A few weeks ago, I wrote about some of the message that boys grow up with that subtly—or not so subtly—contribute to guys’ tendency to not ask for help. As eagle34 commented, that’s only part of the issue. What happens if the helpers don’t get it or they buy into the idea that guys should be able to solve problems on their own?
That’s not an idle question. In general, guys tend to ask women for help with “personal,” “emotional,” or “relationship” problems because women are generally considered to be better with those types of issues than men. If a guy turns to a therapist for help—something only about 10% of guys do according to Will Courtenay’s book Dying to Be Men—odds are that therapist is female. Although social work has long been dominated by women, the shift in psychology and counseling from male dominated to female dominated has occurred over the last two decades.
So what can a woman—or a man, for that matter—do to help a guy who needs to talk? In Gender in the Therapy Hour: Voices of Female Clinicians Working With Men, Holly Sweet and her colleagues offer practical (and theoretical) advice for female therapists who work with male clients. I heard them speak at last week’s annual convention of the American Psychological Association, and I think several of their suggestions are relevant for anyone a guy might ask for help, not just therapists. Here they are, in no particular order.
- Acknowledge that it can be difficult for a guy to confide in someone or ask for help when he’s having problems. Holly Sweet says many guys would rather have a root canal than talk to someone about their problems.
- Don’t assume he’s good at talking about his problems, even though he wants to talk.
- Give him time to gather his thoughts and find the right words. This may mean your conversation is punctuated by silences that are longer than usual; that’s okay.
- Don’t assume he knows what to expect from this type of conversation; if the thing he’s talking about is complicated, you may need to be explicit about the fact that the two of you can’t deal with all of it in a single conversation and that you’ll need to talk more at another time.
- He may not know specifically what to do, but he probably wants to. This is most obvious if the problem is about a relationship (family, work, romantic, etc.). Given that we do a pretty poor job of teaching boys and men how relationships work, he may not have a good idea of how to actually start a conversation about Topic X or what to do to “re-establish trust,” for example.
- He may not follow your advice or come back for round two, even though you both know it was good advice and further conversation would be helpful. There are many possible reasons, from the difficulty of asking for help, to concerns that he may become overly reliant on your advice (and thus lose his independence), to his decision to pursue a different approach, to … you name it. There’s also the possibility that you will be—or are being—seen as some type of threat to other important people in his life. Whatever happens, try not to take it personally; the lack of a second conversation probably isn’t about you.
- Don’t assume he’s a stereotypical guy. Even though he may fit some parts of the stereotype, he probably doesn’t fit it 100%. And even if he does, there are lots of things the stereotype doesn’t really address, such as feelings about children or parents.
- Don’t expect him to use feeling words—even “happy” or “sad”—with any regularity. In general, we teach boys not to think about their feelings, not to understand their own behavior in terms of emotions, and not to think about other people in emotional terms, so he might not be comfortable with those words. If you desperately need to hear those terms, that’s your problem, not his.
- In general, and especially for therapists, don’t assume you—or the broader “we”—know everything there is to know about male socialization. Although research was biased towards men until about 1980, it tended to ignore issues unique to men. In the last three decades, there’s been much more female-specific than male-specific writing. As a result, we don’t have a good overview of what male development or behavior looks like in the current day; it’s certainly changed from where it was forty years. Get educated (and keep reading The Good Men Project).
- Be aware of your own feelings, especially if you’re offering help on a regular basis. In the therapy world, this is countertransference: a therapist’s feelings regarding their client. Although we typically think about this in terms of romantic or sexual attraction—and there have been plenty of movies about that—you might find that he reminds you of a family member, co-worker, friend, etc., for good or for bad. If that’s happening, you need to recognize it for what it is and find a way to deal with it.
Image of two men having an animated conversation courtesy of Shutterstock