D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     April 2005

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Guy Talk

A conference at WNMU tackles the challenges of engaging men in the therapy process.

By Lynn Hall

The majority of therapists and counselors are women; the majority of clients are women. So the question is often raised, "Where are the men in the therapeutic environment?" Often counselors and psychologists, men and women alike, wonder, "How can I work effectively with men who seem to be reluctant to come into therapy and uncomfortable with the emotional exploration or the process of disclosure?" Men often come into therapy at the request, nudging or demands of their spouse, significant others, family members or the legal system, often with significant reluctance. It then behooves the helping professional, at all levels, to discover ways of working more effectively with men to integrate their experiences into the therapeutic work. This topic is only recently getting attention in research and professional literature.

"Conversations with Men: Engaging Men in the Therapeutic Process" is the focus of the First Annual Spring Counseling Conference, April 22 and 23 in Silver City. The conference is sponsored by the WNMU School of Education Counselor Education program, Gila Training Institute, Border Area Mental Health Services and the New Mexico Counseling Association. It is the first attempt by the collaboration of practicing counselors and therapists in the community and the Counselor Education program at WNMU to offer professional development to the students at WNMU and community helping professionals.

The conference is an attempt to address the issues that men face, the beliefs they have about seeking help, and the appropriate interventions that helping professionals can make with men that fit their needs in order to make a difference in their lives. The featured speaker will be Sam Keen, author of numerous books, including Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man; Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination; The Passionate Life: Stages of Loving; and Learning to Fly: Reflections on Fear, Trust and the Joy of Letting Go.

It appears from the research that the very elements of what we define as masculinity seem to contribute to men's psychological distress and to their reluctance in seeking help. The more traditional masculine roles that men play provide a great deal of strengths in areas such as problem solving, logical thinking and appropriate risk taking. But current research consistently reports that the more these traditional roles are endorsed, the more men experience a plethora of issues such as poorer self esteem, greater depression and anxiety, substance abuse, problems with interpersonal intimacy and the potential for violence.

Seven examples of these traditional masculine ideologies were explored in a recent article in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Each was described as a "script":

  • The Strong-and-Silent Script, the unemotional male script that helps boys and men live up to their expectation of being stoic and in control;
  • The Tough-Guy Script, where boys learn to be tough by suppressing emotions associated with vulnerability;
  • The "Give-'em-Hell" Script, where boys are encouraged early to fight in order to build character and avoid being bullied;
  • The Playboy Script, often the result of early societal messages and early traumatic experiences where boys learn to suppress their ability to care for and connect with others;
  • The Homophobic Script, where adopting any features associated with femininity is avoided, such as connection with others at any depth;
  • The Winner Script, where boys and men are admonished if they do not have the competitive spirit to an exaggerated level where winning is utmost important;
  • The Independent Script, where boys and men are forced to disengage from their significant parental figures too early and often face attachment difficulties later in life.

All of these, and perhaps more, scripts that boys and men are forced into by societal expectations often result in not only multiple problems presented to the therapist, but make the entrance into therapy a difficult step for men. Most of these scripts, in and of themselves, suggest that men should not be seeking guidance and that they "should" be able to solve their problems themselves. In fact, most of the tasks of counseling, such as seeking help and facing emotional problems, are at odds with the deeply rooted socialization that created the scripts in the first place. This process of seeking help implies dependence, vulnerability and possibly even submission, thereby threatening the societal demands on men to remain independent and invulnerable.

The challenge then for the helping professional is to discover each individual male client's script. The therapist must honor that worldview by identifying the positive functions that script has served for this client, but then help the client identify the cost of staying entrenched in that script. The therapist must be able to adjust the therapeutic process to work within that script to help each client become more flexible in the enactment of the script, without suggesting that the script be completely discarded. It may also be important to create alternative male-friendly environments for working with men that are more congruent with masculine socialization.

"Conversations with Men: Engaging Men in the Therapeutic Process" will be held April 22-23 at the Global Resource Center on the campus of Western New Mexico University in Silver City. Featured speaker Sam Keen will deliver a community address Friday evening, "Myth and Manhood: The Changing Definitions of Manliness," where he will discuss ways in which manhood has been defined by various cultures and how much of this has changed since the events of 9/11. On Saturday, addressing the helping professionals attending the conference, Keen will speak on "Love, Power and Vocation: Men and the Life of the Spirit." On Saturday afternoon a number of workshops will be offered to address more specific issues regarding men in the therapeutic process. For conference information, contact Dr. Lynn Hall at the WNMU Counselor Education Program, 538-6221 or hallL@wnmu.edu.


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