Some of my clients are feeling upbeat about the next few months. In fact, the Coronavirus crisis has delivered some therapeutic effects. It can put personal problems into perspective so that one feels small and insignificant in the sweep of history. People are feeling more connected to other human beings around the world. It’s a reminder that we are, after all, cells in the same collective organism, engaged in the same biological fight. Shared adversity creates bonds. This is the story of our evolutionary past as a communal species.
We’re happier when we feel like we belong. In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016) Sebastian Junger explores this instinct, noting that while depression and suicide tend to rise with a country’s affluence, they were virtually unknown among indigenous tribes such as the Native Americans. Decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lamented that English settlers were constantly fleeing over to the Indians — Indians almost never did the same.
Other clients have been experiencing anxiety about the lockdown. Social contact can be a lifeline for people suffering from depression and to lose it can feel really unsafe. There are ways to protect yourself: video calls, meditation, exercise, reading, making plans, working on something, getting outside once a day for exercise, eating and sleeping well. People are struggling with practical changes too: working from home, managing children who are supposed to be doing schoolwork, sharing a small space. These pressures may lead to conflict. Then there are money worries.
Those advised to self-isolate for three months face what might feel like an intimidating challenge, especially those living alone. This group includes over-70s, pregnant women and people with health problems, all of whom are already vulnerable to social alienation and mental illness. Anyone experiencing despair and growing anxiety should talk to someone for emotional support. If you don’t have friends and family available you can call the Samaritans for free 24 hours a day on 116123 for a confidential chat. Or, if you can afford it, book a phone or online video session with a counsellor who can support you through a deeper therapeutic process.
Anyone with Coronavirus symptoms will have to self-isolate while wondering if they will end up on a ventilator or, worse, not be able to get one should they need it. There is a range of further worries: are we about to see the economy collapse, will we run out of food, is there going to be civil unrest? Plenty of ground for an escalating psychological crisis.
But we have a choice.
We’ve become accustomed to living with what is, by historical standards, an unusually low tolerance for uncertainty and risk. Too much safety can feel stifling so we might feel alive when we get back the gift our ancestors took for granted: a world in which tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Hence the exuberance among newspaper columnists such as Matthew Paris, 70, who wrote: “a little bit of us almost wants to see the pattern of our lives interrupted, even broken” (The Spectator, 21 March).
If we regard the global population of homo sapiens as a single organism trying to defend itself from an attack, what might we observe about its cells; the individuals that make up the whole? If they seem confused, it’s for good reasons. They have been going through an accelerating process of change for the past 10,000 years. Many humans have been living for generations without a personal relationship with their environment and cosmos, instead viewing reality through materialism. High-speed travel and communications have eroded the meaning of place and home. Globalisation means we don’t need other people in our communities like we once did so we feel less anchored and committed to them.
Only a few people – scientists and public servants mainly – have much to do in the ensuing biological fight. The rest of us now have to sit with uncertainty, and with ourselves, in our homes. Perhaps we don’t think of home as an appropriate place to be confined to any more. Not long ago it was normal to spend months at home over winter at this latitude, without transport, shops or much of anything. Just each other. But as we reflect on the crisis today, perhaps our ‘normal’ lives will begin to look different.
What about the price we normally pay for not washing hands properly in hospitals? The World Health Organisation says about seven in 100 hospital patients acquire a new infection in developed countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1.7m hospital-associated infections cause or contribute to 99,000 deaths in the US each year. One study found up to 70% of such infections might be prevented if health care workers followed protocols including hand hygiene.
And the price we normally pay for travel? There were 165,100 road casualties reported to the UK police in the year ending June 2018 (Department of Transport). An average of 13,758 a month. Perhaps that will be halved during lockdown. Meanwhile pubs and bars are shut and parties are out so we can expect less injury and death from alcohol. In England, 7.4% of all hospital admissions were related to alcohol in 2018/19 (Public Health England 2019).
There is light and dark in everything. Perhaps Coronavirus will dampen the frenetic quality of modern life long enough for us, individually and collectively, to reflect on what we really want. Stopping is not necessarily a bad thing. A human being living with chronic stress for long enough will have a breakdown eventually. Perhaps we might view this pandemic as akin to a collective breakdown. We will certainly be different when we emerge. We might work from home more. The economy will be slower. The environment will be cleaner. Perhaps we can use this moment to start to remember who we really are. To come back to ourselves and each other in something like an awakening.
