Ask a Therapist: Myths about Masculinity and Mental Health

January 15, 2021

Insights from Dr. Mike Balsan

Mike Balsan, Ph.D., completed his undergraduate studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC, where he studied philosophy and psychology and completed his Ph.D. in counseling psychology at UT Austin.  Dr. Balsan joined Deep Eddy Psychotherapy in 2019 as a postdoctoral fellow.  He works with adults with concerns around self-esteem, identity, relationship issues, and other life challenges.

I recently sat down with Dr. Balsan to talk about masculinity, the common myths and misguided beliefs that society holds about it, and how these play out in the world of mental health.

You can learn more about Dr. Balsan and other members of our clinical team here.

To sign up for Dr. Balsan’s psychotherapy services, contact us today.

Q – First, tell us a bit about yourself.  What brought you to Deep Eddy Psychotherapy?

Dr. Balsan:  I grew up in Pittsburg and did a fair amount of moving around as a kid – east coast, west coast, Midwest, and now I have settled down here in Texas.  

Because I was exposed to many different ways of living,  I developed a strong sense of how people relate to one another across differences in background, identity, and culture. Importantly, I also learned how others tend to respond to my visible identities and culture.  And a major part of this meant understanding what it means to be a man and how that impacts my relationships, including in therapy.  This curiosity about the culture of masculinities is really at the core of what brought me to the field of psychology.  I am fascinated by how we as men come to understand ourselves and how our identities can shape our understanding of the human experience. At the core of masculinities are two fundamental questions: “What does it mean to be a man?” and “What is a good man?”

These two questions set me on the journey to becoming a psychologist. The answers to these questions are different across cultures. As a therapist, I am not interested in finding the “best answer.” Instead, I am here to help people explore and wrestle with their own vision of what is best for them, and that can take time.  

I came to Deep Eddy to have a place to work with people on their big life questions.  In the past, I have worked primarily in brief mental health interventions, helping people stabilize and feel grounded in the present moment.  But here at Deep Eddy, I am able to do much deeper work.  It is so rewarding to go beyond merely identifying and solving problems or “symptoms” for clients. In this practice, we can take the time to get connected to the deeper self.  For myself and many other men, therapy is the place we can work towards self-discovery to better understand the ins and outs of our cultures of masculinity and what it means to be a man. 

Q – How would you define “masculinity”?

Dr. Balsan:  The best way to understand traditional masculinity is to think of it as a recipe.  The American Psychological Association defines masculinity as an ideology that comes with a set of descriptive, prescriptive, and proscriptivecognitions about boys and men.  This recipe includes: 1) what does it mean to be a man, 2) what men should do, and 3) what men should not do.  

For a long time in psychology, masculinity was understood in a very narrow view of the White/European heterosexual Christian man.  This cultural monolith of what the ideal man included being a stoic, strong, protector, earner, who was independent and ruggedly individualistic.  This masculinity recipe demands that men are as “manly” as possible.  Growing up in the 90s, my models for masculinity were characters like Rocky Balboa, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The traditional identity of masculinity has been attached to ideas such as achievement, avoiding the appearance of weakness, adventure, risk, and violence.  But living like a character from an action movie comes at a cost for many men. It can lead to disrupted relationships, poor physical and mental health outcomes, and even shorter life spans.

Fortunately, the understanding of what masculinity is has shifted in the world of psychology.  The “recipe” for what it means to be a man is so much broader than previously traditional ideas.  This evolving understanding of masculinity allows us to be more flexible and adaptable in our environments, but it can also lead to confusion about what it means to be a “good man.” This confusion is something we can work through in therapy. 

Certainly, for some, the idea of traditional masculinity has worked for them.  But for many, the old recipe does not seem to be working anymore.  It is often too rigid.  It is not able to adapt to a new world with new technology and new ideas.  This is troubling because the world has changed immensely in the past 70 years, and yet so many men are stuck with rigid, often unhealthy, and dysfunctional scripts. 

My intent is not to pathologize traditional masculinity or “cancel” it.  However, it is important to recognize that many ascribe to this recipe of masculinity in ways that are not helpful.  A man might cope in ways that are “manly,” like substance use, using intimidation and violence, and self-isolation.  Research has shown that holding onto a rigid sense of traditional masculinity correlates to lower life expectancy, more complications such as heart disease and other health issues, increased social isolation, increase suicide risk, increased risk of violent behavior, and increased substance abuse.  

If I have sons, I do not want them to have to go through that.  I want them to be adaptive, to be willing to step outside the box, and to be the sort of person that they want to be.  

So, the question really comes down to being curious about what is working and what is not.  One of the ways we can begin to do this is by shifting from masculinity to masculinities to recognize diversity within this gender construct.  There are so many different ways to be a man, and each individual can thrive by finding their own path. Therapy can be helpful in finding your path.

Q – How does masculinity influence American culture and society?

Dr. Balsan:  Prior to coming to Texas, I was working with a nonprofit in Washington DC that served boys and young men in the area.  As part of the work, we would have a lot of conversations around what it means to be a “strong man” or a “real man.” When we would ask what those ideas mean to them, these young men would describe superheroes, professional athletes, powerful businesspeople, and political leaders.  

When we asked them why they saw these people as representing manhood, they said it was because they had access to money, power, and sex.  They said it was because they had the ability to be violent and that they had strong, able bodies.  And, they said it was because they were able to be independent, not reliant on others, and tough.  

But ultimately, these boys felt like they could never live up to those standards.  They would say that these were the ideals of masculinity, but they felt like it wasn’t something they could achieve.  Nevertheless, they would try to achieve these standards and often ended up disappointed in themselves.  

