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What Daughters Should Know About Dad Psychology

You shouldn't have to contend with your father's boyhood trauma.

Key points

  • Men often project unconscious self-loathing onto their daughters because they've been taught a problematic definition of "masculinity."
  • Men's commitment to masculinity often prevents them from addressing their own mental health challenges.
  • It takes a lot of practice, commitment, and intention to break misogynistic habits because most fathers are operating on automatic.
Source: Pixnio/CC0

Your father adores you. I know he often treats you in ways that feel demeaning, but that’s only because he has been taught to despise femininity. He can’t help but project unconscious scorn onto you. He’s spent so much of his life conforming to social expectations that he now struggles to love you in a way that validates your worth and recognizes your independence.

The first thing to understand is that the rules of male comaraderie require men to hate femininity. Each time a boy is called a little girl, it knocks him down a rung on the ladder of male social status. Boys learn to associate girlhood with subjugation. Don’t throw like one. Don’t walk like one. Don’t dress like one. To whimper is womanish. To cry is feminine.

How boys learn to be men

When I was little, my older brothers teased me relentlessly. They were much bigger, and they could beat me at everything. We often played street hockey in an asphalt-paved parking lot. They would “let me” be the goalie. I’d strap big orange foam pads to my legs, and they would slam PVC balls as hard as they could in my direction. When I failed to block their shots, they called me sissy, wimp, and wuss.

I’d throw temper tantrums because I was desperate for their approval. I wanted to be one of the guys. It made me believe that maturity was about defeating others. I bullied kids the way my brothers bullied me. At the time, I didn’t realize I was using language that associates weakness with femininity. The word sissy comes from sister, wimp comes from whimper, wuss is a combination of wimp and pussy. In bro-culture, nothing is more disgraceful than being girly. Boys are taught that their reputation among men depends on purging from their identities all traces of anything that could be seen as feminine.

Everyone knows about B.F. Skinner, the psychologist who trained pigeons by putting them in a special chamber. There was a button that released food or water, but also sometimes electric shocks. By alternating between feeding and electrocution, Skinner conditioned the pigeons to repeat specific behaviors. Today, most psychologists consider Skinner’s “behaviorism” to be outdated, but manhood still works the same old way. Friendship is the trophy of masculinity; it’s a treat, like earning a VIP membership to a secret boys’ club. Bullying and teasing are the electric shocks, mostly issued in response to displays of so-called femininity. Boys are alternately coddled and then jolted, until they learn to automatically shun everything about themselves that other men might classify as feminine.

Family therapist Terrence Real describes masculine socialization as a constant alternation between disempowerment and empowerment, shame and grandiosity, losing and winning, punishment and reward. He writes, “This sudden switch from ‘one down’ to ‘one up’ and back again leaves boys and men in a perpetual state of anxiety about their social status.” I’m intimately acquainted with what Terrence Real is describing. I felt it with my brothers and with almost all the other men with whom I’ve ever interacted. To this day, I’m always afraid of getting kicked out of the metaphorical boys’ club, of being ridiculed by my brothers, or abandoned by my male friends. Your father probably feels it at Super Bowl parties, at work, at the barbershop, on the golf course—pretty much anywhere boys or men gather.

He wants to love you unconditionally, but your father can’t toss aside the shock-collar of patriarchal operant conditioning. The rules of manhood have become second nature for him. Now, when he looks at you, he sees an insufferable little girl version of himself. He feels an unconscious jolt of social rejection. That’s why he’s overprotective of you, but not your brothers. He has spent decades policing and imprisoning the supposedly feminine parts of himself, the things he considers weak and fragile. But he lets the supposedly masculine parts roam free. Leftover boyhood trauma distorts his parenting decisions. Please remember, it’s not you he hates, it’s all the things about himself that he’s been trained to hide away.

