Revealing Men
Revealing Men
Men in Psychotherapy: The Unique Challenges and Lasting Benefits

The Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan provides the tools and support men need to better navigate and succeed in today’s world. It offers a wide range of services including counseling, assessment, consultation, evaluation, and therapy. Each of its therapists is well-educated and highly-knowledgeable in specialized areas. On occasion, the Center invites guest therapists to share their skills and knowledge. Dr. Kirk Brink is one of those individuals. Dr. Brink has practiced individual and group psychotherapy in private practice for over 30 years. He is a friend and mentor to Randy Flood, psychotherapist, and Director of the Men’s Resource Center, with whom he has co-facilitated psychotherapy and men’s support groups. Whereas Flood’s psychotherapy groups are exclusive to men, Dr. Brink offers mixed-group counseling; including men and women. His experience of working with mixed groups provides him keen insights into gender differences, challenges, and similarities when working with clients in counseling.  In this conversation, the two talk about their work with men in psychotherapy: the unique challenges and the lasting benefits for men. Excerpts from that exchange are below (edited for length and clarity). Listen to the complete conversation on the Revealing Men podcast.

The Usefulness of Groups for Men

Flood: So, say a little bit about your work. You do psychotherapy. You’ve been a guest therapist in my men’s groups, where I would bring men from my groups to you and then we’d spend a good half-day or full day with you.

Brink: It’s a good place to start because I want to get men that I see—I see people for individual therapy and I also see them, much like you, individually, and at the same time, in a group—I want to get them in a group, and the groups I do have women in them, too.

I think Carl Rogers said it. For a person coming into therapy—and I think it’s more true with men—two things have to happen: They have to recognize they have a problem and want to change it. Now the second one is usually not so well developed. For anybody that comes in, they want to learn how to change other people so other people will give them what they want and live comfortably with them.

Men, usually when I have them all together, they are supportive and understanding, whereas women will challenge them in the area of the undeveloped self. And that’s where it’s very useful to have men and women in group. So that’s part of why I practice the way I do. And for women, they like to be in a group with men. They want to figure out how men think. Because they don’t understand it.

Flood: Right. Men are on exhibit, right? “Tell us what’s going on behind that mask!”

Brink: That’s right.

How Men are Challenged in Group

Flood: I think that your experience with doing some of the men’s groups with me when they gather together, it’s like you do get to see the difference of what men might be like in a mixed-group and what they might be like in a men’s group. Both are valuable!

Brink: Both! Both! They will talk about things when it’s all men that they won’t with women.

Flood: Yeah. What do you think happens with that?

Brink: Well, that’s part of, again, what I find valuable about mixing men with women, is women will challenge that undeveloped self much more than men. You probably know that on dating sites a man who gets about a 15% response from women that he wants to get together with is doing very well. Whereas women, they get about an 85% response. Women have a great deal to tell men about that undeveloped self.

Exploring the Undeveloped Self

Flood: Say a little bit about the undeveloped self. Are you speaking to, like, emotional intelligence, intimacy skills, more grounded sense of self, or all the above?

Brink: Actually, all of the above. I think as [David] Hume identified, it’s more in the dark side. They [men]usually come in, as I said, wanting skills— they want fix-it skills. How can I fix my friends, my wife, my employer, to live better with me?

Flood: You see that men are really, really interested, and motivated in the outer world. They’re socialized to manipulate and engineer the outer world. [Brink: “Absolutely.”] You’re trying to sell them on this idea that no, we’re going to work on the inner world and it’s like foreign territory or foreign land.

Brink: It is. They get rewarded for working with the external world. So, I have to set— probably like you do— the groundwork for, this is not going to go as fast as you want it to, [Flood: “That’s very hard for them.”] you will not like that you come in here and you’ll have a sense that I have no plan for you. That’ll be your sense.

I’m going to expect you to talk about feelings, not about doing things, not about fixing things. And here will be the good sign that things are happening: People around you will tell you things like, “you seem to be more patient,” or they might say “you seem to be less patient,” “you seem to be talking more,” “you seem to be talking less.” Those will be the signs that things are changing. You probably won’t notice them, but people around you will. So, I prepare men for that, otherwise, they have trouble sticking with that process to get to that, what I call, that undeveloped self.

The Difference Between How Men and Women Perceive Weakness

Flood: I think it is [Reuven]Bar-Levav …, he talked about “thinking in the shadow of feelings.” I added to it with “thinking and behaving in the shadow of feelings.” I think men sometimes scoff at emotion, like “emotion gets in the way,” “emotions disable me in some way, and it makes me weak.” They don’t realize how much of what they think and how much of how they behave is in the shadow of so much emotion and feeling.

Brink: We’d like to pretend that we aren’t mostly feeling and very little thinking, but yes. That’s again, a challenge that men face. Women want to talk about their feelings. They primarily want to just be listened to, not necessarily solve it. That’s one of their irritations with men; they want to solve it!

Flood: Charlie [Donaldson] and I both did some writing, and you were involved in helping us along, bouncing ideas off you. One of the things we learned from you a while back is we were talking about shame and fear. What is feeling? Men are comfortable with anger or something like that and we were looking at what is underneath the anger? Is it fear? Is it shame? One of the things you said that was pretty helpful to us was that men have a fear of shame. I was wondering if you could say a little more about that.

