Ziemann: The man in the mirror

Columnist Megan Ziemann opens up about her and her partner’s struggle with toxic thinking.

Megan Ziemann

My boyfriend and I have been dating for four-and-a-half years, so you’d think nothing he tells me would be particularly surprising. 

About two weeks ago, I was proven wrong. I got a text at some odd hour that read “I’m sorry I’m not strong enough anymore.” And that hit hard, because he’s one of the strongest people I know. He has to be — he’s dealt with me and my problems for four-and-a-half years.

I understand where his thought process comes from. The stress and hopelessness that surrounds the pandemic has taken its toll on all of us, and I feel like it hits different people at different times. It hit me this summer. It hit my boyfriend two weeks ago. 

But that thought process isn’t specific to 2020. Guys feel like this all the time. Feeling weak is a byproduct of toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity has been in the spotlight lately, thanks to those Instagram informational posts people post on their stories. But the concept itself is not new — it actually dates all the way back to the ’80s and ’90s. 

Born during the age of the self-help book, toxic masculinity is a hotly contested phrase. According to the Wright Institute, an accredited graduate school specializing in clinical psychology, the phrase “toxic masculinity” is a little too polarizing and should be replaced with the phrase “male fragility,” which puts less emphasis on the dichotomy between male and female and focuses more on the challenges that may accompany identifying as a man. 

The Psychologist, a publication from the British Psychological Society, agrees. Writers Martin Seager and John Barry argue it’s not toxic masculinity we should be focusing on — rather, we should direct our attention to the toxic acts men who are caught up in toxic masculinity commit. Ending the acts, according to Seager and Barry, will end toxic masculinity.

Regardless of the phrasing, boys are taught to be boys differently than girls are taught to be girls, and that’s not good. Young boys are bombarded with messages from the media, advertisements and sometimes their own families that men are strong, stoic and stable. They do not cry. They glorify violence and express anger physically. They’re competitive. They’re manly men, and manly men must be dominant in all aspects of life. 

But they don’t! Men are humans, and humans feel things. Humans get emotional. Humans develop attachments. Humans are naturally a mixture of dominant and submissive. 

It’s OK to be a human.

We shouldn’t be asking so much of men.

Now, men’s issues are just the tip of the gender studies iceberg. I didn’t spend the past four years studying this to water the field down to just toxic masculinity. My professors would be peeved if I didn’t mention gender socialization, reification, hegemony and the intersections of race, sexuality and gender.

But we can’t get to those things if half the population is discouraged from acting like humans naturally act. 

Toxic masculinity is a hard thing to shake off. My boyfriend has been unlearning behaviors for as long as I’ve known him, and he still has rough patches. But that’s OK. You’re changing tens of years of thought. It’s not going to be easy. 

But it’s important that you try — no matter your gender. 

Whether you’re fighting toxic masculinity or just toxic behavior in general, here are a couple of steps you can take to start your unlearning journey.

First, identify the toxic thought. You’re going to slip up — you’re just starting, after all. But still identify when you think something unhealthy. Ask yourself why are you thinking this way? Was it prompted by anything? Is it directed at yourself or someone else?

Next, replace the thought with a more positive and healthy one. You don’t have to be all smiles all the time, but try your best to let the bad thoughts go and replace them with better ones. You aren’t a failure because you missed one class. Instead, you’re going through a lot (hello, pandemic?) and sometimes life gets in the way. I’m sure you’re trying your best.

Finally, it’s important to practice what you preach. As you’re going through your own relearning, try to show that in your actions. Check in with a friend who has been a little quiet. Accept compliments instead of brushing them off. 

Humans learn by imitating others. Help someone else out by being a positive influence.

And if you need a little boost, my boyfriend and I are on your side. Let’s get healthy together.