Breaking the Mold: Narrative Therapy With Men

By Peter Wright & Paul Elam

As men, we are born into the storybook world of brave knights saving damsels, stoic acts in the face of pain and suffering, and glorious deeds of male heroics. All these things constitute the psychological diet on which boys are raised.

Whether Sir Lancelot, Superman, a great athlete or firefighter, these archetypes silently shape our identity and direct our behaviors, often for the better and often at great cost. They are the living templates men use to map their world, to construct their sense of self, and to direct their behaviors in relationships with others.

Therapy with men, then, must involve a significant and compassionate understanding of the narratives that guide them, and must work within those narratives to carve out a path toward meaningful change.

To that end we will tentatively title a male-friendly approach to working with men, a Narrative Therapy With Men.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of narrative therapy, we need first to examine the place where therapy, coaching and counseling happens, which is more often than not an environment tailored to suit female sensibilities.

The Therapeutic Setting

Many therapy rooms have pretty decor, flowers, artwork, an essential-oil diffuser, and of course face-to-face seating positioned to honor the typical female preference for eye to eye contact and sharing.

You will find tissues placed conveniently on a side table in a decorative box, conveying the silent expectation of tears, shared feelings, and emotional catharsis.

In a way the therapy office mimics an hour at the cafe sipping lattes, for which women might prepare by thinking about what clothing to wear and what juicy bits of personal drama they might like to share. Then to round it off with all the sincerity of here’s your bill and have-a-nice-day.

So much for the male friendly therapy environment.

Imagine instead a therapy office in the boiler room of a ship, in a workshop, a park, a building site, mechanics shed or a sports locker room, with seating arrangements that allowed men to sit at 45 degree angles or side by side — engaged in some kind of task if they wished.

Imagine too if we were to engage in some kind of typical male play or industry – not just Jungian sandplay or water-color art therapies as suits the more effeminate sensibilities of women, but hands on therapy – while driving a truck, fixing the engine of a car or building a piece of furniture.

Or, if you prefer, something recreational. Standing on a peer fishing, hiking up the side of a hill or sitting beside a campfire.

When it comes to communication, men like a medium, something through which to channel their energy.

Lea Winerman, a staff writer for the American Psychological Association asks us to “imagine the Marlboro man in therapy.”

“The image just doesn’t compute, does it?” she half-asks, half-declares. Then she adds with obligatory condescension, “The Marlboro man wouldn’t admit to needing help.”

We can agree with Winerman that it is impractical to expect the Marlboro Man to sit in a feminized office, with a feminist-trained female counselor and gush his emotions on demand. But perhaps he would be more open to discussing his issues while riding a horse, stacking bales of hay or enjoying a beer?

As with boys, who are more engaged when kinetic learning is applied to the school curriculum, men too are generally more inclined to thrive outside of the prettified and sedentary counselor’s office — in the world where real life takes place.

For most men the average counseling office is not only in poor taste, it is at once anesthetizing and pressurized. It is an environment where the senses are dulled and urges male participants to do something that is already likely a problem in their lives – the expectation to perform for the benefit of a woman.

This is a critical point to make. As we examine the narratives of men, as we look at their stories, what we find with great redundancy is the expectation for them to perform for women. From the mandate to please mothers, to protection and provision for women, to heroic sacrifice and even down to the basic assumed responsibility for the female orgasm, we see men in a role to satisfy through performance.

What then can possibly be happening in the minds of men sitting in female dominated space, box of tissue at their side, with a woman saying “tell me how you feel” about this or that? Even worse, asking such probing questions with the implication that he is an empty emotional vessel in need of her redemption.

There is little there for most men. Indeed, if we honestly and compassionately examine the narrative of men’s lives, we have to agree with Ms. Whinerman again. There is no reason to imagine why the Marlboro man, or any other man, would have much to say to her at all, and the ones who do are likely just caving to the pressure to perform.

Without some kind of activity or medium to engage in other than naked personal drama and emoting, men tend to disengage. Feminist inspired therapy would have us believe that this is because men are emotionally stunted and ill-equipped to articulate feelings.

In reality, the only thing men are ill-equipped at is being women, which is why standard talk-therapy is such a poor option for most of them.

Like boys, men are more likely to connect with the therapist and be willing to table his issues (vs share his feelings) when they are engaged in something meaningful.

Rather than shaming men as recalcitrant therapy clients, we must take a different approach and offer them a greater variety of places in which to speak to their issues. Therapy can still take place in the traditional face to face manner in an office, but it can also take place in any of the environments mentioned before, providing the therapist is willing to step out of his or her chair and begin walking, literally, while the therapy takes place.

