Men Supporting Men: A Therapy Group Considers Sarcasm and Male Bonding

Men sit in a circle, looking like they are focused on listening to one another.Editor’s note: Names and identifying information have been changed for the privacy of the participants of this support group.

This is the second entry in a two-part blog series about a men’s therapy group that I conduct on a weekly basis. For background information on the group, see my first blog entry, Men Supporting Men: An Introduction to a Men’s Therapy Group.

Why do so many men have problems with anger management? What does it mean when men frequently make joking, sarcastic comments? Why are so many men defensive and reactive to complaints or “feedback” by others? Men are biologically programmed as hunters and warriors. These are basic, biological survival skills. Anger is one of the five basic emotions that results from biological forces, triggered by dangerous, threatening circumstances—real or perceived.

Culturally, men have been influenced by unrealistic contemporary archetypes (the solitary cowboy, the brave soldier, the invulnerable superhero). We are often taught to contain our emotions—“big boys don’t cry.” We are taught that our job is to protect and provide for our family. As children, we are rarely taught to understand our feelings, to talk about them, or to discuss relationships and other concerns openly and with empathy. That’s what women do. Men solve problems, fix things, and are defined by our work roles. As men, we feel good when we know that we’ve done a good job and we’ve provided for our families. Conversely, we feel ashamed or inadequate when we feel we’ve failed as protector or provider.

In my weekly men’s therapy group, I noticed an emerging trend; I frequently heard loud talking and laughter in the waiting room before the group started. It was clear that the men were bonding. With my encouragement, they began to talk about this in the group. Almost every week the men would make mention of how important the group is to them. They feel supported by each other, and some of them would talk about how this is the first time they ever felt really cared for by other men.

The loud talking and joking often took the form of sarcasm and teasing behavior, with mock insults—the kind of digs most guys experience with each other starting in grade school. At first I didn’t think much of it, they were just being guys who were feeling comfortable with each other and enjoying the companionship. I was not mindful that there may be other feelings involved, such as anger, fear, and shame. It had not occurred to me that some important group dynamics were playing out here: competition (“one-upsmanship”), jockeying for social standing in the group, and an ego-based need to show power and invulnerability.

At the beginning of a subsequent session one group member, John, made a joking, but rather sharp and sarcastic jab at Kevin. It concerned a series of text messages between them regarding a workshop in which they both had a leadership role. (In essence, John was telling Kevin he would get him back for something Kevin said in another text message, a pseudo-threat.) I noticed that Kevin reacted with a subtle facial expression of discomfort. I intervened at that point.

First we talked about Kevin’s reaction. He reluctantly acknowledged that he felt “stung” by John’s comment. I asked him to go deeper with his feelings, and he said he felt hurt, ashamed, and a little angry with John. He felt ashamed both because he had contributed to this series of interactions by making joking, sarcastic comments about John in previous text messages, and he also felt ashamed about feeling hurt and angry in this present moment. He even felt anxious about revealing his feelings because he was afraid of a more serious confrontation with John.

John denied any anger or hurt feelings, himself, which certainly contributed to his role in these dynamics. John is among the oldest members of the group. He has owned a small contracting business for many years. In years past, he would be described as a “man’s man”—a big, strong guy with a booming voice and an easy smile. He can also be easy to anger, somewhat controlling, and is not inclined toward being emotionally minded. John is one of the most frequent jokesters in the group. He also happens to be one of the more confrontational and judgmental members of the group.

When Kevin expressed his true feelings of hurt, anxiety, and shame, John was defensive. He said he didn’t mean anything by it and even intimated that Kevin was being too sensitive. Kevin responded by saying it wasn’t really a big deal and he wanted to drop the whole thing. I commented to the group that I had recently noticed the teasing, joking, and mocking behavior. I wondered out loud about the possibility that the joking could cover up other feelings. I suggested that the members might find it difficult to confront one another openly. At first, there was an immediate denial by several members. John himself indicated that this was normal “locker-room behavior” by men. Others said it was simply the way they learned to bond with other men. I pressed the issue and asked the men who were either quiet or were exhibiting non-verbal cues.