Dad's bad habits

Unfortunately, we have very few protocols for deprogramming masculinity. Most of us end up supporting misogyny even when we try to fight it. Here’s an example: You know those social media videos of #girldads getting makeovers from their daughters? Those memes depend on people understanding the don’t-be-a-girl rules of manhood. We all mistakenly assume that it’s a great sacrifice for a man to be painted with lipstick, blush, and eyeshadow. So, we click "like" to commend Dad for taking a high-stakes risk. Our sentimentality feels like resistance—a celebration of disrupted gender norms—but it’s just concealer, masking the blemishes of patriarchal masculinity. The truth is that even those proud #girldads hate femininity, and the rest of us are all complicit in the online virality that rewards them for it.

Many boys and men think they love womanhood because they are taught to sexualize girls. But because boys and men are also always getting bullied with homophobic slurs, they believe that “being a bottom” is dreadful. They imagine that the receiving end of penetration is an inherently contemptible subordination. Your father buys into this meat-market mindset because he hears it everywhere, especially in sports: Don’t be soft; you suck; you nailed him. Your father probably speaks the language of sports perfectly. Most boys learn it quickly, even if they’re not athletic, because it’s the easiest way to make friends and to avoid mockery or rejection. Grown men struggle to end sexist and homophobic speech because it’s been like a magical amulet that has guaranteed safety and comfort, at least since middle school. As a result, wrong-headed ideas are ingrained in most men’s thinking.

It takes a lot of practice, commitment, and intention to break misogynistic habits, but your father mostly operates on automatic. He doesn’t realize that he’s being creepy and derisive—objectifying and subordinating your body—when he tells you to shower, shave your armpits, or look more ladylike. Likewise, when he says your outfit makes you look “easy,” he pretends he’s protecting you. But he also knows we live in a country that promotes credibly accused sexual assaulters to the highest positions in the land.

Women like you are at risk no matter where you are or what you wear. The culprits will not be random strangers who spot cleavage or bare midriffs in public. Eighty-five to 90 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by people known to the victim and the majority happen close to home. Therefore, when your father says that you’re too promiscuous, he’s just normalizing assault and preparing you to blame yourself for your statistically probable victimhood. According to the CDC, over half of all women in the US experience sexual violence during their lifetimes.

Surely, your dad doesn’t want you to be a victim, but because he grew up learning that his own best strategy for defense and wellbeing always involves covering up femininity, he applies the same chaste logic to your body. He hasn’t considered the way his paternalistic scrutiny of your appearance implies that your worth is dependent on whether you attract or repulse men. He’s unaware of how his anxieties about your modesty—his comments about your “f#ck me clothes”—validate the lewd, demeaning remarks to which you’re constantly subjected.

Intoxicated with masculinity

It's tragic that you’ve had to contend with the lingering effects of your father’s boyhood trauma. As a result, you’ve probably internalized many of his narrow-minded ideas about femininity. I bet you’ve felt your own electric shocks, tremors of shame tingling up your spine, when he refused to walk down the grocery store tampon aisle. You’ve likely wondered if your body is as ghastly as the look on Dad’s face when he cringes at the mention of menstruation. I assure you it’s not; you’re perfect.

Do you know the old chauvinist concept of beer goggles? Men sometimes joke that too much alcohol makes them think that ugly women are attractive. It’s a terrible thing to say, another way society reinforces unrealistic beauty standards and normalizes predatory mating rituals. But it’s a good metaphor for your father if we turn it upside down. Forget toxic masculinity. Your dad is intoxicated with masculinity, and he looks at you through drunken lenses. He needs to take them off and look in the mirror.

He'll see that a lifetime spent navigating nonstop alternations between acceptance and abandonment has made him fragile, paranoid, anxious, and distressed. He compensates with the only strategies he’s ever learned. According to the National Institute of Mental Health,1 the very same anger, aggression, and self-assuredness that folks commonly associate with being “manly” are often just symptoms of male depression. Deep down, your father knows it’s true.

All day long, he avoids confronting his feelings. He masks despondency and refuses to seek help, just like 1 in 3 men in the United States.2 They all hide their fear, anxiety, and sadness behind a veneer of muscle and strength because they think vulnerability is a weakness, and depression is girlish. Worse still, they project their unconscious self-loathing onto their daughters—and all the other women they love—because according to their outdated and self-destructive conception of masculinity, their safety, comfort, and status among men matters most of all.




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