There is a lot of talk these day about the expectations we place on all sexes, and how this can impact our mental and physical wellbeing. Thankfully, we can break free of these expectations and learn to find our own identity and way in life—we don’t have to be who the world says we should be! On this week’s podcast, in honor of Father’s Day and Men’s Mental Health Awareness Month, I spoke to therapist and bestselling author John Kim about men’s mental wellbeing, the stigma associated with men’s mental health, how to break the cycle of toxic masculinity, how fathers can improve their relationships with their sons, how to be better parents and the power of knowing who you are as a man in today’s world.
As John describes in his book, I Used To Be A Miserable F*ck: An Everyman’s Guide To A Meaningful Life, he grew up in a home with no available male role model (his parents were always working), and learnt how to define his own masculinity by following the “cool kids”. This got him into all sorts of trouble as he tried to fit in and seek approval, laying the foundation for his anger and frustration as an adult, which came out in the way he saw himself and his relationships. His divorce was the “aha” moment that started breaking the cycle of toxic masculinity for him. He started a highly popular blog called The Angry Therapist to process his own feelings and emotions, and soon began seeing clients again. His approach to therapy, although unconventional, really works. It is based on his authenticity, honesty and experiences, and has helped many people in America and around the world!
So, what exactly is toxic masculinity? In short, toxic masculinity is something many men experience growing up, a set of societal beliefs about and proscriptions regarding male behavior. It tells boys and men that they should look a certain way, talk a certain way and act a certain way, and, as such, is very performance-based. Toxic masculinity teaches men to suppress their struggles, weaknesses and emotions, disconnecting men from themselves, which often leads to uncontrolled anger, frustration, a distorted sense of self, failed relationships and even, sadly, suicide.
One of the best ways to break the cycle of toxic masculinity is to live a life that is inside out, not outside in. Go inward, be honest with yourself, face your inner person, and realize this is a lifelong journey, which is exactly what John started doing with his blog. Finding yourself is not a one-time thing, and is often an uncomfortable process. Remember, positive psychology isn’t everything, and life is not just about being happy all the time. You are you but you are always changing—the brain never stays the same, so neither should you!
The same goes for parenting. The best way for parents to teach their children how to be vulnerable and deal with their inner life is to model it: be authentic, sharing your own journey with your kids (for more on this see my recent blog and podcast episode #144 on parenting). Tell your children if you are not in a good place (because they sense when you are down!), but let them know you are working on yourself. As parents, we need a lot more “we’s” not “you’s”. We need to teach our children from young to express themselves in a safe space at home by modeling this ourselves, which also gives them practice so they can learn how to express themselves. It teaches them to dig deep, and shows them that this is a lifelong journey. Don’t just impose your own expectations, belief systems or rigid blueprints on your children (or anyone, for that matter). Let them feel like they can ask questions, explore and be discover who they are.
It is also important to remember that relationships with your children take time and effort. This is something you must earn as a father (and mother of course!), so don’t just expect that your kids will want to be around you. And, when it comes to father-son relationships, the number one thing a father can do is be there for his son as much as he can. To be present and engage with your son means a lot more than just teaching your child something!