The following is a first-hand account of one Rethink Masculinity student’s experience recognizing and unlearning toxic masculinity. The author has chosen to remain anonymous. Sign up for the next Rethink Masculinity class here.
I don’t have the highest opinion of myself, which has developed into an almost chronic sense of insecurity. I find myself constantly wondering what others are thinking about me.
Whether denial or ignorance, for years I wrote off my insecurity as simply overthinking things. Regardless, my inability or unwillingness to address my low self-esteem and corresponding insecurity often had negative effect on many of my relationships, usually with those that I was closest with.
Because I questioned the degree to which people liked me, I would often take unreasonable offense to remarks or actions that were meant in jest or were otherwise harmless. I would go out of my way to take offense with the subconscious intent of saddling someone else with my emotions. I was charging my friends and family with responsibility of my emotions.
It was toxic. It was manipulative. It often forced people to distance themselves from me, having quite the opposite effect that I obliviously expected.
My toxicity hit a boiling point at the end of a romantic relationship that lasted far too long.
We were in a long distance relationship and I began developing trust issues. One time she visited me and I couldn’t shake a baseless suspicion of infidelity and proceeded to go through her phone and discovered that she’d cheated on me. In the past my manipulative behavior usually emerged in response to imagined slights. But infidelity seemed to be an unforgivable transgression for which my ire was justified. Warranted even!
And I now had a tangible weapon with which to manipulate her.
Over the next few months of our relationship, I compulsively used her guilt against her, reminding her of how badly she’d hurt me, refusing to accept her heartfelt apologies and threatening to break up with her.
She was my emotional hostage.
Eventually the abuse became too much for her to handle and she ended the relationship, which sent me down a yearlong bout with depression. I became a shell of myself, losing all forms of confidence and living in a perpetual state of self-pity.
I moved back home to Michigan, where I was able to gradually regain confidence in myself. I (not so deliberately) remained single, which, in an environment conducive for recovery, allowed for much needed introspection and personal freedom.
Being responsible for nobody’s emotions but my own was almost a relief. In retrospect, my catharsis was not due to the lack of responsibility for someone else’s emotions. Rather, it was relief from my abuse of others. I was still oblivious about this though.
When I moved to DC in 2017, I became fast friends with someone with whom I developed a strong emotional connection. We became very close, but she was often put off by my toxicity. Luckily for me, she was able to recognize my abusive tendencies were likely borne of my own toxic masculinity.
She mentioned that a friend of hers had been a part of Rethink Masculinity, a supportive safe space coordinated by men for men to learn about, discuss, and confront toxic masculinity professionally, socially, and personally.
I was pretty apprehensive about it all when she told me that women weren’t involved in the facilitation. I pictured a group of 20-something white guys man/white/straightsplaining feminism, which was not something I was interested in. The whole thing reeked of out-of-touch pretension, not to mention an added time commitment to an already loaded schedule. I was wrong.
I attended a stand-alone reading group associated with the group and was blown away. I found the reading compelling and personally illuminating.
Not only was I excited to discuss the reading with group, I was excited to meet the people who I’d imagined were more than familiar with the intricacies of masculinity – far more so than I, anyway.
And then insecurity started to set in and I started doubting my place in the group. Surely the men involved were far more enlightened than I, and surely I’d come across as an ignorant, crass jerk who had been put up to this.
Those presumptions couldn’t have been further from the truth. The racially diverse and sexually ambiguous group of men were not only inviting toward me as a newcomer, but were inquisitive. They were genuinely interested in my experiences and viewpoints.
Together, we weren’t learning about masculinity as much as we were learning about ourselves. Masculinity may have been the topic, but our experiences were the driving force behind what was meant to be learned, and, ultimately, from which to grow.
This was an environment consisting of smart and inclusive individuals with a genuine thirst for knowledge as a means for improvement.
One of the men in the group suggested applying to the full Rethink Masculinity class and I did just that. The class itself was similar to the reading group in terms of subject matter, but far more structured.
We’d dissect the readings through a variety of exercises, usually discussing the “macro” as a large group, then discussing our more subjective, “micro” thoughts in smaller groups. We’d then regroup and discuss the different “micro” thoughts together.
It was a veritable think-tank of progressive thought, anchored by specific topics, but approached from wildly different perspectives. It was not uncommon to see people frantically take notes during someone’s reflection, eager to record someone else’s profoundly unique analysis.
And though it was safe to say we were like-minded individuals, people regularly voiced dissent, challenging concepts in the readings that they did not feel were consistent with their own line of thinking.
Regardless of how I felt going into a class – whether I was exhausted from work, upset about something in my family, or excited for a football game – I always left feeling better. And that’s not to say that I was happier or filled with some sense of relief from existential dread; it was more a feeling of revitalization. It was like my brain went to the gym and exercised for three hours.
I can safely say that I learned something from each person in my cohort.
I didn’t tell you about my struggle with insecurity or my proclivity toward toxic behavior as a frame of reference for a journey from the darkness to the light.
I’m still insecure. I still fall into my toxic tendencies. I’m still me.
Rethink Masculinity did not cure me. Because I’m not broken.
I’m flawed. We all are.
Rethink Masculinity provided me with a safe space to recognize, conceptualize, and address the inherent toxicity of masculinity that pervades our culture — and cultures around the world. And, in doing so, I am better equipped to recognize, conceptualize, and address accordingly toxic masculinity within myself and within others.
And along with those provisions, it has created a rapidly expanding community of respect, trust and, above all else, love. I hope you’ll join me.