Mark, a health care professional, was the first to take a risk. He said he was uncomfortable with the encounter between John and Kevin, and he acknowledged that he has often been uncomfortable with the teasing behavior in the group. Two other members joined with Mark in expressing similar feelings and concerns. These comments led to a spirited debate between the men about the joking, teasing, and put-downs.

In the next group session John said, “Last week was the first group session I didn’t like. I didn’t learn anything.” I asked him what he was feeling, and he did acknowledge some “frustration.” I’m certain he was angry with me, but he denied this at first. A few weeks later, he acknowledged his anger toward me for making it his “fault.” We were able to work through this impasse and, more recently, he’s been working on understanding his anger and how he uses his power to control others and to protect his deeper, more vulnerable feelings, including shame.

Men react with anger for many reasons. Shame and the fear that we are not good enough as men are major forces in our lives. We are the hunters and warriors, and we often feel that our true value in life is our ability to protect and provide. As men, we learn that vulnerability is potentially dangerous, even shameful. In this men’s group, the anger tends to be either defensive—protecting emotional vulnerabilities such as shame—or a form of aggression—often disguised as sarcastic joking or teasing—a form of competition and jockeying for personal power, prestige, and social status. Is it also a form of bonding? I think so. As men, we are taught that displays of honest intimacy and love for another man is shameful. Teasing behavior is a kind of code between men: the teasing really means that, “I like you, but don’t think I’m weak or effeminate.” The challenge is to “tease out” that which is caring, bonding behavior from that which is disguised anger or manipulation.

© Copyright 2011 by Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD, therapist in Boca Raton, Florida. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 14 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    February 25th, 2011 at 4:51 PM

    I’m loving this series.

    Shame and the avoidance of it has such a huge role in men’s lives – and I think that’s underappreciated by women. I think we often go after changes we want from our men, changes that are designed to bring us closer, but we do it in a way that resonates for them as criticism. Then we think they’re stonewalling or attacking or… Understanding this dynamic changes the whole ball game.

    I’m looking forward to the next “episode” and its window into men’s lives.

  • kory

    kory

    February 25th, 2011 at 7:14 PM

    there is no doubt that men are a stressed lot in the present scenario wherein women are competing with them professionally and the spouse is not financially dependent on them.it’s something different from thousands of years of evolution and this is sure to trouble them.

    we hear of women help groups and all kinds of programs to help them.but what about men,the real new ‘weaker’ sex?!

  • RU

    RU

    February 26th, 2011 at 3:29 AM

    Anger is an instinctive thing for men.When there is a problem women tend to sulk and maybe even cry but in most men a feeling of anger is evoked.This is completely normal.But knowing how and when to control it is the key.

  • Erica

    Erica

    February 26th, 2011 at 6:04 AM

    Is this what we have built men in our society up to be? People who experience all of this shame and guilt when they have to reach out and ask for help?

  • JONATHAN

    JONATHAN

    February 26th, 2011 at 11:27 AM

    Gender roles and preferences are different but the underlining thing that defines us all is that we want to be regarded important by others and we need assurance of the same.Anything that goes against this notion is a threat for us which needs to be eliminated and the methods to do so is what is different.

  • james miller

    james miller

    February 28th, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    erica:what is wrong if men seek help?that is the essence of the article.men have been thought of and are expected to remain strong in the eye of any kind of storm and this had put undue pressure on them.there is nothing wrong if they are looking for support.and in fact such a thing should be encouraged.

  • steveh

    steveh

    February 28th, 2011 at 11:16 AM

    The way that we process stuff is so different from the way that females do. We feel weak and ashamed of ourselves for feeling this kind of weakness, or what we perceive to be that. But that is how we have been raised. That we have to be strong, and so when someone challenges us about something of course that anger comes out but really we are mad at ourselves for feeling like we have failed.

  • cheryl

    cheryl

    March 1st, 2011 at 5:41 AM

    Everyone processes things differently. I think that there are also plenty of women who recat to a situation like this with that same anger or sarcasm or shame that some men do. Personally I think a lot of it is about where you are in life and whether you will be willing to accept this as treatment for something in your life that has gone wrong. Maybe the anger comes from not being at the point yet where you are willing to accept the help and make the changes that need to be made.

