5 Ways Masculinity Can Harm You and The People Around You

man standing

In recent years there has been a lot of discussion about how masculinity can harm the individual and those closest to them. But what exactly are the harmful traits masculinity carries with it, and what can be done to combat them?

Toxic masculinity can lead to unhealthy relationships and mental health problems, since it can create unrealistic ideals and warp our perceptions of the world.

That’s why we’ve put together a list of the top five masculinity that could be affecting you or your male friends or family members right now, so that you can identify the signs and help remedy severe issues before they go too far.

1. Unfair Ideals

The main way in which masculinity can be harmful is because it generates unrealistic expectations and ideals. It is in attempting to achieve these ideals, or not being able to, that mental health issues can start to fester.

A commonly known example is that in most cultures men are expected to be the ‘breadwinner’ of the family. This means they are expected to have a well-paid job which supports their family.

However, with workload being increasingly spread more evenly between men and women, this expectation can no longer be met and this can cause feelings of inadequacy. Also, with unemployment in Western economies rising, and people being replaced by machines in a number of professions, this role has become increasingly difficult to fulfil. Not being able to support their family and live up to the masculine ideal of being a ‘breadwinner’ can lead not only to financial worries, but also depression as men feel they are failing their families.

What can we do about it?

Break the ideal. Men were only supposed to be the support for the family back in the olden days when women weren’t actually allowed to work, and that’s not the case anymore. But sometimes knowing that is simply not enough, and we can’t help but be affected. If you feel like you need help, talk to partners, friends and family or seek confidential support from a psychoterapist near you.

Struggling with unemployment is a whole different issue, though it feeds back into this ideal, and support is what’s needed once again. Seek help and advice on and off-line, sign up to online job sites such as Total Jobs, Indeed and Reed, and talk to those you trust and who know you best.

man unhappy

2. Sexism

Another issue masculinity can bring to the table is sexism. This is one way in which masculinity harms both men and women, is sometimes referred to as ‘toxic masculinity’. This term refers to the harmful norms which are frequently associated masculinity.

A direct link between these traits and poor mental health was uncovered by researchers at Indiana University and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where the researchers aimed to find out which 11 traits associated with toxic masculinity were the most harmful. They discovered that the two aspects related most closely to sexism were closely linked to poor mental health. These two factors are the so-called ‘playboy’ norm, the trait of seeing women as sex objects, and the ‘power over women’ norm, when individuals saw women as unequal to men and in need of male guidance or control.

One of the less obvious ways in which these traits can harm men is that it can leave them feeling alienated from their friends and partners. In previous decades, acting in a sexist way, or holding sexist opinions, would have been more accepted by society. Now, however, there is far more resistance to these views, and it’s possible that people will speak out against you or avoid you.

Holding views that men should be responsible for women can also cause the individual stress, feeling like they have to look after women in their lives, and a sense of pressure builds if situations are out of their control. Since men used to be the educated one of the household (due to women not being allowed or encouraged to read), men may often also feel pressured to be knowledgeable, and if they feel out of their depth, or overshadowed by a woman, this can cause conflict with sexist ideals.

The pressure of living up to sexist ideals from a male perspective can be demanding and very unrealistic, and if you align yourselves with this then it can be mentally exhausting as well as damaging.

But sexist views clearly don’t only harm men, and it’s important not to make the focus too much on male problems at the expense of women’s. Men holding sexist views leads to women having low self-esteem as they can feel objectified or demeaned by men’s views and comments.

Statistics show that women are increasingly likely to be unhappy with how they look, and this is a result of both the media and men’s sexist opinions leading women to be overly self-critical.

See the stereotypes

It’s important to combat these views not only for the wellbeing of the men who hold them, but also the women around them.

Sexist ideals are warped into our society in all sorts of ways, so it’s understandable that we get swept up along with it. Lad culture, chick flicks, representations of both gender in TV, film, advertising, the music industry are just some of the ways in which we are influenced, and then go on to reinforce the stereotypes in our own ways.

What we must do is check ourselves, and note when and how we reinforce these stereotypes, and try to avoid it when it is hurting ourselves and others.

3. Self-reliant

Another trait mentioned in the study conducted by the Indiana University was ‘self-reliance’. This can lead to men feeling they are not being able or allowed to express their feelings or ask for help. It’s easy to see how this would lead to mental health issues, as it can cause problems to build up and remained unresolved. Lack of communication underscores most of the problems related with toxic masculinity, as problems can easily become exacerbated.

Self-reliance can also lead to men being alienated from their partners and social groups as they close themselves off emotionally and retreat into themselves in order to solve their problems, rather than asking their friends and loved ones for help.

The solution?

This one seems pretty simple, but it’s often not. The advice is: talk to someone. Friends, family, and other people you trust. Of course you know that though; you’re reading this article. You know where this section is going. But of course, if you are struggling with asking people for help, or looking like you need help, this isn’t as easy.

One-to-one counselling is one option, but those struggling with the self-reliant trait will often discount this, since they will be too embarrassed or ashamed to contact a professional, even if it is for a confidential session.

Luckily, there is plenty of alternative options to get you started. Online counselling can be a great alternative as you can chat to someone about everything you feel you can’t say to family, friends or your partner via skype, online messenger or email.

For a more casual option, you can also join online friending apps and websites under an anonymous name and make friends with new people that hold no judgement of who you are and how you should act. Some you can try include Not 4 Dating, 4 M8s Only and Make Friends Online.

Push yourself to open up with them about things you are excited or worried about and the other things you feel you cannot say to others in your life, and gradually gain the skills to release yourself from the stifling self-reliance shield.

