Gus Worland, host of ‘Man Up’, tells the story of an Australian army man who returned back to Australia after active duty to experience a lot of drama and a divorce. One day, as he was driving his children, their car broke down so he immediately called the car service company, to which his daughter, aged 14 at the time, said to him, “Dad it’s really strange, as soon as the car gets sick you make a phone call to a professional, but I know that you’re not well between the ears and you won’t get any help or work on yourself.”
He tells that story with tears in his eyes. It makes so much sense to a 14-year-old that a man who risked his life in a foreign country could help the car but couldn’t pick up the phone to ask for help for himself! 
I’m sure you’ve seen or experienced this for yourself. Maybe personally in your own life, or maybe someone you know. Men, struggling with their emotions, which in turn leads to detrimental effects on themselves, their relationships and their families, causing abuse, neglect, and even violence. Is labelling it ‘toxic masculinity’ helping this?
The Power of Words
The first thing we have to examine is how we use words and the power they hold over our perception. To match toxic and masculinity together implies that masculinity itself is toxic. Perhaps the actions of men can be toxic (as can those of women), but toxic expressions do not denote a whole gender, let alone its expression. It is not the gender that is toxic, but undeveloped, emotionally immature behaviours which are at the source of the problem.
One of the problems with this type of thinking is that it makes all men guilty. This is simply not true. On extremes, men are more prone to violence, but it is the equivalent of making all people ‘bad’ because they are tall, short, fat, or skinny. You cannot have toxic tallness or shortness. Masculinity is one attribute of who we are and it’s important to clarify that the behaviour is toxic, not the person. The behaviour is toxic, not the gender. The behaviour is toxic, and it is a product of our society.
The Cultural ‘Real Man’ has Expired
The old script of what it means to be a ‘real man’–stoic, emotionally withdrawn, dismissive of others etc.–has passed its use-by date. We only need to look at depression and suicide rates among men to see that these outdated frameworks are no longer working. In Australia, three times as many men commit suicide as women. A recent survey of more than 1000 males aged between 18 and 30 in the US, UK and Mexico found that those embracing rigid clichés of manhood were more likely to perpetrate bullying, to fall into risky behaviour patterns like binge drinking, and to suffer from depression. Australian writer Tim Winton often deals with these issues of the ‘Old Script’ within his novels, commenting:
It’s so impoverishing… It stops men from growing. They become emotional infants, little man-boys who despise women and lean on them in equal measure. – Tim Winton, Australian writer
Stereotypical Masochism and Boyhood
Perhaps this old script is the behaviour of grown men, who are partially still boys on the inside, putting on the best ‘man show’ that has been role-modelled for them, to hide their insecurities? This is not an expression of masculinity but a coping mechanism men have been raised with in order to deal with the demands of society. Yes, it is easy to see them with disgust and bark ‘toxic’–but this only perpetuates the same behaviour and defensiveness from the many men who have been raised into these habits, and who risk losing their identity and social status in fostering change. Perhaps through a different lens, we can see where we went wrong and allow for new behaviours, communication, and vulnerability to emerge.
Unmasking Masculinity–Helping Boys become Connected Men
In his Ted Talk with the above title, psychologist, Dr. Ryan McKelley talks about how we socialise boys and men to mask their emotions with this old script of stereotypical masochism.
He talks about a study where individual men were asked to rate the socially acceptable emotions for men: anger, contempt, and pride. These same individuals were then hooked up to testing equipment that could measure autonomic system responses as they were exposed to stimuli that could expose strong emotions. The results showed that gender differences in emotional expression disappeared. He notes that men feel all the same emotions as women, but they have become habitually accustomed to suppressing them and only allowing the expression of the acceptable ones: anger, pride, and contempt. Unfortunately, suppressing the negative emotions also means stifling the positive ones.
We teach boys it’s not okay to be hurt, it’s not okay to be vulnerable, but it is okay to cover that up with anger or silence. – Dr Ryan McKelley, Psychologist and Associate Professor of Psychology
Although there are times and places where emotional control is necessary, it is not empowering or impactful when it becomes our default or identity, which for many men it is. The power is in being able to choose consciously.
