Working with Men in Therapy

 
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Psychotherapist, Mary Jo Drueke, MA LLP brings a wealth of experience to her individual therapy and group counseling sessions with men. Although she’s trained in meditation and has studied with world-renowned experts such as Alan Wallace, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Eckert Tolle, without a doubt, her relationship with her siblings colors much of her work. Having grown up as one of four children, three of whom were boys (all older), Drueke has developed an understanding, love, and empathy for men and the issues they face in life. She co-leads men’s psychotherapy groups at the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan with Randy Flood, psychotherapist, and Director of the Center, and also provides individual counseling there for partners of men. In a warm and lively conversation for the Revealing Men podcast, Drueke and Flood talk about their experience of working with men in therapy. You can read excerpts from the conversation below (edited for clarity and length) or listen to the complete podcast on Spotify, Google Play, or Apple Podcasts.

An Appreciation of Masculinity

Flood: You were raised with brothers and so when we talked about you running men’s groups with me, that was one of the things you chuckled about, that you had had good training in being with men.

Drueke: Absolutely! I was the youngest of four and those other three were brothers and considerably older; my youngest brother was ten years older than me. They sort of had an attitude, and I don’t know how much of that was just specific to my brothers or the time that we grew up back in the ’50s and ’60s. I knew that they loved me but they didn’t make life very easy for me [laughs].

There was a lot of the traditional “girls don’t do that” and, being much younger, I didn’t have all the skills they had in terms of communication. It was easy for them to dismiss me and yet, as I said, I knew that they loved me and they still do. So even though our roles have changed dramatically over the years. That male energy, it’s not foreign to me.

Flood: Right. I noticed that — when we’re doing groups together —your level of comfort. And I think the guys pick up on that too. That they can be men with you and you kind of roll with that. I think you appreciate the beauty of masculinity but you also have a deeper understanding of some of the difficulties men come to the groups with and [you] have some compassion.

Men’s Struggle to Fit In

Drueke: I think part of my understanding is in seeing my brothers being confined in some ways by the role — the “stereotypical male” role — of bread-winner, tough guy, drinking hard and partying hard. All that stuff was acceptable but we did not have tender moments. And I don’t feel so bad about it for myself as I do for them. Even still, I see them suffer from that and unable to express that. They’re human and they need that stuff just like women do. They need love, they need care, and they need expression.

It seems to me that some of those things that people get hung up in — that men get hung up in — I see that and it’s almost like it’s … I’m not going to say that “it’s not their fault” because that implies that there’s nothing they can do about it … but they came to it without asking for it and have had to really adjust I think their true nature to fit in, to be accepted as men, even as boys. Growing my own son, I have seen so much of that happen, and it was the last thing I wanted to do but it’s there, even if in the home it’s not, it’s just there in the culture.

Having Courage to be Honest

Flood: I wonder if you could say a little bit about the amount of courage you think it takes … to see grown men who are very successful as attorneys, doctors, plumbers, or whatever come into this room with us. And they have the courage to begin to be honest about what’s going on in their inner lives.

Drueke: I’m truly struck by that. I see them expose their tender underbelly that they’ve guarded and test that out. I think that takes an enormous amount of courage in a room of other men. They don’t know how they’ll be received. That initial offering, even though they’ve seen other men do it, it can be really hard. I think part of what makes it difficult is that for some of them it’s been so ingrained that they can’t really see what they’re missing. The value of the feelings that they have. The value of the thoughts that they have. And that to express them could mean something to another human being.

Flood: Don’t you think there’s this fear that it may appear weak? And that to express feelings is in some ways antithetical to being male? “Men suck it up.” “Men don’t wear their emotions on their sleeve.” There’s so much of that, as you say, that they grow up with. There’s a sense of being weak or melting or a self-diminishment when you share feelings. Do you see men have a different relationship with their emotions over time that changes, that shifts?

Drueke: Absolutely! I think part of what’s so difficult for men in a general way is that it also brings up a sense of shame and a sense of identity. The identity of being male for so many men are those things that you said. It’s like stepping off that can be like really, truly, jumping into the abyss. “What am I giving up here? I am giving up me.” To do that takes an enormous amount of courage and trust.

Fearing Vulnerability

Flood: One of the reasons to have you circle in with me with the guys is there’s a way in which men can assume, not that you represent all women, [Drueke: “No.” Laughs] but you bring in a presence that gives them a chance to experience the level of respect and care that you show in your eyes and your voice when they are being vulnerable. Because I think the fear is for a lot of men —and it’s still a lot of pressure on them — is to stay on their white horse, to be strong, and not let them [women] see behind the curtain of what’s really going on. Women will be unattracted to that and it will look weak. I don’t know if they trust it’s safe really to be vulnerable with their partners.

