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. As far as my most influential role-models were concerned, they were Sylvester Stallone from “Rambo 2”, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in, “The Predator”. Two men who used gratuitous violence to get what they wanted, and defend what was rightfully theirs. With regards to my emotions, I only had two. Anger which was most prevalent, and the confidence to use my justified anger to protect what was morally right using aggression. These were the lenses through which I was taught to view the world and started as soon as I could speak.

In the world I grew up in, men were men and took what they wanted while drinking whiskey and women were weak and caretakers of their men and children. 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 viewed and navigated their worlds.

Unfortunately or fortunately for me I experienced a fair amount of abuse, trauma and neglect, which jettesenned me from the path of the above form of masculinity which I’ve come to know as toxic masculinity. But it took a while to come to this conclusion and I definitely tried to fit in using the methods that were being modeled for me in my youth.

I drank whiskey neat because I thought it was the mark of a man. James Bond, who was one of my role models as well, did so. I watched movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “Fight Club” on repeat, taking notes on how to be the manliest of men by looking and acting the part to the best of what I thought my family would approve of. I even studied Heath Ledger’s Joker 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.

Luckly, I no longer look to role models like these and God only knows where I’d be if I had continued down that path. What was so insidious on how I started to idolize those characters was not because I had loads of quality time with male role models mirroring this type of behavior. But rather it was due to neglect mixed with subtle and not so subtle criticisms from my role models that left me not knowing how to be as a man.

For instance, my mother told me I was sensitive constantly. More often than not it was when I was showing an emotion other than the two, pre-approved “manly” emotions of anger and confidence. I did not have the ware-with-all to say she’d be sensitive too if she was neglected by her mother as she sent wave after wave of terrifying men to abuse her. That being said, I recognize that it didn’t start with my mother. Her mother, my grandmother handed down her child-rearing handbook to my mother. So I know she must have lived through some of what I experienced.

Telling me that I was sensitive in a way that always felt as though I were being placated in a condescending tone taught me that it wasn’t okay to have feelings. For most of my adult life I didn’t know what feelings were. Not only was there no one there to model healthy emotional boundaries for me, anytime I expressed one that wasn’t acceptable or was unmanly, I was shamed for having them.

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 the emotions when they eventually did catch up with me. And they were paralyzing.

And even then the ingrained trainings on how to be a “man” still wouldn’t allow me to see my emotions as something to listen to. As a marker for something being out of alignment. During one of my yearly physicals I was speaking to my physician about the anxiety attacks I would have sometimes looking to be prescribed some sort of anti-anxiety medication. Only I told him, “I just can’t live with this weakness inside of me anymore” referring to my anxiety. 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 leading me in the unhealthful direction of toxic masculinity resulting in the bravado of understanding my inner emotional life as a weakness to be rooted out.

So what sparked this awakening so to speak, of how I came to understand just how toxic the perception of being a man meant? And how it was being modeled for me in my youth? And what gave me the ability to want to change my future? It all started when I stopped running from my emotions. But to do that, I had to go digging through my past first.

I spent a lot of time in Vermont as a child. Most of my family was living there at that time and we would often visit on weekends and holidays. One visit during the winter months I remember my uncle telling me to go get wood from the wood pile and stack it next to the fire place. I couldn’t have been more than eight at the time so I asked for a hat because it was January in Vermont. That meant it was cold. He thought for a second and with a mocking gesture, reached into the closet and retrieved a mesh baseball cap. I was too young to question his authority but I remember standing out by the wood pile freezing while trying to grab armloads of wood to bring into the house. Even then I knew something was amiss. 

The message my uncle was sending me, although I was too young to know it at the time, was that man should be able to endure whatever unpleasant or difficult sensations come up. Regardless of what they may be, even if they were self imposed. Instead of modeling that a man should take care of himself by using the appropriate tool for the situation. In this situation a knit cap for the sub-freezing temperatures of Vermont would have been a healthy lesson to learn. Instead in my eight year-old mind I was taught the lesson that men should endure even the harshest of situations without complaint.

