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What is toxic masculinity exactly, and how men can shift out of it.

There continues to be a stigma around mental health and mental health care, but there is a particular stigma in regards to men’s mental health. The majority of mental health concerns are not mediated by gender and can be experienced by any gender, so why are there barriers for men when recognizing and seeking help for mental health? There are many factors that can contribute to this, but toxic masculinity can play a strong role in this.

Toxic masculinity is a term used to describe the aspects of masculinity that align with negative behaviours and values, such as aggression, violence, dominance, and callousness. These traits are connected in the traditional values of masculinity: strength, power, control, confidence, and independence, but are taken to the extreme. If these parts of masculinity can be toxic, why do they exist? There are strong societal norms for gender to be expressed a certain way which is implicitly and explicitly taught. The expectations from family and friends can have a strong impact on men’s beliefs about how to be a man which can instill these masculine traits. Further, allowing behaviour based on gender expression (“boys will be boys”) and condemnation of gender expression that doesn’t seem to fit (“stop crying, are you a girl?”) encourage and perpetuate a masculine way of being for boys and men.

As it pertains to mental health, men are encouraged to be unemotional, both in terms of what emotions are acceptable to feel and to express. This can be connected to the belief that emotionality is tantamount to weakness, and to be masculine is to be strong. While toxic masculinity alone does not cause mental illness, it can certainly perpetuate it. To be able to express emotions to others can be helpful to process difficult experiences, but these masculine traits often prevent emotional help-seeking from family, friends and health professionals. The encouragement of men to be strong and independent leads to men trying to manage mental health concerns on their own, which can lead to damaging coping mechanisms like isolation or substance use.

Shifting out of toxic masculinity for the betterment of your mental health can be challenging; if the creation of these values were created from a young age and perpetuated since then, it’ll take some intentional effort to change them.

First, start with looking inward and considering what beliefs you have about being a man or being masculine. This may be easier to do by thinking about the behaviours you do to be perceived as manly and then connect them to a belief. For example, if I distance myself from my friends and family whenever I have a bad day, I may believe that I’m being strong and independent, which are typical masculine qualities.

Second, consider if the behaviour connected to these beliefs is serving you. Ask yourself if the behaviour is helpful in the short-term, long-term and if it aligns with your overall values of who you are (or who you want to be). For example, if I distance myself when I’ve had a bad day, but I value connecting with others and being honest about my experience, the isolation behaviour is misaligned with my values.

Thirdly, start challenging those beliefs to shift them into ones that work for you, which is easier said than done. Being diligent about challenging the belief and the behaviour when it comes up will allow the belief to shift over time. Here are some common beliefs that align with toxic masculinity with a paired belief that may be helpful to shift to.

Toxic Masculinity Belief

Balanced Belief

Feeling emotions is weak

​Feeling emotions is human

People will think less of me if I show my emotions

People can connect over shared emotions, and showing mine can allow for that

I can solve all of my problems on my own

While I’m a great problem solver, if someone can help me, why not ask them?

I’m strong so I won’t experience any mental health challenges.

Mental health challenges can be out of my control and can happen regardless of how I am.

I need to be strong and reliable for everyone around me.

Everyone around me can help me be strong and reliable.

To be clear, toxic masculinity isn’t necessarily a choice, but a societal construct that teaches men how to be. So consider how toxic masculinity impacts your ability to perceive and care for yourself because although it is societally created does not mean it is a positive or gentle way of being. I often say that we can’t be superheroes all the time and I think that’s applicable here. To believe your strength, confidence, and independence means you can never hurt, falter or pause is not going to serve you as you work to take care of yourself.

If you are feeling the pressure of gender-based beliefs, reach out to your EFAP for support. Counselling can help you to work through these expectations and emotions to help you move beyond them. We're here to help.

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