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  • Writer's pictureSean Cuthbert

Releasing the burdens of "Toxic Masculinity": The transformative power of Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy offers a unique perspective on the concept of "toxic masculinity," one that is compassionate and understanding taking into account influences of culture and gender expectations on parts of one’s internal system, regardless of gender identity.  

In the framework of IFS, individuals are seen as containing various parts, each with its own emotions, beliefs, and intentions. These parts can embody societal constructs and expectations, including those related to masculinity.  The concept of “toxic masculinity” refers to societal expectations and stereotypes imposed on men, through traditional expectations of men’s role and behaviours in external systems.  Instead or labelling these attitudes as “toxic”, IFS approaches the parts that hold extreme beliefs/attitudes with curiosity and compassion, seeking to understand their origins and the roles they play within the internal system. For instance, a part embodying toxic masculinity might have developed as a protective mechanism, aiming to shield an individual from vulnerability or pain in an external family systems or a wider community and society that values stoicism and toughness in men.

The IFS process aims to create a calm and reflective space where individuals can explore these parts without expectation or judgement. By engaging in a dialogue with these parts, clients can gain insight into their origins and the emotions they carry. This exploration often leads to an understanding of the underlying vulnerabilities these parts are trying to protect, such as fear of rejection, feelings of inadequacy, or unresolved trauma. Parts that hold extreme adherence to a traditional masculine script might manifest as a part that has internalised societal messages about how a man should behave, think, or feel based on what was modelled during childhood, or in the larger society at critical times in the individual’s life.

Through the principles of IFS, individuals are encouraged to develop a relationship with these parts based on curiosity, empathy, and openness. Rather than suppressing or disowning these parts, the goal is to facilitate healing and integration. Clients are guided in acknowledging the positive intentions behind these parts, even if their behaviours have ultimately been harmful both to the persons and the external system in which they live (e.g., family, work, community).

As clients navigate their internal landscape, they learn to connect with their Self - the not-a-part - that embodies qualities like compassion, wisdom, and clarity. This Self becomes the compassionate leader who can foster harmony among the various parts, guiding them towards healing and transformation.

For individuals struggling with aspects of toxic masculinity, IFS provides a pathway to embrace a more authentic and balanced expression of masculinity.  It involves acknowledging and integrating different facets of oneself, allowing for a more fluid and expansive understanding of gender roles.  For example, courage - a quality that has been associated with heroism in men through the ages - is a core quality of Self, and therefore the person can fully step into this quality allowing it to be more prominent in the way they lead their life.

Ultimately, IFS holds great promise for men to transform as it doesn't seek to eradicate extreme masculine parts, or any part of an individual's internal system. Instead, it promotes healing, understanding, and harmony among these parts. By embracing the complexity of human experiences and identities, IFS offers a profound framework for individuals to explore, understand, and transform their relationship with masculinity in ways that are empowering and healing.


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