4. Relationships

couple breaking up

Because of some of the traits we have mentioned already, this can lead guys affected to feel alienated, hostile, and cut off from their loved ones, especially their partners. Y. Joel Wong, a professor of counselling psychology at Indiana University, believes that the biggest factor leading to these negative effects might be the relationships these men have with women.

By restraining the amount an individual opens up or asks for help, they can end up removing themselves from loving relationships and avoiding intimacy, which can put tension on committed relationships or leave the individual with a string of empty, emotionless relationships. Both scenarios can lead to mental health issues such as depression, and coupled with the self-reliant trait, serious problems can build up over time.

Trying to maintain these masculine ideals (such as being self-reliant or supporting your family) alongside relationships can often lead to issues with anxiety and other anxiety-based mental illnesses, and this will affect the people who care about you as they won’t want to see you unhappy. This anxiety is exacerbated by the fact some men feel they can’t go to others for help, and thus a vicious cycle begins which can continue to damage you and damage your relationships with others.

Watch for the signs

You will most often know if your relationships with others are not at their best, but now and then, we can all be oblivious. If you’re unsure, ask a friend or two for some outside opinions and evaluate from a fresh perspective.

But whilst your relationships are important, you can’t be present with others if you aren’t looking after yourself. According to WebMD, the key symptoms of anxiety are:

  • Feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness
  • Problems sleeping
  • Cold or sweaty hands or feet
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Not being able to be still and calm
  • Dry mouth
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet

It is normal to experience occasional anxiety as part of everyday life. But if you have any of these symptoms on  regular basis you need to seek professional help. 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders, but only a third receive treatment, despite the disorder being very treatable. You can get help. Be brave and seek it.

5. Insecurity and Violence

Studies show that men who are less secure in their masculinity are more likely to be violent than those who are comfortable with it.

One study, which compared men who considered themselves as less masculine and that others viewed them that way, and men who didn’t feel highly masculine but weren’t concerned about it, concluded that the first category were more likely to also say they had committed a violent act involving a weapon, or to have assaulted others.

This research again shows how masculinity can harm both men and women alike, but the pressure to live up to certain ideals this time seems to push some individuals to lash out when they feel they do not meet certain expectations set by themselves or others.

As with sexist views, women are clearly also victims of men’s increased chances of being violent as a result of toxic masculinity. Women’s Aid, a charity which aims to combat domestic abuse, says that, on average, the police receive a call related to domestic abuse every 30 seconds. These may not all be related to toxic masculinity traits, but the amount of household violence shows how prevalent these shocking acts are, and how important it is to combat the root causes – whatever they may be.

A violent end

In terms of affecting others, acts of violence or abuse towards those in our lives is never acceptable. It’s important to note that the violence here is a symptom of the real underlying issue – the unrealistic ideals set by the individual or set by society – so it is the ideals, the cause, that needs to be addressed.

If these sorts of issues go unchallenged, it can not only lead to physical and emotional damage of the victims but it can ruin the life of the individual, from emotional and mental disorders in the best case scenario to criminal behaviour and incarceration in the worst.

For most, violence related to masculine ideals won’t be an issue we have to deal with, but it does happen – a lot, according the facts and figures – and we need to be aware of it, recognise it in others, and try to stop it. If you can’t get involved yourself, if it isn’t safe or appropriate to do so, contact the authorities. But if you can intervene in a constructive and caring way, then do so. You’re more likely to get a better response if you engage with the individual and get the root of their problem.

Keep on the look out

The effects of masculinity and the ideals it brings with it can cause a lot of issues if they aren’t addressed early. But if you spot the signs, you can resolve many of these problems before it gets out of hand.

Make those you know aware of both the ways their masculinity can be hurting them and those they care about, and keep an eye out for any symptoms or signs for help. If you yourself are feeling the effects, then hopefully you might have a better idea of how you can go about seeking help or remedying some of these situations.

But below are some things you do and watch out for today in male friends or family, so that you can intervene or get them the help they need:

  • Make sure your male friends aren’t becoming reclusive. This may be a sign they are dealing with some difficult emotions, but are unable to talk about them.
  • Keep an eye on your friends’ temper. A shorter temper may mean they’re feeling insecure in their own masculinity possibly because they feel they’re unable to achieve certain ideals.
  • Recommend counselling to a friend if you think it will benefit them.
  • If someone you know is struggling through things at the moment, offer to give them a phone call or invite them out for coffee.
  • Communicate – although this may seem obvious, it underscores a lot of the ways in which toxic masculine traits can be combated. It’s important not to talk down to people, but to communicate on the basis of an equal dialogue in which all views are respected.
  • Educate – don’t go so far as to preach or force ideas down people’s throats, but providing different perspectives on things can help change the way your male friends think and may help them come to their own healthier conclusions.
  • If you are on the receiving end of physical or verbal abuse from a male friend or partner, there are many charities and groups out there who offer support.
  • Be supportive – no matter what your male friends or family portray on the outside, we all need support sometimes and you never know what they might be going through. They may be feeling vulnerable and scared, or going through a situation they haven’t’ told you.

Now, spread the word!

We’re hoping you found something useful or interesting in this article – so share it! Masculinity affects us all, men and women alike, and understanding the ways in which we can prevent it hurting us, the people around us, our relationships, mental and physical health is important.

So don’t just read this. Do something about it.

Share now. Let us know about your experiences of toxic masculinity, and they ways it has affected you and the people you know.

About the author Steven Lucas

Steven Lucas, the founder of Counselling Central, is a professional Counselling Psychotherapist with over a decade’s experience working for the NHS. Both a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), an accredited member of the National Counselling Society (NCS) and a member of the NHS Directory of Complementary and Alternative Practitioners, Steven takes pride in providing a professional service as well as a caring one, and also works to prepare other counsellors for private practice.