Several years ago, the American Psychological Association issued a set of guidelines for psychologists working with boys and men. Guideline #1 says: “Psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms.” Guideline #3 says: “Psychologists understand the impact of power, privilege, and sexism on the development of boys and men and on their relationships with others.”
My guest says that these guidelines miss the mark, and are just one indicator of the way in which the world of psychology misunderstands, and consequently underserves, men.
Dr. John Barry is a psychologist, the co-founder of the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society, and the co-author of the Perspectives in Male Psychology textbook. Today on the show, John unpacks the issues with thinking that masculinity is purely a social construct and that men’s problems grow out of their power and privilege, and how these issues prevent men from getting the help they need. In the second half of our conversation, we discuss the surprising origin of the idea of toxic masculinity, what really defines masculinity, and what effect internalizing a negative or positive view of masculinity has on men. We end our conversation with what works for men’s mental health and well-being if you don’t want to go to therapy, and what you should look for in a therapist if you do.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- The Centre for Male Psychology
- Introduction to Male Psychology and Mental Health course
- AoM series on the origins, nature, and imperatives of manhood
- Manhood in the Making by David Gilmore
- Iron John by Robert Bly
- AoM Podcast #761: How Testosterone Makes Men, Men
- Rational emotive behavior therapy
- Men’s sheds associations in Australia and the US
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Several years ago, the American Psychological Association issued a set of guidelines for psychologists working with boys and men. Guideline number one says, psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural and contextual norms. Guideline number three says, psychologists understand the impact of power, privilege and sexism on the development of boys and men and on the relationships with others. My guest says that these guidelines miss the mark and are just one indicator of the way in which the world of psychology misunderstands and consequently under serves men.
Dr. John Barry is a psychologist, the co-founder of the male psychology section of the British Psychological Society, and the co-author of the Perspectives in Male Psychology textbook.
Today on the show, John unpacks the issues with thinking that masculinity is purely a social construct and that men’s problems grow out of their power and privilege, and how these issues prevent men from getting the help they need. In the second half of our conversation, we discussed the surprising origin of the idea of toxic masculinity, what really defines masculinity and what effect internalizing a negative or positive view of masculinity has on men.
We end our conversation with what works for men’s mental health and wellbeing if you don’t want or need to go to therapy and what you should look for in a therapist, if you do after the show’s over check at our show notes at aom.is/malepsyche.
All right, John Barry, welcome to the show.
Dr. John Barry: Thank you. Thank you, Brett. Thanks for inviting me.
Brett McKay: Sir, you are a psychologist and an associate fellow at the British Psychological Society, and you have spent a lot of your time, your academic career researching and writing about male psychology. You co-authored a book on male psychology called Perspectives in Male Psychology. You also founded an organization called the Center for Male Psychology. I’m curious, how did your career end up focusing on male psychology? What’s going on there?
Dr. John Barry: Right, okay. Good question ’cause I did start off focusing on women’s mental health, and so I did my PhD and I did a lot of research. In fact, I’ve got a book on the psychological aspects of PCOS, which is coming out in a German translation in a couple of months time. But so my early career was looking at that. It kind of overlaps a little bit with the male psychology in that polycystic ovary syndrome is that condition characterized by elevated testosterone levels in women. So I learned a a lot about the physiology and the psychobiology of testosterone. And the way it affects women is basically in a lot of ways the inverse of the way it impacts men. So it’s a slightly strange indirect route into male psychology. In fact, that wasn’t really the thing that got me into male psychology.
It was more sort of personal thing of just over the years, noticing that within the field of psychology and within the mainstream media and social media, people seemed to talk a lot about issues as they impacted women. And, they didn’t really seem to talk about issues impacting men. And at first I just thought this was kind of like interesting or maybe I was missing the parts of the program that talked about, male suicide and things like that. But then I just finally got a bit frustrated with this and it’s like, really what’s going on? I mean, it’s something that major problems that are impacting men and boys for decades, since the late ’80s. We’ve seen the UK boys falling behind girls in education, and these are things that were not discussed. You really had to hunt around for this sort of data. And sometimes the data’s in plain view like 75% of suicides are male. That’s similar in a lot of countries, and you can find the data there that will tell you that.
But there seems to be, or at least there hasn’t been very much interest until very recently in these facts. And, so I just started becoming increasingly bewildered and then frustrated that nothing seemed to be happening. So my route into male psychology was really just this kind of angst that nothing like those major problems facing men and therefore society, big unresolved mental health issues, big unresolved wellbeing issues that were gonna affect men, boys growing up and therefore affect everybody if they’re unresolved, they’re gonna become everybody’s problem. And nobody seemed to be doing anything. So it was just one of these things where you end up thinking well, someone’s gotta do something. And then actually I was very lucky to run into, consultant clinical psychology Martin Seger, who had a letter published in the Psychologist magazine, which is the trade magazine for the British Psychological Society.
And he was saying… He was ahead of me and he was saying look, we need to have a special section of the British Psychological Society dedicated to men’s mental health. And I just thought, Yes, you’re absolutely right. Brilliant. I gotta get in touch with this guy. So we’ve got… That was in late 2010, and we haven’t looked back since then. So together with Martin and a few other people, who put a lot of work into campaigning for, making case for the British Psychological Society, having a special section or division as I think you call them in the APA for male psychology.
