Tag Archives: Men

Dealing with Your Grief before it Deals with You

Bulldog

When it comes to caring for our own mental health, most Americans are asleep at the wheel. There are road signs, signals, and exits everywhere, but most Americans are committed to keeping their eyes shut and snoozing right through anything remotely resembling mental health awareness.

Okay. This judgment is a too harsh. But, I’m thinking this way because, not long ago, I watched the film, Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck plays the lead character, Lee Chandler. Obviously the film got me a little worked up.

Early on, Lee Chandler’s negligence leads to his children dying in a fire. By any and every measure, this is a trauma and tragedy of immense magnitude. Chandler is emotionally desperate. He tries killing himself. He ends up choosing to live.

But how does Chandler handle his traumatic grief? He continues to drink alcohol and numb himself. He lives like an automaton. Who can blame him? His grief must be so huge that it can’t be addressed. Right? Well, not exactly.

Not long after his children die, Chandler’s brother dies. This is terrible and sad, but suddenly, Chandler gets a second chance. His 16-year-old nephew needs an adult role model. Chandler is the best option.

The film is about pain.  Chandler is devastated. I get that. But instead of showing a glimpse of what it might take to face grief, instead, the film shows Chandler studiously avoiding anything resembling counseling or psychotherapy or education or the possibility of any genuine human interactions that might be helpful.

To be blunt and unkind, Chandler is an emotional chicken. He doesn’t face his emotions or embrace an interest in improving himself or his relationships. He doesn’t do that before or after his traumatic grief. Why not? One reason might be because doing so would be against the cultural norm for real men. . . because real men avoid looking in the mirror and engaging in emotional self-awareness. Seriously? Is this all we expect of emotional development for men and boys? I hope not.

Chandler could have done better than that. We can all do better than that.

What do we know? There’s substantial scientific evidence supporting several ways Chandler might move toward addressing his grief, his depression, his alcohol abuse, and his damaged relationships. He could have been a better person a better man, and a better uncle.

Okay. I’ll calm down now. I understand this is just Hollywood . . . which is why I feel so free to attack Chandler for avoiding what might have been good for himself and his nephew.

All this brings me to my point. In the latest episode of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Dr. Sara and I interview Dr. Tina Barrett about how to talk to children about death and loss. Then, in the following episode (watch for it next week), we interview her again about how to help children through the death of a loved one.

If you don’t know who Dr. Tina is, you should. I met her in the mid-1990s, hired her at Families First in about 1998, and have followed her amazing work ever since. In our podcast, she provides wisdom and guidance and insights about death and dying. I hope you’ll take time to listen (and avoid being like the character Lee Chandler). Tina has some great ideas that might just contribute to your (and your children’s) emotional development.

As usual, you can listen at iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Or you can listen on Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

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What Kind of a Man Attends the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference?

Several years ago a former student caught up with me in the hall outside my office in the College of Education at the University of Montana. He had taken an Intro to Psychology course from me way back in 1982. He re-introduced himself, complimented me on my teaching from three decades previously, and then, glancing at my name on the door, asked, “What kind of a man hyphenates his last name?”

I was speechless (which doesn’t happen all that often). He had just told me of his divorce; he had marveled at me being married for 25 years; and yet there it was, a small-dose of straight on masculine-shaming.

I said what most of us probably say when questioned about our masculinity.

I said nothing.

In retrospect, I wish I’d said: “I hyphenated my name because I’m the kind of man who wants to stay married and have a real partnership with his wife.” Hmm. That might have been over-the-top.
I didn’t have a balanced answer then and I’m not sure I have a good one now. But, how about cutting to the chase and meeting his question with one of my own?

“What kind of a man questions another man about his masculinity?”

That might have been fun, but obviously not perfect. And that’s the point; it can be difficult to find the right words in response to comments on our masculinity.

This past Saturday I had the privilege of embracing all dimensions of my humanity, without needing to worry about sideways—or straight on—masculinity comments. That’s because I had the good fortune of attending the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference. Of course, my comfort might have been because the chief conference organizer, Matt Englar-Carlson, a faculty member in the Department of Counseling at Cal State Fullerton, is also a hyphenator. But more likely it was because this particular conference was all about acceptance, inclusion, listening, understanding, learning . . . and most of all CONNECTION. Masculine shaming was nowhere in the room.

