Donald Trump: defining toxic masculinity and how healthy, happy men diversify

I want to begin this piece by sharing how challenging it can be for me to understand the underpinnings of American masculinity as an American woman of color.  I feel stumped sometimes in helping men navigate their career development and enhance their interpersonal relationships, particularly as it relates to their masculine identity.  I have a deep sense of curiosity and motivation to understand the perspectives of all my clientele. Public figures can also also stir my intellectual curiosity, especially when similar issues are cropping up among those I’m helping in my coaching practice.  I write as a way to synthesize the research and consultation I do with professional colleagues and members of various social groups to increase my understanding of people.  By improving my understanding of how men operate within their gender framework, I can more effectively support their goals for happiness and professional achievement while respecting their values and world view.

Donald Trump’s entire public life provides a rich opportunity to examine how male gender expression, at it’s extreme, can lead to a toxic crisis in masculine identity.  In this article I’d like to set aside drawing conclusions about his potential to effectively lead as President of The United States of America.  Why?  Just imagine for a moment, what it would be like to work alongside Donald Trump.  You see, as difficult as it may be, his colleagues must aim to reserve judgment in order to collaborate and meet professional goals along side him.  If we can we understand Donald Trump’s masculine identity, surely we can learn something about the gender confines that men face in getting their needs met as they strive for fulfillment and achievement.  Why is this important?  Trump reflects the toxic side of American masculinity, and if we don’t take a close look at how and why toxicity develops and festers within male culture, we can’t begin to stop it from infecting others in small or large ways in men everywhere.

Imagine for a moment, a four way street intersection, where gas fueling stations are housed on each of the four corners.  At each fueling station, you can ‘fill up your tank’ on:

  1. Physical Aggression/Strength/Athleticism
  2. Money/Influence of Financial Wealth
  3. Control/Influence Upon Others (at work or in personal relationships)
  4. Sexual Prowess and Virility/Sexual Satisfaction

These four fueling stations can be seen as representing the most traditional, socially acceptable, even socially celebrated opportunities for men to fuel their sense of masculinity.  Whether or not you personally agree with this, the vast majority of American men are measured by others against these four standards of traditional masculinity at various points in their life.  While men also aim for other forms of achievement (e.g. intellectual development, family life development, practice of religious faith) those strivings aren’t typically seen as embodying strength of masculinity in and of themselves.  Traditional masculine-affirming pursuits do not have to be at the expense of other’s rights, take on a quality of malicious manipulation and oppression, or require a man to rely on them as his sole means for fulfillment.  Masculine identity serves men best when it allows space for them to thrive in these traditional areas should they choose, but also allows them ample space to enrich their lives through other areas of fulfillment and connectivity.

Some men whom I’ve worked with appear to be ‘stuck‘ in the relentless pursuit of boosting one or more of these traditional areas of masculinity in the hopes of achieving lasting happiness in their professional and personal life.  The theory of masculine overcompensation dates back to Sigmund Freud’s notions of ‘reaction formation‘ and ‘defense mechanisms‘. Some men respond to having their masculinity questioned by emphasizing their expression of traditional masculine traits.  In 2013, a group of sociologists put this theory to the test.  In Overdoing Gender,” a study for the American Journal of Sociology, men were given feedback suggesting they were ‘feminine’, which led to an increased support for war, homophobic attitudes, interest in purchasing an SUV, support for, and desire to advance in dominance hierarchies, and belief in male superiority.  Research from The American Journal of Men’s Health and a host of other studies conclude that the expression of traditional masculine traits can be hazardous for men’s health functioning.  William Ming Liu, editor of the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity  describes toxic masculinity as providing a very limited way for men to relate to each other- when boys are socialized to avoid feelings and weakness it increases their overall psychological stress.

Would it benefit men to consider seeking fulfillment from a wide range of areas in their life?  Particularly for those who’ve already experienced objectively high levels of achievement through these traditional areas, and are still unhappy/unsatisfied.  Why not pivot and diversify?  See if some other areas of personal development could help you feel better/more fulfilled for the long term?”  Toxicity can take root in a man’s masculine identity if he gets stuck searching for fulfillment from these 4 traditional areas of masculinity.  In Donald Trump’s case, he keeps going back for more and more – all of his accomplishments are no longer getting him that desired high, so he keeps upping the ante.  This particular phenomenon of toxic masculinity is socially destructive when public figures like Donald Trump effectively normalize misogyny, sexism, racism and xenophobia.