Having the Courage to Grow Up
What this research shows is the need for us to grow up. As men. As society. To drop these old stereotypes and reconsider what it means to move forward culturally. Dropping sayings like ‘man up’ or ‘crying is for girls’ etc. Hiding behind a mask is not tough or courageous. Expressing emotion takes courage, and perhaps being expressive with who we really are is one of the most courageous ways to live.
Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is ‘cor’–the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ – Dr. Brene Brown
The key here is responsibility. We have to become fully responsible for who we are inside and out. Responsibility for our inner welfare, our mental state, and our emotions. Responsibility for how we show up with others and the effect it has on the people around us.
An outward sense of responsibility, purpose, and direction for men is not an implicit thing, and as clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson says:
… this is perhaps why men have always undergone a ritual initiation, they need to be directed in a more articulate, conscious manner… They have to be inculcated with the culture in order to decide that adopting responsibility is the appropriate thing to do. And you need a rationale for that.
Rituals For Men
We are largely familiar with various rites of passage rituals, usually associated with pain, fear, hardship and breaking through thresholds of the boy to be welcomed back into the community as a man. But Jordan Peterson frames the idea of initiation in a way that can be palatable to the western mind.
An initiation… is partially for exposure to that which terrifies you, but in the state that [the initiation] produces you’re supposed to be inculcated with the cultural wisdom. And that partly is direction, that’s what older men have to provide.
The responsibility of mature men is to be models of direction and a rationale for aiming up.
I spent time with one retreat facilitator who was very embodied in his masculinity. He had done the work, and what he said surprised me: “In all my time I have never seen a ‘real man’. The responsibility is on each of as individual men, to keep reinitiating and birthing ourselves into our own masculinity.”
This struck an interesting chord for me. Here was a ‘real man’ telling me that ‘real men’ don’t exist. That being a ‘real man’, which a part of me had been desiring, was just an idea fed through culture and society. And what does it mean to re-initiate myself consistently into my masculinity? For the ‘goal’ not to be some preconceived notion fed down the drip of society, but an internal maturing?
Men Working Together
It is every man’s responsibility to initiate himself. That first choice, that decision to dive into the unknown, has to come from within you. But when it is made, there are footprints to follow and support to look upon. You are not the first man who has taken this step. If you’re already on the path, maybe it means reaching out, connecting with other men: father, brother, friend, coworker. What effect would ‘being more real’ have on these relationships for you?
One of the hardest things I have done in my life is the first time I looked my father in the eyes and told him I loved him. Connect with other good men who are willing to look into their darkest corners, to expose themselves, to be seen, and to support you to see yourself. To me, this is what it means to be a warrior in today’s culture. Taking responsibility and standing for the best in each other.
I have gone through all sorts of various initiations over the last 10 years–from sitting in the Amazon with the support of Indigenous medicine workers, to losing my mother to cancer.
Recently a mentor said to me, “Miroslav, your man is suppressing your boy.” As I dug into this and worked through it, I began to realise that my inner boy had been judged and pushed into a corner by my ‘man’ who wanted to grow up, get on with life, and follow his purpose. In ‘doing the work’ he had bullied my boy out of self-expression. As I unraveled this, what came up stunned me.
I began to see the ‘man’ within me develop the humility to step aside, and introduce the boy to people first. To meet the world with childlike curiosity, joy, enthusiasm, and excitement. To be seduced by my sense of wonder. For the man within me, this was a hugely vulnerable action. For me as a whole person though, it has probably saved my life. Since allowing my boy ‘out’ it has re-opened a regular joy in my life that had been absent for a long time.
The way forward is not by suppressing parts of us that were judged or condemned, but finding ways to integrate them within the context of our lives. Our ‘boys’ hold magic for us that we cannot know until we allow them back in.
So, I ask you–what will it take for you, in your life, to mature, to grow beyond where you are now? What have you been resisting the most? And instead of treating it as a ‘goal-orientated, success-based activity’–can the process of it become a ritual for you in which you will be seen and grow?
Being fully integrated in one’s ‘man’ means being able to let out and embrace all aspects of masculinity in a balanced way. One must be able to hold the sword and have an open heart.