What it Means to be a “Real” Man

Over our many years of working with clients at the Men’s Resource Center, we have found that just about every man struggles with what it means to be a “real” man. Many have been traumatized by the aggressive process of male socialization common in western culture. And, because it’s virtually impossible to live up to those rigid standards of distorted manhood, many men we see suffer from anxiety and shame. Our experience shows that treating an anxious man without addressing issues of his masculinity is like intervening with a depressed alcoholic and addressing only depression.

The problem for therapists is that, in spite of training, experience, and good sense, many overlook the debilitating process of male socialization and, unfortunately, propagandized by insurance companies and the American Psychological Association’s (APA) emphasis on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) diagnoses, treat the presenting problem only. At the Men’s Resource Center, we address the distorted masculinity that most men live with, and usually find that, in the process, the presenting problem falls away. Gerald’s story is such an example:

Gerald, an army colonel with four tours in Iraq, wound up in our men’s therapy group after his wife kicked him out of the house, tired of his extreme behaviors in their relationship of either being over- controlling or unavailable emotionally. Believing that mental health problems were the province of women and sissies, Gerald finally had to admit something was wrong when he starting having debilitating panic attacks. New to the group, he was surprisingly silent; a tough guy scared of plain talk. When he finally opened up after 10 months in the group, Gerald admitted he’d been fearful that emotional self-disclosure was dangerously contagious. Three years later, having found an openness and intimacy he’d never before experienced, Gerald perceived emotional candor as a badge of courage. His panic attacks disappeared and he found a new life, richer and more gratifying than he ever imagined.

In our experience working with hundreds of men, Gerald’s outcome of treatment is the rule, not the exception. Distorted manhood is pathology both more lethal and more amenable to treatment than many of those listed in the DSM’s list of arcane diagnoses. Although Gerald was revered as a hero for his ability to suck it up and soldier on in foreign lands, at home this ability to shut down emotionally or take control cast him as a villain.

Masculinity vs. Humanity

The Men’s Resource Center helps men redefine what it means to be a “real” man. In our men’s therapy groups, men un-thaw emotionally and become awake to their emotions and the warmth generated in sharing with others. They talk about the challenges of their lives both in and outside of the home. And in doing so, learn that it doesn’t make them weaker, just more balanced and complete. They see that they and their partners can have happier and more fulfilling lives if they let go of conventional masculine beliefs about male entitlement and privilege. Listening to one another and interacting in the group itself with increased sensitivity, men learn to choose between behavior that blocks out intimacy—control and avoidance—to behavior that invites intimacy—acceptance and compassion. Essentially, they replace distorted masculinity with the humanity they were born with. At the Men’s Resource Center we re-socialize men into greater balance and fullness. They humanize themselves, and then they’re free.

For more information about the Men’s Resource Center’s work and our men’s support groups, contact us at 616-456-1178 or through the MRC website.

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