I’ve written about this before in a Babble of Sexes column. I believe the answer to toxic masculinity is simple – emotions. Having them, recognizing them, having the tools to manage them. Even embracing them as important and valuable.
Think about what we teach men about emotions. They are bad. They should be avoided at all costs. Stuff them down and pretend you don’t have them. But guess what. Men still do. And those emotions grow and fester. Things happen that make them angry, uncomfortable, sad, depressed, hurt, frustrated, and more. And men don’t have outlets for those emotions.
If a man expresses his emotions or reaches out for help, he is considered weak. It starts at such an early age that eventually men don’t even know what it would mean to express their emotions. They become completely disconnected from them. The concept of processing emotions or sharing emotions with someone is worse than a foreign concept. It is completely meaningless jibberish. Even if he has some vague concept of what it might be, the perceived danger of doing it are too great.
I often say that telling many men, “let’s process your emotions and help you to emotionally connect” is like saying, “I’m going to explain how to do brain surgery in Russian. Then you should go do brain surgery.” It isn’t something they don’t want to do as much as it is something they don’t even comprehend.
So the emotions sit. The pressure cooker builds. While they deny their emotions, the emotions are still at work. Things happen that make them uncomfortable. Some one tells them no. A partner makes friends with someone else. They lose their job and feel humiliated and worthless. Their belief systems are challenged – by religious beliefs, by politics, by sexual preferences, by gender expression, by anything and everything different. The pressure goes higher.
They try to numb. Work longer and harder. Drink more. Do drugs. Buy more things. Eat more. But eventually that doesn’t work. The pressure is to great. The explosion happens. It might be an argument. It might be hitting someone. It might shooting someone. It might be shooting 100. It happens because they believe they don’t have control over their emotions and other people are causing them distress. They see the answer as eliminating what they perceive to be the cause of the stress. It never enters their mind that they can be in charge of their emotions. That they can learn tools to handle their distress.
And that’s because we didn’t teach them. Instead of skills, we said shove down, hide, avoid. Instead of strength and resilience we taught them to blame. Instead of asking for help we taught them to feel shame for being weak. Why do we expect them to know, or act, differently?
The equation is simple.
Strength = Embracing ourselves as both rational AND emotional beings.
Strength = Having the tools to manage our emotions, not suppress them.
Strength = Having the ability to survive discomfort instead of blaming others.
Strength = Using emotions to have empathy.
Strength = Personal responsibility and accountability
Strength = Being able to be vulnerable and survive, not avoiding it.
Strength = Choosing connection, which requires vulnerability, instead of disconnection.
Strength = Understanding that accepting help makes us stronger, not weaker.
While the equation may be simple, the implementation won’t be. It will take hard work by EVERYONE. It can’t be done through blame and shame. It is going to mean having empathy for the very people that that are doing the things we don’t want them to do. And they are going to push back. They’ve spent generation after generation of lifetimes being told what it means to be a man.
While this is heavily a male issue, it isn’t entirely. And it isn’t every man. Everyone on the gender spectrum can have and act on these erroneous beliefs. Because we all impact one another, we all run the risk of enabling or supporting them. Any time someone sees a man as weak for having emotions they are contributing to the problem.
I don’t begin to believe these are the only factors and perspectives causing the problems we have today. But I do believe that if we made this shift in how we understand, handle, and embrace emotions, the world would be an incredibly more amazing place.