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Are Transitions Killing Us?

By June 18, 2016May 26th, 2019No Comments

“Toxic Masculinity”

As neuroscience has shown, our human brains start life with a great degree of plasticity. They are designed to learn from the environment and from people and influences that “matter.” [1] Generally, these are the adult caretakers and later peers and other teachers, along with the tremendous influence in our wired world of the media and social networks. One of the strongest environmental influences has been shown by psychology to be the local and larger definitions of gender. While many stereotypes in many arenas are beginning to dissolve, along with the rigid boundaries of a gender binary, in general, males are still taught and expected to hide their tender feelings in favor of masculine toughness and aggression. This is currently being named “toxic masculinity,” as it harms every gender, including those who conform to the traditional requirements of masculinity themselves.

Every person is capable of love and kindness or cruelty and hatred to different degrees. While we are all born with various tendencies on these qualities, the environment immediately wraps them in a kind or cruel embrace, more generally in some complex amalgam of both. In tat embrace are embedded gender and ethnicity, along with many other psychological influences.

From years of doing psychotherapy and ethnography, I can heartily confirm that each of us sees the world differently and through our own pair of eyes when sighted. [2] In psychotherapy, each person tends to believe that their perspective is right and here is where many interpersonal difficulties arise. Here is where we must all stretch to see the perspective of the other,” to walk a mile in their shoes.” Only with this cross-individual understanding can change begin in and out of therapy.

Feminism, in psychology and other disciplines, includes a central focus on gender and ethnicity and is not confined to females only. Feminist psychologists, male, female and others, are beginning to look at masculinity just as in the inception of feminist psychology, many were focused on women and femininity. The way our cultures almost universally define masculinity, or what is coming to be seen as “toxic masculinity”, is revealing itself to be damaging to the very men who display it. It is even one of the reasons that so many men die earlier than women in this culture. Genetics matter, but not as much as learning and behavior. A new field known as epigenetics has sprung up to deal with the very complex interaction between genetics and the environment.

We especially see the effects of “toxic masculinity” in the use of violence and hatred to “solve problems.” For example, most partner abuse is perpetrated by males and is a problem that has been brought to the fore by feminists. It took us many years for the issue to be acknowledged by the larger culture. We are beginning to realize, courtesy of an increasingly violent culture, that domestic violence is not private and is not just between two people. It has much larger implications. Violent and hateful speech on the part of our public figures and politicians only stirs up others to move in that direction and is currently having its day in the U.S. and other Western societies especially.

A New York Times poll this week [3] revealed that LGBT people have replaced Jews on the scale of the most hated or the targets of the most hate crimes in the U.S. What an honor and what a shock to live in a society that can tabulate hatred. Hate crimes, terrorism or vulgar and aggressive political candidates are all part of the same problem. It is a psychological, sociological, cultural and systemic problem, all at the same time and requires change on all those levels. It requires a completely new understanding of what it means to be a man and a human being in the 21 century. These are not Paleolithic times and these skills are not needed anymore by evolution or by humanity.

It is not an easy transition, but it can be done and conscious men must participate and serve as models for their children and all our children if we are to survive. Part of what we are witnessing right now then are growing pains as we move very rapidly from a local to a global paradigm and from hegemonic masculinity to various struggles for equality. It is a time of extreme transition not just at the level of gender, but as we move from local to global connection of cultures and nations. It is stressful and painful, as well as hopeful. I hope we make it before we destroy the planet and each other.


[1] Kaschak, E. (2010). The Mattering Map, Women and Therapy, Taylor and Francis Press.

[2] Kaschak, E. (2015). Sight Unseen: Gender and Race through Blind Eyes, Columbia University Press.

[3] New York Times online, June 2016.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.