The conference organizers, Englar-Carlson, David Shepard, and Rebekah Smart, set the tone for understanding and inclusiveness in their opening comments. The opening keynote followed and it was BY A WOMAN . . . which this leads me to back to my masculine-shaming theme for today:

“What kind of a MEN AND MASCULINITY organization sponsors a conference on psychotherapy with men and then has an opening keynote speech BY A WOMAN?”

Answer: “The kind of organization populated by people who have the good judgment to be very interested in listening to and understanding women’s perspectives.”

And so we all got to listen to—not just any woman (although that would have been fine too, because the conference wasn’t about status)—but the renowned Judith Jordan, author of many books and co-director of the Jean Baker Miller Institute. How cool is that?

After Jordan explored how we can raise boys to be competent and connected men, we scattered to different break-out sessions. As my adolescent clients would say, this sucked because it’s hard to make hard choices. My principle regret of the whole conference was that even though I have two last names, there’s still only one of me and so I couldn’t attend EVERY SESSION, but instead had make choices. And although I was perfectly happy to start my break-out experiences listening to Christopher Kilmartin, professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, as Irvin Yalom would say, it meant the death of the rest of my choices.

But seriously . . . here’s the important question: “What kind of a man accepts a faculty position at an institution named THE UNIVERSITY OF MARY WASHINGTON?”

Answer: “The same kind of man who gets asked to spend a year teaching sexual assault prevention at the Air Force Academy.” Now that’s a pretty good answer.

Kilmartin was awesome (just ask my wife, because I’ve been quoting him all week). But being at his break-out session made me miss the amazing Jon Carlson who might be the kindest, gentlest, and most humble person I know with hundreds of professional publications, video productions, and spare time to raise five children (two adopted) including the hyphenated conference organizer, who happens to have full professor status despite looking like he just shaved for the first time last week.

Naturally, the psychotherapy with men conference lunch had a vegetarian option (at this point I should also mention the Starbucks coffee and whole wheat bagels in the morning and the Panera coffee and cookies in the afternoon). Right after lunch, we gathered to listen to Fredric Rabinowitz, the afternoon keynote. Rabinowitz, who also happens to play tournament poker, talked about Deepening Psychotherapy with Men. He emphasized that, for men, there’s a substantial vocabulary about defenses, but not Department of Connection. For the past 20+ years he has helped men go deep and express their pain and loss in ways that are (surprise!) contrary to how society expects men to express their pain and loss. Unfortunately, Rabinowitz had to miss an annual fancy poker tournament to attend the conference . . . which leads to the obvious question:

“What kind of a man misses a poker tournament to talk with a bunch of sensitive psychotherapy-types?”

Answer: “A pretty cool dude who knows his priorities.”

After Rabinowitz’s keynote, there were more decisions. In my program I had circled presentations by David Shepard and Michele Harway as well as Chris Liang. But I should confess here-and-now that I got slightly intoxicated with Panera coffee and cookies and ended up wandering into the wrong room with three Canadian presenters who were talking about how to help men transition from military to civilian life. It might have partially been the coffee, but the Three Canadians ROCKED MY WORLD . . . which begs the question:

“What kind of a man gets his world rocked by Three Canadians?”

Answer: “The kind of man who recognizes they have such fabulous clinical skills and compassion and cleverness that it makes him wish he was born and raised in Vancouver, B.C. instead of Vancouver, Washington (not that there’s anything wrong with Vancouver, WA).”

After my Canadian experience I staggered into Mark Stevens’s presentation on Engaging Men in the Process of Psychotherapy. Stevens showed photos of little boys and asked us to remember that ALL OF OUR MALE CLIENTS were once sensitive boys (not little men). He urged us to engage men slowly, but to not judge or underestimate them in ways that minimize or shrink their humanity. This was awesome, but I have to ask:

“What kind of a man shows photos of little boys during a professional presentation?”

