Toxic Masculinity – The Hidden Trauma in Men’s Lives


Human suffering is all around us.  We learn of untold, hidden trauma—sexual abuse, bullying, domestic violence, early and sudden deaths of loved ones, exposure to combat, life altering injuries, etc. It makes us wonder how men and women survive and move on to live life after traumatic experiences.  We are inspired by heroic stories of survival and healing.


The Secretly Wounded…

But what we don’t realize, is how many walking wounded are among us. We don’t know, because they don’t tell us. They don’t tell for many reasons, but for men dealing with trauma, not talking about it, is considered “manly.”  It is erroneously believed that real men don’t burden others with their problems. They suck it up and deal with it on their own.  In fact, the mark of “real man” is one who is heroic enough, tough enough, man enough to face and endure traumatic events unscathed.  And a traumatized man, if he suffers in silence he is awarded a badge of honor—a man’s man.


Iconic Images – “Real Men” Endure Trauma…

You’ve seen the iconic image of the soldier emerging from the rubble of battle—bruised, battered and torn—but still standing, ready, able and willing to fight the next battle.  These ubiquitous images and unwavering narratives of masculinity promote an edict for men to live up to. Real men endure trauma. They are tough enough, and man enough to stand strong, not complain, put it behind them, and soldier on in life.


The hidden, yet stronger and more insidious message is: weak men crumble, complain, have emotional reactions and don’t pull themselves up by their boot straps.  For the traumatized man, the most damaging aspect of the trauma isn’t the incident itself. It’s what they tell themselves about how they respond to the trauma. And the deleterious, long term impact it has on their mental health, their relationships, their life!



Salving the Pain

Although we award a wounded soldier the purple heart, he may suffer for life with a pickled liver as he salves his pain and sorrow with bourbon and gin.  Although a childhood sexual abuse victim later in life achieves an award for sales, his shame from the hidden trauma accumulates and foments in lonesome, duplicitous and compulsive sexual encounters.  And although Bill swore he’d never be like his dad, the man he watched batter his mom, he finds himself saying and doing things unimaginable to his wife and children. Because men aren’t given the tools or permission to talk about their pain, so many are prone to act it out—pass their pain on to others—or suffer in silence and addictions.


We are often attuned today to how sexual abuse or domestic violence can be traumatic. But we underestimate the strain on men’s humanity when having to endure toxic male socialization.  This male training is often intentionally inflicting pain and suffering upon young men as a “lesson” in learning to be tough and resilient.


Boys Learn from Their Fathers…

Boys may learn from their fathers that crying is for babies, or for girls. They are told to stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.  Young athletes may suffer yet endure hazing rituals to earn their status as an accepted team member only to perpetrate the same rituals when they become senior team members.


Although males in general are told they need to be tough, athletic, in control and powerful to fit into the man-pack, a lot of boys and eventually men don’t fit in. Men and trauma is an equation that leads to men who secretly suffer in silence, believing they aren’t man enough.


Although deemed normal in decades past, this extreme type of male training is now deemed traumatic.  It creates and fosters a pact among men to not only agree to endure it, but concede to not complain about it – not talk about it. To do so is tantamount to admitting you’re not man enough. So, the code of silence is written indelibly into the man-pact—an ancient code of behavior men agree to follow.


Trauma Extracts Its Toll

No matter how tough you are, when you experience trauma it exacts a toll on your humanity, your soul.  It invades your mind, emotions and body. It becomes an emotional tumor of repressed memories only shrunk and eradicated by acknowledging it, talking about it, and expressing the unexpressed feelings that were either ignored or muted.



If not dealt with directly, trauma will haunt us in what has been coined as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although one may not officially meet the criteria of PTSD, a lot of men carry around some level of unresolved hidden trauma from a distinct incident or experience. Or they may experience the existential childhood trauma of growing up in the toxicity of rigid male socialization.


And depending on your race, era, sexual orientation, class and genetics, you may have experienced more trauma than those who find themselves at the top of the male hierarchy protected from the trickle-down abuses inherent in male posturing to prove one’s superiority and dominance.


Men’s “Bad” Nature…

We see and read about bad and tragic male behavior—shootings, domestic violence, suicide, sexual aggression, criminal behavior, addictions—and assume it is part of men’s bad nature like tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes in physical nature.  There is little discussion in how toxic male socialization actually is traumatic to the humanity in males.


This unspoken situation of men and trauma is not talked about, but seen vividly in how males possess the propensity to act out feelings. To pass their pain and unresolved trauma onto others.  And if not onto others, to themselves by holding painful feelings inside and medicating them with alcohol and drugs.


Until we begin to have a conversation on what healthy and fit masculinity looks like in the new millennium, we will continue to mindlessly set up the next generation of males to fail.


The suicide rate of males is now 4 times that of females…

… and 79 of the 81 recent mass shooters have been male. Males are struggling with failure to launch at a higher rate than females, while females have surpassed males as college graduates.  The work-place, and college campuses are demanding that males show up with compassion and respect at the forefront of their “personhood”, rather than their untethered sexual interests. We must look at how to raise our boys to be fit for the new millennium. It will include greater levels of emotional and relational intelligence to function and thrive.  


Walking Wounded…

Unfortunately, today, we have many walking wounded men suffering with covert anxiety, depression, imprisoned in addictions, or with externalization disorders—acting out their pain, mood swings and trauma onto others.  Some even look like they have it all, and then surprise us with sudden and inexplicable suicides. For most men, talking about feelings, revealing vulnerabilities, asking for help are acts of weakness.  Men are sadly stuck in pursuing the pinnacle of masculinity—self-reliance, stoicism, control—at the expense of their own humanity and those of others.


In my work with men, they often begrudgingly come into counseling feeling coerced by a loved one or looking for a quick fix.


The mere act of being in counseling or asking for help is experienced as shameful, so they want to do it secretively and quickly.  What the traumatized man discovers, is how much strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable and share their feelings and life with me or their group members.  They experience the healing powers of disclosure, of being seen and heard. The traumas they endured are acknowledged, and the support and care they receive doesn’t weaken them but strengthens them.  They become stronger from the inside out and find strength in openness and community not in their isolation and silence.


It is difficult enough to endure, heal and survive from trauma when it is known, acknowledged and addressed openly with the help of professionals, but it is virtually impossible to heal when we as men can’t name it and won’t talk about it… RF


Raising boys to speak from their hearts…

The most pernicious and pervasive trauma for males is learning and living out this toxic lesson of manhood—real men make it on their own and the ones who don’t are weak. We can end that trauma today by raising boys to remain connected to their hearts, while giving them permission to be in connection with others beyond just sexual encounters.



We can help males today pursue their full humanity while not sacrificing their masculinity. And men can end the deadly and insidious killer of emotional and spiritual life—silence and isolation—by speaking from their hearts and being in a life-giving recovering community.




Randy compressed

Randy Flood, MA LLP is the co-founder and director of the Men's Resource Center of West Michigan, where he is the principal therapist in providing individual and group psychotherapy. Randy holds a master's degree in counseling psychology from Western Michigan University and has spent his career creating and developing specialized clinical services that address men’s issues. These include anger management, fathering assistance, sexual addiction recovery, and general personal growth counseling. Prior to co-founding the Men's Resource Center of West Michigan, Randy worked at the Domestic Violence Program for Men in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and founded the Men’s Program at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids.