By Michael Morin, Ph.D.
Creative processes and firm deadlines are often incompatible. The generation of new ideas requires a period of wonder and revision. Images that come to mind of the creative process include lazy Saturday afternoons spent at a coffee shop or sabbaticals at a mountainside retreat. Deadlines require precision and tenacity. The images I associate with deadlines are Tax Day and regretful, caffeine-driven all-nighters.
I experienced this incompatibility in graduate school when I was tasked with picking a topic for a long-term research project. The assembly line of my mind refused to churn and I felt increasing pressure from a research advisor to pick a topic. She suggested I take note of what interests me in the therapy room and see what research endeavors may arise from these observations.
I left her office thinking her recommendation sounded very wise and academic, but also a little cumbersome. I was somewhat hoping she would point to a stack of some dusty, unanalyzed data in the corner of her office and assure me I could complete the project by the following summer. She did not.
During that phase of my graduate training, I was working at a community mental health agency as the only male therapist on staff. Any male client who requested a male therapist was matched with me. I began to develop a curiosity about some reoccurring themes I heard. Many men felt conflicted, even ashamed, in pursuing psychotherapy. Others felt overwhelmed and confused by emotional expression. Some men were fathers who earnestly wanted to be supportive, loving caretakers to their children but lacked a concept of this due to their own experiences of paternal abandonment. I quickly found a topic for my research project. Even though the project has concluded, the importance of recognizing how psychotherapy can be different with men has stuck with me. The psychological needs of men are no different from that of women. However, these needs manifest differently for men both inside and outside of the therapy room. We all possess needs to be known, to express a full range of emotions, to receive and extend love.
The following are some salient themes I have heard from men in therapy:
1.“I should be able to do it on my own.”
In my experience, many men arrive to therapy with ambivalence. You have been instructed to be ruggedly individualistic since childhood. When this model inevitability fails, you are at a loss as to how to solicit help. Therapy is about collaboration and mutual recognition rather than individualism. Journeying with you while you understand your psychological need to be known can be a highly curative factor.
2. “Behavior should be valued over feelings.”
Most men I have seen in therapy have been socialized to believe that feelings are unproductive. They may rhetorically ask, “Why feel sad? Sadness over a loss will not undo the loss.” In these instances, we will work toward flexible understanding of emotional expression. While feeling sadness is not going to undo a loss, it may be helpful to remind you that feeling sad allows attention to any unresolved grief.
3.“I don’t have a problem feeling emotions. I get angry all the time.”
Anger is an emotion that some men are not afraid to feel because it propels them toward action. Inaction may be avoided by men as it can be associated with weakness, indecisiveness, or other traits stereotypically misaligned with the masculine self. The hope is to promote understanding of other emotional processes that can also promote action, such as approach instead of avoidance following experiences of shame.
4.“I’ve tried therapy before but I always end before I feel better.”
Men have historically lower rates of mental health seeking behavior than their female counterparts. It is helpful to know in advance that therapy may collide with earlier messages you’ve received about how to be a man (e.g., that it’s difficult to relinquish control and vulnerability is weakness). These realistic expectations may help you to feel less surprised and less likely to end therapy before feeling better.
Michael Morin, Ph.D. is a staff psychologist as the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center. He is also an adjunct instructor at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science in the graduate psychology program. He holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University. His clinical and research interests include psychodynamic therapy, men and masculinity, and gender role socialization. He resides in Chicago, IL.