Answer: “The kind of man who understands how to work effectively with men.”

At this conference you didn’t need a hyphenated name and you didn’t need an un-hyphenated name, because there was no shaming either way. There was just acceptance; acceptance of being scared boys and scared girls who are doing the best we can to openly affirm and connect with each other. And these connections reached across races, to the transgendered, to the women, and even to graduate students. If you’re interested in this sort of thing (and I think you should be), you should check out Division 51 of the American Psychological Association at: http://www.division51.org/

BTW, at the post-conference social I got to meet lore m. dickey, who presented earlier in the day on Affirmative Practice with Transgender Clients. He immediately shared with me that he is a female to male transsexual. That’s the sort of openness and connection you get at the Psychotherapy with Men conference. But I’m sure you know this leads me to another purposely masculinity-shaming question.

“What kind of a man chooses to go through a female to male transgender process?”

“The kind of a man who has achieved clarity about his male identity.”

The day ended with me hanging out with the Three Canadians—whom I should name here (Marvin Westwood, David Kuhl, and Duncan Shields). They welcomed me to their table at the social time where we engaged in an extended international mutual appreciation festival. You should really look them up.

All this brings me to my final question:

“What kind of a man writes an fluffy, complimentary, and sycophantic blog about the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference?”

Answer: “The kind of man who wants to offer the conference organizers and participants the thanks and praise they deserve.”

 

Why Evolution is a Bad Explanation for Human Behavior

Nearly every day I hear, read, or see the latest news story about how the human brain is hard-wired to make all humans act in one particular way or another. These stories annoy me because:

  1. They emphasize that all humans are the same and ignore the fact that we’re all unique and, to a large degree, unpredictable.
  2. They imply that humans are unlikely to change or deviate from one another.
  3. They repeatedly claim we’re all hard-wired despite the fact that the human brain has NO WIRES.

Even worse, at the bottom of most of these “Your brain is hard-wired” stories is a mythical evolutionary explanation. This annoys me even more . . . because when it comes to everyday human behavior, evolution makes for very bad explanations. But if you’re listening to what pundits and scientists say in the media, you’d be inclined to believe the opposite of what’s really true about humans.

For mysterious reasons, many scientists—especially evolutionary scientists—want to put humans in a box. They suggest and imply and assert that human behavior is predictable. But the truth is that—apart from breathing—there are very few predictable human behaviors. As decades of controlled psychological experiments have shown, even under laboratory conditions where little choice is possible, scientific predictions typically account for no more that 30-40% of the variation in human behavior. This means that humans are 60-70% unpredictable . . . even under highly controlled conditions.

Aside from being mostly wrong, simple evolutionary and biological explanations for human behavior also often are translated into messages that are generally unhealthy for society. Let’s take one big example.

An especially popular media and science topic is male sexual behavior. The argument usually goes like this: Over millions of years males have become hardwired to be attracted to fertility and novelty in sexual partners. This is because . . . the argument continues . . . males seek to perpetuate their gene-pool. This is why, they say, males are attracted to younger females who exhibit signs of reproductive health. This also explains why males—especially young males—are driven to have sex with multiple female partners.

Given current U.S. social problems—think sexual assault and high divorce rates—it makes little sense to promote the mostly false ideas that males seek sexual novelty to perpetuate their gene pool. This information is unhelpful to women who want safe and stable relationships with men and it’s unhelpful to the majority of men who—in contradiction to evolutionary theory—want safe and monogamous intimate relationships with women (or other men).

Most of the time, most males engage in sexual behavior that’s not at all designed to spread their seed or perpetuate their gene pool. Young men are often strongly motivated to NOT get their girlfriends pregnant. Recent data indicate that many young men are NOT especially interested in engaging in indiscriminate sexual behavior.

Even in a 2011 research study at Syracuse University, 333 undergraduate males apparently hadn’t gotten the memo about being hardwired to want sex with novel partners. When asked, whether they could “. . . imagine themselves enjoying casual sex” these young men showed an average response that was largely in the “undecided” range. Think about that: males from 18-22 years-old at Syracuse University couldn’t really decide if they might enjoy casual sex. This is good news. And it’s not consistent with evolutionary-based myths about contemporary young men.

