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The Antidote to Toxic Masculinity is Compassion

Written by Ariana Crisafulli


Posted on October 20 2021


We hear the word all the time these days… toxic masculinity. We can think of dozens of examples of toxic masculinity… fraternity bros hazing one another, a group of men at the bar boasting to each other about their sexual conquests, men taking advantage of women, men behaving aggressively in the workplace or in a vehicle or even in politics. But what exactly is toxic masculinity? How do we define it so that it somehow blankets all of these behaviors?


We might be tempted to categorize toxic masculinity as "boys being boys", or "manliness", but the fact of the matter is that these toxic men didn't start out this way. They were once babies held in their mothers' arms. They were once little boys with the potential to become anything. Toxic behavior is something that is learned.


Instead of calling toxic masculinity an inherent feature of manhood, we might instead say that it is the pressure placed on men to be invulnerable, aggressive, without feeling. These foundational expectations of men are what eventually lead to toxic masculinity. 


Where does toxic masculinity come from?

Toxic masculinity is a vicious cycle. We live in a society that has deeply ingrained ideas about men and about how they should act. Men should be tough. Men should be invulnerable. Men should solve all their own problems. As parents, we sometimes push these ideas onto our sons without even thinking. We want them to survive in the world, so we try to give them the tools that we think are best for their survival. 


For boys, that might look like telling them to be tough when they cry. It might be pushing them into aggressive sports when they'd rather be painting. It might be telling them to go back onto the playground to face the kid that's been bullying him, when all he wants to do is run into your arms. Should you force him to toughen up and stand up for himself, or should you support his sensitive side? Or what if your son wants to wear pink nail polish to school? Even if you support him wearing nail polish, would you fear that his life at school would be more difficult? These are not easy questions in a world that tells boys from a young age that there are some behaviors that are acceptable, and some that are not. 


This is what psychologist Michael Reichart calls "the man box". It is a small space that we, oftentimes unwittingly, start forcing our young boys to fit into. It strips them of vulnerability and a sense of security in themselves. It detaches them from their own emotions because it tells them they're not supposed to be feeling those emotions at all. And when you cannot be vulnerable, you have trouble in relationships. And when you cannot detect or understand your own emotions, you  have trouble detecting or understanding them in others. This is a recipe for toxic masculinity.


How to raise a nontoxic male

The key, according to Michael Reichart, is compassion and understanding. Instead of following regimented ideas about what boys are and how they should be, he asks that parents create a safe space for their young boys to simply be who they are. Instead of encouraging "boys to be boys", he suggests that parents really get to know their sons from a very young age, and that they make it known to their boys that it's important that they be who they are. Being seen and understood, being shown love and compassion by your primary caretakers is the key to not only feeling secure within yourself, but also to having the ability to be vulnerable with other people. And vulnerability, it might be said, is the antidote to toxic masculinity. 


It should not go without saying that it is difficult to raise a vulnerable male in a society that is not so kind to vulnerable or sensitive men. Michael Reichart suggests, however, that providing a safe and comfortable home environment for boys to fully express themselves is the best chance they have to become secure enough in themselves that they might not bend to peer pressure when they encounter toxic males, or when they enter an aggressive workspace. Not to get too dreamy here, but in the big picture, the idea is that the more men who are secure enough in themselves to be vulnerable, the less toxicity we might have in our male population.