These days, much counselling and psychotherapy practice is described as ‘talk therapy’. While medication is designed to work on body chemistry, talk therapy involves developing new meaning, coming to different understandings and sharing what might previously have been unspoken.
The Expectations of Being a Man
Our attitudes to talking are shaped by the experiences we have had in life and our upbringing. For example, there might be some things we have been actively discouraged from talking about like sex or sexuality. Or we might not have had the opportunity to talk about certain events or circumstances such as the death or suicide of a loved one.
Our easiness or uneasiness around talking can also be a product of gender expectations. In my experience, men who have been raised in places such as Australia, the United Kingdom and North America are often reluctant to talk about their feelings or emotions. In therapy, many men talk about having been encouraged to contain their thoughts and told to ‘be a man’, ‘suck it up’, ‘man-up’ or even ‘grow some balls’. Rather than helping us, these expectations that men behave in particular ways can be like roadblocks in navigating our way through life and moving forward from personal difficulties.
Two of the most usual responses to Anger, for instance, are self-blame or lashing out. Talk therapies and narrative therapy in particular, can provide space for us to reassess or revisit some of our experiences confidentially, explore how the experience and emotion are connected and, in the words of a man who consulted with me, make Breakthroughs.
Types of Talking
Using the collaborative approach to counselling taken at Forward Therapy, we have been exploring the range of possibilities for talking in therapeutic situations. During our conversations one man told me he had always considered that talking to a therapist needed to take the form of ‘disclosure’ to be effective. The prospect of this literally had him choking on his words. Together we came up with some new options for the kinds of talking that could happen in a counselling context whether it be online therapy or a traditional in-person consultation. These included:
With online counselling over email and Skype instant message, the ‘talking’ can even take place through writing!
Of course these are just examples. There are no ‘right’ ways to engage in conversation. None of these forms of expression is a must-do and each carries its own opportunities for finding new ways forward.
Open Communication and the Journey of Therapy
It is useful to consider how language can stall us, or as in the earlier example, ‘choke’ us from saying anything further. Here’s another illustration. In examining the difficulty a man was experiencing when expressing how upsetting his week had been, we started drawing a distinction between ‘whinging’ and ‘getting it off your chest’. An outside listener may not have been able to differentiate which of these applied to what was being said. But according to this man, ‘getting it off your chest’ had to do with his intention, the presence of trust and an invitation to express what he wanted to say without fear of judgement.
Through these conversations we start to raise the value of talking and transform it from an act to be avoided to something practical, purposeful, attractive and enjoyable.
However, as someone else who was consulting me pointed out, a conversation does not need to even have an outcome. This principle runs counter to the premise of much traditional psychotherapy, but it makes sense. Frustration thrives on this idea that we must get somewhere by a certain point in time. And being fixed on an intended destination can prevent us from noticing milestones or scenic landmarks along the way. What else might we gain from the journey? Conversations open up possibilities for communication, particularly for men who have been silenced by expectations of gender roles.
Has something in this article triggered your interest or got you thinking? Leave a comment below or send me an email. I welcome your thoughts.
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