In the same study, 300+ Syracuse University women reported—in direct contradiction to evolutionary theory—that they had been engaging in casual sexual encounters at approximately the same rate as the males.

And so next time you hear or read or view a media story about how millions of years of evolution explains why human males or females behave one way or another, remember that many immediate conditions can and do override evolutionary-based predictions. Evolution is a generality that may or may not apply to a single organism living in the 21st century. Evolution does not trump choice. And that’s the point: Your choices tomorrow will have much more to do with the situations you’re facing today (and that you’re anticipating tomorrow) than they’ll have to do with yesterday.

Raising Boys in the 21st Century

As some of you may already know, yesterday I had a blog piece posted on the American Counseling Association website. The piece was titled, “Boys will be Boys . . . Unless we teach them something Better.” Check it out here, if you like: http://www.counseling.org/news/blog

There’s also much more helpful information on “raising boys” on the internet. One example is this featured blog on the Good Men Project website: “How We Can Improve Sex Ed for Boys.” Here’s the link for that: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-good-life-how-we-can-improve-sex-ed-for-boys/

I hope you’re all doing well in the run-up (as the Brits would say) to some major holiday activity.

John SF

 

Hooking Up: Two Play That Game, and Not Just on Campus

Hey. Here’s a piece Rylee S-F wrote that articulates some of the work and thinking we’ve been doing together as a father-daughter team. The focus is on male sexuality. Give a big shout-out to Rylee for getting this in the Connecticut Review and please reblog, like, and please make the world a better place by helping promote some sensible thinking about boys/men and sex. Thanks for reading! John SF

What I Learned About Male Sexuality Today

Learning is cool. As Rylee and I work on our boys and sexual development project, we get to do lots of reading. Even better, lots of the reading is about sex.

As you may recall, last week Rylee and fell in love with Cordelia Fine’s Myths of Gender. Today, I had a different experience reading a 2007 book titled “7 Things He’ll Never Tell You {but you need to know}” written by Kevin Leman, a psychologist and “New York Times best-selling author.”

Here are a few of “Dr.” Leman’s comments and tips . . . combined with some clearly spiteful commentary from Rita and Rylee.

“The wise woman realizes that a man is wired to want things now. [Rita stops me here and says, “Wait. That’s me! I’m the one who wants things now!] And she will realize that a man who is constantly thwarted in his desires will begin to look for gratification elsewhere.” (Leman, p. 35)

Right now I’m thinking about raspberry pie. If Rita doesn’t get it for me NOW, I’ll be looking elsewhere . . . I hope she recognizes that. This is pretty good stuff. No more thwarting . . . or else! [Rylee says, “Or else you’ll get it yourself.”]

Then he says:
“. . . men . . . are not relationally centered. They identify more with things. They are visually stimulated by looking. That means whatever your guy sees is imprinted on his mind. So if he sees a sexy woman in a red dress on the subway, he may see that same woman in his thoughts again later that night, a week later, even a month later. . . . Men, on the average, have 33 sexual thoughts a day” (p. 104)

Oh my, 33 sexual thoughts a day. And how many sexual thoughts a day does a woman have. He doesn’t really address this directly, but at the end of the book he has a little quiz and one of the items goes like this: “How much does a man think about sex? . . . 33 times as much as you” (p. 177).

This is a serious math problem. And so if Rita has 5 sexual thoughts in a day, it means I’ll have 165? Now we’re talking!

On p. 106, Leman writes: “It’s been said that women need a reason for sex. Men only need a place. Men really need sex and are designed to need sex, to think about it, and to pursue it. A physically healthy married man cannot be fulfilled without it.” (p. 106) [Rylee says: Only for married men? What about all those monks? No fulfillment for them?]

Hmmm . . . sounds like sex is pretty important for guys. No fulfillment . . . period? Nothing else is fulfilling? Well, I guess if I’ve got 165 sexual thoughts in a day, maybe there’s no time to think of anything else fulfilling. Even though this isn’t really all that consistent with any other psychological theories, especially existentialism, I guess if Dr. Leman says it, it must be true.

