I’ve seen amazing things happen when men share together. As a clinical psychologist, I have run support groups for men in a variety of contexts and have seen what men can do for other men and for themselves just by opening themselves up. I currently lead a monthly support group for men who have been diagnosed with cancer.
As with any support group, there is at least one defining attribute that identifies the group—in this case, having a cancer diagnosis, being male, as well as being physically available to attend group. Aside from these shared characteristics, nothing necessarily connects one group member to the next before entering the group room. There is one other significant shared characteristic worth noting: The men who attend are opening themselves up to trying to help themselves, and to connecting, sharing, and helping strangers.
Being open is no small thing, particularly for men. Being open to being open is no small thing either. It takes both types of openness to attend and participate in a support group. This is why a support group for men could present challenges. Men in our society are typically not socialized to be open to sharing or experiencing vulnerabilities nor are they necessarily socialized to seek out emotional support. It takes courage to express fears, distressing thoughts, or other emotions.
I was inspired to share my observations and thoughts from leading this group after reflecting on a recent group meeting in June. June being Men’s Health month, I find it fitting to share some of the changes I have seen collectively unfold in these men, simply because they have been paying attention to their own health. During this group, members were engaged in discussions spanning many topics, including anxiety reduction, nutrition, strategies for managing stress and challenges, fatigue, and managing doctor visits. That was pretty typical for the group, but the impact of doing so particularly struck me. I witnessed in how many ways these men have been open to making their health a priority. They have opened up (both to themselves and to others) about their health and how it is affecting them. They were open to both sharing their experiences and struggles as well as to listening to the experiences and challenges of others. And on an even more fundamental level, they were open to carving out ninety minutes of their day (and for some, adjusting their work schedules) to focus on their own physical and emotional health, recognizing that this is, in fact, worthy of their time, attention, and vulnerability. I shared my reflections about their openness with the men. They then shared some of their personal reflections on what they’ve recognized in themselves because of their participation in this group. Everyone left feeling uplifted.
A support group for men, in my experience, does have some distinctly different dynamics from groups that are exclusively for women and from groups that are not gender-segregated. What I see in groups that are exclusively male is a combination of elements. I see some elements that perhaps feel more natural or comfortable with group members because of traditional gender norms. For example, many group members readily help other men problem-solve, offering solutions and advice to others. Similarly I often hear group members encouraging other men to endure and keep fighting. In addition to these elements, there is also a clear sense of brotherhood and shared bonds over similar experiences, as well as an ethic of honesty, compassion, and openness. Not all of those characteristics are evident immediately, however. They emerge gradually as bonds form in the group.
Finally, some of the dynamics that emerge tie back into the common bond of cancer in the room. Cancer is an equal opportunity aggressor. It affects old and young alike, and can strike regardless of race, creed, geographic location, or income or education level. That said, individuals respond to cancer uniquely, and individuals responses and needs can change over time. At various points, many individuals, both men and women, recognize that they could benefit from giving and receiving with others with similar experiences. When people, men and women alike, open themselves up to giving and receiving from others the benefits to their emotional health and overall well-being can be long-lasting and powerful.
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