“Toxic” was Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2018, and the conversation appears to be continuing in 2019. In the span of a week, Gillette and the American Psychological Association (APA) have come out with stances and guidelines on masculinity — specifically “traditional” masculinity.
For the APA, they just released guidelines for psychotherapists who treat male clients. The message: Traditional masculinity can worsen the mental health of boys and men.
What is traditional masculinity?
In broad terms, “traditional masculinity” refers to an ideology that defines manhood with beliefs and behaviors like stoicism, independence, and the repression of one’s emotions.
That being said, this can be a somewhat misleading phrase, because it’s not about how men act, but rather the gender bias that contributes to these stereotypical “male” behaviors.
Culturally, it’s termed “toxic masculinity.”
According to the APA, this ideology tells boys and men that upsetting feelings like anger, sadness, and insecurity should be acted out instead of talked about. The Gillette ad echoes this narrative, depicting scenes of boys and men acting impulsively (bullying, harassment, etc.).
While the ad depicts men stopping these behaviors before serious consequences occur, studies cited in the APA report show that adopting this toxic mindset can cause aggressive and bullying behaviors, depression, and substance use.
But dismantling traditional masculinity is more complicated than an ad or announcement of new guidelines. It takes normalizing and openly discussing the unique struggles that boys and men face to help shift these long-held, damaging beliefs, says the APA.
That’s why they’ve created these guidelines for psychologists, outlining crucial points for them to consider when treating male patients.
We’ve summarized several key points in the guidelines as well as specific ways we can use them to dismantle traditional masculinity on a daily basis. Becoming familiar with the latest information can also help individuals find suitable therapists to help them through their challenges.
1. Examine bias
Viewing men through a stereotypical “tough guy” lens can influence our interactions with them. The APA suggests psychologists examine their own gender bias and recognize that gender is nonbinary. It’s crucial for us to do the same.
How do “traditional” male beliefs affect how we react when men encounter failure, heartache, and insecurity?
Popular responses like “Shake it off” and “You’ll get over it” often reinforce the notion that ignoring one’s emotions is healthy. However, internalized feelings can make pain fester. Instead of offering advice to your male friends and colleagues, ask open-ended questions that invite more honest sharing, such as, “Tell me, what was difficult?”
2. Fathers can make a difference
Psychologists should encourage boys to develop positive relationships with their fathers and other family members, says the APA. Additionally, talking with fathers and fathers-to-be about the importance of fostering intimate and interactive relationships with their children can provide health benefits for life.
The takeaway: These connections can be supportive if the family relationship is strong. Forming trusting relationships with positive male figures, like family members, teachers, and coaches, can give boys the support needed to weather challenges like puberty, relationship breakups, and peer pressure.
3. Interpersonal relationships are important
Boys and men aren’t always taught how to foster intimate friendships, but the APA says it’s crucial for their emotional wellness. It’s important to recognize that society has framed male intimacy and socialization differently, and therefore the conversation needs to be more holistic.
Traditionally, shared activities, like playing sports or video games, may help facilitate male bonds. But when they only focus on the hypercompetitive culture and “success” of those activities, it may hurt more than help.
This doesn’t mean boys and men have to abandon their favorite activities. It just requires changing the script to include opening conversations and forming trust in relationships. True intimacy develops when one embraces vulnerability and shares their innermost thoughts.
4. Identity development is fluid
Throughout their lives, boys receive damaging and stagnant messages about what manhood means. Instilling the idea that men are superior to women and that privilege doesn’t exist can cause troubling, aggressive behaviors to arise.
But according to the APA, identity development is fluid, meaning how one defines and identifies manhood can change. For example, a teen who plays sports may identify as an athlete during adolescence, but they shouldn’t feel as if that determines their future identity or interests.
We can start dismantling these conversations starting with children. Parents can question these stereotypes by discussing how sexism, privilege, and power affect people’s lives. Teaching boys to think broadly (such as simply not defining tasks or jobs as “for men” or “for women”) can help them discuss identity development more openly with friends, peers, and family members.
5. Mental health matters
Boys often grow up believing that it’s not OK to ask for help. As a result, men are less likely than women to seek psychotherapy. However, they’re more likely to experience psychological challenges, like ADHD, anger management problems, and behavior difficulties at school.
Teachers, parents, friends, and family members can promote emotional wellness by talking openly about mental health.
Normalizing the conversation can help boys and men realize that struggles aren’t a sign of weakness. When male role models disclose their own career, relationship, and emotional difficulties, they destigmatize the shame that men often face.
Finding a therapist who can help
Traditional masculinity doesn’t mean that being a man is “bad.” But learning to challenge long-held stereotypes and removing restrictions about what “being a man” means can help foster a more inclusive male community where diverse thoughts, feelings, and identities are welcome.
If you’re searching for a therapist to help you or someone you know navigate identity and masculinity, here a few questions you can ask potential therapists:
- Are you familiar with the recent APA guidelines advising therapists how to treat their male patients? How do you incorporate this knowledge into your work?
- How do you help your male clients confront gender bias?
- Learning to identify and discuss emotions, like sadness, anger, and shame, can be a vital part of psychotherapy. How do you educate your male patients about emotional wellness?
A therapist who’s a good fit will have answers mimic the intention of points summarized above. They’ll also understand that unraveling long-held ideas may take time.
Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco. She graduated with a PsyD from University of Northern Colorado and attended a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. Passionate about women’s health, she approaches all her sessions with warmth, honesty, and compassion. See what she’s up to on Twitter.