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In our May 1995 issue we published an article by Patrick Wharton, critical of therapy for men, in order to stimulate discussion on men and therapy. We invited therapists and non-therapists to respond. In this ongoing column, Men and Therapy, we will print responses in order to continue the dialog on this important topic.
Patrick Wharton's comments in the May 1995 issue of M.E.N.magazine ("Third Party Therapy") prompted me to send along some reflections on my experience as a therapist working with men. Here are four important considerations for defining good therapy and selecting a therapist.
1. Is he a Druid In The Hut? I get this term from Michael Meade's retelling of the various Celtic fairy tales in Men And The Water of Life. The Duid in the hut is the guy who lives his own mystery, is available to you, but does not force his ideas on you. When you are ready for him, he is ready for you. A man may go to him once a week, once a month or once every so often and when he does he remembers the man's narrative, is able to reflect on his predicaments and help him get unstuck. He doesn't cultivate his client's dependence for the money. He doesn't try to live your life for you but treats you with respect. At the same time he has the aura of one who has been there. Does your therapist have this feel to him?
2. Is he safe for a man to go to? Many therapists have a bias toward women because women are brought up to be quickly capable of expressing emotion. This capability paces the therapist's training and comfort zone. Most men have to sit with their feelings for a while and during this time are vulnerable to attack by the woman who is more able to turn up the emotional heat. Men will also instinctively try to solve the woman's problem before hearing her out and thus inadvertently create sympathy for the woman. If the therapist goes into alliance with her, a man may leave the session doubting his own mind and feeling bad about himself. This is not in the interests of his psychological healing.
A man seeking therapy should also carefully evaluate the therapist for his political or ideological bias against men. Many therapists self select for the work because they were powerfully influenced by their mothers to be good listeners. They have what Bly calls "good copper." These therapists may not acknowledge that it always takes two to tango. If the man and the woman are suffering in the relationship, each contributes to the problem in his/her own way. The man may play the part of the angry little boy. The woman may isolate him and turn the kids against their dad. Each partner contributes to the breakdown of communication. The best therapist will instinctively acknowledge this interdependence.
3. Does he surprise you? Good therapy should be surprising to both therapist and client. The therapy room, like our dreams, should be a place where we become aware of things about ourselves that are true but have not come to consciousness. We should come out of "session" excited. We may not come out of every session feeling upbeat, but if we are bored or feel that we have been over this road many times before, something is not happening that should be happening. The therapy room should be a place where the veil is lifted. Where you face your dark side, your mystery, your scary stuff, the dark brilliance in yourself that you didn't see before. Surprise is a function of the therapist's willingness to take risks and to face the male shadow. Many men carry a lot of anger in this place and the therapist must be as comfortable working with this aspect as he is working with lighter emotions. Does your therapist have the guts to suggest spontaneous interventions that help you drop into dark spaces? Does he stay with you in these places or seem uncomfortable there?
4. Does he help you bridge your issues to the future? I accept Patrick Wharton's contention that therapy should be more than rent-a-friend. A man goes into the process because he lacks some inspiration about his life, he doesn't see the path. The effective therapist will help him see his own wisdom and own resources for making a change very specifically. As Richard Bandler and John Grinder of Neuro Lingustic Programming (NLP) fame say, the outcome should be "easy, effective, and immediate." Does your therapist pass this test? Or is his idea of successful therapy simply the "talking cure." He listens to you for a dollar a minute or better and that's it. You deserve more.
5. Does the therapist put himself "one down" to you? The great modern family therapist Carl Whitaker advocates that the therapist always approach the situation with the humility of knowing that he does not live the client's life. He bows to the client's own wisdom about what is needed. What kind of respect does your therapist show to you? How well does he listen to you? How often does he check out how the process is going for you?
The therapy room is "sacred" space. In many ways the therapist is simply a conduit for your wisdom to flow through. The best therapists know that ego prevents this flow and they know how to get the hell out of the way and wait for the client's own healing wisdom to come through. They are able to avoid the cultural "men's trap" of thinking that they have all the answers.
Art and technique are also involved here. A good therapist will prepare carefully for each session before the counseling hour begins. but once things are underway the therapist will suspend his models of what should be and listen with his whole being so as to craft interventions born in his own intuition and awareness of the client in the moment. So a final consideration should be Does the therapist have the native intuition to hear your life predicaments man to man? Has he lived long enough and suffered enough himself that he can have empathy for you as a man? Does he give you himself honestly?
George Lynn is a mental health counselor working out of the CenteringPoint Clinic in Bellevue. He may be contacted at (206) 454-1787