Tuesday, June 14, 2011

David Wexler - Men and the Fear of Shame

This material by David Wexler comes from his article, Shame-O-Phobia: Why Men Fear Therapy, which appeared in Psychotherapy Networker's May/June 2010 special issue on The Secret World of Men.

I'm pretty sure I blogged about this article at the time, but I am offering a bigger chunk of the article here because I am becoming more and more convinced that most men experience an incredible amount of shame and shame-avoidance in their lives (based on discussions with several therapists who often work with men, and particularly with veterans of Vietnam and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan).

As many other gender authors have noted, women become women by virtue of birth and their physical sex. This is not true for men. We have to "earn" manhood through our actions and public image - in primal societies manhood is earned through initiation, but this does not really exist in our technology and information based society.

In fact, it seems that it ceased to exist for most men as we transitioned from agrarian to industrial societies. With that transition, we "created" adolescence, and later we added teenagers. By 1940, most young men stayed in school until their were 18. By the end of the 1960s, young men often went to college, prolonging youth until 22 (or later), or into the military, again prolonging their period of not living in the real world for several more years.

All along the way, young men want to be seen as manly, to be "real men." But there have been unspoken rules that limit how being a man is defined (not girlie and not gay being the most common, with all the implications of weakness and "wussiness" those ideas convey). And the dominant way those social norms are enforced is through shaming.

This is why so many men have been afraid of therapy - it implies weakness, and talking about our emotions - and those things are identified as feminine for a lot of men. Fortunately, I think that is changing as more and more men enter therapy and the stigma it used to carry is lessened.

Here are several long passages from Wexler's article that address some of these issues. Much of this material is expanded upon in Wexler's books, Men in Therapy: New Approaches for Effective Treatment (2009) and When Good Men Behave Badly: Change Your Behavior, Change Your Relationship (2004).
Men who’ve experienced toxic doses of shame early in life will do anything to avoid re-experiencing it as they grow older. It can originate from family experiences, from peer experiences, or just from the culture at large. A shamed boy becomes a hypersensitive man, his radar always finely tuned to the possibility of humiliation. His reaction to slights—perceived or real—and his ever-vigilant attempts to ward them off can become a kind of phobia.

Tragically, the very men who are most desperate for affection and approval are the ones who usually can’t ask for it: instead, they project blame and rejection and perceive the worst in others.

Sometimes the smallest signs of withdrawal of affection will trigger old wounds, and they’ll suddenly lash out at those they see as slighting them, even as they’re unaware of the dark feelings stirring inside them. This is a state of mind that many of us in the field call shame-o-phobia, an endemic condition throughout Guy World.

With their profound fear of appearing weak or—god forbid!—feminine, most men will do whatever it takes to prove their manhood. In one recent study, men were assigned to three different groups and given the task of keeping their hand in painfully icy water for as long as they could. Those who were told that the ability to withstand the discomfort was a measure of male sex hormones and an index of physical fitness showed greater cardiovascular reactivity, reported feeling more performance expectations, and kept their hand in the water the longest. This was in contrast to the group who were told the test was a measure of high levels of female sex hormones and the ability to bond with children, and with the third group, who received no explanation at all.

What does this tell us? The length of time a guy will tough it out with his hand submerged in freezing water depends on whether he thinks his masculinity is in question. For some men, their hand could fall off before they’d risk the shame of not seeming “man enough” to take it.

* * * * * * *

Even as infants, boys are more overstimulated by direct eye contact and show less ability to regulate arousal through intimate connection. These infant boys then grow up in a Guy World culture that emphasizes successful performance and de-emphasizes reliance on others as a way to self-realize. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology teaches us that men are wired for procuring and performing (while females are wired for tending and befriending)—a trait that may provide a biological backdrop to the modern male focus on success. Without that, he ain’t much—or so he feels.

To ignore the powerful effect of shame-o-phobia is to risk not really “getting” men, even if you happen to be a man yourself. An otherwise benign or mildly embarrassing event—like carrying the purse across the plaza, or a daughter who isn’t having a good time at a Halloween party—can over-activate a man’s fear that he’s failing at some central task of being a real man.

* * * * * * *

The Broken Mirror
A metaphor from self-psychology, the broken mirror, is particularly helpful in understanding the dynamics of male shame. This sensitivity to shame—to feeling incompetent, not valuable, unloved, unneeded, unimportant—is often governed by the psychological relationships with mirroring-self objects in our lives. It works like this: the response from others serves as a mirror, reflecting an image that governs our sense of well-being. Sensitivity to mirroring-self objects and broken mirrors isn’t gender specific, but men are more vulnerable to experiencing these mirrors as referenda on their performance and personal value. When the mirror image is negative (or is perceived as negative), the reflection can reactivate a man’s narcissistic injury and deliver a blow to his feeling of competence. There’s no more potent a mirror for a man than the one reflected by his intimate partner. If she (or he, in a gay relationship) is unhappy, he’s failed. If she offers even a normal, nonabusive criticism, it’s as if she’s yelling at him: “You’ve failed at making me happy.” And the shame-o-phobic man, vulnerable to broken mirrors and narcissistic injuries, will hear that message whether it’s unintended or not.

* * * * * * *

Men and Therapy
The field of counseling and psychotherapy hasn’t done a particularly good job of creating a user-friendly environment for male clients. The problem begins with a lack of awareness about the profound impact of shame-o-phobia and the vulnerability to broken mirrors. Furthermore, there’s a mismatch between the relational style of many men and the touchy-feely atmosphere of most counseling and psychotherapy.

