At a time when we’re reeling from and embracing the seismic shifts of the #MeToo moment, many people of all genders are asking: How do we stop the prevalence of toxic masculinity and collectively heal? Viewing this social change as a recovery process, much like the one you experience as a person in recovery from addiction, provides a path forward.
As a diversity and inclusion educator who works with individuals and organizations across all industries, I hold space for people’s reckoning with their role in collective patterns of exclusion and violence—including racism, self-hate, and toxic masculinity.
I also practice what I preach and teach: Like any other person in the world, I am in an ongoing process of releasing myself from old biased ways of thinking and acting. And as a gay trans man who has experienced both the violence and the privilege of the patriarchy, I have a particularly in-depth understanding of toxic masculinity and how to cultivate its alternative: Conscious masculinity.
What Is Toxic Masculinity, Exactly?
Before we dive in, let’s define our terms. Simply put, masculinity and femininity are words to describe opposite ends of certain energetic polarities: for example, action-oriented versus receptive, logical versus intuitive, stoic versus emotional, linear versus non-linear, or providing versus nurturing.
But it’s not as if men are inherently masculine and women are the embodiment of the feminine—we all have aspects of both in our personalities (think a patient, nurturing male teacher or an assertive, problem-solving female executive.) But our current society often expects us to fit into two neat boxes: Exclusively masculine men and exclusively feminine women.
A man might become controlling instead of simply protective, or becoming aggressive and domineering, as opposed to embodying a more conscious strength.
This set of unwritten rules has its roots in white colonialism, which sought to order social life and establish hierarchy through an imposed gender system. This means that there are right and wrong ways to be men and women, and that there are rewards for reinforcing these ideas—and penalties for violating them. Anyone who’s been shamed for being too sensitive as a boy, or too aggressive as a girl, has experienced this social code in action.
Having more masculine energy or more feminine energy are not two equally valued traits in our society, as I’m sure you know. We live in a patriarchy—our system is one in which men are considered and treated as superior to people of other genders.
Toxic masculinity, then, is a set of learned, maladaptive behaviors that arise from that patriarchal premise of living in a system that, for generations, has privileged male experience above all else. It is the personal and collective imbalance that comes from only valuing the masculine. It’s also the expression of the “wounded” side of the core attributes of masculine energy. For example, a man might become controlling instead of simply protective, or becoming aggressive and domineering, as opposed to embodying a more conscious strength.
Despite our cultural conditioning, neither masculinity nor femininity is stronger or better—both are essential to creation, and to having the life experiences we desire, living abundantly, forming meaningful connections, and ultimately building a world where we all thrive. We can’t access our full power until we embrace both the feminine and masculine energy within ourselves.
Finally, it’s important to note that the patriarchy harms us all. Men and masculine people have extensive material power in the current paradigm, but that power is often accessed in spiritually damaging ways that require denial of true self expression, suppression of emotion, and severing of connection. In order to heal from toxic masculinity, we must hold a vision that includes the possibility of men being nurturing, loving members of our society, and for the masculine to be valued on par with—not above—the feminine. That vision will make possible a recovery process in which men and masculine people take responsibility for the wounds inflicted by the patriarchy, both on others and within themselves.
So, you’re ready to heal from toxic masculinity. Where do you start?
First, no matter what your gender is or has been, you have a part to play in our collective recovery from toxic masculinity. The obvious targets for this conversation are men and predominantly masculine people who likely need to decondition harmful behavior within themselves.
We can’t access our full power until we embrace both the feminine and masculine energy within ourselves.
However, women and predominantly feminine people have their own recovery processes as well. No matter your gender, you likely have patriarchal premises still running on autopilot within your mind, that can show up in how you relate to everyone from partners to children to strangers. And no matter who you are, the patriarchy has harmed you, and you deserve to heal those wounds.
Second, remember that all recovery is a lifelong process, whether you are recovering from drugs, alcohol, codependency—or toxic masculinity. In fact, beyond these specific issues, every human life is truly one long recovery process. Born into a world that conditions fear and separation, we emerge as adults who are disconnected from our power, from our goodness, from each other. Once we recognize that there is a truer way of being, beneath what we were taught, every day is a chance to restore a bit more of our perspective from fear to love. Every moment is a chance to remember the truth of who we are: Whole, sacred beings who inherently deserve love and care.
5 Ways to Recover From Toxic Masculinity
1. Get present.
Early sobriety is often full of huge perception shifts. We realize, with sometimes nauseating clarity, how we have been acting out of alignment with our higher selves. We see how we have accepted fear-based ideas as true, and how that has led us to devalue ourselves and others. We see how all our actions were conditioned survival instincts. We love ourselves through the process of choosing another way of living. We reclaim our power and we step into lives of greater love and service.
The first step is presence. With toxic masculinity and any other oppressive pattern, the personal and collective recovery processes are intimately linked. And, as we commit to releasing behaviors that harm ourselves and others, sobriety is a powerful tool. The patriarchy benefits from our unconsciousness. It thrives on it. It requires our confusion, our amnesia, and our fear. Numbing out with drugs and alcohol facilitates the patriarchy’s continual erasure of memory, suppression of truth, and overall disempowerment. The more present we become, the more we are able to reclaim our humanity, take ourselves off of autopilot, and co-create a world where we all thrive.
2. Approach masculinity and femininity with a “beginner’s mind”
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
– Shunryu Suzuki, Sōtō Zen monk
In order to reclaim our true power and heal our world, we must shed the Western colonial programming about masculinity and femininity. Experiment with observing masculinity and femininity as not inherently defined or prescribed by certain genders.
Imagine you are visitor from another planet, observing this world for the first time. Noticing how the whole world seems to have a balance between give and take, action and reception, logic and intuition. Try to see them without these gendered expectations, and without feeling that there is a correct or more desirable way to embody the qualities.
