by Doug McKee, Psy.D.
Men have often been reluctant to admit to the need for help. For example, I often hear from women that their partners won't stop and ask for directions when lost on the highway.
Why is it that men are not conditioned to seek support from others? As little boys, they are often told to be independent and made to compete with other boys. Competition over cooperation is a value that is taught. It is no wonder, as adults, that males want to continue to "do it on their own." Getting help from others, especially a therapist, is seen as a sign of weakness, or even worse, failure.
Some of the rules are changing, though. Many men are seeking support and, more than ever, today's male can say phrases such as: "I'm hurt," "I don't know," and the very vulnerable admission "I'm scared." Typically men are given permission to express anger and sexual feelings while most other feelings have been taboo. To express love or sadness was too feminine, too ladylike, and therefore in the domain of being a "sissy." In a reaction against these values, the men's movement started by Robert Bly and Sam Keen became a fad in the early nineties. Drumming at men's groups was common and the self-help section of the bookstore filled up with books about men.
One of the pioneers of the men's movement is Warren Farrell. His work in the field of psychology started with NOW, the National Organization for Women. Farrell soon realized that men needed understanding also. I have learned a great deal from the books about men and the workshops that their authors presented. The next level of growth for me came from a commitment to personal therapy - specifically group therapy. I now believe that it is through a connection to others that men heal most fully.
The moral development of children was studied by Kohlberg. He originated the idea of a six stage model of how children acquire a concept of morality. Unfortunately, it was a study that only included boys as subjects. Years later, Carol Gilligan suggested that girls didn't share the same development. Her conclusion suggested that women gain their identity through connection while men attain theirs through separateness. This seemed to be very apparent to me after I read Gilligan's article, yet I had never heard it put so simply.
What do men talk about in therapy? It is not uncommon for men to deny their emotional pain at first. Sometimes sent by their partner, or other times reluctantly dragged by a significant other, men starting therapy enter into a domain that feels foreign to them. Therapy consists of looking at many gray areas that are uncomfortable. Men may bring up issues with the wife or children, the boss or a coworker. After several sessions, their isolation, lack of support, and need to feel in control often surfaces. Problems common among men in therapy are alcoholism, depression, anxiety, sleeping disorders, eating disorders and sexual disorders. These problems have often been painful, yet men have been trained to keep the pain hidden.
My approach in working with men is to allow them to express their emotional pain, validate it, and then learn new ways of relating to their environment. Some techniques I have used are: "I messages," empathy skill building, and practicing feeling expressions.
The use of "I messages" allows the client to speak for himself only. Men often use the pronoun "we" when in couples therapy. In group therapy, the word "you" is often inappropriately used when "I" would be a more powerful pronoun. Having clients, especially men, use "I messages" gives personal accountability to the statement.
Another technique that I use in therapy with men is an empathy skill building model. This approach involves having the male client repeat back the feelings he has heard from the group member or his family member. I have the client also state that he has heard the other's concern before he offers a solution. Too often men want to give helpful advice to a loved one before the problem has been fully understood. Having men understand others' emotions is one way of giving men the opportunity to acknowledge their own emotions.
One other technique that seems beneficial to my male clients is that of practicing the expression of feelings. I model for men what sobbing looks and sounds like. I make a grimace and begin to wail loud audible sounds to show men that crying is a wonderful emotion. Men are usually surprised that their therapist is play acting. I simply tell them that learning to cry deeply can be practiced by pretending to cry. I have no empirical research to back up this technique, yet I have had success at helping men reawaken their emotions using this demonstration. I have also gotten better at expressing my own sadness as I continue to practice.