It took us about eight years to do that. And we had some people who campaigned against us doing that. People who thought that men are already privileged enough so we don’t wanna give them this extra privilege of having a special section of the British Psychological Society which obviously I don’t agree with that point of view, but some people do. But eventually we got this section and… Yeah. So a strange route in a way I hope other people’s route into male psychology is a bit easier than mine was, Brett.
Brett McKay: No. So, yeah you make a good point. I think a lot of people understand that the boys and men, there’s a problem there. You hear the reports or read the articles about, boys falling behind in school, most criminals are men. You have men and younger men dropping out of the workforce not working. And then there’s the statistics you see about deaths of despair, suicide, mostly men. That’s a problem for, but then one of the points you’re trying to make with the work you’re doing is that psychologists are able to point these things out. We can see these statistics, but the solutions offered aren’t often very useful. We’ve known about this stuff for decades, but it seems like things haven’t gotten better.
And one thing you talk about in the textbook, Perspectives in Male Psychology, you talk about the APA for example, this is the American Psychological Association. Back in 2018, they came out with some guidelines on how to treat and help mental health issues in boys and men. And it made a big splash. I remember when this came out. And then you talk about there’s some good stuff in there in the guidelines, but then some of the guidelines, they’re not great and they could potentially backfire and be counterproductive. So let’s start with the good, like what are some of the good guidelines in this APA thing that you think are useful? And then maybe we can talk about what are, what are the ones that you don’t think are particularly useful?
Dr. John Barry: Yeah, so there’s some of it is fine. I mean, and stuff that I think is pretty good, guideline nine on doing male friendly therapy or what I would describe as male friendly therapy. And this is I think all very good advice. I mean, things like not necessarily rushing men into talking about their feelings, but maybe focusing more on what you might call as more easy entry type stuff. And, so, cognitive behavioral things are often easier and I think that there’s a lot of what was written there I think is very valid. Unfortunately, I think it’s… The case with some things in life that you can have something that’s very good, but no matter how good it is, it’s gonna be spoiled if it’s done in the wrong sort of spirit. And so guidelines one and three of this particular set of guidelines were, I think, so wide of the mark.
I think they made it hard for anything else to really survive it. So guideline one said that masculinity is basically a social construct. In other words, men’s sense of themselves and what it’s like to be a man and how they should behave. It’s all purely a product of what they learned from the environment around them. Like you know, things like parents or schools or through media traditions and in different cultures. And there is definitely truth to that. I mean, there is no doubt there is an influence of the environment on our sense of ourselves. But you could ask a question like, Well, how do these traditions, how do these values come about? And how have they lasted for so long? How come they seem to be kind of fair, at root, fairly similar across so many different cultures throughout history and around the world.
And, some people, you know, argue about differences. You know, in expression of masculinity in different cultures there’s actually not that much difference. So depending on how much of a big of a deal you make of particular points. I think like in general, for example, there’s a very large study looking at characteristics of cognition and in behavior in men and women all around the world. And, huge study and have found basically that the kinds of differences that you see between men and women in these different traits and cognitions behaviors map very nicely onto what we think of as being traditional masculinity and traditional femininity. So for example, men tend to, I mean not all of this is very flattering to men either. I mean, men around the world seem score higher on aggression. They score higher on more interest in sports, especially team sports, less interest in going to spend a lot of time in school.
Unfortunately, we can see that’s, so it’s not all kind of good news, but there’s definitely what we think about masculinity seems to have a common thread around the world despite it being expressed differently in some different ways. So the idea that it’s just a social construct, I think is misleading. And, it’s important. I mean, psychology is a science. I mean, it’s a social science. It has to, I think, to try and be evidence based in whatever way it can be. And I think whatever types of therapies or techniques or theories that we have need to be developed from evidence and not from ideology. And I think unfortunately some of what we see from coming from the media and spoken a lot about men’s issues and masculinity is not based on evidence. So it’s based on ideas, some of them from sociology, and these are not evidence-based ideas.
They fall apart if you start to examine them. And I’m not an essentialist in any sort of way. I completely agreed that masculinity is a product of nurture, but there’s also some nature there. So there’s some evolved differences, you know, based around reproduction that have knock-on effects on the way that we choose to live our lives. And also, I mean, there’s the obvious thing of testosterone then too. A male fetus gestating over the nine months will be exposed to a massive amount of testosterone. There’s a testosterone surge at 13 weeks prenatally. And this causes all sorts of changes to the fetus, some of which are only then seen at puberty when you have another massive surge and you have a similar, like we all know that, in adolescent boys experience a massive amount of testosterone and it kind of changes their bodies in all sorts of different ways.
Their voice deepens and they get acne and they become hairier, they develop muscles and all of these things are programmed from their prenatal life. And that fetus, the levels that it experiences then are as high as those experienced in adolescent boys. So there’s a huge amount of nature or biology going on there. And of course, if you are somebody who happens to find themselves being bigger and stronger than other people around you, it’s probably gonna affect the way that you feel and behave. So just on a very day-to-day level, there’s lots of reasons to think that people who are exposed to testosterone and who therefore have larger muscle mass, they’re actually physically taller. The bone structure is denser. The larger jaws, they are better able at certain types of kind of explosive type activities and exercises in sports, basically you could say, Well they’re combat ready.