Alternatively, if the logistics of getting together with the therapist are restrictive, digital mediums like Skype can provide the platform, again with special consideration to siting postures: men might prefer to sit at an angle to the camera and have the therapist do the same, or he might prefer the vision switched to off altogether. For the tech-savvy therapist male-friendly backgrounds for his digital office might be employed on request – a bar, a mechanics shed, a kitchen… you name it.

And yes, unless a client has issues with alcohol, a beer during the session may not be out of the question.

That proposition will seem scandalous to some practitioners. However, we estimate the knee-jerk hostility to such ideas is rooted firmly in an academically acquired ignorance of men and their needs. It is consistent with trying to put them into the female emotional mold.

Finally, the language of the therapeutic session might need to undergo a similar revolution, depending on the client’s imagination, with less emphasis on unquantifiable metaphors like personal growth and empowerment, or on feelings, and more on metaphors of manual-activity to describe emotional processes; men speak in terms of wrestling with challenges, hammering problems out, trying to understand the mechanics of depression, and when considering objectives, they might hope to score a goal: to nail it, as it were.

To summarize, a new therapy for men might consider utilizing new settings for conducting consultations, including the use of a wider range of manual activities – occupations and crafts – as therapeutic mediums.

Having briefly sketched out the ‘where’ of therapy, we can now move onto the ‘what’ of the therapy.

The Practice of Therapy

Narrative Therapy with Men assumes the following principles as axiomatic:

  • Rejects misguided concepts like patriarchy theory and toxic masculinity.
  • By definition it is tailored exclusively to men’s experiences, men’s ways of thinking and behaving.
  • Does not hinge on demonizing or problematizing men
  • Sees learned detachment as essential to problem solving
  • Recognizes the unique emotional and psychological acumen of men
  • Sees the therapist as more of a coach or mentor than an emotional conduit.
  • Seeks to use men’s kinetic inclination as an asset, rather than treat it as an impediment to progress
  • Narratives, the building-blocks of our worldview become the focal point around which the therapy hinges, and include the following objectives:
  1. Identifying the current narrative

The way we tell our story is the way we form our therapy,1 so the first task for each man is to narrate his story about himself and his world. These initial narratives form the primary datum which sets the future direction of the therapy, a direction completely unknown until the stories are verbalized.

As stories are shared, likenesses between them and popular cultural stories can be discussed – such as classical myths, fairy tales, biographies of the famous or from movies, to bring the material alive. The comparison stories act as bass chords that animate the material under discussion, and to help depersonalize the content so that it no longer seems unique and isolating – ie. such stories belong to our collective cultural history and are thus very far from personal.

  1. Externalizing the narrative

Carl Jung was famed for saying “We don’t have complexes, the complexes have us.” The same can be said of narratives, including our personal ones. The stories and archetypes that drive our lives underscore the importance of gaining cognitive and emotional distance from them if we no longer wish to be held under their spell.

This is a radical departure from where most therapies in the modern mold take men. In standard practice the agenda of the therapist is usually to drive the client toward reliving trauma or loss and articulating the feelings that surround those things.

While practitioners with men need to have the skills to comfortably handle emotional upheaval when it happens, the objective is to help the client gain more distance from the inner turmoil, affording them an opportunity for practical, rational solutions.

How else, for instance, can a man stop acting sacrificially with women, until he rejects the sacrificial role? And to reject that role, he must be able to see it from a more objective distance, in practical terms. Men rarely need assistance to realize they are in emotional hell with a woman. They often stay silently immersed in it, entangled hopelessly in trying to find solutions that are not forthcoming.

While an exploration of childhood trauma, abusive parenting and unresolved grief may provide more insight into current life troubles, it will not provide what the client needs most. A path out.

Externalizing a narrative, depersonalizing it, helps us to see it as separate from our own self-image, perhaps for the first time. By abstracting the story and dissociating from it we can more easily edit its details and gain mastery: the narrative no longer has us – we have it.

The therapeutic practice of externalizing narratives has a long history beginning with Freud’s talking cure, Carl Jung’s ‘active imagination‘ to James Hillman’s practice of ‘seeing through narratives‘, and on to newer practices such as Narrative psychology and Narrative therapy.

None of the aforementioned, however, have actively applied the technique to the stories men live by – a shameful oversight for therapies claiming to plumb the depths of human experience.

The life of men has heretofore been shrouded in a cloud of repression, amnesia and denial, ironically aided and abetted by the very psychologists called to lift the lid on that repression.

While some have claimed to help men raise consciousness, what in most instances has happened is therapists adding yet more layers of faulty text to an already burdensome set of male narratives. Narrative Therapy with Men aims to reverse the tradition of neglect.

