Toxic Masculinity: The Pitfalls of Growing Up Male

I was a child of the eighties. As a male, that meant a lot of different things but toxic masculinity was near the top. As far as my most influential role models were concerned, they were Sylvester Stallone from “Rambo 2” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in, “The Predator”. Two men who used gratuitous violence to get what they wanted and to defend what was rightfully theirs (usually a woman). These two characters, for me, defined what it meant to be a man, in my childhood.

With regards to male emotions, as far as I knew we only had two. Anger, which was most prevalent and the self righteousness to use our anger to protect what was morally right. These were the lessons that I used to view my world with and they started before I was able to communicate with those teaching me.

What I Thought It Meant to Be a Man

In the world I grew up in, men were men and took what they wanted while drinking whiskey doing it. Women were weak, caretakers of the men and children and watched soap operas during the day and went shopping, a lot. At the time, I had no idea how unhealthy this polarized idea of how men and women “should act” was. But I was also a child, where black and white thinking was how I, and most children, view and navigated their worlds.

Unfortunately for me, I experienced a fair amount of abuse, trauma and neglect, because of the above form of masculinity. Something I’ve come to know as toxic masculinity. I would later break the mold of this toxic masculinity and the lessons I endured as a child from it. Although not before I bought into the curriculum.

I drank whiskey neat, because I thought it was the mark of a real man. This was because two of my role models, James Bond and Jim Morrison, did and I wanted to be just like them. I watched movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “Fight Club” on repeat. Taking notes on how to be the manliest of men by mostly looking, but also acting the part. I even studied Heath Ledger’s Joker from “Batman”, because he was sort of in line with the ideology of what I thought it meant to be a man. It helped that the role models I had terrorized me in the way I saw the Joker psychologically terrify people.

Luckily I no longer look to role models like these. Or God only knows where I’d be. But what was so insidious about how I came to idolize these characters was, not because I had loads of quality time with my male role models. Role models who mirrored the above type of behavior. But rather it was the neglect mixed with criticism from them, that left me not knowing how to be my own man.

Unclear Messages About Being a Man From Unhealthy Role Models

There were a lot of unspoken messages around what was and was not okay for a man to display. For instance, one of my caregivers told me that I was sensitive on a regular basis. Something that I was sure was not a manly trait, though never explicitly told to me. This usually happened when I was showing an emotion other than the two, pre-approved “manly” emotions of anger and self-righteousness.

I unfortunately did not have the ware-with-all to say that they’d be sensitive too, if they were neglected while wave after wave of terrifying men abuse them. That being said, I recognize that it didn’t start with my caregiver. Their caregivers handed down to them, their child-rearing handbook. So I know they must have lived through some of what I experienced and for that I have empathy for them.

Though telling me that I was sensitive in a way that felt as though I were being harshly and critically judged, taught me that it wasn’t only not okay to display my feelings, but to have these feelings at all. And for a good portion of my adult life, I didn’t even know what emotions were. Not only was there no one there to model healthy emotional states for me, anytime I expressed one that wasn’t acceptable or was considered “unmanly”, I was shamed for having them.

Not Having Words For My Emotions

The one feeling I came to know by name and understand well was anxiety. And that was only in the times between the 4 to 5 lattes I would drink during the day to stay ahead of my emotions and the 5 to 6 beers or mixed drinks I would have at night to numb them when they eventually caught up with me. And the anxiety was paralyzing.

Even then, my ingrained trainings on how to be a “man” still wouldn’t allow me to see my emotions as something to be listened to and cared for. As a marker for something being out of alignment and that they (my emotions) were there for a reason. The degree to which my perception of manliness was skewed was represented in a conversation I had with my doctor. During one of my yearly physicals, I was speaking to my doctor about the anxiety attacks I would sometimes have. I was looking to be prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for them. Only I referred to them as, not being able to live with this weakness inside of me anymore, referring to my anxiety attacks. Luckily, he looked at me with empathy and said that feelings aren’t weaknesses.

Unfortunately, that was one of the few times I could remember receiving any kind of healthy emotional modeling. I had a life’s time worth of harsh criticism and lessons all leading me in the unhealthful direction of toxic masculinity. And resulting in understanding my inner emotional life as a “weakness” to be rooted out.

Changing My Ideas of What it Means to be a Man

So what sparked this awakening so to speak, of how I came to understand just how the toxic masculinity of my caregivers’ perceptions of what being a man meant? And what gave me the ability to want to change myself for the better? It all started when I stopped running from my emotions. But to do that, I had to go digging through my past first.

The Legacy of Toxic Masculinity

When I realized how unhealthy this all was, I couldn’t help but wonder, why do we as men stay so wrapped in this idea of toxic masculinity and perpetually being unable to speak about our emotions? Is it that it’s just the way men are told to be? My caregivers are good examples of this legacy. One of them said to me countless times while I was growing up, “I don’t know how to raise a man”.

