“Going to a psychologist is a sign of weakness. It means I’ve failed. I’d rather try to work out whatever is bothering me on my own.” ~Gerard, 42 years old
The above sentiment isn’t as rare as you might think. Many men feel this way. The research finding that men are less likely than women to seek help may not surprise you.
Because of this reticence, there are men who are struggling in silence. Often the barriers of stoicism and stigma prevent men from getting the help they need.
Of course this doesn’t hold true for all men — many enter counseling without any hesitation. But for those who are ambivalent about therapy and what it can offer them, taking those first steps can feel daunting.
Below are reasons why some men have entered therapy (this list is by no means exhaustive).
1) My wife [partner, boss, friend] says I need help
Either through encouragement or an ultimatum, these men enter treatment because someone important to them is saying that help is needed. For the men driven only to placate their wives/partners by checking off the “I did counseling, now leave me alone” box, little benefit results, however.
But not all men who enter into therapy under these circumstances remain cynical or closed off.
For those who become curious about themselves and open to the possibility that something might not be working in their lives, a journey of self-growth can begin. It is the encouragement (or pressure) that brings these men to a more contemplative relationship with their inner life and with the idea that other, more favorable ways of being might be possible.
It may be a difficult pill to swallow, but the people closest to us may see a truth about us that we are not willing or able to see for ourselves. We might become defensive and bristle at the suggestion that we need the help of a psychologist, quickly countering that the other person is the one with the problem.
But if we swallow our pride and seriously consider their opinion, we might decide to look into the mirror they are holding up and realize that they may have a point.
2) I feel like I’m losing control
There are certain aspects of life that are simply beyond our control. In these instances, a case can be made for the benefit of learning to accept these beyond-our-control realities (since warring with them results in greater suffering).
There are also times when our lack of control is self-driven, arising from deep within us despite the shape of our outer world. For some, it may be a circumscribed area of their life where they feel out of control.
This out-of-control behavior might involve the use of alcohol or drugs, sexual acting-out, increased pornography use, excessive online gaming, over-eating, gambling, anger-control issues, to name a few.
For these men, the fallout from this particular struggle may start to threaten other areas of life, such as physical and/or emotional health, career/job, marriage and relationships, friends, etc.
One possibility is that certain out-of-control behaviors are being used to numb some underlying emotional issue that isn’t being properly addressed (such as anxiety, low self-esteem or depression). This is one possible reason why it can be so difficult to stop these self-numbing behaviors — a deeper pain starts to emerge once the out-of-control behavior is halted.
3) This isn’t who I want to be
A separation may exist within you between who you are (the person you feel you are) and who you would like to become. The desired version of ourselves has been called our ego ideal or higher self. It is the person we strive to be.
Emotional distress can result when our actions lead us in directions that contradict our internalized ideals.
For the men I work with, there is a significant difference between falling short of an ideal (for example, exercising only sporadically when one’s goal is to live a healthier life and feel better about themselves) versus acting in ways that completely undermine one’s self-vision (staying with the exercise example, this might involve excessive alcohol consumption and over-eating).
When this occurs, we can feel like our own worst enemy, an inner battle of contradictory forces waging within us. A great despair can settle over these men, a betrayal of the self by the self.
4) Is this all there is?
The desire to strive, achieve and create is central to who we are as humans. That drivenness to reach a goal or outcome infuses our life with aliveness, meaning and passion. A particular job, financial stability, a home, education, long-term relationship, family, etc. The list of what we reach for in life is vast and for some, it is always evolving.
Implicit in our strivings is that once we reach our destination, the desired outcome, we will be content and fulfilled. But as many of us know from personal experience, this isn’t always the case. We may get an initial feel-good bump over having arrived at a particular destination, but this sense of fulfillment is often short-lived.
Some of the men who come to see me struggle with feeling unsettled, despite having achieved their desired picture of a meaningful life. They are confused and in pain because by all indications, they “should be happy” considering the shape of their life. Yet they feel that something is missing.
For these men, achievement, love and family haven’t quelled their hunger for something more. Those of us facing this existential crisis might be asking ourselves:
“Why aren’t I content/happy? I should be!”
“Is this it? Is this as good as it gets?”
“Now that I have achieved [X], now what?”
It’s important to note that any effective therapy is one that is adapted to the needs of the client. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and therapists who work this way are often experienced as stilted and unsure of themselves.
Therapy works best when it’s a collaborative process that makes sense to you and that is shaped by your particular needs and struggles.
If you’ve taken the courageous step to start therapy, it’s important to remember that you should feel understood and connected to whomever you work with. If you don’t, it can be beneficial to bring this up with your therapist, let him/her know what is and isn’t working for you. S/he should be very open to this kind of feedback. In fact, your therapist should encourage it.
The masculine ideals that many men have been socialized to embrace may act as a barrier to seeking help from a psychologist or counselor. This can be seen as a sign of weakness rather than a courageous move and an indication that you want to better your life (and therefore be more emotionally available to those who count on you).
Rich Nicastro, Ph.D.
Dr. Nicastro is a psychologist who specializes in men’s issues. He is in private practice, serving the Georgetown, Round Rock, Cedar Park and North Austin areas.
(Photo by Foto Sushi on Unsplash.com)