Toxic Masculinity and Mental Health: The Harmful Effects of Toxic Gender Expectations
The world we live in has been largely defined by gender roles. From the moment we’re born, every aspect of our lives – including our clothing choices, toys, and even how we learn to speak – is influenced by what society tells us men and women should be like. And while these social expectations have evolved over time, there are still many remnants of toxic masculinity that persist today. As such, the correlation between toxic masculinity and mental health persists as well.
Toxic masculinity can present in many ways. However, at its roots tends to be generational trauma and passed down expectations around what “being a man” does and doesn’t look like. But the more you recognize these expectations as the harmful cultural constructs they are, the easier it becomes to see all the negative consequences of toxic masculinity, particularly when it comes to mental health.
Here’s what to know about the link between toxic masculinity and mental health, including the effects of these types of standards – and how to help set new ones.
What is toxic masculinity?
The phrase “toxic masculinity” refers to cultural pressures that promote certain ‘masculine traits’ and the adverse effects those behaviors have.
These standards tend to come from so-called traditional ideas of masculinity, and almost always end up being hurtful to both the individual and those around them.
It’s important to note that identifying as a male or presenting with masculine traits is not itself harmful. Rather, toxic masculinity occurs when men feel (or make others feel) like they must always put on a show of strength, and that anything less than that is a sign of weakness.
In addition to mental health issues, toxic masculinity may also lead to aggression and hatred, especially toward women and others who present as feminine.
Behaviors and traits
In a 2020 study examining the relationship between toxic masculinity and mental health, researchers noted three key “multidimensional masculine norms” with direct consequences on mental wellbeing:
- Status – A need to win and for others to recognize the individual as having power and success.
- Toughness – A need to be perceived as having both physical and mental strength.
- Anti-femininity – A rejection of feminine traits and a direct association of these traits with weakness.
As men are socialized to internalize these traits, they are also socialized to be independent and repress emotions, since failure to do those things is associated with weakness. This has a direct impact on mental health, according to the study, as well as on an individual’s willingness to seek out care for a mental health problem.
There are lots of everyday examples of toxic masculinity. Some of these start in childhood (“boys don’t cry”), while others are expressed later (“men don’t cook or clean”).
Additional examples you may recognize include:
- Weaponized incompetence
- Being hyper-competitive
- Aggression (physical, mental, and/or sexual)
Effects of toxic masculinity
There exists myriad of harmful consequences for the individual and for society at large.
Effects on men
In the study mentioned earlier, researchers noted a clear connection between multidimensional masculine norms and adverse mental health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and hostility.
Effects on society
Women and other cisgender persons can find themselves on the receiving end of toxic masculinity and aggression. For those who ascribe to toxic masculine traits, there is also an othering of those who don’t, leading to rejection and exclusion for both female- and male-identifying individuals if they don’t conform to expectations.
How to stop it
If you want to stop toxic masculinity, you have to start questioning your own beliefs. Many male-identifying individuals have internalized the standards of toxic masculinity, oftentimes without even realizing it.
Ask yourself: Are there things I don’t do or say because I associate them with femininity? Do I hold certain “masculine” expectations for the male-identifying individuals in my life?
Once you know what you’re up against, it’s time to fight back. That means giving yourself permission to be who you are, even if that means showing emotion or “weakness.” And it means letting others do the same, too.
While you’re here, we encourage you to explore more of the Synergy Health Programs site, where you’ll find additional information and resources. You can also learn more about our mental health services, and take that all-important first step toward being your most authentic self.