Drueke: Yes! That’s one of the reasons I really enjoy this work so much. I do, in a way, get to stand in for ALL women [Laughs]. I hope that I represent the feminine well in that way. I am touched by their willingness to try. I am touched also by the road that has led them to a place where that is so tremendously difficult. It’s a big hurdle!

Flood: It’s almost like you enter into a sacred space, in some ways.

Drueke: Absolutely! I absolutely feel that. Sometimes the men in the groups can be a little uncomfortable with my style, but I don’t feel like it’s because I’m a woman. That’s huge for me! I really do not feel any kind of holding back or dismissal most of the time. I mean, there are occasions that I feel dismissed because I’m a woman. But that’s fodder!

Flood: Right. We can bring that into the room and talk about that. Their beliefs about women and beliefs about men and women come to the room and they manifest and we work with it. Rather than shaming them by saying “I can’t believe you’re doing that.” Let’s talk about it!

The Curative Power of Empathy and Nurture

Flood: Are there specific moments or experiences that you recall that stand out? Different shifts that you’ve seen men make or different stories you might have heard that stay with you?

Drueke: I recall working with a man who I think is truly bound by that idea of being “a man.” I think you actually suggested that they use my presence to work on some of that stuff. That has happened. And I’ve seen a shift and it might not sound like a big shift but to me it was! It was a shift of actually starting to maybe believe that, when I had words of encouragement for the progress that this man was having, he could begin to hear me. He did not dismiss me because I was a woman! He was beginning to hear me! That was very sweet. Very special!

Flood: That’s where I think they receive the nurturing from you in a different way than they do with me. I think that is sweet to see. Some of the men didn’t experience good mothering or didn’t have that kind of nurturing when they were younger. They were told to get off the laps of parents and go out and play and “stop your crying.” To have someone there that shows that empathy and sweetness is curative for them.

Drueke: It’s actually painful to see sometimes the look in a man’s eyes when I’m there with them in their pain. That I recognize it as painful — what they’re experiencing — but they may not let themselves recognize that it’s painful or admit that it’s painful. I can see that look of “Are you for real?” There’s that distrust. And then they continue to try to go with me. That’s pretty wonderful!

Flood: You see the pain. They have probably some shame about the fact that they’re feeling it. Thinking “What’s wrong with me?” “Why am I feeling so sad?” “Why do I have this ache?” Your empathy has a way of reaching them and helping them start to connect with it and giving them permission to share it. I’ve seen that happen. We were emailing back and forth about this and you said something to me and I’m going to read it. You said: In the end, it is the ache that I feel when I see men missing the connections in their lives. Because of the fears of breaking the unspoken rules that keep us in our place. It is that ache that keeps me in this work and why I love it.

Drueke: It’s true! That again gets back to the sacred space. I feel like I get to do this work! I’m so lucky! It’s very special! I think because of that tenderness and the rawness and the courage and the trust, all of that goes into such a state of being present in this very moment that it does create sacred space.

The Value of Emotional Health

Flood: I think of the mental health statistic of men committing suicide four times the rate of women. Some of that’s because they’re better at it — the lethality methods. And we’re seeing it even more so with middle America with the demise of the manufacturing economy and having to retrain and retool for emotional intelligence and relational intelligence.

A lot of men are feeling left behind; in the margins, and so there’s the meth and opioid epidemic and the rising suicide rate, particularly with young white men. That makes me think of that ache that you see. There are so many men that just feel like they don’t have a place to share that. And they just think that they don’t deserve to live or it’s just too much.

Drueke: The ache for me is that I can see their value better than they can. There’s not a single man that I’ve interacted with and I feel like “now, there’s a bad guy.” There’s goodness in these men! Often, it’s hard for them to expose that.

Flood: Some of these guys, you’ve heard some of their histories! Not all of them have sordid histories with behavioral problems. But some of them have histories of domestic violence, sexual acting out, affairs, pornography issues. They can talk about that with you and with us but they don’t feel shame because I think you can see the wounds inside where those things manifest, where those behaviors manifest.

You see the large cultural landscape. You see the history that brings men into the room and then you’re good at seeing what’s in their interior life that maybe it takes them a while to see, which then invites that out for them to share. I really appreciate the work that we do together and I appreciate the conversation that we were able to have about that today, too.

Drueke: I feel the same way, Randy. It’s been a delight working with you. This is fun!

Flood: Thanks for coming!

Drueke: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me!

Invest in Yourself

If you are struggling with life’s tough issues or perhaps just trying to find your way and identity as a man in today’s world, we are here to help. Our men’s support groups provide opportunities for education, challenge, and growth. And, they are particularly effective in treating men’s issues. All of our support groups have goals and approaches tailored to working with men and their individual needs. And each is facilitated by a highly-trained counselor or therapist who is knowledgeable about the issue at hand. This experience paves the way for effective living outside of the group. Contact the Men’s Resource Center for more information.