Here’s the Alternative to Toxic Masculinity

Over the past few years, the phrase “toxic masculinity” has surfaced as a rigidly defined perspective of how men should be, think, act and what they should aspire to – a person who adheres to strict binary gender roles, doesn’t feel emotions, asserts power over others and needs no one. This damaging ideology has harmed people all throughout society, but there is hope: positive masculinity can save the day. 

Toxic masculinity steals connection 

When toxic masculinity tells men to be tough, not feel anything and remain stoic at all times, it forces them to never confront the wide array of human emotions we all experience. 

In an American Psychological Association podcast, Ronald F. Levant, EdD, speaks to the impact of how we define masculinity on our mental health. He conducted studies back in the ’90s that showed this very clearly.  

“I had a group of men, and I would pass out three-by-five index cards and pencils, and I asked them to write their top secret, the thing they’ve never told anybody and never would tell anybody, down on the paper,” said Levant. “And then I collected the cards, and I made an elaborate display of shuffling them, and then I started to turn them over. And gasps would go up in the room, ‘He’s going to read them.’ And what I found was so fascinating, that many of the secrets, the shameful secrets that men would never tell anybody were about violating masculine norms.  

“’I backed down from a fight in high school, I had a crush on another boy, I was too close to my mother. As a boy, I cried too often.’ It almost breaks your heart. These are 40- or 50-year-old men who feel ashamed of themselves for things that are just basically human.” 

Levant continues to explain that the revelation the men in this group experienced was that they weren’t alone, and that is the first step on the journey to positive masculinity. 

Positive masculinity: the gentle hero 

WellPower’s director of clinical services, Steve Fisher, LPC, describes positive masculinity as a way of being that focuses on men having connection with their emotions and with other people.  

“Men being in touch with their emotions isn’t weak,” said Fisher. “It’s strength. It’s the courage to be vulnerable with loved ones and connect with yourself and others in an emotional way. It also creates psychological and physical safety for the people in your life.” 

That emotional connection – both internally and externally – has more impact than we realize. While toxic masculinity tells men to isolate and never seek help – often leading to statistics like men being nearly four times more likely to attempt suicide than women  – positive masculinity is much more focused on being in touch with individual needs as a social human being and cultivating meaningful relationships with people, both of which reduce risk factors for mental health challenges. 

“Positive masculinity is about so much more than ‘what it means to be a man,’ too,” said Fisher. “It’s about treating others with respect, regardless of sex, gender, role in society, etc – and especially doing so in the face of criticism. Positive masculinity says to you: ‘You can feel powerful without having to impose force on another person. You can be powerful because you’re comfortable with who you are, in your own skin, and you can give power to others, too.’ 

“Ultimately, it’s about being responsible, empathetic, respectful and kind, while having a genuine interest in the needs and well-being of your community.” 

Find your hero (or become one) 

There are a multitude of role models who live by the tenets of positive masculinity. From Mr. Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) and Levar Burton to Marvel’s Captain America and Rick Steves (the travel guy), there are plenty of people to choose from.  

You may also have someone in your own life who exemplifies positive masculinity. Maybe it’s a father who isn’t afraid to name, validate and encourage emotions. Or perhaps it’s a family friend who always makes sure to check on his aging neighbors and shovel their driveway in winter. Maybe your role model is a teenager who decided to seek help for their mental health struggles, rather than suffering in silence. 

No matter your example, a society full of people creating safety and connection is a society that has the chance to grow. 

“When we embody positive masculinity, we become people who create feelings of psychological safety for others when they’re with us,” said Fisher. “We foster community and gentleness within ourselves and we show people through our words and actions that they can do the same. It really creates a space of respect and dignity for ourselves and everyone around us, and we can truly flourish from that place.”