It is often commented that “men find it harder to come to counselling than women.” As a generalisation, this may be true, but generalisations are not useful because they tend to strip away at individuality. It’s not helpful to stick labels on people, especially if they are labels generated by an over-view of humanity which takes no account of them as a person. Kierkegaard said that “once you label me, you negate me”. I think that is profoundly true and yet psychology and the health professions are continually diagnosing and labelling, and I know that, to a point, counsellors have to operate within that system. How does one solve this dilemma? Perhaps one answer for counsellors is to notice it and to be aware and pragmatic about it - both striving against it and working with it at the same time. There are many men who are find it easy to go to counselling and we see many of them in our practices. Nevertheless, some men do find the notion of counselling hard and so I shall address that issue here.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the phenomenon. It’s really quite analogous to men and physical ailments. There is a stereotypical man who has to be forced to go to the doctor even if he feels at death’s door; who sees signs of possible cancer but doesn’t go to his GP until it’s too late. Many men do NOT do those things, but alas, there are still many that do. Some men can be just as reluctant to go to counselling – perhaps seeking it or accepting it only when their situation is precarious. They may see counselling as a last resort, and may first employ a variety of destructive avoidances to deflect from their problems - drugs, over-exercise, sex addiction, alcohol, gambling or workaholism.
Even though times have changed a lot and we live in a much less male-dominated society, cultural and societal conditioning still sends out strong messages about how men should be: “be a real man,” “be one of the lads,” “big boys don’t cry,” “don’t be a whimp!” “are you a man or a mouse?” “what a wuss!” etc. For men, it’s bad enough when these messages come from other men, but when they come from women it can be very difficult and painful. It can be a great weight for men to carry. Some are fine with it, some never become much aware of it and many find it very limiting.
Perhaps also, men are behind women in terms of the changes they have made since the last war. Women have both wanted and undergone massive change and have boldly gone from feminism to post-feminism. They have explored their old and new roles and many women have started to make some personal sense on how that all needs to balance out for them. Men, on the other hand, have been more conservative and have not changed as fast as women have. Part of this is down to them and part of this is down to how society has not examined and discussed the changing role of men in quite the same way it has with women.
We’ve all heard about how men are confused about “what women want,” and indeed this is a subject that often comes up in counselling heterosexual men; gay men also have a variety of problems about sexual stereotyping - many of which are the same as the ones I discuss here, though some are different. Men are usually acutely aware of what many women’s view of the ideal man is and know how they could be judged if they aren’t one. It’s not unusual socially to hear women sympathise with the plight of men - who, despite the fact that they are told that women would like open-hearted, gentle and emotionally expressive men, also get the message that women want men to lead, take charge, provide, save, protect and be strong. It can be exhausting and confusing to be a man! But there is a simple answer – it’s up to each of us to be authentic and be true to ourselves. It’s also up to each human being to save themselves and sort out their own happiness. Neither sex should expect saving, on whatever level, from the other no matter how strong your programming is for that. A man should be the sort of man that he is and if he finds that that does not meet another’s expectations then, whilst there is always room for some manoeuvre in relationships, ultimately that’s too bad. It’s a very confusing balancing act for some men. As counsellors, we work with them to accept themselves just as they are and encourage them to be themselves.
Most men have within them, to different degrees, both the protecting, strong man and the emotional, gentle man: it’s about accepting that and feeling safe to express it. And it is about finding a partner who wants them just as they are and who won’t scorn them if they mess up once in a while. At bottom we all, male and female alike, wish to be loved without expectation. Women have exactly the same issue with finding a man who will accept them as they are. Men just have different, and often unexpressed, types of conflict over this issue.