Think of what we typically ask a man to do in therapy settings: recognize that something is wrong with him, admit that he needs help, openly discuss and express his emotions, get vulnerable, and depend on someone else for guidance and support—all extremely challenging tasks in Guy World.

Too often therapists—both male and female—try to massage men into being more like women in the ways they express themselves and experience their emotions. So it isn’t surprising that only one-third of psychotherapy clients are men. Either men have fewer psychological problems (not likely!), or else many are too turned off by the whole therapy enterprise to seek the help they need. In fact, men usually get therapy only because someone else has insisted on it. When I ask men in an initial therapy session, “What are you doing here?” the answer I hear is “My wife told me I needed to be here.” Other times, it may be their boss or their grandmother or their doctor, or even a probation officer. They perceive the decision to use the therapeutic services and the process of using them to be not particularly helpful and not particularly masculine—often even downright threatening. It’s our job, as counselors and therapists, to adapt our approach to these realities.

Part of what makes treating men challenging is that they generally don’t signal their psychic pain as clearly and straightforwardly as women. In the post-feminist turmoil of shifting relationship dynamics, men have been struggling to find a way to relate intelligently, parent sensitively, and manage their emotional needs with more consciousness and depth. Many of us haven’t figured out a way to do all these things and still really feel like men.

Author William Pollack describes men’s anger as their “way of weeping”—an expression of underlying pain that women would more likely display with tears or more direct expressions of sadness and loss. Men also “weep” by drinking, withdrawing, acting defensive, blaming others, getting irritable, being possessive, working excessively, becoming overly competitive, suffering somatic complaints and insomnia, and philandering. As therapists, we have two choices: shoehorn men into a process that’s traditionally been more user-friendly for females, or reshape what we do and how we present it to better reach male clients.

Rules of Engagement
Men often resist standard therapy because they have a hard time admitting that anything is wrong or, if they think something is wrong, they struggle to identify what it is. Another reason they avoid therapy is that they can’t tolerate the internalized stigma—the felt shame—associated with feeling needy, dependent, or incompetent. A third disincentive, even with men who know they need help, is the very idea of sitting in a room, talking out loud about all this touchy-feely stuff; it creeps them out.

Finally, many men are simply confused and anxious about the strange, mysterious, and—for all they know—occult process of therapy. They worry about what they’re supposed to say, worry about what might be expected of them, and worry about when, how, or if they should disclose anything too “personal.” This is uncharted territory, and they want very specific information and instructions—a kind of user’s manual—about just what’s going to happen to them, how they should behave, and what exactly this strange “therapist” person intends to do with them.

* * * * * * *

Guy Talk
Let’s assume a man has walked sheepishly into your office for the first time and mumbled a response to your initial greeting. He doesn’t understand the process, can’t stand the words therapist, feelings, issues, unconscious, and inner child, would prefer to be anywhere else in the world, and believes his manhood may be hopelessly compromised just by his presence in your office. What are you going to do to engage his interest and curiosity, lessen his anxiety, and convince him that he might, just might, find something interesting and helpful in therapy?

Before you begin, bear in mind the type of overarching, nonshaming message that helps to create a therapeutic alliance with male clients: “You’re a good man, and you’ve been making some mistakes,” or “You sometimes act badly,” or “You can do better,” or “Your kids need you to be an even better model for them. We can work together on this.”

How do you explain the goals of therapy in “guy talk”? When I work with men who withdraw or become reactive and belligerent whenever a conflict looms with a spouse or partner, I naturally want to help them react with more maturity and insight. I frame this goal in terms of masculine independence, self-control, and personal agency: “We want you to be really powerful. Not over others, but over yourself.” “We want to make sure that the everyday crap that comes up for all of us doesn’t control you or provoke you into reactions that aren’t good for you or the others around you.” “We want you to be in charge, not the stuff outside of you.”

It’s axiomatic that most men have trouble not only talking about feelings, but openly expressing those feelings, so the next step is to normalize their feeling of discomfort with this feature of therapy. Clinicians Matt Englar-Carlson and David Shepard, professors at California State University, Fullerton, have developed excellent strategies to disarm male discomfort and resistance. For example, how do you help a man who emotionally freezes when his wife reveals that her previous boyfriend once raped her? If he can’t describe his feelings at hearing this news, the therapist can acknowledge the client’s anxiety: “It’s got to be difficult to talk about feelings in front of a woman who’s more comfortable sharing her feelings and a therapist who does this all the time!” If the therapist is male, he can normalize by identifying: “We weren’t trained for talking personally about things, were we?” If it looks like the client is failing at the task of offering his partner the emotional connection she’s seeking (when all it would take would be to say “I feel so horrible, but I’m so glad you told me this”), the therapist can reframe for positive intentions: “I know you want to feel connected to your wife, but it’s just hard to find the right words.”

The idea is to send out the good-men-behaving-badly message. In this way, the man—and, maybe more important, his partner—hears that the problem isn’t that he’s a bastard with a cold heart and no soul. His heart is warm and in the right place, but he doesn’t know how to put thoughts and feelings into words and actions.

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Unknown said...

This is great stuff to read after all the personal struggles i've gone through. Couldn't understand why my interactions with my wife so easily drove me up the wall and also left her anxious and fearful. Quite enlightening!

Jim and Michele said...

I found this quite insightful as to my husband’s stance towards therapy. Thank you.