurities, fears, failures, past, trauma, or shared statements back at you?
  2. Do you think that it’s odd to tell a man that is not your family that you love them?
  3. Was your father ever dismissive of your emotions saying things like “stop acting like a girl” or “man up”?
  4. Has your father told you that he is proud of you lately, or that he loves you lately (without prompt)?

You’d be surprised at how many men will answer in some way that is not in the positive light you were hoping to hear as a response. To this day, since my adulthood, I can not recall a time where my father has openly and without prompt has told me, “I’m proud of you” or “I love you”. Do I know that he loves me? Absolutely. Despite my father and I’s somewhat strained relationship over the years, the one thing I’ve never doubt is that he loves me. Has he said that he is proud of me or my career decisions? That’s another story. And while I’ve heard from his friends and extended family how much he speaks on how proud he is of me and my accomplishments, he has never actually told it to my face. I’m not the only one.

Because of these issues, and over time, we end up suppressing these emotions to the point of causing major mental health issues and cases. In a yearly study conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men died by suicide 3.56x more often than women in 2018. Mental Health America reports that an average 6 million men are affected by depression per year with approximately 19.1 American adults ages 15 to 54 having anxiety disorder and 3 million men suffer from panic disorder(s), agoraphobia, or any other phobia. “A lot of guys don’t want to admit they have this problem. They still see depression as a sign of weakness”, said Dr. Raymond Hobbs, a physician consultant at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, during an interview with publication Healthline.

So how do we break the pattern? It first starts with noticing and recognizing signs that you or someone you care for may be in need of assistance or help. Some signs, as Healthline explains, are or can be:

  • change in mood
  • difference in work performance
  • weight changes
  • sadness, hopelessness, or anhedonia (a loss of pleasure and pulling away from things that used to provide enjoyment)
  • physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach issues

Reaching out to someone, no matter how hard it may be or how against the grain this may be to what you are accustom to, is the start having honest and open communication on your feelings no matter what perception it may give. Looking for and having a healthy outlet such as a therapist may also be an outlet you can seek out. It’s not easy breaking this cycle but the need to allow your voice to come through, stopping toxic masculinity from spreading to future generations. It starts with you.

If you think you or a loved one may be in immediate crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline for resources and support at 800-273-8255.

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