Understanding the impact of an invalidating environment like toxic masculinity

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One of my roles at CEBTOhio is to provide individual and group Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to our clients. DBT is specifically designed to help people manage intense emotions in skillful ways. A key concept in DBT is the “invalidating environment” – a circumstance where your thoughts and feelings are responded to in ways that suggest they are invalid or wrong.

This can happen in both subtle and overt ways, and can understandably lead to a situation where you then struggle to understand and manage your emotions.

We often talk about smaller-scale invalidating environments, such as your family of origin or a peer group, for example. However, we all exist in a world where we are pressured and molded by large-scale sociocultural environments, which can be oppressive or invalidating.

Toxic masculinity

One specific example is traditional Western masculinity. It is important to note that, while there can be many shared experiences among men, each person’s experience can look and feel different based on how masculinity expectations intersect with your unique identities, such as age, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, to name a few.

In masculinity research, there is a concept called “traditional masculinity ideology” (TMI). TMI refers to the culturally-defined standards of men’s behavior and the internalized beliefs of how important these standards are.

In other words, TMI describes how men “ought” to think, feel and present themselves in the world. Among many standards, TMI values that men are tough, self-reliant, avoid being perceived as “feminine”, and restrict displays of emotion. This can become an invalidating environment when men need help and receive the message that this is wrong.

Shame from the invalidating environment

In response, men often change their behavior to meet the TMI standards – suppressing emotions or limiting their closeness with other men, for example. In research, this is referred to as “masculine norm conformity” (MNC).

Unfortunately, there can be real costs to this kind of conformity. Research shows that men with higher levels of MNC are more likely to have physical health concerns than men lower in MNC. This may provide some evidence for the ways in which invalidating environments can actually cause physical harm.

Often, shame is an emotional price of not conforming to masculinity standards – for example, talking about one’s feelings. In DBT, we learn that shame makes us want to avoid or hide from others whatever it is that we feel ashamed of.

It is probably not a coincidence that men under-utilize and drop out of therapy at greater rates than women despite comparable levels of mental health concerns.

Countering shame by acting opposite

How, then, do we counteract shame? In DBT, we learn that the way to do this is to “act opposite.” If shame wants us to hide, that means we have to make public what we are ashamed of, and do this over and over again. This can understandably be very hard when we exist in an invalidating environment. I am grateful for men who have acted opposite – and definitely done so all the way! – by very publicly sharing their experiences with mental health and therapy, such as Brandon Marshall, Kevin Love and Kid Cudi.

I am hopeful these examples can start to chip away at our definitions of what we define as “masculine” on a large scale and serve as inspiration for people who struggle.

If you are reading this and need help, I encourage you to consider taking the brave step of “acting opposite” to shame and reaching out for help to someone in your community. If we can be of any help, please contact us.

Image by Diggeo from Pixabay


About the Author:

Dean Malec, therapist and Director of Training at CEBTOhio, received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Cleveland State University. He trained in various university counseling settings during his doctoral education and completed his internship at Case Western Reserve University’s Health & Counseling Services. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Center for Evidence Based Treatment- Ohio, where he is supporting the development of an adherent DBT skills group exclusively for the young adult/college population.