What (Not) to Say When Someone Needs Help—Addressing Toxic Masculinity/Positivity

Parenting

Today we’re going to analyze things we say to ourselves and each other that fall under the category of toxic masculinity and its gender-neutral corollary, toxic positivity. Mainly, we’re going to unpack problematic language and phrases and offer healthier more meaningful options to use in the future. The goal is to make our responses to our loved ones more meaningful and intentional, so we can best help those we care about, including ourselves. Toxic masculinity and toxic positivity go hand in hand on this journey because the Venn diagram overlap of unhelpful and unhealthy responses posed by each is massive.

What Makes a Statement Toxic

First, let’s talk about what makes any concept or statement “toxic” for the purposes of this discussion. Toxicity exists when the statement does not empower, educate, support, commiserate, or foster trust OR if it inspires a shame response. I use this definition because toxicity in this context is the stuff that destroys self-esteem, relationships, and mental/physical health. Toxic masculinity particularly endorses problematic themes, such as isolation, violence, trophy-hunting, bottling emotions, and other things which discourage healthy behavior. Toxic positivity, on the other hand, is limited to endorsing only “acceptable” positive responses and shuts down any response outside of that. Toxic positivity exists when the statement minimizes the experience, encourages shame or guilt over feeling genuine emotions, requires/encourages masking (hiding your true self to artificially conform to the environment), and/or dismisses or diminishes unwanted negativity, even when those experiences, emotions, feelings, or needs are valid and necessary.

The important thing to remember is that neither positivity nor masculinity is the problem. It’s just that ongoing contemporary trends include an overabundance of problematic assumptions, standards, and requirements that are tied up to forms of positivity and masculinity. We are not here to attack positivity or masculinity, nor are we trying to degrade happiness or manhood. We’re just trying to move specifically from unhealthy behaviors to healthier alternatives. This work isn’t easy for us to do, whether we’re trying to improve ourselves or hold our fellow humans accountable. But it is the right thing to do because our children deserve to live in a world where their needs are met, their relationships are meaningful, and they live long and healthy lives.

Specific Examples

The following examples highlight problematic language used in toxic positivity, sometimes followed by its companion phrase from toxic masculinity. The second phrase is just an example of how toxic positivity has invaded masculinity, so the responses and alternates won’t always apply to the second phrase in every situation.

“Being negative won’t help.” / “Man up.”

While this may be true, it dismisses the person’s needs and shames them for struggling. This ends with the person no longer trusting you with their needs, and erodes your relationship at best. Over time, this kind of dismissal encourages isolation, and not asking for support when it’s needed.

“Thanks for coming to me. Let it out. Once you feel up to it, we can focus on solutions.”

This response recognizes the humanity of the person. It also validates their experience, even if we don’t understand it. Most importantly, it shows appreciation for the person taking a difficult step: opening up to you.

“Someone else has it worse.” / “There are children starving in [X location].”

Perspective is great, but in a crisis, this invalidates a person’s legitimate experience. The logic of statements like “someone else has it worse” or “at least you’re not a starving child in [X country]” is fundamentally identical to claiming that only one person has it so bad that they get to feel bad, struggle, or need assistance. It also tells the struggling person that you aren’t willing to be present with them and their needs.

A: “Tell me about it; no shame, no shade.”

The antithesis of “someone else has it worse” is communication and validation. Talk about your mental health so others have perspective and feel comfortable turning to you when they have needs. “Someone else has it worse” is a direct cause of suicide, addiction, isolation, and countless other mental health symptoms and behaviors. Talking about your struggles, validating them, and not judging them is how suicides are prevented. I will reiterate the “no shame, no shade” portion of this statement. You need to be present, accepting, and flexible for the other person. If you respond with disbelief, outrage, criticism, or any other shame/guilt-inspiring behavior, you’ve undone the work of asking them to tell you about it. If you don’t know what to say, just say, “okay,” and let it hang. They’ll tell you more. You’ll get to be there for them. The situation will get better because the other person is no longer hiding their struggle.

B: “There are ways for that to get better. Can I offer some help?”

Comparing someone’s experience to a worse situation doesn’t offer any solutions. If you see a better path to be taken, walk them down that path. If you aren’t equipped to do it yourself, help them find the local shelters, clinics, and charities that work with the specific issue in your community. Because these resources almost always have websites, this is as simple as pulling out your phone. If you want to make a call or appointment for them, get consent first since they won’t always be ready to involve a third party—especially if you’re the first person they’ve asked for help.

“Good vibes only.”

This is fundamentally exclusive because nobody feels well all of the time. Also, using the word “good” here subtly associates feeling poorly with being “bad,” and that’s a layer of judgment nobody needs. This phrase also shames people for natural feelings they can’t control and shouldn’t be ashamed of. Mostly, it tells people, “You’re not allowed to express your honest self, here.” If someone is depressed, anxious, stressed, or just not feeling well, this phrase usually communicates the sentiment of “Don’t bother showing up.” This phrase also comes up in video game groups, streamer channels, etc. Mostly, this seems to be trying to communicate a broader message like “Trolls not welcome,” “We don’t do personal attacks,” “Be kind, please.” But that’s not what is being communicated with “Good vibes only.” If you don’t welcome trolls, say so. If you don’t welcome criticism or backseat playing, say so. Be specific, and use the below phrases to communicate the positive aspects of what you’re moving toward.

A: “We’re here to grow.”

When you base your dynamic on growth instead of positivity, you allow for people to struggle, ask questions, and offer constructive criticism. Instead of being afraid of rejection because of their feelings (or yours), people in the dynamic can relax into an environment that’s safe and welcoming, even to people who make mistakes. It also welcomes people to let you know when you’re hurting them, which is a critical part of basic communication in healthy dynamics. If you want to be a better friend, partner, or parent, you’re going to have to be willing to listen when someone says, “That hurts me.”