Like these are the guys who are designed to be protecting people to be say, defending communities, to be… Also to do maybe kind of heavier type… Lifting type jobs and things like that. I mean, some of the things that of course, are a bit problematic if you try and map them onto to job opportunities today. But nonetheless that there’s a lot of biology. And if… The thing is, if you presume that the only difference between men and women is what they’re taught to think about themselves as men or women, and there’s no… There’s like things like reproduction, human reproduction makes no difference. I mean, that… That’s really… I think… And the thing is, most people… Most… Everyday people get that. I mean they get that there’s differences between men and women.
And this is something that I’ve learned over the years of being involved in male psychology, which is about 12 or 13 years now, is that people outside of academia seem to understand male psychology a lot better than lots of academics do. So we’re in a strange situation where the education that we have for academics actually I think obscures the reality of things like gender differences, which become very important then if you’re trying to understand why there might be more male suicides than female suicides or why men might turn to substance abuse, which again is one of the things that we see around the world. Men tend to engage in substance abuse more than women do. If you wanna try and understand them. We have to understand that there’s differences between men and women on these things and we have to examine why that is and then how we can use that information to help us. But as of a starting point, you at least have to acknowledge that these things exist or else you’re in trouble.
Brett McKay: So yeah, the first guideline that you think is… That causes problems is that masculinity is constructed purely on social, cultural, and contextual norms. It’s completely a social construct, but you were saying is that no, there’s a biological component. If you ignore the biology part, then you’re gonna have a hard time actually healthy wise. ‘Cause if your assumption is, Well, if it’s a social construct, if you can just talk to these guys and they can unlearn those things, then they can change.
Dr. John Barry: Exactly.
Brett McKay: And you’re saying no, it’s gonna be harder to that. ‘Cause there’s a biological component under there that’s… You can’t finagle like that.
Dr. John Barry: You can’t and it seems that men tend to be like voting with their feet when it comes to therapy. So in terms of trying to help men with their emotional, psychological issues, a lot of men don’t seem to be interested in talking about their feelings in the same sort of way that women do. And men can benefit from talking about their feelings, but it’s not the first thing that they necessarily want to do. And there might be all sorts of… Again, evolved reasons for this that make sense and that we might want to respect a bit more than we tend to. Like people to often just blame men for not going to therapy and say, Well, it’s their own fault then if they’ve kind of fall off the rails, they should have just kind of just rejected these silly masculine ideas about being tough and stoical and just gone on and talked about the feelings to this therapist.
There might be all sorts of reasons why men might tend to not wanna talk about the feelings so much as women do. It could be that if you’ve evolved to be in situations that might be putting you at risk or danger or even just things like hunting, for example, if the men are going out hunting ’cause they’ve got better, like maybe stronger kind of throwing arms for throwing spears at animals or whatever, they’ve got better mental rotation ability because testosterones programed their mind in that way. So they’re better able to understand what happens when you… You’re kind of throwing a stone or a spear at something. Well then it might be also that they have to develop a way of staying quiet if they’re stalking prey and even under kind of stressful situations, remain quiet so that they don’t say startle, whatever it is that they’re trying to hunt or, upset people around them too.
If you, say you are supposed to be defending the community and, you don’t necessarily wanna say to the guy next to you who’s also there to defend community that how scared you feel and that you’re worried you might die. That’s, probably gonna make everyone just fall apart. So you probably have to… It just kind of makes sense. I mean this is speculation, but it kind of makes sense that men would evolve reasons for not expressing their feelings or being so keen to express their feelings as much as women do. I think it’s important that men do, but I think we have to respect the fact that they might not. One other point that I think is important about this whole thing about stoicism, one of the most successful types of therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy is based on the philosophy of stoicism. And, if stoicism was so bad for you, well how come it’s a successful therapy? And of course there’s a difference between just not talking about your feelings and processing your feelings and the way that you do with rational emotive behavior therapy. But it just speaks to the idea that stoicism is not as 100% bad as it’s made out to be often.
Brett McKay: What was the other guideline you’d had some problems with?
Dr. John Barry: Yeah, so guideline three, which seems to cast men as being the benefactors in patriarchy. And it seems to make the assumption that the United States of these times is a patriarchy, which you could stretch your imagination and think, okay, so there’s some ways in which men seem to have benefits that women don’t have. I mean, the most obvious being there’s more men in kind of high paying jobs than there are women. But then again, there are other reasons for that. If you give it a little bit of thought, like if you’re a woman, you reach, a point in your life for a lot of women when they want to have a family and it’s hard to keep a career going successfully. Like, some men work absolutely terrifying hours to make it to the top of their career or even close to the top of their career or even just surviving in other cases. But like, to get to the top, it’s not easy, it’s not handed to you on a plate. And if you wanna have a family that’s not easy either to be a mother to carry children through pregnancy, then to breastfeed them or to take care of them.