There is tentative evidence to suggest this may be more than a theory. Market research group Glocalities was collecting data in China in a global survey on trust and values when the Coronavirus outbreak began, allowing it to capture a shift in attitudes as tens of millions of Chinese were locked down. The survey was conducted online among 2,022 Chinese people between January 23 and March 13. It found an increase in trust in people, etiquette, appreciation and service to others. Perhaps the pandemic will instigate a community spirit in all affected countries. I’ve already seen this happening in Cornwall, where businesses are responding creatively and people are volunteering to help the NHS. Can you feel it?
Take care — and reach out for support if you need to. Many counsellors offer online and telephone support and are on hand to help you through this challenging time.
There are fabulous things about being a man — like banter and piss taking — but sometimes we get lost and trapped by gender scripts. There isn’t a specific therapeutic solution for this but it helps to understand the lived experience of each person coming into the therapy room. It’s 80% about process and 20% about the right approaches. So said Dr Michael Beattie in his training workshop in London today called Working With Men: Meeting The Challenges of Orthodox Masculinity.
Michael is witty and slick. He’s a former communications guy who still does management training for corporates. He works as counselling psychologist at the Gender Identity Clinic, an NHS service in London and co-wrote Counselling Skills For Working With Gender Diversity and Identity (2018). Michael mentions his father a lot, who was 52 when Michael, 49, was born — “my abiding memory of him is being frightened of him, and also wanting to be like him”. Michael shares personal details like growing up in Zimbabwe where his grandfather was a pioneer who saw himself as part of a civilising project when they seem useful, drawing comparisons with the empire building acts and myths of men through history into the modern workplace.
His playfulness and self-deprecation — “I’m a great believer in buying books and not reading them but knowing what they’re about”; “I’m living my own cliche” (about his constant Guardian references); “I’m in between task oriented and feelings, I care about how you feel but we still need to do this”; — make him, in my view, a valuable communicator in what can be a fraught space among therapists. Masculinity is often carefully avoided. Therapy is feminised. Gender didn’t arise once during Michael’s training, during which he was the only man. Here are his points that resonated with me today. I haven’t quoted the research that Michael referenced.
Bodies and behaviour
Our bodies create behaviour as well as being directed by those behaviours
So the more masculine behaviours I perform the more masculine I become
The pressure to confirm to masculine norms is huge
It’s tough being a man — this is known as masculine gender role stress
Normative masculinity is an impossible ideal that is always being attempted and competed for
Men and boys gain access to the tribe of men through conformity to masculine norms of identity such as winning, self-reliance, emotional control, primacy of work, risk taking, physical toughness, playboy behaviour, dominance, conspicuously avoiding self-care
The need to conform to group norms can make us do almost anything, and we look to the apparently most powerful others for social cues and mimic them
Research in schools found a ‘boy code’ that was competitive, praised hardness, sporting prowess, casual treatment of schoolwork, being adept at ‘cussing’, dominance and control, and the importance of not being seen to try too hard at anything
Boys were free and funny in groups, serious and softer in one to one interviews
Popularity is linked to masculinity
Young men have a higher threshold of severity for help seeking than females, particularly help from a GP
The hero myth still drives men: the brave adventurer, facing down fears — both external monsters and the emotions inside himself, and conquering the unknown
The primacy of work enables men (and women, it has to be said) to achieve social status and avoid facing existential anxieties
Boys today feel stranded between the more orthodox masculinities of their fathers and grandfathers and the #metoo movement
Masculine norms kill men
Conformity to masculine norms builds an ‘acquired capability’ for suicide because men get used to impulsive, aggressive and risky behaviours that expose them to pain and fear
Asking for help is at odds with orthodox masculinity scripts
Men are in a triple bind: they’re shamed into hiding normal emotional expressivity, which creates the possibility of anger or rage, but help-seeking is prohibited
The more money I have, the more masculine I am
Traditional masculinity at work is characterised by competition, aggressive interactions, and exercising control. It fuels a pernicious ‘busy ethic’. Productivity is valued and there’s an unease with ‘worthless’, unscheduled time, especially retirement. “The more money I have, the more masculine I am.” “He who has the most toys when he dies wins” (the billionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes is credited with this last quote)
Involved fatherhood clashes with traditional masculinity
Fathers who adhere to masculine norms and those with depression report higher levels of maternal gatekeeping (ie their partner blocks them from access to their children). In traditional gender roles parenting is the mother’s domain, which limits men’s ability to participate in the home as an equally contributing parent
Anger is a key to understanding men
Anger and aggression can be a way back into the tribe: men who have missed a goal can end up fouling another player in an act of violence
Anger helps preserve boundaries and a stable sense of self, and so men can react with hostility to insights by a therapist — therefore therapists need to be able to remain calm in the “being hated” bit or refer their client on
Friendless and disconnectedness is rife
Friendlessness is a massive problem among men. It trebles for UK men from their early 20s to late middle age. One in eight men have no friends at all. Married men are a third more likely than singles to have no one outside the home to turn to for support
How therapists can help
Masculinity isn’t toxic but aspects of its performance can become difficult
Therapists can work with masculine scripts and explore with their male clients how they serve them. Scripts include: strong and silent; tough guy; playboy, winner; independent
Male therapists can use appropriate self disclosure, humour and realness to model vulnerability. Female therapists can use motivational interviewing techniques to explore the client’s stories around how masculine scripts have affected them and defuse gender-specific stigma
Common process issues working with men: restricted emotionality and shame, anger and aggression, compartmentalisation
This one I couldn’t swallow.
