Many people, especially men, hold the misconception that psychotherapy will bring up buried feelings that will only interfere with their daily lives. A dominant narrative in our culture equates talking about one’s feelings with weakness and “dwelling in the past” or complaining. We are told to “stay strong” and “push through” or worse, to “stay positive” in the face of adversity. Our loved ones might tell us with the best intentions to “just get over it” and to “move on” with our lives, yet many of us know that this is not always possible.
These misconceptions are especially held by patients who value stereotypically masculine traits: logic, practicality, certainty, and lack of emotionality. For these patients, the cultural rhetoric of “just move on” leads to two specific questions often posed by male identified patients: “What is the point of talking about my feelings and past-experience? Isn’t it better to focus on more ‘practical’ concerns and move on with my life?”
These are fair questions. On the surface, psychotherapy seems to run contrary to contemporary masculine values. This is an unfortunate misconception propagated by our “move on” culture that assumes that our feelings are removed from reality and that our past is irrelevant to our present. This erroneous assumption has sometimes led to a characterization of psychotherapy as talking about one’s mother and letting off some stream that can be better invested in more “practical” work. But psychotherapy presents much more than a simple sharing of emotions with a passive psychotherapist. Psychotherapy is an open, honest, and engaged experience in which we actively work with the psychotherapist to explore those unknown parts of ourselves and what we desire most authentically; it is a fundamentally transformative experience that carves out new paths with very real and practical consequences for our personal and professional lives.
To dispel some of these common myths, the following presents a list of five common misconceptions about psychotherapeutic work and masculine identity.
1. Masculinity means not stopping to question why we do what we do.
Many of us find that we have certain habits and patterns in our lives that, for better or for worse, are part of our daily routines. Our habits and rituals are aspects of what makes us who we are. There are underlying reasons for our tendency to repeat these patterns, but we are for the most part unaware of them and rarely stop to consider why. This is perfectly normal as we all have unexamined assumptions about ourselves and our place in the world. Normally, our assumptions work well for us. But sometimes they can be faulty and lead us to repeat patterns that we would like to break.
It’s safe to say that we all know what it is like to some extent or another to be caught in these patterns we would like to change, things we would like to do differently. Psychotherapy invites us to question these unexamined assumptions and consider other potentials in ourselves that we may be overlooking. To undergo psychotherapy is to confront the limits of our own reason and to create the space for a more authentic and objective ground for our identity. To confront the possibility that our assumptions may be wrong is not at all to doubt ourselves: it is to have faith in our ability confront what is unknown to us and to take responsibility for changing our patterns in ways that benefit ourselves and those we love.
As an example, a patient treated by a VCCC staff seeking treatment for severe anxiety claimed that he was not an affectionate person because his mother did not show him affection as a child. These early experiences led the patient to believe that this lack of affection was normal on the part of women he loved. The patient would tell women he dated that they were not to expect much affection from him because of the way that he grew up. Although the patient was aware of this behavior, he had clearly rationalized and accepted it as “normal” and saw no reason to examine this assumption. However, it became clear through the therapy that the patient continued to genuinely desire affection but was afraid to ask for it.
Through therapy, the patient came to understand that he repeated his affectionless relationship with his mother with each new romantic partner and that his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) had developed in part as a strategy for avoiding intimacy with each new romantic partner. By examining this assumption through a psychotherapeutic lens, it became clear that the patient continued to long for an affection that he mistakenly came to believe he did not deserve. This simple examination of a single assumption came to have profound consequences on his life as he now attempts to acknowledge that part of himself that desires affection and is working towards establishing more intimacy in his romantic relationship.
2. Feelings have no practical use.
Another common misconception is that feelings have no practical value for our everyday lives. This is simply incorrect. Psychotherapy believes that our emotions provide unconscious feedback about our world around in ways that practically inform what we do day to day. Just as we might feel frightened when confronted by a dangerous situation and feel the sudden need to get away, everyday feelings such as joy, sadness or anxiety equally give us cues about our environment. Following these emotional cues provide us with direction in getting to the bottom of what is causing them.
While the logic of our emotions is not always obvious in our day to day experience, it is nevertheless essential to how we navigate our world and our well-being. Indeed, our feelings point us to those parts of ourselves that may not always find a voice in our everyday relationships, which is why we might mistakenly believe that they have no place in our lives. But our feelings ask that we pay attention even if we don’t always know what to do with them. Fortunately, it is the job of the psychotherapist to help us work through those feelings and to give a voice to what is at work in us of which we may not be consciously aware.
As we learned from the patient above, our feelings are what help guide us in breaking out of old habits and towards living a more fulfilling and authentic life. The patient’s past feelings of loss informed him about what he wanted: intimacy and affection in his love life. From a young age, the patient’s anxiety told him: “be careful when women offer you affection!” This unexamined feeling continued to work in him throughout his life and subsequently caused the patient to avoid showing or receiving affection in his romantic relationships. Though the patient believed that he was in full control of his life, it was avoiding his feelings that kept him in a vicious cycle that affected his romantic life in a very real way. The patient put a lot of energy into obsessive-compulsive rituals intended to keep them at bay, but these feelings remained with him despite his best efforts. It was only by confronting these feelings and asking, “what they are my feelings telling me?” that he was able to understand that his feelings were a warning against his mother only and that this warning was not true of all his romantic relationships.
3. Happiness is achieved through success and therapy just gets in the way.
Each of us has developed our own unique ways of managing what life throws at us. We are sometimes led to believe that “pushing through” and getting things done, no matter what the cost, is the best course of living. Work hard now, see a payoff later, right?