It was that sense of inadequacy that made them do things that weren’t great, such as not treating their partners well or being disrespectful to women as a way to feel powerful.  They abused substances, such as drinking more than their friends, to prove how tough they were. And they would seek out violence – playing aggressively or starting fights to prove their manliness.  It was because of these unhealthy choices that these young men were in our program and needed help.

But something magical happened when these boys were asked a different question.

Instead of asking about “manly” men, we asked them about the men that mattered most to them.  These boys would share experiences about being cared for by a father or a brother.  They would talk about a coach who believed in them and supported them.  And some would talk about Jesus or other religious figures that helped them stay grounded in what mattered.  

These were the male role models who they felt actually cared for them and were there for them in tough times.  They didn’t talk about these men as being people who had the “manly” things, like the ones they described before, but they recognized them as good men.  Providers.  Nurturers.

The American media’s portrayal of men like Schwarzenegger or Batman robs these young boys of healthy models for what it can mean to be a man.  They see on screen these mean, aggressive, and lonely men achieve success and power, and these representations form what they tell themselves about manhood.  Furthermore, this portrayal is not only affecting our boys, but our girls and women see this too.  Often times, the men I work with feel most pressured into being “manly” by the women and girls in their lives.  At the end of the day, these boys are just trying to be good, and they are looking to us to show them what that means. If boys grow up with an unattainable standard for what it means to be a good man, they are more likely to grow into men who feel anxious, depressed, lonely, and inadequate. These are some of the most common concerns I work with in therapy.

Q – What are some common myths about masculinity?

Dr. Balsan:  Some of the major myths that people carry about masculinity are proscriptive – the ones that say what men should not do or should not be.  For example, men must avoid appearing weak.  We tell men and boys that emotions and vulnerability are symbols of weakness rather than strength.  

We also have a proscriptive myth of competence.  Men have to have it all together; they have to be able to do it on their own.  With this myth comes anxiety about “adulting” – the concept that, as men, we need to be confident and know what we are doing all the time.  This is further complicated by the idea that we need to achieve this without the help of others. But this is, of course, totally unreasonable and increases our chance of failure.  

Finally, as I highlighted in my earlier example, there is a myth about what it means to be a real man.  The myth says that that sex, money, and power – the TV myth of masculinity – is what it means to be a man.  And when we ascribe to that old, narrow recipe of masculinity, we are set up for comparison.  That guy makes more money than me; therefore, I am less of a man.  That guy has a faster car or a stronger body; therefore, he’s manlier than I.  These comparisons are not only impractical and useless, but they also lead us to a place of joyless inadequacy.  Therapy can help address these concerns of inadequacy, which can lead to depression and anxiety. 

Q- Does traditional masculinity keep men from seeking therapy?  Why?

Dr. Balsan:  Unfortunately, yes.  

Society has taught men that emotions are scary, weak, and problematic.  Men are socialized and trained not to acknowledge them.  Think about how many people respond to young boys when they become tearful or sad.  They might try to say something that they feel is encouraging, such as “Don’t cry – man up!” They might scold them or laugh at them for reacting with feelings.  

So, if the thought of going into therapy and crying with another man or another therapist is a scary one, then that would lead you to try other solutions first – isolation, substance use, aggression, and so forth.  For some, there is also shame about being seen doing therapy.  Picture a man walking in the door and feeling judged as weak for needing help.  These messages may even be self-inflicted. 

Q – What advice do you have for someone who has dealt with toxic or unhealthy masculinity?

Dr. Balsan:  Some people will use the term “toxic” masculinity, but that language makes it sound like there something wrong or sick about manliness.  To be clear, there are experiences that men have had that are truly toxic – being abused, for example – but that is just one aspect of the broader issue.   Instead, I call it “rigid” masculinity because it is the inflexibility and narrowness of the traditional masculine recipe that causes problems in life.  

So then, what can you do if you struggle with rigid masculinity?  In therapy, we try to be curious, open, and compassionate about your identities and how you came to your beliefs about yourself.  Everyone deserves compassion, including you.

Next, we move on to the emotional world.  In therapy, we learn to build a vocabulary around one’s feelings. By naming our emotions out loud with other people, we learn to better identify, cope with, and express our feelings.  It is often a life-changing experience to realize that other people cannot read your mind, which is a misconception that often leads to miscommunication, anger, and frustration.

Another essential skill is learning to form explicit understandings in a relationship rather than making assumptions.  And a lot of this comes down to thinking outside of the expectations we place on men.  For example, is the expectation that you have to be the provider, the one who is bringing in an income?  Can you recognize that all contributions to the household are valuable?  Being able to have explicit conversations about what you and your partner need can help demystify and debunk the myths you might be holding yourself to.  Be explicit about your personal motivations and values with your partner.  

Similarly, learn to handle conflict as a teammate, rather than an opponent.  This strategy can help prevent conflict from creating resentment, and may even help the relationship become more intimate.  Conflict doesn’t have to mean fighting, aggression, or power-grabbing.  If you are noticing that conflict with others is leading to disconnection rather than building intimacy, you are losing out.  I often suggest men research about healthy conflict from the works of Dr. John Gottman or Dr. Stan Tatkin, and do your own personal work by connecting with a therapist.

Finally, we know that men are often incredibly isolated and disconnected from others.  So, find other men to be connected to.  By being present and caring for others, we become the kind of men that our children look up to.  That means doing more than just talking about your common interests like sports or beer.  It means being real, which can be scary and vulnerable.  And of course, you can consider taking this journey by connecting with a therapist and learning to discover your own masculinity.

Interested?  Contact us today!

We would love to hear from you.  If you would like to learn more about our services or schedule to begin your first therapy session, check out our Contact page!  Our team of compassionate providers is dedicated to providing you with the utmost quality of care for your mental health needs.  

The Deep Eddy Psychotherapy Ask a Therapist series is written by Dr. Kyler Shumway.

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