The patriarchy benefits from our unconsciousness. It thrives on it. It requires our confusion, our amnesia, and our fear.
Notice how sometimes you respond more emotionally to a situation, other times more logically. Notice how masculine and feminine energies express themselves in nature around you: the way water can both hold and destroy, receive and consume. Notice what feels good and what feels true. Notice which qualities you see most freely expressed within yourself, which you’d like to allow yourself to experience more of. Notice whose masculine expression and energy you resonate with and may strive to emulate. Awareness of what is true about our present reality is the first step to shifting our experience.
3. Check your toxic beliefs about masculinity and choose new stories
Set a timer for 10 to 20 minutes and free-write everything you “know” about masculinity.
Fill in the blank: “masculinity is ____, “masculine people are _____,” “real men _______,” etc. Don’t pick up your pen until the timer rings (yes, actually write this out!) and don’t judge what emerges. Notice what your autopilot beliefs are about who is masculine, what real men are, and what happens when some people are too masculine and others are not masculine enough.
Next, identify which of these beliefs are rooted in love, and which are rooted in fear. For the fear-based thoughts, identify times in your life where you have acted on these ideas. For example, chastising a child about not acting ladylike, or assuming the only man in the room was the boss. What are your most acute memories of embodying these old stories? This may bring up shame, anxiety, anger, and more, but better out than in! You may note times you have acted from a place of wounded masculinity: trying to control the people you loved, suppressing your emotions for fear of ridicule, or burning out at work instead of asking for help. You may also note how these beliefs prevented your connection with people in your life, or your own authentic self expression.
The final step is to take out another piece of paper and create alternative stories. For example, you may have a belief like, “Being affected by your past is a sign of weakness. Masculine people don’t dwell on their emotions.” You could choose to replace that with a new story: “Feeling our feelings completely is a sign of power. I allow myself and others to express their emotions.”
You may feel moved to share your belief inventory with a trusted friend or mentor. Being witnessed is an imperative part of any healing journey. Let yourself express what you’ve uncovered.
4. Conduct an amends-making process
To amend means to compensate for harm, or simply to repair. In the 12-Step tradition, amends are a restoration of truth, an offering of humanity previously withheld, as well as an opportunity to identify and heal a fear-based pattern. When you make amends, you untie a painful knot in your personal and sometimes collective history.
For men and masculine people, a toxic masculinity amends-making process may include directly apologizing to women and feminine people who they have violated, denigrated, and silenced. These don’t have to be huge or violent or even committed by you—maybe you keep thinking about a girl you made fun of when you were 12, or the fact that your sister was prevented from playing the same games as you. If it’s on your mind, it matters. If you’re avoiding it, it matters.
A simple acknowledgement of an injustice can clear decades of shame and pain. For example, you could say to your sister, “I want to acknowledge that we had different experiences growing up, and I’m really sorry you weren’t allowed to express yourself the way I was. If there’s anything you want to share with me about your experience growing up, I’m here to listen.”
Amends are not simply about apologies to others for things we did wrong. For people of all genders, a toxic masculinity amends-making process must include repair within ourselves. Can you forgive yourself for believing what you were taught about gender? Can you forgive yourself for hurting another? Can you forgive yourself for ever questioning whether you deserved to be treated with disrespect? Can you forgive yourself for beating yourself up and suppressing your truth for years? Can you restore your perspective from fear to love?
For men and masculine people, a toxic masculinity amends-making process may include directly apologizing to women and feminine people who they have violated, denigrated, and silenced.
Get quiet with yourself. Put your hand on your heart and ask yourself what you need to release and repair in order to resonate with your highest self. The more honest you are, the freer we all get to be.
5. Embrace a recovery daily practice
Once you’ve cleared the major detritus of your past, a daily practice helps you maintain your alignment in recovery. Everyone’s process looks different. Here are sample elements you can combine to create your unique approach:
Set your intention for your day upon waking. For example, “I intend to be of service to the people I encounter. I intend to be gentle with myself. I intend to live in a world where people of all genders thrive.” Expressing your intention, outloud or written down, reminds yourself of the ongoing process you are in. It aligns your day with your true goals for your life.
Meditate! Forget VR and AI, meditation is the most powerful technology ever invented by humans. Meditation creates space between your instinctual reaction and your conscious response. It gives you the Matrix-like ability to slow down time, to witness the gap between your social conditioning and your true self, and to choose intentionally. Sit for as few as five minutes a day. Don’t try to empty your mind; just observe your thoughts, and note that you are not them. You are the being who notices, and you can always choose a new perception.
Find an accountability partner. Staying sober from alcohol means a moment by moment choice to not pick up a drink. Recovery from toxic masculinity means moment by moment opportunities to shift your thoughts, embody new behaviors in your relationships, and explicitly stand up for others in your life. Being able to check in, troubleshoot issues, and exchange support with another person committed to conscious masculinity can make all the difference. (If you’re looking for more support, check out my conscious masculinity community here.)
Share your gratitudes. Listening to your heart and what it is grateful for takes you off of toxic masculinity autopilot and back into connection with your higher self. It’s a shortcut to this sometimes nebulous “from fear to love” perspective shift we hear so much about. My favorite way to do gratitudes is on a daily text thread with a few like-minded friends.
If you are engaged in a personal recovery journey, eventually you will be called to address your role within the collective and take specific action to repair our world. No matter what your gender, you have an opportunity to take yourself off of autopilot and remake your relationship to masculinity and femininity. You have the choice, in each moment, to act in ways that dignify yourself and others. And, despite the fear and violence you may still witness around you, you are joined by millions of people who also seek the change you envision and who are walking the same courageous path of accountability and healing.