In reality, psychotherapeutic experience shows that many professionals who achieve high levels of success are not always satisfied with their lives, and that this success can come at the price of emotional well-being. These individuals often come to a point where they realize that their goal-driven behavior does not satisfy them in the way they hoped, no matter the level of success. Psychotherapeutic experience shows that what people value most is not success in meeting the standards of others but authenticity and successful attunement with one’s own sense of values. Therapy does not get in the way of success. Instead, it interrupts our unexamined tendencies to internalize the standards of success set by others that we mistakenly take as our own.
There is a difference between wanting something that is genuinely in tune with how you want to be and wanting the approval of someone that tells us how you should be. One of the most common complaints by patients is that they are unfulfilled with their choice of career. Most report familial and social influences on their specific choice of career and it is often only after many years of schooling and working in the field that they realize they are unhappy and begin to ask, “why did I do this in the first place?”. While the payoff comes, the personal satisfaction falls by the wayside.
The reason for this is that doing something we love successfully is not the same thing as achieving success: what makes us happy is not success in-itself, but success in something we enjoy doing. For this reason, it is important to explore what we want before we set out to achieve success in what other wants of us. Making this distinction between what we want and what others want of us is one of the fundamental goals of psychotherapy. For this reason, it is important to understand why we want to pursue a certain path before we begin. This is the first real step towards actual, fulfilling, and lasting success in our lives.
As an example, a man who was extremely driven by success came to therapy with the complaint that he was extremely dissatisfied with his life. The patient stated, “I am very depressed. I’ve achieved everything I wanted, but I have been thinking recently that I may no longer want to live. I graduated from medical school a year ago, and I am finishing a fellowship in surgery at very prestigious university next month. I am starting a lucrative position as a surgeon and getting married to the perfect woman the month after. I have done everything I was supposed to do, and it’s all supposed to be coming together. So why am I so depressed? I shouldn’t be feeling this way!”
As the patient revealed more about his life, the therapist noted that that patient’s parents came up repeatedly throughout their conversations: “When I started medical school, my mom and dad were so proud.”; “My fiancé is perfect, she is a medical doctor also, my parents really like her”; “My dad is a surgeon, so of course I had to be a surgeon too!” Through therapy, it became clear that the patient was in fact very successful, but that success did not mean as much to him personally as much as it meant to his parents. The patient came to understand that while there was a sense of satisfaction in gaining his parents’ approval, he had confused his parents’ approval with his own authentic desire.
What the patient came to understand through psychotherapeutic work is that he became depressed once he no longer had anything achieve in gaining his parents’ approval. Now that he no longer had anything to achieve, he did not know how to happily live the life he built. He had spent more than a decade working towards a goal that, while prestigious, was not what he wanted. It was only once he had reached the top of his field that the patient was finally forced to confront his original motives for going to medical school, which is when he decided to come to psychotherapy. The patient was able to admit, “Everything I did was for my parents, I just never stopped to think about it.” This understanding, while coming late, opened up new opportunities for the patient who was now beginning to explore his own desires and personal understanding of success.
4. Vulnerability is weakness.
Vulnerability is often seen in our culture as a sign of weakness or admitting failure, or worse, as the beginning of an emotional breakdown. This is not the case. In psychotherapy, vulnerability is defined as a state of being exposed to what we don’t yet know or understand. It is not weakness or a moral failure, but a willingness to admit our limits and open ourselves to new possibilities and ways of understanding ourselves and the world we live in.
We all grow and change over time because the world around us changes. While it is true that sometimes we need tough skin to remain resilient in the face of adversity, the truth is that we have different skins or personas that are appropriate to different occasions. Our personas are important to our lives because they let us navigate the world as family members, romantic partners, friends, students, and professionals. Each role that we play is learned through an openness in vulnerability in which we let ourselves be guided by others in gaining our bearings in the world, and we also guide in turn.
Psychotherapy is not too far removed from this common-sense experience. Psychotherapy is a meditated process of opening ourselves to new possibilities in the growing pains of uncertainty in order to find a more authentic and objective relationships to our reality. To sit in vulnerability is to expose ourselves to new experiences, to enter into a shared world by entering into other perspectives on our lives. Each time we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with another, new possibilities are revealed, new roles or ways of living more better attuned to the world around us. A moment of laughter, a sorrow, a joy, a new-found passion and sudden feelings of strangeness all equally fill the room in psychotherapy.
5. Psychotherapy is a last resort.
Another misconception about psychotherapy is that it is something we resort to only when we can no longer prop ourselves up, when we have “failed” to meet the demands of contemporary living. By this conception, seeking psychotherapeutic counseling is sometimes equated to admitting defeat or a personal fault. Yet, the reality is that the complexities of life never apply uniformly to any of us, as each of us knows the paths we have lived and what we have been through in ways that only we can know but do not always fully understand.
While it is true that psychotherapy creates a space for healing when life becomes confusing, burdensome, or unmanageable, the examples above also demonstrate that psychotherapeutic work as an active and engaged process of exploration of ourselves. The ultimate goal of psychotherapy is to help us to better understand the patterns that keep us repeating situations that harm us and those we love so that we can break those patterns that no longer serve us. To enter into psychotherapeutic work is never a last resort. It is always a first step towards taking responsibility for the well-being of ourselves and our relationships to those we care and are responsible for.
By Carlos Jimenez