When I found out that I was unable to get rid of the feelings that I was told I shouldn’t be feeling, i.e. the discomfort and uncertainty of being unable to live up to the standard of “man” that my family was measuring me to, I learned to numb them later in life through coffee, alcohol and medication. Sure without feelings I could finally live up to the image of what my family thought I should be and therefore my image of how a man should behave, but I also lost myself along the way. And that way of living was unsustainable at very least.

I was unable to foster and keep close relationships with others 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. I was terrified of them popping up unexpectedly. So I stayed hyper vigilant to keep the fear of unwanted emotions at bay while finding ways of controlling my inner experience by numbing or pleasure seeking behaviors. The list of methods I used to control my emotions is long, but control of my inner life was my number one priority. Not to feel the emotions I had been running from since I was a child, being sent the message that my emotions were dangerous to feel and unmanly.

This type of behavior, on how men should be raised according to my family and to some degree societally, is founded on two basic principles from what I can gather. The first principle, men should not talk about their emotions, and 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 or so emotions that were acceptable for men to express. Anything outside the realm of anger or confidence was labeled unmasculine and as a male you would be too sensitive if you expressed them. Men were supposed to be hard, physically and emotionally unyielding and unforgiving. 

But it was this modality of being emotionally calloused that prevented me from creating close relationships. You can’t be attuned to yourself and others in an authentic way if you have such a high standard of how to behave that no one would be able to add up to it. Everyone, including ourselves would always be a disappointment. Letting us down for never achieving some impossible standard. Such as not being allowed to feel emotions of vulnerability and tenderness as a man.

When you view the world through this lens, it’s easy to become jaded and see the people around us as nothing but potential let downs. “Why bother” would become our default mantra when it comes to building connections and friendships. In the end the relationship will never be satisfying because we will eventually show our vulnerabilities to one another and if it’s one thing that men are not, according to the unspoken rules of my upbringing, it is vulnerable.

And the why we as men seem to stay wrapped in this idea of perpetually being unable to speak about our emotions, is that it’s just the way men are.

My mother said to me countless times growing up, “I don’t know how to raise a man”. This not only sent me the message that I wasn’t adding up to what her standard of how a man should behave, but also there was no way that I would be able to act as a man. Because first, internally I was terrified of all the male role models in my life due their abusive tendencies. But second, and what my mom was probably referring to was I had no male role models. Healthy or unhealthy, that took the time to show an interest in me as a person. To find out what my strengths were and where I could grow as a person. I was polarized with either abuse, or neglect.

With this amount of uncertainty it becomes easy to fall into the trap of finding someone who will tell you what to do or how to feel. And there is no shortage of people willing to fill this role. I spent the first half of my life looking to recreate this power dynamic in my relationships. Trying to find someone who would criticize me into submission. There’s a sort of cold comfort in knowing that your life isn’t your responsibility. But this type of thinking and being leads to stagnation and the inability to move on with our lives or affect real change. Not to mention the unhealthy drinking habit I picked up along the way as well. As well as many other unhealthy habits in order to avoid the responsibility of my life.

For me it meant reliving the cycles of my trauma. Trapped in a life without meaning because I couldn’t get passed the feeling 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.

What allowed me to recognize these unspoken family rules and then implement changes for a healthier version of myself was time spent away from my family and me hitting my bottom. I was with a woman I who I married and we were together eight years. I left her for another woman, one who was much younger than I was. It was not a wise decision and I’m sure I could have found other ways to come to terms with my emotions and have stayed married. But the reason I left my then wife was because when I was with the woman who I left my wife for, I felt heard and seen for the first time since I was a child. I felt safe, unjudged.

She would later leave me which was for the best but this left me with nowhere to go and no one to rely on except to come to terms with the person I had become. I moved back in with my father at 34 and began building a relationship that was not based around the unspoken rules of my upbringing. It was scary. It went against all my teachings of what it means to be a man. I.e. it left me feeling vulnerable and uncertain. Confused and scared, but I learned that I could live through these emotions and I could be stronger for them.

Since letting go of the toxicaly 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, old and new again. It’s not always easy but my life is my own now and I no longer seek the approval of someone else to tell me how I’m doing. Or how 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. But it takes courage.

We have it in us, to embody the strength we need. Some say we were built for it. So take heart dear reader. Know you are not alone and you are already the best version of yourself. You only need uncover yourself 🙂 Peace.

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