There is a lot being said about “toxic masculinity” and on the one hand, it is a good thing. It means there is a growing awareness of the problem that men have throughout the world. On the other hand, most discussions revolve around how bad it is without much in the way of solutions. It is bad, but saying it doesn’t do anything to change it. We should (and can) do better.

The problem with so many of our issues is that we often use the same approach or reaction to them that are involved in the dysfunction itself. Huh? What this means is we don’t really address the problem. We are fighting fire with fire. We tend to get caught up in reacting and stay in that reactionary space.

Talking about racism, or violence, toxic masculinity, or any of our other ill does nothing to fix them so long as we come to the table with our feeling of fear about them. That is where the discussion is right now in the main. Fear? It doesn’t look like fear to hear people talk about it. It probably more accurately sounds like anger, right? But as any psychologist will tell you, or as any thoughtful person intuitively senses, anger comes from something. Want to guess where it comes from?

Fear breeds anger and anger breeds hate. It is the same with nearly every dysfunction that humans experience. And yes, most feeling people who are expressing about toxic masculinity have fear tied up in them. People are afraid of what a toxic male might do, and they are angry about this fact. The blogs are full of how much people hate this about men. Are you seeing now how these feelings are all intertied? But feeling this is only the first step. If you are only at the reactionary stage, you are doing nothing to help be part of the cure. This is a nonstarter that will leave us on an endless merry-go-round. We have to learn how to approach it differently.

The way through and out of this is the opposite of our fear. That is love. Love brings compassion, and compassion stills our fear and opens us to understanding, or at least the possibility that we can. The way to solving toxic masculinity is by probing it and seeking to understand its roots through a mind and heart that is open, and you cannot have an open heart when fear, anger, or hate are present. We need to learn a different approach if we are to ever resolve this issue…or any issue like this. This is step two.

I have experienced many of the inputs that drive toxic masculinity. Some of them have to do with the roles that we as men have been saddled with. These beliefs about what a “real man” is supposed to be are often the very things that give rise to this toxicity. This toxicity as it is called, is the result of unnatural beliefs about manhood, beliefs that unnaturally chain men as they grow and learn about masculinity. These inputs, the behaviors coming from our culture that inform males from cradle to grave, come from all sides of life. It happens early in life, usually from the moment a baby boy is brought home after having been born.

We are all culpible in this failed effort at raising males to be better adjusted as human beings. The influences are so pervasive that a male born to an enlightened household will still probably grow up having friends who give him a picture of what they believe being masculine is all about.

This means that women are helping to form these beliefs in our sons in a number of ways, and men also perpetuate them by believing that they are important enough to internalize and pass on to their own sons. We are all involved in this. Men do it as much as women do, the only difference is that women complain about it when they see the results of the behavior in their male children and the men they are either friends with or are married to. Men, because they are the ones internalizing the beliefs that lead to emotional toxicity, are just less aware of it for the simple reason that when you are the one with the belief, that belief serves to blind you so you don’t see it as well as a bystander can. How many times have you seen a man behave from a toxic place and maybe apologize but then go on to continue with the same reactive behavior again a little later? The problem is that if you are a bystander you are often only seeing symptoms, not causes, and you are reacting to those symptoms rather than doing what I prescribed earlier, which is what will lead us more dependably to the source of the problem so that it can be fixed. Men, for their part, have so internalized something that they know is poisoning them, but seem powerless to do anything to change it. To remove the bite from this poisoned apple takes what might seem a herculean effort. I observe that it requires patience and love.

To explain this issue, I have a video that is brave and brilliant, that I hope you will take a moment to look at. It is a TED Talk, which means that it isn’t long, and the speaker gets to the point. What she explains, as a sex worker, are the problems she sees with men that need to be fixed. What needs fixing involves a change in what we believe masculinity is all about. We know there is a problem, but reacting to it only guarantees that the problem remains. Once you watch it, I will have a few words to put this into perspective as it relates to my life.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7xLfeTytns

So one of the biggest problems has to do with how we create a belief about what being masculine is about. Real boys don’t cry, mothers calling their sons their “little man.” These are the beliefs that become internalized. They are literal poison to mens hearts, minds, and souls.

In my marriage my wife described our son as her “protector” when he was all of two years old, a signal to him that has had disastrous consequences for his mental health and well being later in life. I know the causal link to this relationship dynamic because I was able to see how it began innocently at age two with my son, and continued through his growing years into adulthood. I saw how a child grew increasingly neurotic and troubled, and when his mother and my relationship began to dissolve, he became polarized by her bad boundaries with him so that his and my relationship also dissolved. His mother’s divorce became his divorce, too.

The problem with this is that while it might feel good to have a child that is exhibiting these traits, they can have disastrous effects on children in the long run. A child should not be called upon to be a caretaker, that is the parent’s job. For another, when all a child has is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Without his being able to understand what being a protector meant for him, this behavior served in his life to always side with his Mother and anytime she had a challenge, difficulty, or dissagrement, he was swift to come to her aid. Any time his Mother or I were not in agreement, guess who reflexively sided with his Mother? My son did. This created a sense that his Father, who loved him very much, might well be a threat. He was a child, really what did he know? It sounds like such a laudible trait, doesn’t it? He went on to have girlfriends, some of whom he felt were his job to fix or protect. It meant that he was naturally drawn to women who needed help. There is nothing wrong with helping a person, but when it is something that needs to be done on a regular basis, there is something amiss in that relationship. In our rush to follow our inner programming, we don’t always see the forest for the trees.

