“Toxic masculinity” is something I had unfortunately internalised prior to the term being thrown around in the last few years.
As a kid, I sat and listened to girl after girl repeat their episodes of sexual assault. I sat and listened to boy after boy share their stories of disappointment with their fathers. I realised that at some point I stopped looking at the positives of my male role models and instead focused on their neuroticism, selfishness, creepiness and/or insecurity.
I realised (or perhaps agreed) that I was a man when I was 21 at work and someone directed a client to “that man over there”. That was the first time that I heard someone call me a man, so I assumed that that was my initiation.
No bar mitzvah or getting my driver’s licence or being stung by some venomous insect for me. It was merely being given the label. Not as dramatic an initiation as I would’ve expected but what did I expect? I’m too culturally ambiguous to have a rite of passage.
When people say that someone is acting like a boy, they mean that that person is immature, imprudent and uninitiated. As a boy, you don’t necessarily think of yourself that way. Or, if you do, it’s not a bad thing. You accept that you have a lot of life to live and you’re ignorant about some stuff.
However, when one says that one should act like a man, they want the complete opposite. They expect maturity, wisdom and ability. They expect a certain amount of emotional health too, but that’s where the problem begins.
If you’re like me and you interacted with men as a kid, with your brain not yet fully developed and making sweeping generalizations based on emotional events, you may have come up with the same damaging labels to describe men: neurotic, selfish, creepy or insecure.
Clearly, these traits are not ones that illustrate emotional health. And like I said earlier, as a kid, maybe you have your own things to learn to become a man. But if you have a mental schema of what a man is and it includes any of the four (or similar) traits, do you think that you will escape these traits?
What happened when I accepted the notion that I was a man was that I felt like I was taking on traits that I never had before. As the old adage goes, I became what I hated.
Before I go any further, I have to say that I completely abhor the vitriol surrounding men. There is little sympathy shown to men for their struggles. Indeed, I am thankful for feminism but in a world that is increasingly becoming more female, the old pains of men I fear are getting deeper and darker. And that is not going to benefit anyone.
That aside, I can give thanks that I haven’t infringed on the rights of others. I can give thanks that I have turned the other cheek when toxic masculinity reared its head towards me (people forget that it’s not just women who suffer from it, just like toxic femininity can cause major damage to any sisterhood) but the thoughts, man… Being bombarded with stupid bullshit that I never thought about as a kid but all of a sudden came about once I thought of myself as a man has been scary.
When the Buddha said, “What you think, you become” this unfortunately isn’t just some famous quote on how to manifest what you want. It’s also a warning.
Any boy who had positive male role models would naturally have positive thoughts about men. When they become a man, they subconsciously assume the good-natured traits that come with being a man. And I’m certain they are proud to be men.
Conversely, give a boy enough negative experiences with a man and when he becomes one, he will simply take on those negative traits in shame and self-hatred.
Moreover, in the situation where a boy has negative experiences with girls or women, he will continue to believe that they are bad and find all the evidence to support their beliefs, while ignoring that the opposite is also true. It’s just a fact of life. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy!
This is why I caution my friends to not make sweeping generalizations about their sex or the opposite sex. I’m lucky to have had bad experiences with women but I never internalized that women were bad. Growing up, I saw them as mostly good. It wasn’t until adulthood that I had to admit that they engaged in pretty toxic behaviours themselves.
Because I thought women were essentially perfect, I could not see that they could be bad, just like I was unable to see that men weren’t just neurotic, selfish, creepy, insecure, mean, etc. but were also peaceful, patient, understanding and loving — the very traits I only reserved for women.
Any guy who can say that they consider men to be peaceful, patient, understanding and loving is an insanely blessed man. Intellectually, we can probably say that men are these things but experientially, it may be a different story. For many men and women, any Martin Luther King Jr. they can name, can be offset with nine Adolf Hitlers. This is a sad reality because it is likely that they know more peaceful men than they do villains.
Well, we can’t go back to being boys. Boys lack experience and wisdom. The only solution is to transform what it means to be a man. This is a laughably tall order, considering that so many men don’t know what healthy masculinity looks like. I’m the one writing the damn article and I know that there’s some thoughts floating around that look wrong but when I consider the opposite, it’s too farfetched.
Here’s a personal example. I used to get into fights at school but when I realised the damage I was doing to others and myself, I completely flipped to full-on pacifist. I moved from having extremely rigid boundaries to having flimsy ones. I was afraid to let my anger out because I thought anger was bad.
The solution was obviously to strike some sort of middle ground, but the punch-you-til-you-bleed side found that to be too weak, although the peace-loving side of me was okay with finding some middle ground to stand on.
Personal boundaries are a lot like border debates. On the one hand, you can’t just let anyone into the country. On the other, not everyone who leans on the border is a threat. As a reactive, insecure person, you might want to shoot anyone who approaches because you think they’ve come to attack you. As someone who is afraid to stand up for what you want in the fear that it offends others, people will take advantage of you. I’ve done both. None of them are sustainable.
The only solution I got is to first develop self-awareness. What do you really think of men? Men famously get along really well, but still kill each other very often. We have negative notions about men. It’s time to unearth and address them.
Secondly, we need to look for male role models that match values that we’d like to have. They’re confident, poised, understanding, loving, whatever you want to be or wish your dad was more of growing up.
Third, we need to emulate them. When you do this, you may feel a sort of friction between who you are now and who you’re trying to become. It’s natural. When it happens, let yourself feel the friction and over time, you will feel it less and less. It’s not enough to just watch men embody healthy masculinity and not try it on for size.
A decision to be healthy will go a long way. We assumed negative things about men because the circumstances caused us to believe that men were bad and we missed every time that a man was good. Now men get to decide who they want to be, but it will only be accomplished by being honest with ourselves.