Hegemonic masculinity wins consent to its rule from those it subjugates, creating a pyramid structure of power with layers of complicit, subordinated and marginalised people — ‘the patriarchy’ we hear so much about
I’m not sure this pyramid actually exists in the UK. What is the evidence for it? The concept of hegemony comes from the Italian Marxist Antonia Gramsci, who was the founding member of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921. He thought the greatest obstacle Marxism faced was the Christian foundations of Western European cultures. In his prison notebook he wrote: “Any country grounded in Judaeo-Christian values can’t be overthrown until those roots are cut … Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity … in the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.” It feels like this has happened in the last decade. But assuming the pyramid still exists, if it ever did, where is the evidence that life as a member of the complicit overlord class of white men is so good? There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary in public policy, documented forensically by William Collins in The Empathy Gap: Male Disadvantages and the Mechanisms of Their Neglect (2019).
In this month’s Therapy Today, the trade mag for counsellors and psychotherapists, there were three letters referring to November’s cover piece by Manu Bazzano. One in support, two not. This polarisation seems characteristic of where we’re at as a profession and a culture. I felt uncomfortable with Bazzano’s piece. So I wanted to spell out why in a way that I hope encourages productive debate, rather than try to squeeze it into a short letter.
Read Bazzano’s article here. He is an accomplished therapist who facilitates menswork and publishes books. I am not calling into question his sincerity or desire to help men, but I do feel that some of the ideas he expresses here could be counterproductive in that project. The standfirst underneath the headline “Sons of our fathers” goes: “Exploring masculinity in counselling means undoing masculinity”. I couldn’t disagree more with the judgement inherent in that.
He begins by suggesting that a photo exhibition of graffiti showing swastikas and penises taken in the US after the election of Donald Trump “confirms the link between powerlessness in men and their embrace of neo-fascist ideologies”. Since my school days I’ve seen swastika and penis graffiti in public spaces like toilets and derelict buildings, where the photographer Richard Misrach captured his images. Using Trump perjoratively in the first paragraph seems designed to show us that Bazzano is on the right side of history. What’s his intention? To tell men off (forgetting about female voters for a moment) for voting for Trump? And if so, are we comfortable about branding those who resist postmodern values through the ballot box “fascist”?
Even if this were true, will labelling people negatively help them? Or do we only want to help people who agree with us? Is our work as therapists about re-educating and chastening our client base? Could the tone of this article discredit our profession in a democratic country where a majority of voters have chosen what Bazzano might call “fascist” phenomena like Brexit and Boris? Applying the label “fascist” can be used to shut down a healthy intra-psychic process and inter-personal debate. Combined with the increasing influence of political correctness and progressivism (a political philosophy that advocates radical social reform), one could argue it created the conditions for the advent of Trump, Brexit and Boris in the first place.
Bazzano writes: “A different version of powerlessness is found in privileged men whose nastiness against women is the justified target of feminist fury. Their views are unreconstructed, their understanding of intimacy non-existent, and their involvement in politics presents a threat to democracy.” He doesn’t explain how these men threaten democracy or how, on the contrary, they might represent the value systems and preferred policies of their supporters. Collins Dictionary defines unreconstructed as “unwilling to accept social and economic change”. The implication is that holding traditional or conservative values should bar them from participating in politics. That doesn’t sound too democratic.