Brink: Sure. I think it’s very much connected to appearing weak or inadequate. Women, they are less frightened of appearing weak. Men quickly go to shame on that. Women have a different challenge. They believe they have to be good at everything. They have to be a good lover, they have to be good in their employment, they have to be a good mother, they have to be a good cook, and they have to look beautiful doing all of those things. Whereas a man, if he knows the baseball statistics, he’s got a spot in the group. But appearing weak, that really is tough for men. It’s in that area, I think, that fear of shame.

How Men Experience the Emotion of Shame

Flood: The experience of shame as we understand it is one of the most difficult emotions to actually feel. It just radiates in your body; it feels like all kinds of havoc in there. I think it was James Gilligan, a Forensic Psychologist, who talks about interviewing men in prison. He said there are some anti-socials in there and stuff, but most of the men murdered because of shame. They’ll do anything to not feel shame, including killing someone. It was just his dramatic way of talking about men’s relationship with shame: “Don’t make me feel less of a man, or I might have to kill ya!”

Brink: It usually gets tested. Men working with men, it will get tested right away by the insulting game. You have to be able to take an insult and you have to be able to deliver one, or you don’t have a place. It is much more with men than with women. The skill of delivering an insult and not being insulted.

Flood: So that’s that banter that you got to get good at. When I’m around men, I can go into that, especially men I have known for a long time, you can mock them about their foibles, and then they come back at you, and you can have fun with it! There is nothing inherently bad about it, but it does get to a point where it can get really hurtful and dangerous in some situations. Right?

Brink: Yeah. They need to know where that line is, and men are usually pretty good at assessing it. Women who can do it quickly can fit in with a group of men.

I had a patient talking about working with a team that analyzes why the person died; so that’s pretty much a man’s sport. Anyway, she was in there and they were going back and forth and one guy said he’d been through three marriages. She said, “oh you’re not so good with women?” And immediately she was accepted. She could hit and he could handle it.

Accepting Changing Gender Roles

Flood: What about in marriages? The old gender roles and stuff where men used to provide a roof over [women’s] head, and food in their bellies, and clothes on their back. The idea of showing up in a greater way with children and their spouses, and the challenges around that. Have you seen some shifts around that?

Brink: I have seen it shift in age groups. Not much shifting in the 60-65 and older, that was how they grew up, that’s what they saw their fathers do, that’s how they found their own value. But among the Millennials and Generation Z, even Generation X, it is shifting. Where men who are 40 would have never, in my age group (I’m 70), been comfortable with their wives earning more, I see more and more men who will stay home with the children and are very comfortable with their wives earning more. So that’s shifting!

Flood: That’s hopeful because it gives people a chance to negotiate without gender being at the central part of it: you’re a man, I’m a woman so, therefore, you do this, I do that. It’s more like: “What are your skills?” “What are your needs?” “What are the things you want to accomplish in life?” and negotiating from that place, rather than assigned gender roles.

Brink: For both men and women.

Flood: Exactly, right.

Strong Men Seek to Better Understand Themselves

Flood: One of the things that you were talking about earlier—and maybe it is going back a bit— [is] someone would think it is a terrible business model to try to offer specialized services, where part of being a man is not to ask for help. It’s like, “Why are you trying to provide mental health services to people who don’t want to ask for it?”

If a man is listening today, and he’s considering the prospect of counseling, how would you encourage him to see that as an act of strength and courage to put himself in a place of doing that kind of self-examination and learning about emotions and all that?

Brink: Well, I would try to help him see it as a strength, as a skill, as a willingness to face his imperfections. That it’s not a sign of weakness.

Flood: I think the big fear for a lot of guys is that in moving in that direction, developing those skills, their fear is that they’re either going to be emasculated or they’ll lose their masculinity, rather than seeing it as developing a fuller humanity and cross-training. That’s what you see, I’m sure. That as you work with doctors, attorneys, electricians, or whatever, they can still fish, and hunt, and be men, and develop this other side of them, right?

Brink: They can still do all the things associated with the past, as well as that more undeveloped self that they often haven’t even thought much about. Men get excited and I think having a Men’s Resource Center that is identified as a resource for men, is terrific! It is part of why I got interested when I first met you! I thought, “Oh man, here’s somebody who’s going to really identify as helping men!”

The Value of Self-reflection and Introspection

Flood: Well, Socrates said, “An unexamined life is a life not worth living.” You think about really what an examined life is, it’s self-reflection, it’s introspection, it’s curiosity, and that’s a good life!

Brink: It’s a very good life! Men, once they catch on—again, that’s where I find having them in a group therapy, where they are hearing from other men, but they are also hearing from women—they’re really encouraged when they talk about their feelings and see that this is valued.

Get More Out of Your Life

If you want to discover more about yourself and your emotional development as a man, the Men’s Resource Center’s in-person and online men’s support groups may be what you’re looking for. They provide opportunities for support, education, challenge, and growth in a safe environment. Explore your options online and find a group that fits you, or begin with an individual consultation and find a program that’s tailored to your needs. For more information, you can contact us online or by phone at (616) 456-1178. Also, feel free to reach out if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.