The last few months I had been in a difficult relationship with a woman, I experienced frustration, anger, and disappointment. Eventually, the communication broke down. On vacation in Bali, I attended a men’s group meeting one evening. I didn’t know anyone. The leader asked, “Is someone facing difficulties that they would like to explore with the support of the group?” I raised my hand without hesitation. One man was appointed as a representative of the abovementioned woman. I faced him and gave a raw and brutal expression to everything I was carrying, which I had not dared to say in real life, as if my girlfriend were standing right before me.
“Does this emotion have a sound?” the leader asked.
“Uaahhh,” I screamed.
“Does it have a physical movement?”
I stomped my feet in the ground and continued to growl. Swear words were all over the place. Then I started crying. It was a relief to finally let it all loose.
The point was not to solve anything but to release stuck emotions so that it would afterward be possible to bring underlying patterns into awareness. At the end of the session, the other participants gave me feedback on how they were affected by witnessing the process. Many of them had been in similar situations, themselves.
I experienced relief, clarity, and a sense that I was not alone. I ended up staying in Bali for a long time in order to attend the weekly men’s group. Along the way, I also got involved in its facilitation.
Training Ground for Communication
In men’s groups, men can bring to awareness the whole range of what it entails to be a man and a human being, including areas that are often surrounded by taboos, i.e. fear, anger, sexuality, insecurity, and a lack of meaning in life. Simultaneously there is also space given to self-recognition and creative visions, which can also be taboo. The groups become a training ground where the participants explore new ways of self-expression and relating.
A men’s group has a greater emphasis on the ability to listen and be present for each other than what is common in an ordinary friendship. The following are some important principles that make this possible:
1. Don’t interrupt the person who is talking.
2. Don’t give advice without permission, you should in no way try to “fix” other participants.
3. Speak using the word I rather than you or one when speaking about yourself.
4. Be personal and specific when you speak, not general and vague.
5. Don´t just talk about your emotions, express your emotions.
This opens a possibility for becoming more visible and transparent than an ordinary friendship usually gives space for. Many of us have not received training in how to interact in this manner.
Why is it important to express emotions? True, authentic expression gives rise to clarity. If I keep challenging emotions, thoughts and experiences to myself and don’t share them with anyone, this can become stuck and get problematic. When I give expression to difficult things, they change character. When I dare to become transparent with what I’m holding inside, it is given an opportunity to move.
The best men’s groups I have attended have had a clear structure for how communication and processes take place – the latter with a clearly defined beginning and end. The framework is there to support the authenticity of each participant to be expressed – NOT to impose an ideology. The structure gives the psyche a focus, creates safety, and makes it possible to go deep.
To Expose Shame
Most of us carry a lot of shame and have aspects of ourselves that we try to keep hidden from others. In a safe context like a men’s group it has been possible for me to expose and explore whatever I carry inside – also things I have feared and therefore have sought to avoid.
When I’ve been in the grip of emotions I have believed I’m the only one who is experiencing these things. Examples are insecurity, fear and a sense of not being good enough. By expressing myself in a raw and unfiltered manner, the shame has gradually lost its power over me.
Such self-exposure should not have as its goal to get rid of the shame. The result is, regardless, a much less tense relationship to one’s shame. In the beginning it felt almost like I was going to die. I could think “if I share this I will feel so much shame and I will be judged”. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. My shameful self-exposure has usually been met with respect and appreciation, and I have experienced that the energy of shame transforms into playfulness and a joy of being alive. The more such experiences I have given myself, the less seriously do I take the shame.
To Normalize Challenges
I was bullied at school in my childhood and didn’t feel included as one of the guys. Today I can understand that many others were most likely experiencing something similar. Even the so-called «tough» guys didn’t necessarily have an easy time. I believe that the experience of being disconnected, different, or not accepted is more common than what many of us think.
Almost every time I have shared something in men’s groups that is difficult for me, I have later felt that what I struggled with wasn’t so big or unusual after all.
