Therapy Musings: What Makes a Man

Bernice Lim, Founder and Principal Psychologist of Asia Psychology Centre muses on the ideal man
Published: 20 September 2023

How many men seek therapy with me because of issues about toxic masculinity? Too many, in numbers that may surprise you. It seems almost archaic to mislabel harmful behaviours and traits as “masculine”, and then glorify them and treat them as the norm—or, worse, inculcate them in boys (and men).

But here we are. I’ve seen toxic masculinity leading to harassment, excessive aggression and even violence. In less dramatic ways, it has caused simmering resentment, dead bedrooms, workplace hostility and more. Divorces, too. What’s perhaps worse is how these behaviours are often dismissed. “Men should be manly”, the apologists go, “and boys will be boys.” These sayings do not just shut the conversation down, they also perpetuate the cycle while, ironically, disempowering men.

The archetypal features of toxic masculinity include overt displays of aggression, often unnecessarily, as well as a tendency to seek dominance over women—sexually or otherwise. These red flags are easy to spot and handle accordingly. When that “alpha” steps over the line, after all, HR is just a call away.

In more subtle ways, however, I’ve observed the reluctance/inability to show one’s emotions, as well as an unhealthy fixation with displaying physical and mental “toughness”. These manifest as high-risk behaviours that aren’t necessarily easy to spot, let alone manage. Imagine giving therapy to a couple teetering on divorce because the husband is recklessly pursuing extreme sports, almost as if to prove himself the same man as he was two decades ago. Or the mandated sessions with an employee who was referred by his HR because he has been suppressing his mental health issues and refusing to seek help, lest he is seen as weak. The Micheal Corleones and Charles Kanes have leapt from the silver screens and are in our midst. I would know—I work with many of them.

Masculinity in itself is not toxic. Only a subset of it is. Toxic masculinity advocates having a “tough” and “stoic” front, which limits the development of emotional awareness and sensitivity. It also discourages the healthy expression of emotions, which can create and perpetuate mental health issues and harmful behaviour. Such a mindset isolates and keeps men locked up in an emotional jail cell. They are too stunted to identify and understand the causes of pain, while too reluctant to seek help. The result? Men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. And the rates of suicides have been increasing across the globe.

Men, know that you have worth, inherently, regardless of your status, money or power over others. Know and understand, too, that the human experience is complex and dynamic. All feelings such as hurt, disappointment, fear and anxiety are just as important and normal to feel as anger and pride. Every emotion deserves a stage to be heard and processed. Just because we deny it is there, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.

Beyond just affirmations, we can do so much more to tackle toxic masculinity. I will admit that the odds can be stacked against you. Toxic masculinity can be deeply embedded within a culture, which makes it difficult to detect since it is already considered the norm. After all, how does one question the beliefs and behaviours that are prevalent in their community and widely accepted as the norm?

Exposure to different perspectives can be helpful. Having a diverse social circle can provide invaluable insights, of course, as is having self-awareness. The latter is a tool we can use, not just to combat toxic masculinity but for personal growth. Has societal pressure to be “a real man” affected you negatively? How so? Are there traits you might be uncomfortable having but display anyway? Whether due to the pressure to conform, or out of fear of ridicule from others? Reflect, reflect, reflect. Take your first steps towards building greater self-awareness.

Only if you’re manly enough, of course.

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