Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Child Development

Toxic Masculinity: What Is It and How Do We Change It?

One man's story of waking up and reclaiming the healthy masculine.

This article was co-authored by John Leimer.

John Leimer is a lay counselor, writer, artist and business owner in Marin, CA. He is involved with the Mankind Project and regularly donates his time, skills, and presence in his community whenever he can. He is the founder and owner of Leimer Construction and I'm Glad You're Alive.

I am a white, middle-class male. I believed all good things would come to me because I deserved them. I realized in my late 20’s that this was not the case and became resentful and angry. I saw others around me seemingly having it all and I had less and less. Many around me, especially those who held power positions, seemed to get whatever they wanted. The frat boys, the old money, the handshakes, and connections — they were all guaranteed powerful jobs and more accumulation of wealth and status. I didn’t have access to all of that and it was a shock. I wanted access and I unconsciously signed on to the system of toxic masculinity in order to get it.

Others (women, minorities, people of color, etc) don’t have this expectation of wealth, status and success… unless there is some perceived value to those in power they can provide. For women, the prettier she is and the more her personality is aligned with what is deemed “attractive,” the more “value” she will have and therefore the more access to wealth and status she will have. These women end up merely a commodity for the immature masculine — something to be had and discarded. The pretty woman is viewed as an object, notch in the belt, confirmation of a man’s value. Many women unconsciously buy into this toxic system well into middle-age in order to try to have access to the status and comfort they crave and it leaves them deeply unfulfilled.

For confirmation of my worth and status, I also played into this toxic system of relating to women in this way, even without being part of the elite class. Because I’m a man, I was automatically assigned power and prestige to a degree, even if it was a small degree. So I learned to play the game. To feel good about myself as a man, I fell into the pattern of: seek out, seduce, become what women wanted to have in a man, and get the sex. It became my way of operating in the world, and I justified it because I saw it all around me. I was treating women as objects for my sexual gratification and confirmation of status/manhood because that was the society I was raised in and accustomed to. I watched what was happening around me and I adapted to it and used the system to my advantage. Even if it didn’t feel right inside, I was immature and had bought into the toxic system so that I could have what I perceived as status and confirmation of myself as a man.

I was also forced into this toxic system in the way I related to other men, starting in middle school. It was there that I became “educated” in power dynamics, as I was bullied and beaten by boys bigger than me and sexually abused by another in 7th grade. I felt so frightened and traumatized and had no example of a healthy masculine. My father was also seeped in the system of toxic masculinity, and could only confirm with his actions of power and abuse what I was learning in school. I began to abuse others weaker than me and bully those smaller than me to get some sense of power back. I had no conscious notion that was what I was doing - it was all playing out unconsciously. The abused abuse; the wounded wound. It is a pattern that plays out time and time again. It felt bad — I always felt off inside when I was doing the things to “get my power back” — because I had empathy, I knew it wasn’t nice or right what I was doing because it felt painful and traumatic when it was done to me. But just like my treatment of women, I had no example of any other way to be.

Eventually, I started waking up to the painful truth of my reality. I was living a false persona in a messed up world. I needed to shift but had no idea how. I knew that I was part of a problem and that if I wanted to have any sense of integrity and a sense of self, something needed to shift, and fast. The system around me had me so sick that even as I started to shift, the pull to remain in the clutches of the old paradigm was so strong that change was not going to be easy or simple.

I began to educate myself and do my work. In spite of being afraid, I began to connect heartfully with other men. I also began to educate myself about women’s experience. It has been hard work — painful at times as I’ve had to face things — but I’ve changed. And as I’ve changed, others have begun to see me differently too. I began being seen as a man of character — a man who would stand for the rights of women and the disempowered. A man who could be loving towards other men. I now use my size and stature to be a force for good and for conscious behavior rather than for shadow behavior. This feels so in line with my truth and still, the desire to remain in the old pattern has remained so strong. This is how toxic it had become — it was in my blood. My muscle memory. My daily habits had all revolved around one thing...getting what I wanted, confirmation of me as a man through those old, toxic ways. It’s work that I must keep doing, every day, to find my worth and confirmation in new ways.

To really recover from toxic masculinity, one must admit that they are sick. I had to admit that I was very sick/conditioned to a system of culture that I had steeped in since childhood. Then I had to do the work to get well.

We all have been steeped in this culture and make no mistake about it, our culture (and perhaps our planet) is doomed to fail if we do not wake up. We must wake up and see each other not as other, but as an extension of me and me as an extension of you. We are all part of an interwoven system; we cannot continue to operate as if we are independent of each other, the earth and its inhabitants, and the rest of the world.

Toxic masculinity tells us it’s a dog-eat-dog world, every man for himself and we must have wealth, status, and power by any means necessary, even if it means hurting or using others. As a result, we have become so reliant on our individuality that it is no surprise that we are suffering in such significant ways; it is no wonder that we are dying. We are one body and we are literally feeding off of other parts of the body to make us feel good and to stay in power at all cost. Well, the cost is death. We are dying. I am dying. The earth is dying. We are all dying and most are silent to the death we witness. “I’m still alive,” we say, “it’s not happening to me.” This allows me to deny it, ignore it, and do nothing about it.

But we must wake up. I have to wake up and see the impact of my actions. I must take responsibility for my course in life. If I don’t, I deny the harm it causes others and I deny the harm it causes to myself. Healthy masculinity is the knowledge that I make choices that will have consequences and I must stand in the face of those choices if I harm another or myself whether intended or unintended. It is up to me to see the toxin in my system and to seek a cure for the dis-ease that has afflicted me. Nobody will do it for me. My voice must not remain silent in the face of this toxic masculinity. I must stand against wrongdoers as if it were being done directly to me because it is.

Healthy masculinity means I must stand against my own actions that cause harm to others and myself. I cannot remain comfortably asleep in my old familiar blanket of unconscious behavior. I am part of you and what I do affects you, just as it does me. Healthy masculinity acknowledges that we are all vulnerable and power can be used to use and abuse but it can also be used to help, to heal, to hold space. Healthy masculinity acknowledges that we are all capable of loving other men and women, and while sometimes we are required to act, sometimes the best action is not to act but to listen and support others. To be accountable and hold others accountable. The awake masculine sees that we are all connected and a part of a toxic system and must become part of the solution.

More from Samantha Stein Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today