donald-trump

While many American men aspire to experience some degree of his accomplishments in the areas of wealth, power, influence, access and opportunity with beautiful women, it’s important to underscore that these gains alone may very well NOT lead to the level of fulfillment and happiness one might imagine.  Encouraging a more well-rounded sense of masculine identity, one that allows room for pursuits that go beyond the traditional male gender constructs will increase men’s opportunity for lasting and balanced happiness.  Research by Levant reveals healthy aspects of masculinity might actually protect  and improve men’s health. These healthy aspects of masculinity include:

Aiming to grow and diversify oneself in these key areas can help men achieve lasting personal fulfillment beyond traditional masculine pursuits for success.  Each are common treatment goals I work on with the high-achieving men in my executive coaching practice.  Many have shared with me how rewarding it feels to build upon what they’ve already mastered and thrive in these important life aspirations.

The psychological impact of being in the spotlight: the emotional struggle of celebrities

Most of us imagine feeling happy and content should we ever achieve the wealth, fame and notoriety associated with being a celebrity.  However, the experience of being a person who is highly visible in the media can take a tremendous toll on one’s psychological functioning.  Even the most grounded actors, musicians, professional athletes, and high-ranking officials are vulnerable to the deleterious effects of being in the media spotlight. In his research, Jib Fowles, author of Star Struck: Celebrity Performers and the American Public (Smithsonian Institute Press), found that the average age of death for celebrities overall, was 58, compared to an average of 72 years for other Americans. His findings also revealed that celebrities are almost four times more likely to kill themselves than the average American. This article serves to explore the negative psychological impact of being in the media spotlight, which leads many celebrities to struggle emotionally.

As you read the following points, consider which celebrities have exhibited these traits to their own detriment.

No privacy. Everything celebrities do is publicized for the world to see, discuss, and mock. We love reading about the gaffes and gossip of the rich and famous, the more embarrassing, the better.  A celebrity’s natural response to this level of intense scrutiny is increased self-consciousness and paranoia.  Many celebrities, particularly those in the political arena, grow weary of the unrealistic standards they are held to, and begin to feel resentful of the limitations of being in the public spotlight.  They may “act out” in response to feeling suffocated by their carefully constructed public image.  Self-destructive, acting out behaviors often include unsavory sexual appetites, scandalous liaisons, volatile outbursts, or other destructive patterns such as uncontrolled substance use.  Exposure of their behaviors by the media can lead to overwhelming feelings of shame when their public image is destroyed.

Lost sense of self. Many celebrities feel unable to assert their individuality in a media world fraught with stereotypes.  As the media and fans develop a false perception of a celebrity (which is often one-dimensional) a celebrity begins to lose track of the multi-faceted aspects of their own personality.  This causes them to make choices that no longer reflect their true self, which further compromises their sense of identity.  Over time, they feel increasingly isolated and alone and have difficulty trusting others.

Loss of challenges. The experience of reaching the pinnacle of your goals and realizing it’s not as fulfilling as you think can be disconcerting. You’ve landed your dream job and begin settling in after your first big break…at first it’s exhilarating, but then you eventually wonder, “Is this all there is?” When a celebrity begins to feel they have nothing left to strive for – i.e. they’ve “made it”, suddenly they are left struggling to fill that empty emotional space with something even more thrilling or risqué.  Often celebrities turn to taking increasingly bigger and more dangerous risks, as a way to regain a sense of challenge.

Imposter syndrome. Some celebrities are bewildered by their fame, knowing that they are far from perfect.  The feeling of being an imposter occurs when people don’t feel they deserve their success. Celebrities may also fear being discovered, i.e. that the public will find out that they’re not as talented, intelligent, or attractive as they are portrayed in the media. They become keenly aware that their fans have idealized them in a way that is impossible to match in real life.  Consequently, celebrities can begin to feel their gifts are no longer enough, leaving them with a sense of inadequacy.

Quest for media spotlight immortality. Many celebrities fear their fame is fleeting, which leads them to constantly obsess about losing the attention of their fans and the media.  After a celebrity’s fame peaks, it is often a brutal ride downward as they garner less attention from others.  The loss of the spotlight can leave people feeling bereft of purpose and importance.  As a result celebrities often become desperate to regain notoriety and in doing so, become prone to buffoonery.  In the wake of this loss, they often turn to self-destructive behaviors as a means to cope with overwhelming feelings of failure.