  1. Problematizing the narrative

A core tenet of Narrative Therapy with Men is that Men are not the problem, the narrative is the problem.

We view this approach to be corrective on its face. Men are universally saddled with the artifacts of a faulty narrative. Whether that is driven by a failure to be heroic or successful enough to fulfill historic male expectations, or whether it is the more modernized narrative of toxic masculinity, or both, men typically see themselves as the source of the problem.

Continually failing to fix themselves, which their narrative does not allow them to do, aggravates the situation all the more.

Portions of a given narrative may be destructive and other parts may not, which a joint, detached exploration can discover. It can lead to a discarding of the dysfunctional parts and a retention of those parts retaining value and importance to individual men.

It is as simple as keeping what works and tossing out what doesn’t, which is easier said than done. We view the main obstacle to that, though, as a lack of detachment.

For instance, shame can be a huge impediment. A man can see a problem, but without detachment, his experience of shame can drive him to deny, minimize and avoid the problem. Until, of course, the problem rears its head, causes pain, and the cycle starts all over again.

The only way, we argue, to interrupt that, is through healthy detachment.

An Ear for Men has detailed numerous examples of destructive narratives for men, such as the belief that men are inherently flawed, that they belong to and benefit from Patriarchy, that they must ignore their health to be worthy of relationships, or that their role in life is to serve women in one capacity or another while denying their own needs and value.

To these the new therapy for men applies the razor, surgically removing criticisms of men and replacing them with narratives of self-worth. And, importantly, it allows men the use of their logic and reason to guide the surgery, not their emotional reaction to the problem.

  1. Exploring potential new narratives

Life does not tolerate a void. That is why isolating problem narratives and the work of deleting them runs concurrent with a process of re-narration. In this a therapist and client can be imagined as co-authors working on a novel, where therapist co-writes or ghost-writes a new narrative, running a red pen though all the toxic text.

The new text can be literally anything the client dreams up. The practitioner consults with the client, offers observations, but otherwise gets out of the way and allows the client to have the lead role in the creative aspects of the process.

Narratives men adopt to break free from limiting expectations need not be reduced to reactions against the original problem-riddled narrative, which places the response into a narrow formula of thesis and antithesis. An example of that approach is seen in the tendency of some men to replace misandric narratives with misogynistic narratives. Or, perhaps, men who have been sexually rejected who seek to correct with sexual conquests.

An example of narratives structured along the lines of antithetical reactions vs. more liberating and proactive possibilities was elaborated in an earlier article at An Ear for Men, titled Values-based approach to gynocentrism for men. There we are given the example of three narratives:

1. A gynocentric narrative in need of deletion
2. An anti-gynocentric reactive narrative, and
3. A proactive narrative which transcends the for-and-against-gynocentrism binary

 

  1. Nailing down a narrative

The goal of the new narrative is to serve as a values-centered approach to dealing with self and world.

This part can be somewhat tricky. Values, or what we consider good and bad, right and wrong, purposeful or meaningless, are by necessity a product of our narrative. And they can be as destructive as the narrative itself.

For instance, you can ask a man to tell you about his values. He might tell you that among them are honesty and integrity. So far, so good. But he may also follow that up by saying his values drive him to sacrifice for the benefit of a woman, that a real man takes care of women and shields them from hardship.

The problem with that, as may be apparent, is that millions of men have led themselves to misery, ruin, and even to death, with precisely these values. It is not that their intent is flawed but that they have allowed values for which they have no conscious etiology to put them behind the wheel with a blindfold on, mindless of any values that might have addressed their self-preservation.

Again, a detached review of values, and how they stem from personal narrative is a necessity.

A values-centered ideology is established and articulated by the client at some time during the process of consultations. He may already have his core values clarified and will want to proceed with a narrative that honors them. Alternatively, he may feel his values have been implanted from without or inherited without consent, foreign objects that have brought harm to his health and wellbeing and so seeks to construct a new set of values and an accompanying life script that will do them justice. This can all be done with a practitioner, or simply on a man’s own volition, or with a trusted friend.

______________

That, then is a brief outline of Narrative Therapy with Men. It is not intended to be complete, and is indeed still a nascent approach to working with men. The psychological disciplines, as mentioned earlier, have hinted at this approach, have skirted the ideas contained here but without breaching the sacred wall of feminized psychology.

Now we set about the work of expanding on these ideas and calling on others to do the same.

 

References:

[1] “The way we tell our story is the way we form our therapy” is a quote from Patricia Berry’s essay ‘An Approach To The Dream,’ Spring Journal of Archetype and Culture (1974).

See also:

A new psychology for men
Authoring your own life
Playing your own role in life
A values-centered approach for men

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