I can believe I’m the most miserable person in the world, and then I see: “oh, all the other guys have their stuff, too.” So what then is really the problem? If we all have our challenges and our baggage, why can’t we be open about it, laugh at it, and no longer be so limited by it? This is something we’re able to achieve in men’s groups. New perspectives and possibilities present themselves as a consequence of this openness.
Reconciliation vs Forgiveness
Participation in men’s groups has helped me come to terms with my childhood and achieve a significant degree of reconciliation. Forgiveness, the way it is usually understood, is however not on the agenda in a healthy men’s group. I experience the concept of forgiveness, in Christian terms, as a way of being a “good” human being, almost like a strategy: “Oh, I’m gonna forgive!” with a feeling of being morally superior. Or, that one is mentally deciding to forgive and in the process pushes the difficult things deeper down into one’s unconscious mind and ends up being even more fragmented than to begin with.
When I give expression to challenging emotions in a men’s group, my wounds become less inflamed. I’m able to see other people with greater clarity and more able to appreciate them as they are. A significant degree of resolution may be a result of such a process – but first, that which actually resides in our inner world needs to be given expression – and that is usually something entirely different from forgiveness. It can be anger, rage, hate, and deep woundedness. Expressing these taboo-ridden emotions is the first step toward a real reconciliation.
Authentic forgiveness doesn’t primarily revolve around words. It arises when a sense of flow and warmth has been restored. This can happen directly in relationship to the person involved, but can also happen by a softening that takes place in myself, without contacting the other person. It doesn’t mean I can’t recall the past or connect with difficult emotions from that time, but it no longer has the same limiting power over me.
At the same time, it’s not a goal that one should be completely done with anything. Some wounds are so deeply embedded in us that we can never completely “get rid of” them. It is equally important to contain the pain and hold it in a different light. By deeply recognizing our own wounds, we can melt some of our defenses and realize that no human being has been spared from contact with the same human dilemmas. Then, the wounds can become a basis for compassion rather than bitterness, connection rather than isolation. These are the real signs that redemption has taken place. Phrases that we may toss around, such as about “letting go” or “forgiveness” become less relevant.
Courage and Fierceness
Some people believe that men’s groups are for weak men and revolve around being “soft and feminine and talking about emotions”. It is almost the opposite. When one as a participant dares to be vulnerable and transparent, one is really stating: “I put all the cards on the table, I’m sick of hiding and I’m nearly vomiting from seeing how I sabotage myself. I want to expose this so that something else becomes possible for me.” This requires fierceness and courage and has nothing to do with weakness. It can involve softness. There is nothing wrong with softness, but a men’s group doesn’t consist of dramatic blabber while sipping on a cup of tea – if that is one’s conception of softness. We work with our emotions and get in touch with the essence. We don’t indulge directionlessly in our emotions.
I believe that the people who judge men’s groups, without really knowing what a men’s group is, don’t have the courage it requires. They are afraid of exposing themselves and therefore label men’s groups as a meeting place for weak, “soft” men.
Authenticity vs Ideology-based Leadership
I feel very safe as a participant when we don’t spend a lot of energy avoiding something, hiding, or tiptoeing around each other. Lots of energy then becomes available to get straight to the matter and deal with things. This is a way of working that probably appeals more strongly to men than to women.
Some men’s groups are a meeting of equals, with shared leadership. Other groups have one or two men as the leaders, perhaps without partaking in any of the processes. Regardless of the leadership format, I believe that the most fundamental guiding principle is to give space for each man’s unique, authentic expression.
Paradoxically, this is most easily achieved by having a clearly defined structure – but not in the sense that it revolves around accomodating to any ideology. The framework should be there to support the coming forth of that which is fresh and alive in the moment. I have experienced structure and spontaneity as good companions.