Why Men are Reluctant to Seek Therapy and Why they Should Anyway
Let us work with the labels and say that surveys show that men are generally more reluctant than women about starting counselling. There are a variety of reasons for this. I’ll look at several of the key ones in turn and try to answer each one as I do:
- Expectations – these may be about what society expects or, often, about what they think women want from them. Sometimes these expectations have a real basis in the experience of men and sometimes they don’t and are just a manifestation of fear. Shakespeare described “expectation as the root of all heartache.” To counter-act it, we can stress the need for authenticity to our clients – male and female. Living a happy life is largely about being true to yourself and not being limited by expectations - whether from individuals, groups or society as a whole. Frequently, the most content people we know do not conform to expectations.
- Some men think of counselling as a ‘female’ activity (a view reinforced because many more counsellors are women than men). All we can do as a counsellors is to be here to balance out that thought. There are male counsellors available and men who do go to counselling differ on whether they wish to see a male or female counsellor. In addition, there are many eminent male figures such as Freud, Jung and Rogers, in the history of counselling and psychotherapy.
- Maintaining Control - some men may feel that going to counselling means that they will lose some sort of control over their lives. In fact the opposite is the case - they are likely to gain control over some things (and accept more easily those which they have no control over). As counsellors, we accept that we are dealing here with the element of fear, and that fear is very human but not necessarily rational.
- Problem Solving – many men are natural problem solvers. If a man's identity is primarily wrapped up in this, then he may ask "why should I go to counselling to fix something I can sort myself?". But the point is that frequently many of them cannot fix the something and in fact are not normally actively trying to do so. Avoidance, denial and deflection are not fixes in and of themselves and merely make the problem worse over time. Counsellors are trained to help people look at things in a new way and at their options. We don’t solve problems for any client, men included, but we do help them clarify, explore, look at options and facilitate their process of change.
- Macho Culture – this says that men should be strong and deal with things on their own. From an early age, men are encouraged to be strong and successful. A situation like counselling in which people naturally look at areas of life where they could do better may play on notions of “failure” even though the truth is that we are all constantly involved in a process of improving and learning. There is also the notion that men should not show their emotions (“big boys don’t cry”). Perhaps we need to question the notion of success. Christopher Morley said, “there is only one success – to be able to spend your life in your own way.” Dying people have testified that this is certainly the bigger part of it. We can add fulfilment and happiness to that, too. It is not successful to wear a mask and be unhappy all your life no matter how much money you earn or how macho you appear. Allied to the macho culture, all of us, male and female, are also immersed in materialism. Sadly many men become aware of these limiting influences only when they are near death and it is too late to put them right.
- Status – many men place great significance on how they're perceived by others. Going to counselling can seem like a threat to a man's ego. There are men who will fight to protect the image they want to project at the cost of anything else – including happiness. Having said that, things are changing for the better – it’s not unheard of now to read of men discussing with each other how many counselling sessions they have been to. This is a good sign of more interest in their emotional well being. In some countries other than the UK the trend for openness about counselling has moved further forward.
- Fear of Change - many men tend to be more conservative than women. Since counselling is about making changes and change is an unknown quantity, this can again evoke fear. The plain fact is though that life is full of uncertainty and change. Most of this happens without us feeling that we have a choice; but counselling can help us to make the choices that are available and accept matters when there are no choices.
There is an additional problem in that many men who do come to counselling wait to ask for help right up until the situation has become desperate, which means that they struggle on with heavy and exhausting problems they just about keep at bay, perhaps at terrible cost to their health, relationships and happiness. Alas, this phenomenon means that some may even prefer to fail than to admit that they have a problem, which can end up in broken marriages, addiction, homelessness, or even suicide. It would be good if there were an easy answer for that, but it works on the level of education and information: “the healthy and strong individual is the one who asks for help when he needs it. Whether he's got an abscess on his knee or in his soul” Rona Barrett.
A recent BACP survey highlighted that 83% of people would consider going to counselling if they had a problem they couldn’t resolve. Counselling is becoming more talked about and the taboo is disappearing in the same way it has in the States - but it takes time. Counsellors recognise that for all human beings, male and female, life is often very difficult and challenging. We also recognise that there are particular weights on the shoulders of men and that these weights need dealing with gently and thoughtfully.