In this type of codependent dynamic, the male derives a reward for his behavior as a protector, making him feel important, and the female has a male that is attentive to her many needs, some of which are (in my life) based in uncertainty, anxiety, and fear (in the case of a codependent relationship). The male is in his own way also anxious and fearful (about being accepted), but most often neither are self reflective enough to even see whatis at the root of their behaviors. When you base a relationship on those qualities, you are effectively getting painted into a corner where both people remain in the pattern with little benefit to trying to break out of it.

This is one outcome of toxic masculinity. A boy is asked to do something completely counter to his own true nature because society expects it of him. He internalizes the behavior because of his desire to be accepted, and he suffers as a result. He is alienated from a father who loves him and he grows up angry and rageful because a child is simply ill-equipped to act like an adult. I can tell you that in my experience being mother’s “little man” or “protector” warps a male child’s heart and mind.

Males thus raised will wind up acting out because that boy or teen (or adult) is actively suppressing his truer nature, and his acting out is in turn hurting others, and the cycle continues adinfinitum. The problem is that he was brainwashed into believing that what was “out there” as a problem (the nail to his hammer) is now inside of him. A child doesn’t know how to properly protect anyone, so they are flying by the seat of their immature pants. Whoops.

The way out of this is to stop raising children like this to begin with. That means acknowledging that boys need to show love, compassion, and feel safe feeling their emotions instead of putting on a false act of pretending they are tough saviors and hero’s. Little boys are not little men. They are as tender and as sensitive as their female counterparts. The only difference is they are taught in subtle and overt ways that they should be something that does not fit them. Women are taught similarly, but with a completely different set of expectations. We dislike those roles on both of the ends of the spectrum, right?

When parents demand that their sons “man-up” or play the tough guy, they are robbing their boys of their humanity and their childhoods. The results are like what happened to my own son. This happens even without the dysfunctional element that was present in my particular situation.

This kind of programming isn’t always overt. Sometimes it is small, subtle, and often goes unnoticed. Thousands of miniscule things add up. When my then-wife came to me telling me with swelling pride about how our two year old son was her protector, I felt a stab of caution and concern. My impulse was to tell her that this wasn’t the kind of thing to be encouraging in my son. I thought how she would feel defensive if I did that, no matter how kindly I chose my words. I also thought that it was just a phase and that he would grow out of it, so I didn’t say anything.

I DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING.

Would it have made a difference? 20/20 tells me no, but you don’t really know for sure. I could have educated myself as a first-time parent and then sat her down, imploring her not to encourage this in our son for his own sake, and shown her the studies. I did not do what many parents probably have also not done down through the ages. We just kept kicking the can of paternalistic toxicity down the road.

I find that I often ask myself what I could have done differently. I always wished that he would suspend his disbelief in my love for him and spend time with me away from his Mother, something I knew could short-circuit the pattern of denigration she engaged with my children in an effort to destroy my relationship with my children during our divorce. She wouldn’t be able to comment on our time alone together without any degree of accuracy, which might be enough, I thought, for him to be able to see what a lie all of this was. That never was able to happen. By that time, my son was a walking poster child for so much of what is wrong with men. The thing is, I had married with an unacknowledged desire to be the knight in shining armor. You can never save a person who is not ready to be saves, who is not ready to grow and change out of old patterns.

Toxic masculinity is front and center for me in my life. There is no glossing it over. I know how it has affected me, I know how it has affected my son. We are all responsible for the fallout from it.

Reprogramming Our Men

Once programmed, men need safe places to be able to explore their God-given humanity. They need patience and they need to feel safe from being ridiculed for feeling in a sensitive way. Our culture is saturated with this false view of masculinity. When men have to suck it up when women get to gush and emote, you know there is a problem. Criticizing a man for being reactive only causes him to dig in to his old programming more. If you find yourself going for that stoic cowboy, then you might become part of the problem. Please don’t do that to anyone, man or woman.

Men have to take the reins and make an effort to not perpetuate this programmed set of responses. Men need to support other men by not trying to shame other men for being tender, or sensitive. Men must learn to hold the line with their women they are with and call out any effort they make to imply that they aren’t being manly enough, with false equivalences. Yes, it will mean walking away from women who exhibit these behaviors, but don’t look back unless there is real awareness on their part and an exhibited desire to begin changing their own programmed views and responses. A woman like this is not worth losing you soul over.

That said, a woman has a potentially fantastic power over a man to disarm and beguile him. Men are known to do anything for the woman he loves. This means that if a man is with a woman who has healthy boundaries, is not herself tied to the old modes of what being manly is about, she can, through grace and a gentle hand, show him the way to her heart if that way harmonizes with his own innate humanity. No false expectations, no tough guy bullshit. Yes, we are tough because of how we are built, but our hearts are as tender as anyone else. The problem is, you wouldn’t know this to look at most men. I promise you that it is there. The soft touch with great patience is what is required. You also have to know that you sre suited for this kind of work.

It will take time, but each encouraging word and action will have an effect. We can change this, but it wont change by just being angry about it. We have to love ourselves back into our existence and never again fall prey to the false beliefs that got us here.

Imagine what it could do: men whose natural aggresiveness is expressed in a more natural way where that aggresiveness is no longer laced with anger and rage. Men who are more sensitive, and less controlling. A man with something to prove often lacks the necessay approval of himself and will go looking for its substitute which is approval from others. By teaching him not to trust his natural instincts, he will look to someone to supply him with the false instincts that so far hasn’t served them well. All of this can be turned around, a cosmic 180º turn, but it needs to be important enough to begin integrating new behaviors based in authentic emotion instead of our culturally foisted ones. I say this as a man who has been through it.

The way through is with real love, not a false sense of compassion or anger and upset over it. Lets get this done for our boys.