Even if they’re going to a nursery for a lot of time, these children take a huge amount of time. And I think it’s fair to say that women tend to be inclined, a lot of women at least anyway, inclined to want to do that more so than men. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think we’re fairly, sort of obvious reasons why you might expect that women might be predisposed to that a bit more based on biology. But the idea that you live in a patriarchy, and the evidence of this is that men on average are earning more than women, I think is, it is kind of foolish, and there’s other things too. The idea that’s men’s relationships with women are based on power and control, and that things like domestic violence are caused by this patriarchal need to express control and power over your wife and family and other people around you. As a psychologist, in order to treat a problem, you have to understand what the problem is, what’s causing the problem. And for people, generally speaking, for men and women engaging in domestic violence, it’s not just men engaging in domestic violence, but men and women do engage in violence and other types of abuse.
And a lot of this is due to problems that have developed in childhood. So very often it will be impulse control issues that have developed through maybe having had distressing experiences as a child, maybe experiencing abuse as a child, the substance control issues that often happen there. But these things aren’t about parent control. These are usually somebody who’s got no real control over their own impulses. And so they act out, this is something that men often do, that kind of women tend to do more on average. Or whenever we talk about differences between men and women, it’s always on average. Like, you can’t say that all men are like this and all women are like that, but on average, men will tend to act at their issues, their psychological issues more than women do, which isn’t a good thing, and definitely something that should be worked on. But if you try and work on that type of issue, like a man not being able to control his impulses and treat that as if it’s some manifestation of patriarchy, it’s no wonder the things like the Duluth Model of perpetrator, change don’t tend to work.
They get funded and they seem to sort of have been popular enough in various parts of the world for a long time. But the evidence is that they don’t work that well. We should, the thing is, even talking about patriarchy or masculinity, I think these are not the central issues that psychologists should be talking about. These are ideas and sociology, sociologists don’t tend to be trying to treat men’s mental health issues. I think psychologists should be focusing on what we know. Like for years people have been struggling to make psychology an evidence-based discipline. And I think we should just stick to that, stick that, forget the supposition, the ideology, and really focus on the facts really, and try and get focused on what’s gonna help people at the end of the day.
Brett McKay: So, yeah. Okay. Guideline one, masculinity is just a social construct that can get in the way of helping boys and men. Because the idea is, well, you can just teach them how to not do those things, right? You can help them ignore the social construct and create a new social construct, but you’re ignoring biology hence you might not actually be going to the core issue. And then Guideline three, which is the idea that males in general experience more power privilege than girls and women. How does that get in the way of helping boys and men, I guess does it, if there, if men do have a problem, like they’re feeling bad, they’re like, well, what’s wrong with me? I should be doing well ’cause I’m a man, right? I’m privileged. So if something’s, I just gotta suck it up. And then they don’t, do they not just go get help because of that? What do you think the issue, like how does that guideline three possibly prevent men from getting the help they need?
Dr. John Barry: Well, the, in my sense that, and this is one of the things about the APA guidelines have become so prominent in such a talking, but men, for years I’ve been hearing guys saying that they don’t wanna go to a marriage guidance therapist because they don’t think that they understand men. They don’t think that they’re gonna get a fair hearing. And I think the same sort of thing, if a man thinks that he’s gonna see a therapist who thinks that all his problems are gonna be his fault because he’s a privileged product of patriarchy, I think that that will, for some men who believe in that sort of idea, what they may well go along and find that they do get some sort of relief from that. But I would think that the average man might just, moreso than before, just think, well, maybe therapy is not for me.
And then where does that leave them? That, this is the issue that I have. We should be more welcoming of men. We should be trying to find out what do men want from therapy? What kind of things, how do they like to deal with their problems? What are the most effective things that we can use and not doing things that are just demonizing men, basically casting men in a negative light. Making them, making it seem as if they’re the, basically what’s some people call victim blaming, telling them that their problems are due to themselves. That’s not gonna entice somebody into a therapy room, I don’t think.
Brett McKay: No, so I get a lot of books sent to me about male psychology, like books to help men and whatever. And most of them have that sort of APA idea that masculinity is essentially, masculinity it’s a deficiency essentially. Right? It’s a problem to be solved. And I read these things like, I just, this doesn’t, I don’t think this is gonna resonate with guys. I don’t think it’s helpful.
Dr. John Barry: Absolutely. Why would it?
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Well, yeah, this brings up this whole idea that, of toxic masculinity that you hear a lot about these days. And I think it’s interesting, you do kind of do a deep dive of the origins of this phrase. I remember the first time I heard it is probably 2010, 2011, but now it’s everywhere. Where did this idea of toxic masculinity even come from? And is there any research that backs up the claim that masculinity is toxic.
Dr. John Barry: Okay. So the term itself, surprisingly it came from the men’s movement of around the ’80s or ’90s. There’s a big kind of a grey area of where exactly who came up with it first, but the myth poetic movement, the kind of Robert Bly, Iron John type of schools of psychology. And the idea has some merit for definite. The idea was that in order for a young man to successfully change from boyhood to adulthood and become a useful member of his tribe or community, he had to go through some initiation ceremonies with the man of the tribe. And, these might be a bit arduous and they wouldn’t be very popular with a lot of people today, but what they would do, they would give that boy a sense of belonging, having a purpose, being part of a community.