Traditional Self-development Based on the Psychology of Women
I experience traditional personal growth groups to often be based on the psychology of women. Many men experience such groups as too evasive and not focused or precise enough for them to feel seen and heard as men. There may also be an expressed or subtle judgment of more masculine traits, for example, that all thinking is nonsense, and all the things that have interrelational value revolve around feelings. Men are naturally inclined to seek cognitive understanding, including how the psyche operates. When men are encouraged to include their cognitive capacity in a personal growth process, through precise, direct expression, this can help open the inner landscape of men. Many female therapists don’t understand this. They have an agenda that the men must open to their inner child, let go of «ego» and «analysis» and thereby they are judging men’s expression and experience as «wrong». This can be experienced as infantilizing and is an attitude that many men have had more than enough of already.
When boys grow up and are respected, seen at the developmental level where they are, are trusted, and arevgiven an appropriate amount of responsibility, their potential will more easily unfold itself. Many of the wounds that boys carry have to do with the opposite – being underestimated, looked at with suspicion, shamed, etc.
The core wounds of many men revolve around not being seen, understood, and respected for their potential, as well as having their power and sexuality shamed by women. Many traditionally run personal growth groups can easily become a continuation of these patterns. Deep connection with other men, however, can rectify much of this.
The Ability To Cut Through
When men use their power consciously and constructively, a great capacity to cut through the bullshit is revealed, so that one can get into the essence of what’s going on. This entails a proactive attitude where one is not afraid of dealing with conflict. One takes responsibility, both for oneself and the situation/greater context of which one is part, rather than letting conflicts and problems grow. One is setting healthy boundaries rather than allowing oneself to be manipulated – by oneself or others. To go into something that is challenging, with intensity and a commitment to figure things out, is actually an act of love and care. There is often a lot of fear of this intensity.
That the ability to cut through can be an expression of love and care has not been sufficiently understood and appreciated. Examples of how this ability can be applied is to challenge falsehood in relationship or at work. The result of the confusion around this topic is that the ability to cut through is not easily accessible to be applied in a healthy and constructive way.
Men’s groups are a training ground for the constructive use of the ability to cut through bullshit and falsehood. The use of this ability will usually generate positive consequences in the long run. I really need to care in order to cut through. What I’m talking about here must not be confused with violence or bullying. One could rather say that the intense energy that sometimes finds a distorted expression through violence or bullying can be channeled constructively as a healthy force when one is cutting through.
At the end of one men’s group event, I said some things that came from my psychological defenses. «Incongruence!», said one fellow participant. My words did not seem to fit with my actual inner state. I checked in with myself for a few seconds and recognized that the feedback was correct. Without feeling hurt or needing to defend myself, I was then able to instead say what I more deeply needed to say. Thus, the meeting could end on a constructive note for me. That simple challenge had a great impact. My «brother’s» intervention took half a minute and was not experienced as threatening.
Rough Love and Bullshit Detector
Men’s groups can help redefine or expand the definition of what love is. The intervention in my sharing was an act of care. Perhaps my fellow participant was also annoyed. Sometimes it is healthy to feel irritation and we should take it seriously: Why am I irritated?» At the same time, he came from a genuine wish that I should be authentic, that I should not hold back who I truly am and betray myself.
Even if only ONE man talks bullshit and it is not confronted, it will have a negative impact on the whole group. There is then a great likelihood that many participants will become less open and start talking bullshit too. It is the responsibility of the collective to not allow such stupidity. When a men’s group functions at its best, there will be little bullshit and the work will be very efficient. Some men’s groups operate with a «bullshit detector»: one participant is assigned the role for the evening to say «bullshit!» each time he believes someone is speaking untruth or is being avoidant. The participants who agree with the assessment will then raise their hands. The person whom it involves will look inward and see if the feedback resonates. Usually, the group-energy is right and the person is thus offered an opportunity to go deeper.
The ability to cut through can also be used in relationship to women. Women are sometimes lost in their emotions. Women often wish for the man to set some boundaries and take initiative for authentic dialogue. This setting of boundaries is an expression of intelligence, care, and love. The intensity is in no way related to violence or transgression of boundaries. When it is done in an atmosphere of respect, masculine setting of boundaries can create deeper safety and connection in couple relationships and in families.
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