Men, Therapy and Underdevelopment

Dear Readers: I’d like to introduce you to some of my colleagues at the Social Therapy Group, starting with Hugh Polk, MD, the medical director at the Social Therapy Group and a long-time community activist. I asked him what he thought about a recent article in the New York Times about men and therapy — two things many women wish went together more often. The article’s author posed a controversial question: “Does a man need to see a male therapist in order to get help?” I think you'll find what Dr. Polk — a psychiatrist, a social therapist, and a man — has to say about this issue radically intriguing. -- Christine LaCerva

Benedict Carey’s article in the New York Times (May 22, 2011) entitled “Need Therapy?  A Good Man is Hard to Find” documents the decreasing number of male psychotherapists and of men entering the profession. While acknowledging studies that suggest this trend has a negligible impact in the value of therapy, the author attempts to make the case that that this is a serious impediment to mental health care, particularly for men who are seeking therapy with a male therapist. Carey states that “Both male therapists and men who have been in treatment agree that there are certain topics that — at least initially, all things being equal — are best discussed within gender. Sex is one, they say... Aggression is another…”

It is certainly true that men are not becoming therapists, and that the vast majority of people seeking therapeutic help are women. But I think there’s something else to make of these trends. I think the fact that men can’t talk about sex, aggression, and a whole host of other intimate aspects of their lives with women is a dramatic demonstration of the underdevelopment of men.

I’ve been practicing psychiatry and social therapy for over 30 years, and social therapy has long been a part of the dialogue with radical humanistic approaches, feminist psychology and more. I see the underdevelopment of men every day — I’ve experienced it myself as a man in our culture. I was fortunate to have gone into therapy many years ago to help deal with depression and general feelings of loneliness and emptiness in my life. I say I was fortunate, because it’s from women in therapy groups (and elsewhere in my life) that I’ve learned what this underdevelopment is — its impact on other people (especially on women), and how it stifles men.

Like most men, I thought that even though I was depressed, I was basically okay. In fact, I was pretty sure I was right about how I saw the world. The women in my life (in therapy and elsewhere) took me on about the ways I was emotionally distant and withholding, a “know-it all,” and rejecting. I learned this from women, not men, because for the most part men protect each other and protect the unwritten rules of the “men’s club” that protects and upholds the privileges men have in our culture.

Men are socialized in our culture (and many others) to keep their feelings hidden. It is considered unmanly in our culture for men to express emotion — except in certain prescribed situations like winning an athletic contest (but not when you lose!) or — sometimes — in movies or other cultural performances. It is manly and proper to do things, make decisions, face obstacles, etc., on your own. Men are socialized to always know the answer, to speak in a way that shows you know what you’re talking about. If you ask for help, vacillate, act uncertain, or admit that you don’t know what to do — you are not a real man.

This way of being constitutes nothing less than an emotional prison, and I know that painful experience well. We all pay a fearful price for this imprisonment, this underdevelopment. It takes the form of men being angry or being emotionally distant. Many express their emotional pain in antisocial acts — angry and violent behaviors, substance abuse, countless “small” acts of nastiness and abusiveness, and blaming women when things don’t go their way. It often shows up as the inability to work well with others (see the current debate over the debt ceiling).

Women have their own emotional difficulties, but they are socialized much more to do things together, to talk things through with other people, to ask for help, to express their feelings with each other, to admit they don’t know things. These are all healthy and powerful (not weak) acts for human beings to do regardless of their gender, but men are deprived in our culture of the “license” to do them.

We all (men, women and children) have a huge stake in helping men to learn from women how to be more emotionally open and giving. Men and women together need to create environments both in and out of therapy — in relationships, at home, at work, in the community — in which women can take the lead in helping men learn new skills for living socially. I believe this is a major and urgent social task that our society has not yet come close to embracing. It’s a task we’re trying to engage — and succeeding — in our groups at the Social Therapy Group.

What do you think? Leave a comment — let’s keep the conversation going!

Hugh Polk

Next month, we’ll have a look at a transcript of a social therapy group session that engages these issues. — Christine