And the crucial thing, if they didn’t go through this process, that’s their masculinity would become toxic. They instead of focusing on helping the community, they would end up self-indulgent. They would end up being selfish and having disregard to others, not be thinking about the long-term goals of the community or themselves, not thinking about what’s good for them in the future. Just short-term thinking. And they’d describe this as being then a kind of a toxic masculinity. They would, the short terms that, they would be more aggressive and things like that, so there is something to that. And I think if we look at the kinds of behaviors that get mislabeled as toxic masculinity, because it just gets used so widely now. So any examples of behavior by men that is apparent or distasteful gets called toxic masculinity.
But if you look at some of the kind of, for example, let’s say a delinquent behaviors that you see, often they come from people, men who have not had the guidance of a father in the home. And lots of kids don’t have a dad in the home. They turn out to be brilliant. But if you just look at the stats, it seems that, for example, most of the men in prison, I mean like it, I think Warren Ferrell described prisons as being institutes of dad deprivation I think. That’s what he called them. People who are deprived of having the, kind of loving guiding father who will help to, boys especially, can be difficult. Girls can be difficult too, but growing up, but boys often need a firm guiding hand of someone who loves them and will respect them, protect them from themselves in a lot of ways too. But, and if you don’t have that, you can go off the rails. It’s a bit too easy just to, boys tend to take risks and, try at things, push the boundaries.
It’s not an unhealthy thing to do these things, but you can get into trouble easily and then maybe not know what to do. And if you don’t have a love and caring father around, it can just lead to people going off into all sorts of dead ends and bad roots for themselves. So there is something to that idea of toxic masculinity, but it really only is useful when applied properly in a therapeutic setting. And this sort of very widespread media, sort of demonization, lazy thinking is not good. And I think it’s not good, mainly because again, it obscures what the actual problem is. It puts the blame on masculinity rather than putting the blame on what you could call a lack of masculinity in that boy’s life. The lack of having the guidance of a loving father in their life.
So, when you miss-specify a problem like that, it’s not only just wrong, it demonizes boys gives them a bad sense of themselves, and it doesn’t help address the problem. In a lot of ways, you can understand why people would just fall back on terms like toxic masculinity, because, to be fair, if a man does something that is horrible, abusive, apparent, our natural reaction is not to be empathic towards them. It’s not to wanna help them or not to try and understand them. You just, they’re repulsive and you just want them to be punished basically. But again, for, as a psychologist or for any therapist, you have to find out what has caused that problem. And you don’t get to that by just being freaked out by what they’ve done or just kind of saying, oh, that’s due to masculinity. That’s missing the point. It won’t help that person. It won’t help them to recover and become beneficial member of the community. It’s just a dead end. I just hate to see this happening. We have so much of this going on where people are, especially in psychology, where people bark up the wrong tree and it doesn’t help.
Brett McKay: Well, and we’ve been talking about masculinity, but maybe we should define it. How do you define masculinity? Because I know, sociologists have their different definitions of masculinity. So I know there’s this idea of the man box, right?
Dr. John Barry: Yeah.
Brett McKay: It’s basically, there’s this idea that there’s these seven pillars of masculinity, right? And they’re rigid. And if you’re inside the man box, you’re gonna be depressed and suicidal. And so they define masculinity as acting tough, being homophobic, being aggressive and controlling towards men and women, etcetera. And, okay, that’s one definition. But, when you look at the research across meta-analysis, cross-cultural studies, how do you define masculinity?
Dr. John Barry: Well, just to say about these kind of more popular recent definitions of masculinity, they tend to be based on research, looking at quite young samples. Usually college age men, and, if you think about young men, they’re not really representative of the behaviors and the thoughts and the attitudes of men 10 years later. So when you’re 20, you’re a lot different than when you’re 30. Basically, you’re more mature when you’re 30 and for the rest of your life, you never like that kind of young risk-taking reckless person who’s pushing the boundaries and try to find out what the extent is of what they can do in their lives. So when you base your ideas about masculinity on these samples, you get a skewed idea.
You get a snapshot of somebody at their worst, basically. Well, in many ways. And not something that generalizes to men of other ages. And this is part of the problem. You’re getting generalizations from the worst types of behavior. Like, so in the case of toxic masculinity, this gets generalized, like old men, old boys are supposed to be like this sort of, or potentially like this if they’re not kept tightly controlled. So there’s that problem with these definitions of masculinity. And by the way, there’s no end of research that will kind of use as these definitions, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like you keep asking the same questions and the same way using the same definitions of masculinity and with the same young samples like, the kind of college age samples and you get the same sorts of answers and you never get out of that loop. It’s been described as a paradigm fixation that some research programs seem to have. But in general though, like, and traditionally and up until very recently, I think this was the case that masculinity was defined by terms such as being competitive, being aggressive, being in control.
And, Martin Seagers with my help developed psychometric scales looking at masculinity. And we found that the things that tend to fit men quite well is the ideas, three ideas basically, that they’re protectors of others, like their family, they’re providers for their family, they’re fighters and winners. So they’re kind of out there trying to make a living, bring home the bacon, whatever way you wanna put it. And also having mastery and control over their feelings. So that part of being masculine is not just saying how you feel off the top of your head to whoever. You keep it under wraps to lottery and there’s a time and a place. And I think it’s important, I haven’t really said so much about it, but it’s important that men do feel that they have a place to go to, that they can feel comfortable at about saying what they feel. Fortunately, I think a lot of men know that a lot of stuff that they say, that is deemed beyond the pale.
