When I think of a man going to see a psychotherapist, I think of Tony Soprano’s large frame and cherubic face taking over the screen as he reflects on his turbulent life. For those who haven’t seen The Sopranos, Tony, played by the late James Gandolfini, is a mob boss looking to work out issues concerning his marriage, kids, and ailing mother.
I won’t spoil the show, but suffice it to say that Tony has his breakthroughs as well as his regressions. What’s relevant here is the condescending attitude Tony has toward his therapist and the concept of therapy, particularly in the beginning before any breakthrough occurs. This is a motif that extends to movies, such as Good Will Hunting, and other popular shows, such as Dexter.
The meta-message is that men don’t do therapy — even when they’re doing it. Male self-reflection is portrayed as the equivalent of taking a cold shower with someone watching. This, unfortunately, is consistent with the troubling reality that, even though men are in more need of mental health services than women, they seek those services less often.
This has to end if men are to grow and to heal. An ex, who will remain nameless, suggested not so long ago that I see a therapist to work out certain problems I was having at work. She did not make the suggestion as kindly as I would have liked, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was using her tone as an excuse to dismiss the idea. When I considered the idea on its own merits, I (eventually) scheduled an appointment. That appointment led to dozens more.
Almost everything I had previously known about talk therapy I learned from pop culture. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have patience and to not assume that healing and/or change takes place by way of epiphany or flashes of insight like on TV. Real self-transformation is incredibly hard work and takes time.
If my experience is any indication, flashes of insight do occur at times, but they are often followed by periods of doubt and regression. Progress is rarely, if ever, linear. If you think it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong.
It turned out that my work-related issue was only a small footnote to much larger issues hidden in plain sight. The largest of them remain unresolved — but I have come to learn that therapy is not so much about resolution as it is about understanding and a certain amount of acceptance. It cannot work miracles, but it can provide you with the tools to work on those miracles yourself.
If I had not been open and responsive, I would have merely quit my job, moved on with my life, and learned nothing. While I did end up doing the first two things, I learned an enormous amount about myself in the process: most importantly that I cannot fix everything.
So I say to men: grow some humility and seek therapy when you need it. You’ll live longer and healthier lives.
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