Starting therapy ain’t easy. That I know. Sitting down, talking to a stranger about your life – the good and the bad – is often anxiety producing. I see it in their faces. I observe it in their behaviors. It can be difficult even for people who are comfortable talking. However, take that same scenario with men who have, by and large, been raised to do the opposite of what therapy encourages and demands (to some degree) – talk about and share their thoughts and feelings while doing some soul searching. Unfamiliar territory for most men!
Generally speaking, women are raised and socialized to focus on making connections, talking, and sharing their feelings. This is both common and a comfortable place for us! Its been reinforced by a support system that has been and continues to be cultivated through generations. Through the gift of conversation, women share secrets, discuss problems, and seek feedback, answers, and support on how to resolve problems, live life, and balance the demands of life. Women think “big picture.”
In contrast, men, generally speaking, are raised and socialized differently. Men have a tendency to compartmentalize, separating work from relationships, both emotionally and mentally. They have more difficulty processing, sharing, and handling their feelings. Because men often do not always share their feelings with friends, they are more inclined to turn away from rather than toward their male friends for support and guidance. Men believe they should be able to figure problems out on their own, because by sharing with others, they may appear “weak, unmanly, not tough.”
Consider the following..
Chris, age 32, who was abandoned by his father when he was about nine years old. Growing up, he never felt good enough and believed there must be something inherently wrong with him for his father to leave. His history of abandonment and fear this may happen again, affects his current relationship. His difficulty sharing his true feelings for fear of abandonment, prevents him from experiencing true intimacy. His long standing apprehension to express his needs and feelings result in repressing his feelings because his fear in doing so he believes, will make him appear weak or needy and result in his partner leaving. He often defers to her and does not speak his mind, but his feelings, both good and bad, remain. The more he attempts to repress, the stronger they become. This has made him very reactive.
Matt, age 45. He had a sporting accident that left him scarred on his upper body during his formative, adolescent years. This left him feeling exposed and unlike other kids. Different. He felt everyone was staring at him. While in college, his mother died, leaving his relationship with his father further strained and distant. He soon turned to prescription drugs to numb the pain and shame of feeling ridiculed, not living up to expectations, feeling like a failure, all coupled with complicated grief. After a couple of years, he dropped out of college and for several years floundered, as he continued to use prescription drugs on and off. This unhealthy roller coaster kept his feelings and insecurities hidden and he believed that as long as he didn’t share them with anyone, they didn’t exist. His deep rooted shame has kept him stuck, unable to live an authentic life.
Despite knowing on some level they had to make changes, it wasn’t until a critical incident in their relationship that prompted them to start therapy. But even then they still had reservations. They were aware on some level of the demise of their life, but when you don’t know what to do or how to get in touch with your feelings and what they mean to you, you either do nothing or more of the same. It’s just human nature.
Both of these situations can occur with women, but men who are suffering in these same capacities creates a different perspective – at least for me. One, I am working with a segment of the population who is not known to consider therapy – unlike women, who are and do. And two, because men and women are raised differently, it could be my “bias” that the task of coming to therapy is that much more daunting and arduous for men.
Although my approach has some slight variations depending on gender, regardless of gender, ultimately a main goal is to help men and women open up, feel safe, and not feel judged for their thoughts and feelings – which can be pretty negative and dark at times – and find their voice. Whatever that looks like. Its vital to help each person make sense of their life that for so long has not made sense yet remain steadfast in making changes.
Time will tell!