Like, you get in some marriages, you get men who don’t talk to their wives because they know that they’re just gonna get criticized for it. So they just, it’s a yes dear type of situation. We have this, is, I just found out that in Germany they’ve got this new situation where if people criticize gender studies or feminism, they can be, there’s a hotline they can be reported to, so there’s things that if you feel very strongly, no matter how strongly about a particular thing, you can’t talk about it because you get, if you’re in Germany, you can get reported to the hotline, and socially it’s the same sort of thing. You can get canceled for saying certain things. So, men know this. So I think it is important that we do have places that men can go to that they know that whatever they say is not gonna be misinterpreted as being some aspect of patriarchy or they’re not gonna be put in some sort of man box that’s about their masculinity being a negative thing. They need to go, they’re just as, again, I’m kind of saying the same thing, but as before, we just, psychologists need to be psychologists.
Like we need to get back to being, person-centered, empathic, meeting people where they’re at, understanding the world from their perspective, not imposing our own viewpoints on them, listening to them and trying to lead them forward in a way that’s gonna be helpful for them.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, you mentioned, okay, so those ideas of what it means to be masculine that you found across cultures being competitive, feeling a sense of competency, mastery, being a protector and provider for your family. There’s a book, David Gilmore’s, Manhood in the Making. He was an anthropologist. This book was published a couple decades ago, but he did a cross-cultural analysis, right? Looks at all these different anthropological studies and he found the same thing across cultures, across time. Generally you find the same definition of what masculinity means, and it’s to be a protector, pro-creator, provider. And like every culture is it’s gonna manifest differently ’cause every culture is different. But you’re gonna see that same universal across. And those can be, I think depending on how they manifest themselves, they can be positive or negative. I think it’s good that men wanna take care of their families and protect them and be competent. ‘Cause that can give us all sorts of great things, but they can also be used for bad things.
Dr. John Barry: Absolutely. It means you can take anything and turn it into a negative. And it’s also true for even, and this is one of the tenets of rational mode of behavior therapy that’s based on stoicism I mentioned earlier, one of the ideas is that any idea can be okay, but if you believe it too rigidly or wants things to happen in too rigid a way, it will ’cause you to be anxious, depressed, angry, all sorts of different things, so for example, if applying it to masculinity, you might say that, I want to be able to control my feelings. Like I said, I wanna be able to go to a public speaking event and not show that I’m very anxious about doing it. Loads of people are anxious about public speaking, but if you say to yourself, well, I absolutely can’t show any fear. Well, this rigid way of framing that idea, like saying I absolutely can’t, I shouldn’t, I must not. This itself, this rigidity will exacerbate the fear and make other sorts of negative feelings come in very likely too.
So masculinity can be entirely benign. And I would say like there’s plenty of evidence of how masculinity can be very productive thing and something that we shouldn’t wanna get rid of at all. And shouldn’t I think misdefine or mis-specify and create a sort of a fouls no around, I think we ought to be much more interested in how we can use masculinity as a positive force. And I think that’s, again, if we have to, as psychologists refer to masculinity at all, we should really think about, well, how can we harness those positive aspects of masculinity and make them work for men? Gonna help them to improve their psychological emotionalized, make them better people to be around.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve always thought of masculinity as an energy. It’s this neutral force that can be directed for either good or bad, and like how it’s directed depends on the cultural context a man finds himself in. So this makes me think of another question. Has there been any research done on the effect that this idea of toxic masculinity has on men? So let’s say a man internalizes this idea of toxic masculinity because he’s hearing it all the time. How does that affect him? And then the flip side of that would be what happens when a man has a positive view of masculinity? How does that affect him?
Dr. John Barry: I was on a talk show about three years ago, four years ago, and I was asked a similar question. And while I was sitting there answering, saying, Well, it’s amazing, it’s such an important issue, but no one has done any research on this. And I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, I’m a researcher, why don’t I do some research on this? So I did a kind of like a pilot study. I asked, it was only a small sample, like 250 odd people, questions along the lines of, like, whether they thought that boys would be negatively impacted by hearing ideas about toxic masculinity being talked about in the media or around them like that. And I found that 85% of the participants said that they thought that there would be a negative impact on boys. So I thought, okay, so this is, I’m not the only person who’s making this wild assumption that some people might think that it could have a negative impact. I did another piece of research recently. It’s just been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Health Sciences, which I’m very happy about.
And I looked at 2000 men in the UK and 2000 men in Germany, and I asked them various different questions and didn’t focus on masculinity. Basically tried to find out what were the different things about their lives or the way that they thought about things or even demographic things that were related to how happy they were, basically their mental well being. And we threw in a few questions about masculinity and we found that some of these grouped together as positive ideas about masculinity, such as masculinity helps me to be a better provider for my family. And negative, there was another cluster of items that coalesces a kind of a negative sense of masculinity. So men thinking that masculinity made them more aggressive towards women, made them want to feel violent towards women. And what we found was that the more that people thought that masculinity made them feel violent towards women or made them even things like less likely to recycle, all these things when they thought masculinity was having this negative impact on their behavior, this was quite strongly correlated to their mental well being, being lower.
