He asked me, “How am I supposed to feel?” This is a classic male question. Therapists often feel privileged to witness, not only people’s doubts, distress, and internal conflicts, but their awakenings, insights, and shifts in feelings, beliefs, and behavior. I feel an extra dose of privilege when I am trusted to facilitate therapy for a man who is ready to open with authenticity and vulnerability. Through what some call, Man Therapy, I imagine I see the unfolding of The Masculine Sage.
The Boy Baby to The Sage
A baby becomes a sage, not only through conscious parenting, a positive education, and career development, but by developing wisdom through introspection, personal exploration, being mentored, and sometimes therapy.
It is well known that fewer men than women seek therapy and that is well supported by my case load. Sometimes a male therapist is a better fit for male clients and other times a woman’s voice and demeanor better creates a sense of safety. It is exciting and often challenging to notice a tear forming, a soft emotion under an angry declaration or a signal from a long forgotten inner Little Boy. Boys often unconsciously construct tough survival styles that as adults are no longer relationally effective. Their adaptation to a masculine stereo type has now got them stuck. Let’s look at how thee adaptations began.
All babies smile, laugh, pout, cry, poop, and seek caregiver attachment to survive. From the womb to early child development there are some biological differences between boys and girls. Then parenting, cultural biases, and other experiences layer those differences into misunderstanding and stereotypes such as tough guys like Superman or Iron Man!
Boys’ Biology and Development Differ
In 2016 the Infant Mental Health Journal published research findings by Allan N. Schore, of UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine called All Our Sons: The Developmental Neurobiology and Neuroendocrinology of Boys at Risk. Here are some highlights.
- They mature slower physically, socially and in language development.
- Their ability to regulate distress matures more slowly.
- Environmental stress takes more of a toll on boy babies. The marital researcher, John Gottman discovered that men took much longer than women to calm their nervous system after an argument.
- Their vulnerability to early stress is correlated to their higher rates of disorders such as autism and ADHD.
Boys’ Cultural Expectations and Influences Differ
In 2005 Terry A. Kupers, released his study, Toxic Masculinity as A Barrier to Mental Health Treatment in Prison. Here are some highlights:
- The Iron Man persona requires aggressive competition and domination of others.
- These socially conditioned tough guy or Iron Man characteristics encourage vying for domination, devaluing women, homophobia, and violence.
- What typically and unconsciously threatens the Iron Man is any aspect of the feminine.
Masculine and Feminine or Yin and Yang
The Chinese Yin and Yang concept of opposites or dualism helps us better embrace all aspects of ourselves; seeing ourselves as having complementary and interconnected personal parts. We can be soft or hard, loud or quiet, gentle or rough, weak or strong, connecting to earth (mother) or sky (father).
With the emerging fluidity of sexual identity (LGBTQ+), sometimes referred to as nonbinary gender, we are more and more called to welcome with curiosity our human differences. As much as the woman in damsel-in-distress persona is stuck, so is the man in the tough guy persona. However, a damsel-in-distress is poised to cry for help, while the tough guy is at risk for profound feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and sadness that may surface as rage!
The Good News about Man Therapy
If boys are raised with conscious parents, they can play with dolls so they can practice changing a diaper or trucks so they can practice driving a vehicle. Visa versa for girls. No problem. Our perception of masculinity and consequent behaviors are shifting. More men are now more readily partners in:
- Parenting and caregiving.
- Attending to household tasks such as cleaning and cooking.
- Sharing the load of decision making.
- Managing finances.
- Relationship building, including communicating with empathetic listening and mutual respect.
Other good news is that therapy can help men who want to heal their boyhood wounds and adjust to their present-day reality in a mindful and healthy way. Indeed, they may develop into caring sages who mentor boys, youth, and younger men. A friend and Saskatoon City police officer, Jason Rorick, is close to completing his book, Cops Don’t Cry. He understands how stuffing feelings contributed to his first responder’s experience of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
As he explains, “I’ll no longer make the mistake of thinking that just because I am able to pause my emotions to perform my duties. . . that I can in in fact pause my emotions indefinitely. But instead, I recognize that I must unpause and deal with the emotions properly as soon as practical.” Rorick’s new emotional regulations abilities exemplify the shifts men need to make to free themselves from of the fear of feeling fear itself.
Where Does a Man Start?
The inner work begins when a man decides he is ready and willing to take off his Iron Man armor. The second step is to research, ask for recommendations, and interview prospective helping professionals. Trust in decision making is required, as well as a reminder that if the first attempt at finding appropriate guidance does not work, seek again. Avoid deciding “counselling does not work.” Therapists are not magicians. They are guides. The client, does the inner work; or not!
Snippets from Man Therapy Sessions
Here I share insights from several male clients, with details hidden or changed for anonymity. C is for Client. P is for Patricia.
Theme: How does a guy find safe places to feel?
C: How am I supposed to feel?
P: There is no supposed to or rule to feelings. Your body will tell you the truth. Feelings are sensations in your body. You feel a heaviness in your heart, the emotion of sad. I feel sad was the answer. At times you indicated feeling frustrated.
C: This is new for me; this sharing feeling stuff. My family and friends would think I was crazy if I started to say I feel sad or scared. They are used to hearing me say “Pissed off, you #@$&%!” and they say that and worse.
P: Yes, you have several people in your circle do not know how to create emotional safety. Can you name three people with whom you do feel emotionally safe?
Theme: How does a guy give up his angry high?
C: When I am stomping around, angry, I get a lot done, stand taller and I don’t’ take shit from anybody. Why would I want to feel sad, scared, hurt? Sounds like a wimp.
P: Sounds like your angry part has given you lots of benefits. And you mention you have trouble sleeping and you would like your relationships to improve. What if your other more vulnerable parts had some gifts that would help?
C: But when I was a kid and showed any weakness I was bullied.
P: Right. So, when you were little you could not show your softer side. That angry part helped protect you, but now with your girlfriend it is too much. Are you willing to do a little noticing with me?
Theme: How does a guy step into wisdom and the role of sage?
P: I suggest you have evolved into a position of sage, a man who has attained wisdom.
C: But who am I to assume I am better than others? Have you heard of American Exceptionalism; the myth that because of your birthplace you are more virtuous than others? I do not want to go back to convincing myself I am better than others to make myself feel important and safe.
P: I admire your commitment to seeing all humans as worthy and valued. Yet you have gifts that others have not developed. Many people are focused on their survival—food and shelter. Personal development, awareness and healing are not on their radar or possible. Middle class North Americans have the privilege of being able to choose to heal and give their gifts. Few do! You chose to:
- Become aware of your unconscious thoughts, emotions and childhood neglect, abuses, and adaptations.
- Develop compassion and empathy for yourself and others.
- Acknowledge the wisdom gleaned from life to this point while continuing to learn and evolve.
You noted that for years you were held back from your personal evolution. You changed that story.
Here are LinkedIn profiles of three sages who I admire.
- Dr. Stephen Hobbs at https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephenhobbscalgary/?originalSubdomain=ca in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
- David Savage at https://www.linkedin.com/in/savagedavidb/?originalSubdomain=ca primarily in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
- Doug Lawrence at https://www.linkedin.com/in/douglawrence-mentor/ in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, but his work is national.
Consider supporting a man to step into man therapy and perhaps you will see the unfolding of a sage.
Please check out these related posts:
What Women Should Know About Sex and Gender Differences
Discover How Humor for Women Differs from Men’s
Patricia Morgan MA CCC helps her readers, clients, and audiences lighten their load, brighten their outlook, and strengthen their resilience. To go from woe to WOW call 403.242.7796 or email a request.