He goes on: “Coarse masculine narratives still dominate.” Where? Course masculine narratives are de facto outlawed. People who voice anything close to them (such as the Google engineer James Damore and Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, employed by University College London) don’t just lose their jobs, they become untouchable. “The posturing of strongmen across the globe is pathetic; their characteristics are so noxious as to resemble caricatures.” Here Bazzano might be said to be referring to characteristics of the warrior archetype. He may, in part, be right, but the trouble is he would prefer us to deconstruct and abandon masculinity rather than deepen our understanding of how and why it goes wrong in order to help more effectively in our clients’ healing.
Research suggests that between one and four per cent of the population have psychopathic traits. That includes women, who display the traits in different ways to men. It’s a small minority of men in any case. Even if we wanted to, it’s unlikely that we could abandon the deepest structures of the psyche; on the contrary, seeing leaders who embrace their masculinity, and who fight and win for their families, communities, constituencies and countries can arouse feelings of inspiration, pride and optimism about the future. It all depends on your perspective. One could argue that vilifying others is itself a projective shadow warrior behaviour.
In King Warrior Magician Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine (1992), Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette suggest there are four mature masculine archtypes: the king (energy of creative ordering), the warrior (energy of non-violent aggressive action), the magician (energy of initiation and transformation) and the lover (energy to connect men to others and the world). Mature masculinity is not abusive or domineering but generative, creative, and empowering of the self and others. The archetypes can be integrated and balanced against each other as part of a healthy individuated psyche, but trouble starts when they are repressed. A shadow warrior can emerge, operating on a bi-polar sado-masochist axis (actively punishing others and passively punishing self) instead of a more integrated responsibility-discipline axis (best articulated in contemporary life by the author, podcaster and former Navy Seal Lieutenant Commander Jocko Willink, whose motto is “discipline equals freedom”).
Perhaps it’s worth asking again: what are we, as therapists, trying to do? Are we trying to help people acknowledge their shadows and integrate them, become more whole and spacious, and thereby support wholesome communities and societies? That could be important work, especially now, given that identity politics seems to be working in the opposite direction. This kind of work has been understood for more than a century. Moore and Gillette write: “Jung believed withdrawing a projection of the Shadow and owning it as a part of ourselves requires enormous moral courage. He also believed that what we will not face within our psyche we will be forced to confront in the outer world. So, if we can claim our Shadow’s qualities, and learn from them, we defuse much of the interpersonal conflict we would otherwise encounter. People who have served as the screens for our Shadow’s projection become less odious, and more human. At the same time, we experience ourselves as richer, more complex, and more powerful individuals.”
Bazzano says that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg facilitates a corporate technostructure that’s “built on rigid binary identity, chauvinism and defensiveness”. Quite apart from the diversity policies of Google et al, there’s evidence to the contrary. In 2015 Zuckerberg was overheard promising the German leader Angela Merkel that he was working on censoring content amid complaints from her government about anti-immigrant posts during a year when Merkel admitted a million immigrants. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Patreon and other platforms have been following his example, banning people they deem to have unnacceptable views such as the British anti-Islam campaigner and journalist Tommy Robinson, who had more than a million Facebook followers and 413,000 Twitter followers. He still has 373,000 subscribers on YouTube, which has acknowledged that Robinson’s videos don’t break the law, although it has demonetised them and barred him from search results. His videos now come with a content warning and users can’t comment on or like the videos.
The American public intellectual Sam Harris, whose podcast has 422,000 subscribers, deleted his own Patreon account, accusing the crowdfunding membership platform of “political bias”. Others began leaving the platform after it barred the conservative YouTuber known as Sargon of Akkad. Google, the world’s largest search engine, has been shown to curate a cyber reality that seems aligned to Bazzano’s political sensibilities — in The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, Identity (2019) Douglas Murray demonstrates this (just try a Google images search for “white couple”). Zuckerberg himself has admitted that Silicon Valley is an “extremely left-leaning place” but says he tries to make sure his firm doesn’t “have bias in the work that we do”.
