Men and isolation
A common issue for men entering therapy is a sense of isolation – from other people but also from their deeper selves.
The issue they come to therapy for may be something different, such as depression, anxiety, anger issues or relationship problems. But usually underlying these symptoms is a feeling of loneliness.
This male isolation is something that many women are unaware of. Women are (usually) brought up to be in relationship with others. How much of many women’s relatedness is innate and how much conditioned is debatable – it’s probably a mix of the two.
But the reality for many men is that, when a crisis occurs, they find themselves without support. The crisis may take the form of a relationship breakdown, work stress, redundancy, addiction or growing anger problems.
The man hit by a crisis is less likely to confide in his partner or friends, or even to talk to his GP until things get really bad. That old message of ‘boys don’t cry’ rings loud in his ears, often until the situation has got so bad he is desperate.
Way back in the past, and even today in some ‘primitive’ cultures, boys became men after an initiation had taken place. This initiation was a rite of passage in which boys became men and were welcomed into the village’s male community. Older men were on hand to advise and mentor the younger men.
Today, in our more fractured and competitive society many men have grown up without these role models. They have been brought up to compete with other men not collaborate with them. They have been taught that they must always be tough and independent.
So, how can therapy help a man facing these feelings of loneliness and isolation?
The first, and most important, step is for the man to acknowledge what he is feeling. Once a man takes responsibility for his feelings of vulnerability, fear and lack of deeper connection with others, a space can open up for change to take place.
Paradoxically, it is often in acknowledging his ‘weakness’ and fear that a man can become stronger. The more willing he is to confide in his partner, therapist or a few, well-chosen friends, the more he can feel these parts of himself are acceptable and not shameful. That will help raise his self-esteem and reduce the danger of depression.
The man may then choose to look at his life in a deeper way. He may want to reassess the kind of work, how he spends his time or who he chooses to be close to in his life.
Author and psychotherapist James Hollis says that, in therapy we need to ask what task is being avoided by the client who is feeling deep, uncomfortable emotions, such as loneliness. In his book Swamplands of the Soul, he says the task is likely to be, ‘some variant of gaining permission, leaving a dependency or finding the courage to stand vulnerably and responsibly before the universe. In every case we are challenged to grow up, to take on the journey with greater consciousness.’