How Traditional Ideas of Masculinity Can Hinder Recovery

man in therapy dealing with toxic masculinity

By Bill Arbuckle

Receiving counselling and treatment for a substance addiction is one of the most courageous things someone can do. It requires introspection, honesty, and vulnerability. In my years of counselling people recovering from a substance use disorder (SUD), I have come across some cultural mores that hinder the progress of some men: the “man rules.”

Men often have been raised in a way that makes it difficult for them to open up to a counsellor or the other participants in a group therapy session. They have been indoctrinated in ideas of masculinity that are at odds with the process of growth and change.

As an example, think about these phrases which are ubiquitous in our culture:

  • “Boys don’t cry”
  • “Man up”
  • “Don’t act like a girl”

The deeper messaging in these idioms is at odds with the healing process: expressing grief and sharing fears, weaknesses, and self-doubt.

When these ideas of masculinity are internalized by men, they can obstruct progress. The fear of rejection, judgment, or ridicule can be isolating and destructive.  This “toxic masculinity” is detrimental to therapists reaching our clients due to the barriers they inherited.  These barriers often keep men stuck in their patterns of behavior because the idea of vulnerability is too intimidating to handle.

How To Overcome Limiting Ideas of Masculinity in Recovery

The first step to working through harmful and limiting ideas about masculinity is recognising that they exist. Many men hold these beliefs that were passed down from their parents and can subconsciously hold themselves back without even realising it.

Challenging these beliefs takes courage and practice. Many find that attending a group therapy or recovery session and simply
listening is an excellent introduction to the liberating power of being open. Seeing other people share their stories and journeys
can be incredibly empowering.

But ultimately, it comes down to choosing to let go of toxic ideas of masculinity and recognise the importance of a supportive
community. Letting the walls down and building strong friendships and mentorships are critical to sobriety and active recovery.

Here are some steps to take on your journey to overcoming toxic masculinity:

  • Start small – Attending individual therapy prior to group therapy might be an excellent start.
  • Listen first – Upon attending group therapy (or a 12-step meeting), you shouldn’t be required to share anything beyond a cursory self-introduction at first. Getting into the space with others whom are being open and vulnerable may motivate you to share your own thoughts eventually.
  • Journal – It can be difficult to articulate our thoughts and feelings to others when we aren’t used to being mindful of them. A journal can give you helpful insights into your own emotional, mental, and spiritual state.
  • Treat vulnerability like a skill – Most people aren’t automatically good at something the first time they try it. If you’re out of practice with being open and building relationships, or you’ve never had a chance to try, it can feel difficult, embarrassing, or even a bit frustrating. Have self-compassion and give yourself the grace and patience to practice.
  • Start to build a recovery network with a mentor or sponsor – Working with a trained therapist or counsellor is always recommended. However, it can be lonely and excluding to find yourself in a group of people and be the only one trying to behave differently. So it can be very useful to start surrounding yourself with others on their own recovery journey who you can relate and talk to, and learn from. Many are drawn to 12-step programs (ex, Alcoholics Anonymous) and this could look like working through the Twelve Steps with a sobriety sponsor. This is a great chance to practice the skill of vulnerability with someone who has spent a longer time learning about a similar goal and will be patient and understanding as you work through your preconceived ideas of masculinity and recovery.

Getting Help for a Substance Use Disorder


Don’t let limiting ideas of masculinity or anything else prevent you from seeking help, support, and sobriety. If you want to speak to a trained professional and you live in the United States, look for The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) treatment locator. In Canada, The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is a good place to start. There are divisions of the CMHA for each different part of Canada, like the British Columbia Division, for instance.

There are also millions of people in recovery who are happy to lend an ear, offer advice, and work through recovery alongside you as part of the 12-Step community of Alcoholics Anonymous or one of the variations, like Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, or Al-Anon (a support group for families of those who are struggling with a substance use disorder).  For those whom the 12-Step paradigm does not resonate, there are also many alternatives, like SMART Recovery, Refuge Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.). and LifeRing Secular Recovery.

If you are in crisis, you can also call the suicide hotline by dialing 988 in the United States, or calling 1-822-456-4566 in Canada.

About the Author

Bill Arbuckle has worked in the field of addictions treatment since 2009. Bill specializes in treating addiction and trauma using Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (A.E.D.P.) and Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (E.M.D.R.).

Bill also has personal experience with addiction and substance use. He found the way out, back to the light, and wishes to help others do the same. He is the founder of Hard Road Counselling, a practice that specializes in addiction counselling in Vancouver, British Columbia.