Opening the Male
How understanding the male expression of vulnerability helped my psychological work with men.
A female client walks into my consulting room for the first time. She has never had therapy before. Sitting down, she notices the box of tissues next to the chair, smiles nervously, looks at me then back at the tissues, “let’s hope I wont be needing those today.” I can’t remember when a man set foot in my office for the first time and even acknowledged the tissues, let alone used one other than to demist their glasses or catch a sneeze. The idea that they might lose control of their emotions does not generally seem to be of concern. That is my experience across thousands of clinical hours. There are exceptions of course but mostly it holds true that men cry less than women in therapy.
Empire building and war-mongering have surely played their part in discouraging men from displaying vulnerability which is not much use in battle or other mostly masculine conquests. But clearly we live in changing times to the extent that a recent radio phone in posed the question, “should men cry more?” The implication in this instance was that crying is somehow the measure of how in touch a man is with their feelings. I find this an unhelpful simplification but one that perhaps emerges from a reality TV and talent show culture steeped in emotionality with accompanying tear-jerking sound track pulling hard on the heart strings of the nation.
This question belongs to a much broader issue that is not specific to men, about the difference between expressing and releasing feelings (catharsis) and understanding and awareness of feelings (emotional intelligence or EQ). At the start of my career I felt a sense of relief when a client would cry; as if the job had been done. To cry is of course a hugely important part of the healing process and leaves a sense of having moved through a loss or difficulty.
But over time I’ve come to value a more subtle understanding of the emotional landscape of my clients. The anger betrayed by a grimace or a clenched fist or the sadness revealed in the reddening and glistening of the eyes. Noticing these signals so that a client’s awareness of them can deepen enables a transformation. It may result in tears, but if not the acknowledgement of the felt experience can lead to profound growth over time.
Although cathartic moments can lead to significant shifts towards letting go and creating space for new, nourishing experiences, I do not make tears the holy grail of therapy. My job is to support a deeper awareness of a client’s feelings or more broadly, of their experience. Understanding the function of feelings, of what they relate to and reveal to us, is my task.
A man who fears appearing vulnerable, even of being seen as fully alive and in contact with himself, will understand less about his relationship to his world, He will lack empathy and compassion for himself and others and, disempowered in this way, will be limited in how he can make an impact. I have worked with many men who are sleep walking through their lives and continue into my office hoping I can shake them from their reverie. The awakening happens when he realises it is OK to be himself, to reveal to me, and himself, who he is. When this happens it may not be cathartic and dramatic. My continued learning as a therapist is to be acutely sensitive to incremental shifts in a person rather than wait for the tears to come.
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Words and painting by Simon Jacobs