Recently, a wife of a man in one of my men’s groups said, “Dr. Siegel did you sprinkle pixie dust on my husband? He’s even better than the man I fell in love with!” For most of my 30 years as a psychologist, I have worked with men in group therapy because it is such a powerful therapeutic modality for men. Why should I try men’s group therapy? Below are a few of my observations over the years.
Isolation and loneliness are bad for our physical and mental health.
Men yearn to connect with other men about fundamental life issues. But so many men lack the skills to cultivate this in their own life. Whether it’s relationship conflict, self-esteem, career aspirations, issues around desire and sexuality, or transition to retirement it is healing for men to know they aren’t the only ones struggling with these issues. It is also healing to be able to share our deepest fears and vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, there are few opportunities for this. Men’s therapy groups encourage men to cultivate these deeper connections outside of the group.
Improving our intimate relationships.
Frequently, men come to therapy because their partner has complained that they don’t express their feelings, especially the more vulnerable feelings. I haven’t met a man yet that doesn’t have feelings. Actually, they/we have just as many as women! Because of social conditioning, however, men may have become numb to them or not know how or when to best express them, but they definitely have feelings. Often a little help goes a long way in building these basic relationship skills. Group therapy gives men the opportunity to see other men experiencing feelings which give them permission to accept their own feelings and practice expressing them in a healthy way.
In the Company of Men.
This may seem counterintuitive, but generally, men have an easier time learning to express their more vulnerable feelings and needs in the company of other men. Prohibitions about showing weakness seem to be especially hard to let go of when there are women in the room. “Leading with vulnerability” has become a mantra in my men’s groups. Practicing “leading with vulnerability” enables them to feel more comfortable expressing their more vulnerable feelings with their partner and other relationships.
Challenge and Accountability.
When it is delivered with compassion and a lack of judgment men respond well to being challenged and being held accountable. We often don’t get relevant feedback about how others experience us. In a relatively short amount of time men know fellow group members and are known -all the good bad and ugly- on a deeper level than they have ever experienced. They know each other’s strengths as well as the things they struggle with. And often the things we struggle with are not all that different. Similarly, it is easier to see our own blind spots in other men than it is to see them in our self. A safe non-judgmental environment makes it possible to claim these blind spots in ourselves and hold ourselves and others accountable.
The deeper we know others the better able we are to give compassionate relevant feedback that is actually helpful.
Finally, belonging to a trusted circle of men is not only about working on our issues. It is also a place to celebrate small and large victories. Whether it is a raise at the office, a more positive encounter with a son/daughter, or a more open and vulnerable discussion with a partner all of these successes are reinforced and celebrated in the group. And since all the men are supporting each other one man’s success becomes every man’s success.
Groups aren’t necessarily the best approach for everyone. A group may not be indicated for someone who is in extreme crisis or for more serious mental health challenges. However, most issues that challenge us today have a significant relational component and group work for men is the most efficient way to address these challenges. Everything we do to increase our relational IQs will have lasting ripple effects on the rest of our lives.