  • Rick

    Rick

    March 1st, 2011 at 8:23 PM

    It’s in men’s nature to be more aggressive on average, and it’s also nurtured in them. Sadly, this doesn’t work in the 21st century where we’re dealing with things that render our instincts obsolete. Civilized people no longer hunt on a daily basis, or have physical fights over territory or women. It shouldn’t feel wrong to say I like you and it’s a shame men would anger faster than they would say that.

  • bernadette

    bernadette

    March 4th, 2011 at 4:34 PM

    Calling it “locker room behavior” does not make it an acceptable course of action. Why can’t men just talk openly with each other like women do? They would sleep better.

  • Richard Loebl, LCSW

    Richard Loebl, LCSW

    March 13th, 2011 at 2:04 PM

    Thanks to everyone for such insightful comments, great questions, and helpful feedback. I sincerely appreciate your responses.
    Catherine – Great to hear from an interested colleague. Please feel free to contact me directly if you want to share professional ideas. Your comment was right on target – thank you.
    Kory – Great question. More groups are forming all the time – maybe you can check with some local male therapists.
    RU – Excellent point of discussion. Can anger really be controlled? Or just managed? Maybe it can lead to a productive discussion!
    Erica – Another wonderful question for further discussion. I see some big changes – and very positive changes – in this area.
    Johnathan – I agree whole-heartedly. Personally, I believe the idea of importance is directly related to the need to love and be loved.
    Steveh – Wow! I love your comment! And that’s exactly why we need this new male psychology, and more groups and services unique to men’s needs and their way of being in the world.
    Cheryl – Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful comment. I agree with everything you say. There are so many levels of truth. My experience personally, and working with so many men (and women!), has taught me that we do need to be ready to accept help and to make changes. And I’ve learned there are some important avenues to creating that receptivity and change – and open, loving acceptance is a great place to start!
    Rick – Great comment. I’ve found that with a little patient, empathetic understanding, and some basic skills and tools (such as social skills training), many men can learn to channel that anger into appropriate and productive communication and problem solving.
    Bernadette – Great question. I’m so encouraged and heartened by so many men who do learn, and continue to grow and mature. They learn to use their strong masculine energy to talk openly in a uniquely male way.

  • Richard Loebl, LCSW

    Richard Loebl, LCSW

    March 31st, 2011 at 7:25 AM

    Thanks for your comment James. I’m very heartened to see that so many men are now asking for help. In the “old days” I would mostly see women in my practice, and this has changed greatly over the years. I hope this trend continues!

  • Ife

    Ife

    April 6th, 2011 at 4:04 PM

    I think its sad, that alot of men have this problem. Its really about control and insecurities that they hav. I agree they should have more support groups for men who need help. But because of societial reasons men do not like to ask for help or look weak. They do not want to deal with their issues and tend to have shame and avoidance. Also it is recognizing you have a problem.

  • Julie

    Julie

    December 17th, 2011 at 9:31 AM

    I find it funny that men perceive themselves as being the only ones that grew up in an environment where is was considered inappropriate, or even outright forbidden, to express emotion. How many little girls are told that ANY negative emotion they express is wrong? Now let’s look at adult reality. I’m 44 and single and going through grad school, and opening a practice upon graduation. I HAVE to be that warrior and hunter, the lone wolf, cowboy (girl) whatever.. to survive. I currently know men that have spouses that are helping them get through school. I don’t have that. My point is not to paint a “poor me” picture, but in this day and age, the reality is that both men and women are in some pretty tough situations- single motherhood is one that comes to mind. And I know it is hard for men, I enjoy their company, but I wanted to give a bit of perspective to this article.

    Shame is also a huge issue for women- many were abused as children, and seriously, those wounds are often buried under layers and layers and layers of protective mechanisms. I myself am dealing with shame, suppressed anger, and depression. I tend to avoid relationships. I don’t go around hugging people, crying, or wearing my heart ton my sleeve.

    When women seek therapy, they often receive different names or labels for these mechanisms- usually borderline behavior, depression, etc. Men are usually accused of being narcissistic or needing anger management. I bet they get depressed, to. Isn’t it the same thing?

    I actually prefer the company of men. It is interesting sometimes how male-female friendships can be so honest and caring. Of course, often sexual feelings can become a barrier. But that is another post…:)

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

 

 

* Indicates required field.

Therapist   Treatment Center

Advanced Search

Search Our Blog

Title   Content   Author