Older generations of men, notably our post WWII males, come to therapy reluctantly, if at all. Many men today are not so standoffish when it comes to therapy. However, men still tend to wait longer to seek help and guidance for their emotional issues than do women. At times, when men seek counseling, they are looking for and often need quick results. Frequently, men come to counseling after being persuaded by a spouse or employer to seek help for a lack of emotional connection, anger management or substance abuse. Opening up to a therapist does not always come naturally and often men prefer instead to rely on stoicism.
Why do so many men close down when the situation calls for an emotional response? For an answer to that we have to go back to that older WWII and post-war generation of men, the generations who set the example for today’s middle aged males, who in turn are setting the example for younger men. The last World War changed the landscape for men in this country for all time. Up until this point men worked at or near home, and while they didn’t work in the house they had a strong influence on their sons, who could watch and learn by example. From earliest times, men have learned their place in society from a mentor or elder male figure of authority. Post-war, modern industrial society took fathers out of the house, leaving young men without day-to-day male mentorship and the benefit of witnessing their fathers’ emotional and spiritual struggle for survival and to be loving parents.
Today’s middle-aged men were the first to be brought up in this new family dynamic and they are coming to grips with the understanding that they may have been short changed by their lack of ability to express their emotions. This has come about as they learn, often painfully, that it is not socially acceptable for those emotions to burst forth in ways that are detrimental to co-workers and family.
When overcome with an uncontrolled outburst of anger or frustration, men can seem incapable of controlling the onslaught of overwhelming emotion. Time and again in the aftermath of emotional outbursts men can be extremely remorseful. However, many men lack the tools to forestall repeat performances. When emotions again break loose, that remorse begins to sound hollow.
Younger men in their 20’s and 30’s are beginning to accept counseling more readily. As business consultants and team coaches take up the language and tools of psychology and counseling, more young men are becoming comfortable seeking help for life’s setbacks.
However, many men still need to know that they can feel and express their emotions without harming those around them. Throughout most of their upbringing men have been taught to be strong. Unfortunately that statement is too often translated into meaning without emotions. “Don’t let your emotions get in the way.” This might be a good business strategy, but disastrous for enjoying a fulfilling personal life.
The masculine stereotype precluded men from fully experiencing their lives. Beyond lust and anger, many men have limited experience with the full range of emotions. As a starting point, these men need to learn not only how to express themselves, but how to experience a full range of emotions.
There are two sets of circumstances working in tandem hindering male emotional self-expression. The first being the stoic nature of the male stereotype perpetuated by the absence of male role models. The second being, for many men, physical activity is often a doorway to emotional release. However, young boys and men have often been chastised simply for having too much energy. Physical exertion can pave the way towards safe expression of strong pent up feelings. Without the culture of emotional sharing that many women rely on, men are more reliant on physical “play” to help relieve stress and anxiety.
Counselors need to have this dynamic in mind when assessing male clients. The demands of business, the lack of positive male role models who openly share their emotions takes a toll on the male looking to fit into today’s world where men need to be emotionally sensitive managers, spouses and fathers. No wonder weekend retreats for men are a growing trend. They combine the physicality of a nature retreat with the mentor-based, learn-by-storytelling that has been the hallmark of male bounding for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. The male-centric quality of these programs help open men up to the deep emotional well inside that for many men has gone untapped, to help them see the results of their actions, to be more empathic and to give voice to where their motivations lie.
While young men are beginning to avail themselves of counseling services, a great number of middle-aged men are not. Many more could benefit from therapy. It is our responsibility as counselors to make those who cross our doorsteps feel that they have made the right decision.