Most people who seek out psychotherapy are women. The reason for this, it’s been said, is that women are more open to expressing their emotions and asking for help and support. Guys, in contrast, are viewed as too macho or too self-contained to consider therapy.
Damn, they can’t even ask for directions, how are they going to ask for help when feeling vulnerable, weak or confused? Why would they want to yakity yak about their problems to a complete stranger? This is akin to exposing the chink in one’s armor. And who would want to do that?
But, it seems to me that we’re unfairly judgmental, because we don’t appreciate that traditional talk therapy has always been more oriented toward women’s ways. When you are in therapy, you are supposed to talk about emotional stuff, self-disclose, explore feelings, reflect on the past, trust your therapist and be open to receiving help, suggestions and advice. This is a woman’s dream. Expressing feelings is easy for most of us. Opening up to a non-judgmental, listening ear is heaven for us. Feeling understood is what we crave. Trusting others who know more than we know makes us feel secure.
For most men, however, it’s different. It’s harder for men to trust another person with their innermost feelings. From the time they were little boys, they’ve gotten the message that they need to be “tough” and “competitive.” Showing fear or weakness is shameful. A boy learns early on that he is not supposed to be “too sensitive.” If he is, he pays the heavy price of being ridiculed or ostracized by his peers.
As adults, many men still feel that there is no safe environment in which they can express their feelings. They may long for emotional intimacy, but expressing themselves often backfires on them. Why?
Because when men finally open up and “talk about it,” they often feel worse, not better. Too often, they end up (at home and at work) with unsolicited advice. He’s told what’s wrong with him, what he should or shouldn’t be doing or what he never should have done. Feeling bruised, he withdraws to his cave to lick his wounds.
Hence, it’s no wonder that many guys resist traditional talk therapy. They know that it requires them to do things they are uncomfortable with: “open up”, “trust”, “express feelings” and “accept help.”
Therapy is viewed as even more threatening if he is “sent” to it by a spouse making an ultimatum, a work situation that demands it or a family intervention. He may fear, sometimes rightly so, that he will be criticized, ridiculed, patronized or asked questions that will make him look like he’s stupid. As a defense against these feelings, he may enter therapy with an attitude of superiority (you can’t teach me anything), entitlement (I’ll do whatever I want to do) and contempt for others and for the process of psychotherapy (this is all bull shit).
Now, before I receive a slew of angry letters, the description above is not true for all men. Yet, it is true for many men. So rather than expecting men to set aside their socialization experience and adapt to traditional therapy, I think it’s well past time for therapy to become oriented toward guy’s ways.
Here’s my idea of effective guy therapy:
- An emphasis on exploring how you “think” rather than how you “feel.”
- Appealing to a man’s competence and strengths to remedy whatever problem he faces.
- Exploring “fix-it” solutions that bolster men’s egos.
- Being sensitive to a man’s discomfort with vulnerability.
- Using metaphors that men use (sports, business, computers, cars, tools) as a way of “running the ball down the field.”
As men come to believe that therapy respects and values their ways of being in the world, they might be much more open to the process.