So it seemed that this negative view, I’m speculating here because we didn’t test where these men got this idea from about masculinity, although you might not have to speculate too much. But it seemed that having these ideas was bad for your mental health. Conversely, the men who thought that masculinity made them better providers for the family, made them better, made them more likely to want to protect women, that was another thing. These men had better mental health. So this is, we have this kind of parallel thing going on. The men who think that masculinity is bad, makes them behave in bad ways, their mental health is worse. And so I’m quite worried that a lot of this talk about toxic masculinity that we’ve been exposed to for a while now is having a negative impact. And these were men, these were adult men of all ages. And you just think about the impact on children growing up. This is one thing that I think we should be very concerned about because it’s going to affect people differently. And it’s probably not a lot of it is going to be a good impact on children. So I really worry about that because you’re talking about stuff that could take a longtime, if ever, for guys to get over.
Brett McKay: So you’ve done a lot of research and a lot of writing about trying to figure out what actually works in helping men and boys with their mental health. Because I think the typical response, if a guy’s having a problem, there’s a lot of encouragement to, You need to go talk about your feelings with a therapist. And you said throughout this conversation you talk about in the book, for some men that’s exactly what they need to do. It works for them. But for a lot of men it doesn’t. And it’s not because something’s wrong with them, it’s just maybe that’s just the way they’re wired. So generally, again, this is going to be every guy’s different… Generally, what have you found that actually works in helping boys and men with their mental health?
Dr. John Barry: Right. I wish there was more research on this. There is some research, not as much as you would like. So the kinds of things that seem to help men is beyond the therapy room. And I should just say that therapy is important for some conditions, like if you say have a psychiatric condition, so like some psychosis kind of schizophrenia, any of those types of things, it’s important that you see a qualified therapist, very important. For more reactive type depression where you have experienced a life event. So for example, family breakdown, like you become divorced and then you lose touch with your children or you’re prevented from seeing your children. In many cases this can be very distressing and you may well want to go and see a therapist about it. That may well help. But there’s other things that guys often do too that are outside of usual therapy. It can… And again, I should emphasize that this isn’t going to work for everybody who’s got a serious sort of mental health condition, but you can feel a lot better from just doing everyday activities that you enjoy. So playing team sports is one thing that there’s been some research on.
Roger Kingerlee over here in the UK has found that playing team sport and getting some sort of mentoring type support afterwards actually is quite beneficial for men who are experiencing non clinical levels of problems, mental health problems. There’s been some reasonably good research at this point on what’s called men’s sheds. Men’s sheds is something that started in Australia a couple of decades ago and started out just trying to get men who were socially isolated to just come out and talk to each other a little bit. And what they did was get them to fix garden furniture. So just getting together, fixing garden furniture, and without intending for this to be any sort of solution to mental health issues, they found that very slowly, over a few weeks or months, men would just have these kind of little conversations, nothing very big, no big kind of dramatic sharing or anything like that. And these seemed to really be quite useful in terms of helping with their well being. And since that time, there’s been it’s one of these areas that doesn’t get a lot of funding. It’s not really like men’s mental health hasn’t traditionally had very much funding, and so there’s not been kind of a lot of the researchers using ad hoc instruments rather than validated measures.
But still, we have now got some evidence that these types of interventions do seem to work. There’s, governments are now in different countries funding men’s sheds of various kinds. It doesn’t have to be about garden furniture. It can be about just getting together and doing various little things without labeling it as being a therapy. And a lot of men don’t wanna go to something that’s labeled therapy. And this is one of the things, although therapy can be useful for men, and I wouldn’t suggest that it isn’t, they get put off in a lot of cases by the idea of talking about their feelings as a way of solving their problems. And I mean, there is research saying a lot of research at this point showing that men tend to prefer to deal with their problems by doing something practical to try and fix them, whereas women on average tend to wanna talk about their feelings more.
Men… I think it’s important. There’s loads of things that men need to talk about these days. Apparently, they’re prevented from talking about, as I mentioned in Germany, they got the hotline now, it’s so to a ridiculous degree, men are prevented in some ways from talking about what they really feel about. And it’s important that they do. But for a lot of men going playing sports with their friends, fixing a car with their friends who’s hanging out, going fishing even, and I’m not trying to encourage anyone to drink too excess or anything, but even there is some evidence that going, having a couple of drinks, like a couple of pints of beer with your friends helps you to feel a bit comfortable, talk about your feelings, talk about what’s happening to you a little bit.
And that can be quite a useful thing. There’s a lot of things that men can do that are happening. And at a grass roots level, there’s lots of things that people have started looking at how going to a barbershop where men sit down and might start talking about things and that can be quite useful. Or it can be quite a useful way of sign posting men onto other types of interventions if they’re needed. But there’s lots of different things that men can do. But I wish that the field of psychology could pull itself together and just say, Okay, men are experiencing these issues. They’re not these privileged patriarchs, they’re having problems. It’s not due to masculinity. Let’s get together and just see what we can do to help these men, these boys, to get their lives on track. It’s gonna be better for everybody. If you don’t wanna do it for men or boys, for whatever reason, do it for the community, the community’s that has healthy men and healthy boys, that’s gonna be a better community.