This sent me the message that I wasn’t adding up to what their standard of how a man should behave. But it also told me that there was no way I would be able to be a proper man in their eyes because first, they told me they didn’t know how to raise one, and second, I was terrified of all the male role models in my life due their abusive tendencies. The type of man I was supposed to grow into.

What I think my caregiver may have been alluding to when they said they “didn’t know how to raise a man” was, that I had no male role models, healthy or unhealthy that stuck around. None that took the time to show an interest in me and to find out what my strengths were and how I could cultivate them and become my own person. But these are just guesses and I’m no mind reader.

Looking For Guidance Still as an Adult

With the amount of fear and uncertainty I had delt with as a child, it was easy to fall into the trap later on in life, of looking for someone who would tell me what to do. Who to be and how to feel as a man. And there was definitely no shortage of people willing to fill this role for me.

I spent the first half of my life looking for someone to tell me how to be a man to my caregivers standards. To criticize me into being the man I was told I should be. There was a sort of comfort in knowing that your life isn’t your responsibility and that’s what I was looking for. Someone who would tell me who to be. But this way of living led me to stagnate and left me unwilling to move on with my life or effect real change in it. Not to mention the unhealthy drinking habit I picked up along the way as well. Mostly to avoid the responsibility of my emotional life.

I felt trapped in my life without direction. Due to being unable to get passed my feelings that I wasn’t in charge of my own life. That somehow, how others saw me was more important than how I was treating and responding to myself. Or more to the point, I thought I needed someone else to tell me I was on the right path when the only person who could know that was me.

Why These Lessons Were Toxic

I was unable to foster and keep close relationships with others. Or with myself to any meaningful degree because I was unable to empathize with or understand how or what someone was going through on an emotional level. I was completely controlled by my emotions. In that I was terrified of them popping up unexpectedly. So I stayed hyper vigilant to keep the fear of my “unmanly” emotions, those that felt most vulnerable at bay while finding ways of controlling my inner experience. This usually happened by numbing them or by using pleasure seeking habits.

This type of outlook, on how men should be raised according to my family and to a larger degree societally, is founded on two basic principles from what I can gather. The first principle being men should not talk about their emotions and the second, normalizing this form of abuse by labeling it what it means to grow up male.

Men were not supposed to talk about their emotions. As I mentioned above there were only two emotions that were acceptable for men to express in my experience. Anything outside the realm of anger or self-righteous was labeled as not masculine and as a man and in my case, you would be labeled “too sensitive” if you expressed them. Men were supposed to be hard, physically and emotionally, unyielding and unforgiving. 

Recognizing I Needed to Change

What then allowed me to recognize these unspoken family rules and implement the changes I needed for a healthier version of myself? It was the time spent away from my caregivers and me hitting my bottom which came in the form of a few failed relationships.

I had been married to a woman that I was with for about eight years, after which I left her and into the arms another woman. It wasn’t my best decision looking back, but the reason I left my then wife was because when I was with the other woman, I felt heard and seen for the first time since I was a child. I felt like the man that I was expected to be through her and more importantly, through my family’s eyes.

This woman would later leave me. Which was for the best, but this experience left me with nowhere to go and nothing to do, except to come to terms with the person I had become. I moved back in with one of my childhood caregivers at 34 and began rebuilding a relationship with them. Only this time, it wasn’t based around the unspoken rules of how to be a man, as had previously been defined for me in my childhood relationship to my caregivers. And I was scared.

New Lessons On Being a Man

What I was doing went against all my teachings of what it means to be a man. This left me feeling vulnerable and uncertain about how to proceed with the new rules that I hadn’t figured out quite what they were yet. I was confused and scared, but I learned that I could live through these emotions. The confusion and fear and be the stronger for it. Not only that, but I was still the man I was coming to know more and more, without the old and toxic lessons from my past.

Since letting go of those toxically masculine lessons I was raised with, I’ve gained control of my life again. I’ve come to make healthier choices about my diet and spending habits. I seldom drink alcohol and have one to two cups of green tea a day. I’ve found direction in my life and I’m starting to build and maintain healthy relationships with friends and family members on my own terms. It isn’t always easy, but my life is my own to live. And now I no longer seek the approval of somebody else to tell me how I’m doing, at being my own man. And maybe more importantly, if I’m measuring up.

These are the gifts that being your own man are able to yield. Strong and soft are my new goals, not hard and unyielding. Because unlike the curriculum I was given in my childhood, might does not equal right. There is strength in coming to understand, attune and attend to our own inner emotional lives with care. But it takes courage and time.

We have it in us, to embody the strength we need. Some say we were built for it. So take heart reader. Know you are not alone, if you’ve felt as though you haven’t measured up to an unreasonable standard of manliness. And that it is not only possible to be the best version of yourself, however that may look, it’s doable too. You need only to allow yourself to be what you already are : ) Peace and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Texans bravado is a little chilling.” by Tolka Rover is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Edited: 6/1/22

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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