Men, Trauma, and The Damaging ‘Masculine’ Ideal

masculinity and trauma

While we seem to be working hard as a nation to eradicate outdated social constructs pertaining to masculinity and femininity, the truth of the matter is that the long-standing ideal of ‘being a man’ is still proving fatal to many male addicts and alcoholics. Just as popular culture demands that women be exceedingly thin, physically beautiful, warm, compliant, and obliging, social interpretations of the ideal male specimen require unbreakable emotional fortitude, physical vigor, and the uncompromised ability to balance the weight of the world on a pair of wide and rippling shoulders. While both ideals are unrealistic and harshly detrimental, the amount of damage that is caused by the long-standing archetypes of the masculine male, statistically speaking, far outweighs damage done by unrealistic ideals of femininity and womanhood. The number of addicted far outweighs the number of addicted women, and men tend to have exceedingly shorter lifespans in general.

‘Be a Man’ – A Damaging Lesson

Yes, masculinity kills men at an alarming rate – manifesting itself in the form of alcoholism, physical aggression, and workaholism. Even when the unworkable paradigm does not result in untimely death, it will quite often result in a kind of spiritual mortality. Men who grow up in households that enforce unrealistic and damaging ideals surrounding what it means to be a man will often be left severely traumatized, dissociated, and fettered by low self-esteem and depression. In many instances, the injurious “masculinization” process begins long before manhood – in early adolescence and even in infancy, in fact. In his book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, author and psychologist Terry Real discusses several studies that suggested parents will often begin to project (however subconsciously) a kind of necessary and innate ‘manliness’ upon their newborn baby boys. In doing so, they unwittingly devalue the human need for nurturing, comfort, and protection. Of course, gender-specific tendencies are completely absent in newborn babies. If anything, newborn baby boys will act in a way that society deems more feminine than masculine. Real explains, “At the youngest ages, both boys and girls are more like a stereotypical girl. If any differences exist, little boys are, in fact, slightly more sensitive and expressive than little girls. They cry more easily, seem more easily frustrated, appear more upset when a caregiver leaves the room.”

Newborns and Assigned Gender Roles

Even so, both mothers and fathers will imagine and place gender-specific traits upon their newborns, often reporting that their baby girls were softer and more delicate than boys, while baby boys were more perceived as stronger and physically bigger than girls. In one specific study, a group of 204 parents were shown a video of the same baby crying – half of the parents were told that the baby was a girl, while the other half were told that the baby was a boy. Those who believed the baby was a female described it as being “frightened”, while those that it believed it to be a male described it as being “angry”. These perceived differences in gender will inadvertently result in variances when it comes to parenting. It seems logical that a newborn baby that is perceived to be frightened would be held and coddled more than one that appeared angry. Numerous other studies on the same subject have been held over the years, repeatedly finding that “from the moment of birth, boys are spoken to less than girls; comforted less, nurtured less.”

Essentially, we begin holding members of the male population to an unrealistic and damaging standard from the very moment they are born – during a time that is absolutely crucial to healthy emotional development.

Teaching Men to Stifle and Deny

This pattern will often continue straight through early childhood and well into adolescence. Terry Real mentions a study that found both mothers and fathers taught their sons to “control their emotions” – basically stifling and invalidating their true feelings in exchange for imposed ‘masculine’ ideals. The emotional needs of young men are constantly undermined, and they inherently learn to ignore their own desires or downplay their authentic feelings. It was found that young boys begin to hide their emotions as early as 3 to 5 years old. Many parents remain unaware that they are holding their young children to well-worn, potentially damaging gender norms, placing varying expectations on their male and female children.

In his article titled Parents’ Socialization of Gender in Children, author Campbell Leader, PhD, noted, “When parents have a new baby, the first question they typically ask is whether they have a girl or a boy. Children’s gender assignment becomes a powerful social identity that shapes children’s lives. During early childhood, girls and boys spend much of their time in the home with their families and look to parents and older siblings for guidance. Parents provide children with their first lessons about gender.” He found that fathers in particular tended to be “more rigid in their expectations for [their] sons than [their] daughters,” and that the more a father is actively involved in childcare and the raising of his son, the more likely he is to effectively “demonstrate that the adult male role may include nurturing” – that expressing authentic emotion and requiring compassion is normal and acceptable.

Media and Masculinity

In the current day and age, what with so many forms of media so readily available (and exceedingly pervasive), it is impossible to effectively ignore the cultural perceptions of male and female ideals that are constantly being broadcast and endorsed. TV shows, movies, music videos, and the like constantly inform both men and women (young and old), of whom they should be. Of course, there is now an ample amount of heated debate regarding age-old social constructs and primordial gender norms, and how damaging and irrational they can be – however, most of this widespread divergence sprouts directly from feminism. Feminists are tirelessly working to deconstruct gender-norms – for women. Meanwhile, media-constructed masculine ideals are being boldly perpetuated – strength, independence, the ability to provide and protect…the Superman archetype is still alive and well.

This is not to say that media depictions of men have not grown more diverse and complicated over time – they certainly have. What is undeniably more damaging than the way gender norms are portrayed in current media is the way that infant and adolescent boys are still being raised – taught to effectively stifle their own emotions; disassociate from their authentic, vulnerable selves. Outdated ideals pertaining to masculinity leaves young boys, and later, men, completely disconnected from their emotional needs and desires – afraid to show human fallibility (which may be perceived as weakness), and unable to effectively recognize or cope with their feelings. Marvin Allen, author of the book Why Man Can’t Feel, suggests that messages such as the ones they receive from an early age “encourage boys to be competitive, focus on external success, rely on their intellect, withstand physical pain, and repress their vulnerable emotions.” When boys act in any way that could potentially compromise this “code”, they are often brought to ridicule, publicly shamed, or parentally punished. Says Real, “It is traumatic. It’s traumatic to be forced to abdicate half of your own humanity.”

Recovering from the Trauma of Masculine Ideals

The unrealistic models of masculinity that young men are met with as early as infancy can indeed be traumatic. Learning that in order to truly be a ‘man’ you must consistently deny a vital part of yourself is highly injurious and soul crushing. What results is an emotional disassociation and displacement that leaves men even more vulnerable to addictive disorders, anger issues, and re-traumatization. In attempts to live up to this unrealistic and highly destructive standard, many men are quite literally killing themselves. They are harboring intense pain and traumatic experience, afraid that admitting emotional fallibility equates to admitting weakness, fragility, and ultimate disadvantage. On the contrary – great strength lies in emotional awareness and the ability to be vulnerable. In order for men to successfully recover from both trauma and addiction, age-old ideals pertaining to masculinity need to be entirely smashed. We at Next Chapter work to smash them. We understand that men require just as much nurturing and emotional connectedness as their female counterparts, and they have no need to prove their masculinity to themselves or to anyone else. For more information on our male-specific program of trauma and addiction recovery, please feel free to contact us today.