And here’s the coup de gras . . .

“Sex is the great equalizer in a man’s life. If he meets with the accountant and is short on funds for his income tax or he got a bad job review, coming home to a willing wife makes it all better. It’s amazing what things great sex can cure for men—everything from viruses, bacterial infections, impetigo, chicken pox, the flu, and most importantly, any problem in marriage. For example if he has a fight with his wife and later that day they have sex, all of his issues are gone. They’ve resolved themselves. The problem is that for the other half of the relationship—the female—the issues aren’t resolved until they’re talked about!” (p. 107)

So sex cures the chicken pox. [Rita says: “But only for men?”] I say I wish I’d known that last summer when I had the coxsackie virus. [Rita says, “Like that was gonna happen.”] [Rylee says: “So women can cure men by sacrificing themselves to whatever disease a man has.”] [Rita says, “Women are true healers.”]

See, you learn something new every day. And sometimes it’s actually useful . . . or true.

My New Favorite Book (for now) and Why I Love Quiche

In elementary school in the 1960s, my reading almost exclusively included comics. I didn’t just love Captain America, I wanted to BE Captain America.

Unfortunately, I was in high school in the early 1970s, when reading books was apparently in disfavor. We used the SRA Laboratory Reading System and the only real “book” I recall reading in all of high school was “The Andromeda Strain.” Of course, the problem was likely partly due to my preoccupation with athletics over academics, but that’s a different story.

What this means is that most of my book reading has occurred after 1975, which is when my football buddy Barry and I read, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.” The problem with that was that I happened to like quiche . . . a lot . . . and consequently, rather than questioning my sexual identity, I began questioning what society tells real men that they should do and not do.

This leads me to my book pick of the week.

As some of you already know, I’m working on a writing project related to sexual development in young males. This work led me to discover the book “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine, Ph.D. Dr. Fine is a psychologist in Australia and has written an absolutely awesome book that slices through many of the silly connections people are making between neuroscience and gender. For example, as an opening to chapter 14 “Brain Scams,” she wrote:

“My husband would probably like you to know that, for the sake of my research for this chapter, he has had to put up with an awful lot of contemptuous snorting. For several weeks, our normally quiet hour of reading in bed before lights out became more like dinnertime in the pigsty as I worked my way through popular books about gender difference. As the result of my research, I have come up with four basic pieces of advice for anyone considering incorporating neuroscientific findings into a popular book or article about gender” (p. 155).

You’re probably wondering, what is her excellent advice for those of us considering writing in this area? Well, I’m resisting the temptation within my male brain to type out her advice, other than her fourth piece of advice, which reads: “Don’t make stuff up.”

But that’s exactly what many writers are doing. Here’s an example I found recently. It’s titled, “7 things he’ll never tell you” and written by “Dr.” Kevin Leman. He wrote, “Did you know that scientific studies prove why a woman tends to be more ‘relational” than her male counter part? A woman actually has more connecting fibers than a man does between the verbal and the emotional side of her brain. That means a woman’s feelings and thoughts zip along quickly, like they’re on an expressway, but a man’s tend to poke slowly as if he’s walking and dragging his feet on a dirt road.” (pp. 5-6).

Of course, this is sheer drivel . . . or as Dr. Fine might say, “He just made that up.”

Or as I might say: He’s really just talking about himself here . . . and it’s likely caused by the fact that he didn’t eat enough quiche growing up.

So what’s the evidence? If we look at one of the best relational factors upon which women are supposed to be better than men–empathy–what does the research say?

Well, as it turns out, using the best and most rigorous laboratory empathy measure available, empathy researcher William Ickes found no differences between males and females in seven consecutive studies. And then, when he did find differences, he found women did better only in situations where they are primed by “situational cues that remind them that they, as women, are expected to excel at empathy-related tasks.” (Fine, p. 21).

Anyway, it’s late and I’m going to stop writing . . . but not before I put in a link to a Cordelia Fine speech you can watch online. Here it is:  http://fora.tv/2010/10/02/Cordelia_Fine_Delusions_of_Gender

Now I’m off to bake myself a quiche.