A man went to see psychologist Ryan Howes solely because his wife wanted him to. She wanted him to work on his communication and become more comfortable with intimacy. He wanted to be anywhere but there.
Many men feel this way about therapy.* And many men avoid it — even when they’re struggling and need it most. They often see attending therapy as a “sign of weakness or inadequacy,” said Jean Fitzpatrick, LP, a psychotherapist who has extensive experience working with both men and women and whose practice focuses on relationship and career issues. In particular, men over 50 tend to have a harder time being vulnerable and putting their feelings into words, she said.
Our society largely promotes a very rigid and narrow view of masculinity — real men are supposed to be tough, dominant, independent and strong. They shouldn’t need anyone. Ever.
Men still hear the echo of other old messages, such as: Suck it up, big boys don’t cry, fix it yourself and don’t think about it, said Howes, Ph.D, who’s spent 20 years helping men with their work, relationship and emotional problems, along with researching and writing on men’s issues. So it’s not surprising that many men hold negative views about therapy and start to develop negative views about themselves if they need help.
“There’s a fear they’ll be ridiculed or lose face if they admit they have a problem they can’t fix on their own,” Howes said. Many also find feeling emotions, such as anger or sadness, to be uncomfortable or even unbearable, he said. Going to therapy to connect to these emotions seems like a punishment or simply ridiculous.
(Howes has seen many men end up enjoying the process like “it’s an internal treasure hunt.” After they feel an emotion, they get curious and wonder what the feeling is, what they should call it and where it came from, he said.)
Therapy also may be downright foreign to many men because they don’t really have deep conversations with their friends. Many haven’t even had one. “They may be surrounded by buddies who can talk all day about a number of topics. But they’ve never told another guy about painful memories, deep fears or hidden dreams.”
When men do come to therapy, they prefer to tackle tangible, specific goals, Fitzpatrick said. For instance, they might want to figure out how to navigate a toxic work situation or fix their marriage after an infidelity, she said.
Howes and his client (from above) ended up working on something he actually wanted to work on. “After some poking around, we settled on helping him find a new direction for his career and he started to come alive. By becoming unstuck in therapy and his career, he also loosened up in his marriage and felt more comfortable really connecting with [his wife].”
Howes’s male clients tend to focus more on issues pertaining to work and seeking purpose in their lives. (Women, he said, “tend to focus more on the issues that impact relationships.”) For instance, a client might say, “I want to make VP at my job this year, but I think I’m depressed. Help me fix the depression, so I can get the promotion.”
As Fitzpatrick also noted, “Work isn’t something ‘off to the side’ for men, any more than it is for women. It is an essential part of their sense of self…”
She encouraged readers to be clear with therapists about the help you seek. If you don’t understand or agree with something the therapist says, let them know, she said. It’s important for your therapist to meet you where you are and not to insist that a feeling be expressed in a certain way, Fitzpatrick said. For instance, a therapist asks a man how he’s feeling and he responds that he wants to save his marriage. The therapist shouldn’t decide he’s too goal-oriented or “needs to learn to express feelings more openly.”
Men and therapy are actually a perfect match, Howes said. Many men love to solve problems and fix things —everything from broken dresser drawers to fantasy football teams to computer glitches, he said. “[T]herapy is a laboratory, sort of a garage workshop where we tinker and problem solve every week.” Therapy is a place to collaborate and work with intangible puzzles, he said.
Therapy gives you the opportunity to better understand yourself, Fitzpatrick said. It’s an opportunity to “feel stronger, more authentic and more comfortable with [yourself].” All positive, powerful things that men — and everyone — can benefit from.
* It’s important to note that men are diverse. As Howes said, there are many men who do “love therapy, feel no shame about coming and can’t wait to get in and talk about feelings.” In this piece we’re focusing on a segment of men who have a harder time with therapy.
Therapy Man image courtesy of Shutterstock.