B: “I love you, no matter your emotional state.”

This phrase focuses on welcoming, not excluding. It also avoids shaming someone for how they feel, and creates a stronger relationship, because the person knows they can trust you when they feel vulnerable. Finally, it allows for encouraging people to focus on healing instead of wallowing, without shaming them for their pain.

“You’ll get over it.” / “Real men…”

Vague/nonspecific, terribly overused, and therefore meaningless. Mostly, this phrase is problematic because of how society has grown in its use of the phrase. While there is nothing explicitly wrong with this phrase, it has become cliche and overused, and that’s where the problems come in. When someone uses this line, it doesn’t feel meaningful, invested, or objective. It sounds more like “This isn’t my problem” than “I care about you.”

“You are resilient, and your strength will see you through. And if you do need help, I am here.”

Specific, complimentary, and empowering, this phrase is neither dismissive nor avoidant. This statement works because you’re demonstrating faith in them and you’re putting yourself on the line as well. Instead of the dismissal and isolation of the problematic phrase, you are giving hope in multiple ways.

“Smile, crying won’t help.” / “Stiffen your upper lip.”

I have heard this line too many times, and it makes me stabby. Did you know that crying has a purpose? The act of crying helps us release and purge stress hormones, anxiety, and anger/frustration. It’s a complex physiological response that helps us move from “victim” emotions (depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness) to “survivor” emotions (hope, purpose, relief). In short, crying does help. So, this problematic phrase is a lie. Also, asking someone to smile when they’re in pain? That’s called gaslighting, and it is dangerously abusive behavior. When someone hides their emotions for someone else’s convenience, it’s called masking. And masking is the opposite of healing. When you ask someone to mask, you’re telling them that they aren’t good enough, that their emotions or experience are too inconvenient, or that you don’t care. The person who is struggling has to justify your hurtful behavior in order to get your acceptance, and that just adds layers of trauma to the struggle instead of giving them the healing they’re seeking.

“It’s okay to cry. We all do it. Can I get you a tissue, beverage, or a hug?”

Introduces willingness to help without overcommitting. This is a great way to show up and be helpful, for several reasons. First, it’s specific. You’re offering a short-term solution to their immediate experience. Second, it’s actionable for both of you. You’re offering small solutions and giving them the power to choose what would help them. The better you know the person, the better your offered solutions will be. Finally, it’s productive. Instead of just staring at each other uncomfortably, you make the situation more normal by introducing an everyday activity that doesn’t prevent them from sharing more. Getting someone moving can help them feel empowered to seek solutions, even if all they’re doing is cleaning their face or having something delicious to consume. Partly, this is because you’re giving them a minor distraction without avoiding the situation you’re in, but you’re also involving the senses. Helping someone who is struggling often involves bringing them into the present (at least sometimes) to help them feel better instead of ruminating. When the person can let go of the feelings that are causing them discomfort, they can more easily step back from them and evaluate their needs more objectively.

“Just stay positive.” / “Real men don’t…”

Much like “Good vibes only,” this phrase invalidates people who are experiencing natural, normal, and fundamentally human problems. Partly, this is because you’re inadvertently telling them that they are wrong, bad, inconvenient, or not working hard enough when none of that is true. This is because no human has perfect control of their emotions, and when someone is hurt, anxious, depressed, or traumatized, what control they do have can slip away rapidly. Telling them to change something they don’t have control over just makes them feel powerless.

“Things are tough right now. Do you want to be heard or are you looking for solutions?”

This is probably the most empowering response on this list and is pretty good for almost any situation. Because it requires the person to tell you how to help them, you have consent to help them in that way. I cannot stress how important this is. With this phrase, you are validating their experience, and then empowering them to engage in the behavior that will help them.

Phrases for Everyday Use

The following phrases are those you can use to encourage those around you to open up, to be more vulnerable, to get help, or to have a better relationship with you. Use them when you think someone is having a hard time, or say them to your kids when they aren’t upset, so they can internalize the offer when they’re calm. Remember, culture is made up of people miming what other people have modeled. Be the model you want your fellow humans to mimic.

  • I don’t always feel good. And sometimes I feel bad for no reason. That’s okay. If you feel that way, you can talk to me about it, okay?
  • Life is full of people who want you to think or behave a certain way. I try not to be that person, but let me know if I can be better.
  • It’s okay to not know how you’re feeling. It takes practice to learn how to describe your emotions. I promise to let you figure that out, and be here for you while you do.
  • I’m sorry. I’ve had a hard day, but I’m trying. Can we make an adjustment so things are better for everyone?
  • You know you can tell me anything, right? I’ll never judge you for making a mistake or changing your mind.
  • I’m sorry, I know I committed to this, but it’s harder than I thought it would be. Can I have help or more time to do it?
  • I’m having a hard time, but I’m glad to be here. 

TL;DR

In the end, it’s important that we shed our instinctive cliché responses to difficult situations and emotions our kids (and other loved ones) deal with, in order to create healthier people. Overall, we should have specific goals when we give feedback to someone struggling, regardless of gender. Our responses should be helpful, instructive, meaningful, and empowering. Most of all, they should involve explicit consent on both sides, focus on clear communication, and be specific to the problem at hand. By focusing on these features in our communications with someone having a hard time, we build a better rapport, generate trust, and pave the way for both parties to put in the work for everyone involved to live better lives.

If you’re looking for more practical advice for tackling unhealthy behaviors in your life, at work, and more, I recommend Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead. (Affiliate link.)

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