Brett McKay: Okay. Instead of necessarily encouraging men to go to therapy by default, what you’re saying is we got meet men where they are. And for a lot of men, they don’t want to dedicate an hour to just talking. But if… So if a guy doesn’t want to go to therapy, what they should be doing instead is getting together with other men in groups doing some sort of activity, and that could be like exercise, it could be sitting in a sauna, working on a car whatever. And so find a group of men who does that sort of thing regularly. And what’s gonna happen is those activities, it’s gonna naturally facilitate conversation while you’re doing the activity. But then also there’s just something therapeutic about doing the thing. Exercising feels good, working with your hands feels good, that could help a lot of men.
And then when, let’s say a guy decide to go to therapy, what you’re saying, what the research suggests and what you’re arguing in your work is that make it guy friendly. Most guys, they’re all about solving your problems. They might go to a therapist like, look, I have a problem with my anger. What can I do about it? They don’t wanna spend an hour going through their childhood and trying to figure out the source. Or they’s like, okay, I have this issue. What can I do? Like give me something I can do to start working on this now. And that can be a helpful way to reach men.
Dr. John Barry: Absolutely. And of course it can lead as others have pointed out, it can lead to other stuff that’s gonna… Basically if your problems are rooted in childhood, you will need to deal with them in some sort of way. But you can deal with it in a practical way too, or a way that’s framed as being practical, rather than framed as being, let’s do an hour, a week for the next two years talking about how you feel about your mom and dad. For a lot of guys, it’s just not what they wanna do. We have to some degree meet people where they’re at, give them something of what they want. Where we have to go to, I think with a lot of this is making guys realize that when they go to whoever they go to, that they’re not gonna be judged out of hand and misunderstood.
Empathy is the key for all this. Whether it’s a shared, or whether it’s CBT or no matter what you’re talking about, like what way you’re doing your therapy, empathy is the cornerstone of it all. If you look at research on therapies to see how, what’s the most important aspect of the therapy? Is it the modality that, what is it about sharing feelings or discussing ideas, whatever it is. The key thing is the therapeutic alliance. In other words, the rapport that you have with your client or with your therapist, that’s the cornerstone of it. And my fear is that you’re gonna, we’ve already lost so many men to not even wanting to begin to develop any therapeutic alliance with any therapists because they’ve been frightened off already.
Brett McKay: That research is really interesting. It really doesn’t matter what therapy you choose, it’s effective if you feel like you have a good rapport with your therapist. ‘Cause and really at the end of the day, a lot of people, they need someone to talk to. They want to feel understood and listened to. Look for a therapist you feel comfortable with someone, who doesn’t seem to be judging you. Maybe you don’t get the vibe from them that they think your masculinity is a problem that needs to be changed, and you can feel like you can open up to them and that’s the most important thing. Well, John, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
Dr. John Barry: Right. There’s a couple of things for people in general and also for therapists of various kinds, for psychologists, for people working in charities that might be helping men there’s the Center for Male Psychology. Now this is something that we set up about three years ago now. We’ve got various sources of information on there. We have a magazine, the Male Psychology Magazine. We also have a new online course, which I hope addresses a lot of the gap that we have in people’s understanding of men’s mental health issues. And also things around sex and gender. There’s a lot of misunderstandings there too. We address these issues and we’ve got in a nice package, we’ve got like five hours of lectures and videos, and this is approved by the British Psychological Society for Continuing Professional Development. It’s a kind of a good standard, but it’s also made accessible.
It’s something that I’ve learned is really important when you’re talking about male psychology. Very often you’re talking to the general public who are wondering about the source of help, what they can do, how they could best understand things. And often the general public already have quite a good understanding so that they will really enjoy engaging in this sort of higher level kind of academic, but digestible and easy to understand format that we have. If you’re working with men, you can think about how the various information that you’re receiving in the CPD course, how that impacts your day-to-day work with men. Like, should you be doing something differently? Have you been thinking about things in too narrow a way? Or if you are, say, a woman who’s married to somebody and you don’t really understand that maybe have moods of behaviors, you can reflect on how those might be understandable and easier to deal with if you engage with them in a different way. We are hoping that we get a lot of people who really benefit from this new course that we’ve got.
Brett McKay: All right. Well, John Barry, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Dr. John Barry: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks Brett, for asking me.
Brett McKay: My guest here is Dr. John Barry. He’s the co-author of the book Perspectives in Male Psychology. It’s available on amazon.com. You can find more information about his work at his website, johnbarrypsychologist.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/malepsych.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Every week, Kate and I work hard to distill interesting and actual insights from the authors and leaders in a variety of fields and present them in an engaging fluff and filler free episode that comes in under an hour. If you’ve got something out this show, please consider taking a minute to leave a review for it. It helps more people discover the AOM podcast and we greatly appreciate it. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. You can do so on Stitcher Premium head over to stitcherpremium.com. Sign up, use code “manliness” to checkout for free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.