Toxic Masculinity – The Hidden Trauma in Men’s Lives


Updated 4/29/2024

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. Heroic stories of survival and healing inspire us.


The Secretly Wounded

But what we don’t realize is how many walking wounded people are among us. We don’t know because they don’t tell us. They don’t tell for many reasons, but for some 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 a “real man” is someone heroic enough, tough enough, and 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 a mandate 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 that weak men crumble, complain, have emotional reactions, and don’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps. For the traumatized man, the most damaging aspect of the trauma may not be the incident itself. That internalized message is often the most deleterious in that it has a long-term impact on their mental health, their relationships, and their life!


While we speak of the unhealthy aspects of hyper-masculinity, we forget the health benefits of masculine energy, particularly when facing traumatic experiences. We know that resiliency training is also important to teach boys, and girls for that matter. We don’t aim to emasculate males or make everyone soft but embrace a healthy balance that is appropriately calibrated and well-timed. Resiliency and focusing on goals have their place during tough and emotionally demanding situations, but so does decompressing and processing the emotions and thoughts not given time and space when elite performance is required.



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 whiskey or weed.  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 hours trolling the internet for dopamine hits when landing on porn sites or in duplicitous and compulsive sexual encounters leaving many a committed relationship in ruin. And although Bill bit his lip and swore he’d never be like his dad, the man he watched batter his mom, he finds himself now crying with his words and fists hurting the very people he claims to love. 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 addictions or in silence behind smiling or stoic masks.


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, now recognized as complex trauma. 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 girls. They are told to stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about. Young athletes may suffer and endure hazing rituals to earn their status as accepted team members, only to perpetrate the same rituals when they become senior team members.


Although males, in general, are often told they need to be tough, dominant, in control, and powerful to fit into the man-pack, a lot of boys and, eventually, men don’t fit in. Society today is providing more permission for males to be gender fluid and not fit into the outdated, rigid gender binary; some males still feel the social pressure and gender straightjacking to fit in the more traditional costume of masculinity and painfully believe they aren’t man enough.


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 also 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 to belong in the man-pack.


Trauma Extracts Its Toll

No matter how tough you are, when you experience trauma, it takes a toll on your humanity and your soul.  It invades your mind, emotions, and body. It becomes an emotional tumor of repressed memories that 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.


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, and addictions—and assume it is part of men’s bad nature, like tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes in physical nature.  There is little discussion on how toxic male socialization is actually traumatic to humanity in males.


This unspoken situation of men and trauma is not talked about but is 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 set up the next generation of males to fail mindlessly.


The suicide rate of males is now four times that of females.

Indeed, 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 workplace 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 from 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, and asking for help are mere acts of weakness of desperate men.  Men are sadly stuck in pursuing the pinnacle of masculinity—self-reliance, stoicism, control—at the expense of their 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 secretly 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 don’t weaken them but strengthen them.  They become stronger from the inside out and find strength in openness and community, not in 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. Still, it is virtually impossible to heal when we, as men, can’t name it and won’t talk about it. Randy Flood, MA, LLP


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. There is so much more expansive and balanced living in men’s efforts to cross-train rather than stubbornly believing that anything outside of the man box will weaken you.




We can help males today pursue their full humanity while not sacrificing their masculinity. They can discover that by healing and developing themselves in counseling, they don’t lose their masculinity; they find their humanity. 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. In doing so, they become explorers and purveyors of the inner life, the next frontier for courageous, evolving men.






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 who provides 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.