Men in the Counseling Room

with Dr. Stephen Johnson
by Melanie Tucker, LMFT

On September 11, 2011, Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D, MFT, founder and director of the Men’s Center of Los Angeles and creator of the Sacred Path Men’s Retreat, spoke to the SFVCAMFT Membership on “Males in the Counseling Room: Helping Guys Become Good Men.” He started with a moment of silence to acknowledge the 10th anniversary of 9/11, our national loss. Johnson mentioned the heroic men who gave their lives at the World Trade Center , saying that too often we hear only negative things about men, such as when they get into trouble. He went on to present a thorough, well-researched talk on the history of men and masculinity, their pressures and differences culturally, their socialization process, and some suggestions for both male and female therapists to help them achieve the best results working with male clients.

When Dr. Johnson was first licensed in 1972, it was during the Vietnam War in which 57,000 men and 8 women died. The men who returned home weren’t celebrated as returning soldiers as they had been after World War II. Instead, they came back to anti-war protests and the feminist movement, told they should stop being war-like, get in touch with their innermost feelings, learn how to commit to relationships, share in housework, be nurturing to the children, curb aggression and violence, and integrate their sexuality with love. When men began to do these things and started becoming more passive, the women didn’t like that either. For men, it was a really confusing time. Not surprisingly, there was an increase in the divorce rate in the 1970’s, along with such self-destructive behaviors as addiction.

At that time, it was the women who began entering therapy in droves; but men did not. Psychotherapy, as traditionally practiced, didn’t serve these men well—and still doesn’t. Men’s thinking has always been, “I can handle it (the “sturdy oak” approach to dealing with the problem).” They havedifficulty recognizing their feelings and expressing them (a phenomenon termed alexithymia). Historically, men who have shared their feelings in public have been ridiculed, or dismissed as being weak, men such as Maine Senator and presidential candidate Ed Muskie in ‘68 and Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, who was dropped from the number two slot on the 1972 democratic ticket after admitting they he’d been treated for depression.

When some men tried to create a men’s movement to balance out the women’s movement and deal with some of their conflicts and issues, they, too, were ridiculed – especially for attending men’s retreats and “beating their chests in the woods.” The result: Men fled. But Johnson stayed put and continued on with his work with men, knowing how much they needed and wanted to better understand themselves.

Dr. Johnson remarked that we’ve made some progress as witnessed by how men like Speaker of the House, John Boehner, quarterback Terry Bradshaw, Howard Dean and Mike Wallace have been accepted despite public displays of emotion or admissions of suffering from a mood disorder. Johnson outlined the characteristics that take a toll on men’s mental health and make it difficult for them to use psychotherapy readily, including gender role strain and conflict. He mentioned how masculine norms impact the therapy process and detailed the advent and development of the new psychology of men.

As the result of decades of working with men as individuals, in groups, and on retreats, Johnson has identified four crisis points in men’s lives (which he details in his upcoming book, Man Up). The four are The Identity Crisis (ages 15 to24); The Mid-Life Crisis (around age 40, which is when a man may first experience “the fall,” such as an affair); TheExistential Crisis (hits between the ages 55 and 65), and TheCompletion Crisis (occurs at some point between 75 and 85).

In a therapy situation, Dr. Johnson feels that cognitive behavioral therapy works best with men. Men like assignments and homework (such as watching a specific film), are able to gain insights from answering questions, and writing an anamnesis, a social psychological history of themselves. He finds that sharing experiences with male clients can create a therapeutic alliance, and he uses humor as an ice-breaker.

Johnson also talked about how female clinicians can best help their male clients. First, women therapists need to ask themselves questions, such as, “How do I view masculinity? Am I afraid of men, or do I dislike men on some level? Can I comfortably explore transference and counter-transference? Can I talk with men in their own language? Am I knowledgeable about the reasons behind many men’s resistance to understanding and experiencing their emotions?” He showed a video that helped us understand how much men can benefit from being in groups of men of all ages.

Therapists, both male and female, can help. “We need to help men explore the most vulnerable aspects of what it means to be a man, and offer compassion, empathy, patience, and a safe haven to explore this vulnerability.” It’s common knowledge that men don’t like going to the doctor, and put off their annual prostate or colonoscopy checkups. Nor do they tend to read or spend money on books, especially books about men. Johnson’s handouts included several pages of books and resources on the psychology of men, which will probably be read by women first, who will then hand them over to men. Hopefully the men will read them: “They need to learn better self-care and therapists can help teach them,” Johnson said.

Dr. Johnson, with the editing assistance of our own Sylvia Cary, is completing a book titled Man Up: The New Masculinity. The focus is on what it takes today to be a good man. Watch for publication in the first half of 2012.