The Difference between Healthy and Unhealthy Masculinity

Since its arrival in 2017, the #MeToo movement has been the platform of preference to unmask rich and powerful men and publicize what they used to get away with no consequences due to the male privilege that pervades the dominant culture. The culture of sexual harassment and abuse cultivated at top levels in Hollywood, the business world, politics, and institutional society was finally exposed. As more women came out denouncing their harassers, abusers, or rapists, the issue of masculinity also came to the spotlight, surrounded by an increasing shadow of criticism and condemnation. Thanks to social media, this wave of criticism looked like an endless tsunami, and all who wanted to be politically correct started surfing it. Men felt under attack!

There’s a significant difference between healthy and unhealthy masculinity. Men can be masculine without the toxicity that harms and afflicts others.

Unhealthy Masculinity

Power and control are unhealthy masculinity’s handlebar. Having power is a good thing since it’s the ability to act. Power is what helps us thrive in life and adequately control ourselves and our circumstances. But when misused and abused to pursue unaccountable control over others, power isn’t a good thing. The misuse and abuse of power and control have a pervading effect with devastating consequences that can last generations.

The urging need for power and control over others is the product of two distinctive sources: marked insecurities in an individual’s inner self or unconscious and the message and expectations of the dominant culture.

People who consciously or not feel a strong need to overpower and control others tend to resort to coercion, aggression, and even violence. Paradoxically, in their endless quest for power and control over others, they lose power and control over their own lives. In the majority of cases, abusers have an addiction problem, for example.

There are several reasons for this psychology of abuse:

  • Exposure to abuse and violence in the childhood home

  • Absence of healthy attachments in childhood

  • Family and culture’s sanction of male privilege culture

Michael Kimmel is a sociology scholar at the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University. Kimmel usually asks his new students to define a good man – caring, honest, responsible, unselfish. Then he asks them to describe a real man – takes risks, strong, never cries, walks tall, takes charge, authoritative, fearless. The culture’s definition of manhood and expectations of it are confusing; that’s why men are confused about what it means to be masculine, Kimmel says.

Sportsman and entrepreneur Lewis Holmes wrote The Mask of Masculinity. Holmes states that by exposing and dropping the masks of masculinity, men can be free to embrace vulnerability and create healthy relationships so they can live life to its fullest. These masks are the stoic, the athlete, the material, the aggressive, the joker, the invincible, the know-it-all, and the alpha mask.

We all wear a mask or two or more; one always more prevalent than the others, but we all wear masks. Most times, it’s because of our insecurities, fears, or the paralyzing feelings of shame and guilt. Other times we wear masks to give a better impression of ourselves.

Holmes’ concept of men wearing masks to deal with daily life’s challenges helps us understand why we act the way we sometimes do. It provokes a conscious soul searching. It’s pretty difficult to drop all masks and be completely open and genuine from night to morning, though. One can decide upon it and be serious about it. However, these masks are strongly associated with behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings stored deep in our unconscious as defense and ego mechanisms that protect us from the pain of rejection and help us cope with reality. Dropping our masks at an adult stage is complex and may require therapy to deal with the loss of those beloved defense and ego mechanisms and find the proper substitutes.

Healthy Masculinity

Because of the reinforcement of male-female stereotypes by societal, familial, and contextual influences, boys’ and men’s socialization experience could be complicated. Male children grow with social beliefs about what constitutes being a man – being competitive and self-reliant, valuing strength and interpersonal dominance while avoiding emotional expressiveness and intimacy. These are machista values, views, and positions that children internalize as their standard for behavior and prevent them later, as adults, from seeking counseling when they realize that there’s something wrong in perceiving the world and reacting to it.

Unhealthy masculinity is learned, and so it can be unlearned unless toxic men want to remain the way they are. Men who become aware of this reality are on their way to becoming practitioners of healthy masculinity and changing the world around them for future generations. These men can become proactive in their healing by:

  • accepting unhealthy masculinity as a form of trauma that needs attention

  • seeking relationships where equal respect is intentionally practiced

  • finding affirmation for their efforts

Thus, being a macho is about being:

  • responsible with oneself, family, and community

  • a reliable provider and an unmovable protector

  • a person who supports his family with love and integrity

  • one who learns from his mistakes, apologizes, and makes amends for them

  • someone who works hard to break the negative patterns that could be influencing or defining his character

Being a man is making oneself open to love and be loved.

How men see their masculinity has an impact on their mental and physical health. Excessive reliance on the masks they wear leads to depression, suicidal thoughts, isolation, and abuse and violence against others, especially in intimate relationships.