This is the first of a two-part article series about a men’s therapy group I conduct on a weekly basis. This men’s group was established a little over a year ago, and consists of eight members. The group is an excellent example of men’s issues in contemporary America—their roles as men in a complicated world, their relationships, and their emotional and psychological struggles. As a psychotherapist who has worked with men in various settings for over 30 years, I am continuously impressed and deeply touched by these men—their honesty in dealing with difficult life problems, their ability to be vulnerable and to openly share deep emotional struggles, their compassion and empathy with each other, their courage to embrace their individuality, and to make difficult changes when necessary.
In this blog entry I’ll talk about the importance of this type of group and the major issues and concerns addressed in the group. I believe these observations will highlight some of the most pressing concerns that men face today, in a world where there is no clear definition of a man’s role—actually, there are often conflicting expectations and unreasonable demands.
Where do men turn today to get help and support for their struggles with feelings, relationships, stress, and other problems? Some men are fortunate in having strong, supportive relationships with a spouse or life partner, loving family members they can talk to, and sometimes a church group or other support system. However, studies suggest that a majority of men struggle in silence. They may be socially isolated, their marital and other relationship problems may result in an inability to talk things over, and a combination of fear and shame inhibit them from reaching out to others. Most men are averse to therapy or professional counseling, where they are asked to talk about their feelings and communicate in a manner that is often foreign to them. Our job, as men, is to protect and provide for others, we’re the hunters and warriors. We are not designed biologically or neurologically to sit in an office and talk about our vulnerabilities.
Fortunately, men are finding new ways to join together to talk and share their struggles with other men. There is a new psychology of men today, informed by recent findings from cultural anthropology, modern brain science, social psychology, and other fields. Men are finding therapists who specialize in working with men’s issues, and more men’s therapy groups are available today than ever before.relationships. Some of them struggle with life stress, anger, anxiety, and depression. Many of them were dealing with self-doubt and shame, not feeling good enough about themselves as men.
This is a process oriented psychotherapy group. That means that we focus on the here and now, what actually happens in the group between the members. We talk about feelings that come up in the group, their emotional responses to each other, and the kind of relationships that develop between them. We start each group session with a check-in. Each group member talks for two minutes about their week—any problem areas or concerns that come up during the week—and they claim time if they want to spend more time talking about a specific issue or problem area. Usually, three or four of the men claim time. After everyone checks in, we focus on the men who claim time.
As they talk about their current concerns—relationship problems, work issues, etc.—the other men and I intervene with various comments. The comments range from suggestions to confrontations. Suggestions by other group members are common (men are the decision makers and fixers, they love to come up with solutions). The men have learned to make supportive and empathetic statements; after a year together, they easily relate to each other. They often talk about how reassuring it is that other men have the same kind of problems and feelings. At times, the men will challenge each other with confrontational statements. For example, when John is “in his head,” intellectualizing and rationalizing, avoiding his fears and shame regarding his relationship with his wife, group members will confront him by telling him to “get out of your head,” and get real with his feelings. Often they tell each other how they relate or identify with specific feelings, and situations.
The membership in this group has been remarkably stable. Five of the men have been in the group since it was established a little over a year ago. The other three joined the group about seven months ago. They have developed very close, supportive, even loving relationships. I was amazed the first time I heard one of the men say to the others “I love you guys.” These days, that type of statement is almost commonplace. They talk about how they look forward to the group each week. They frequently contact each other between sessions to talk about an emerging problem, or just to check-in with one another. I encourage them to bring these conversations back to the group, and this happens frequently without my prompting. The men even get together for dinner, and then talk about their conversations during the next group session.
It’s a joy to work with these men. They are often good-natured, there’s plenty of joking around before and during each group session; yet they can get very serious, talking about their deepest fears and self-doubts. They are not afraid to be intimate, hugging each other after every group, and they often congregate in the parking lot after sessions to continue some discussions. I’ve seen progress at different levels for each of the men; some report improved relationships, many talk about feeling better about themselves and their lives.
There are times I wish I was a member, and not the therapist.
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