Bazzano says he has located the archetype for Zuckerberg-style “misplaced male innocence” in the ancient myth Jason and Medea. In it Jason is sent by his king on a quest for the golden fleece and achieves his objective. Bazzano suggests that in doing so “he is a fraudster, practised in decieving others and himself”. Bazzano weighs Jason’s “cool rationality” against Medea’s passion and loyalty and concludes that “Medea is so much greater than him”. Having had a look at Medea’s behaviour one might wonder. She promises to help Jason only if he takes her with him and marries her, rather transactional for true love. In the escapade she murders and dismembers her own brother, but relieves herself of blame through a ‘cleansing’. Jason honours his promise and marries her, but when he leaves her she takes vengeance by murdering her own children (the pain their loss causes her does not outweigh the satisfaction she feels in making Jason suffer). And she kills his new wife. Jason dies lonely and unhappy. Medea marries again, but when her husband’s long lost son returns she tries to kill him too.
A possible interpretation of the myth is that in achieving his objective Jason demonstrates the warrior archetype qualities of discipline and responsibility, staying focused yet detached in a combat situation (another familiar Jocko Willink trope). However Bazzano frames the story as a typical example of men’s subjugation of women and of reason’s subjugation of passion. Yet the story equally shows the spiteful shadow side of women to the detriment of children, men and other women. In fact the myth begins with Athamas taking the goddess Nephele as his first wife. They have two children, the boy Phrixus and the girl Helle. Later Athamas leaves Nephele and marries Ino. Ino jealously plots her stepchildren’s deaths. Nephele appears to the children with a winged ram with a golden fleece and they escape on the ram over the sea, but Helle falls off and drowns in the strait that’s named after her, the Hellespont. Phrixus makes it to Colchis where the golden fleece remains.
Is Jason’s story a typical example of the theme of reason’s subjugation over passion? Perhaps. Although it is worth noting that the Greeks were not committed to such a project, in fact, quite the reverse. In The Snake in the Clinic: Psychotherapy’s Role in Medicine and Healing (2016) Guy Dargert emphasises their concern about maintaining a balance between subterranean, intuitive feminine wisdom (symbolising the psyche or the unconscious) and the “cool rationality” which Bazzano views negatively. Dargert teaches medical students about the blind spot in modern medicine — the psyche — which is what we might say Medea represents in the myth. He argues that modern medicine often frustrates the ability of messages from the psyche to be heard because it values the removal of symptoms over a holistic framework that accepts pain, disease and death as part of a wholesome life. If we have lost this balance in medicine and male-female relations, it wasn’t always thus. In the Jason and Medea myth, just as in the ancient temples to Asklepios, the Greek god of healing, which were the first hospitals, both were needed. Today masculine and feminine energies do seem out of balance, which we can see playing out in the rise of single parent families and the discordant atmosphere in the public space between women and men, stoked by misunderstanding masculinity.
Bazzano tells us “paying lip service to ‘feelings’ goes hand in hand with paying lip service to feminism.” I wonder whether, in a feminised therapy word, we are saying there is a correct and an incorrect way for men to feel. Could it be that not all human beings process emotions or heal in the same way? He says the men’s movement has “expired”, its message having been “incorporated, producing a new breed of men whose nuanced versions of masculinity are wholly complicit with the status quo”. I’m not sure whether the new breed of men know much, if anything, about their inheritance. Many believe that masculinity is an affliction that must be purged. Many feel embarrassed by the idea that masculinity is a gift, just as femininity is, and that the two work beautifully together when we remember our ancient wisdom of how to live in balance, mutually supporting and honouring each other.
Bazzano states: “We need to learn from queer theory, from transgender and non-binary stances that have mounted formidable challenges to static notions of identity over the past few decades.” There is no evidence that these stances have generated happiness, on the contrary it could be argued that the rise of intersectional, identitarian politics has bred dischord. These theories have not so far successfully explained how their different interest groups can live in mutually supportive and balanced ways beside each other. He goes on: “My identity as a man is bound up with manhood, but greater strength comes from accepting fluidity rather than from defending male identity.” I realise Bazzano is sincere and I would want to facilitate this process where appropriate in my clients whatever sex they are. But I’m not sure why we have to defend or attack male identity, can’t we simply support and explore it?
He ventures: “We need to decide, as therapists or/and menswork facilitators, whether our response to a man’s identity crisis is to bolster gender stereotypes or to nurture the ‘male crisis’ until it reaches the threshold of transformation.” I don’t want to bolster stereotypes, but I do want to bolster understanding of our biological inheritance, with an evolutionary understanding of masculine archetypes as set out by Martin Seager in his chapter in the Palgrave Handbook on Male Psychology (reviewed by me here).
I struggled to understand what point Bazzano was making here: “While the ‘absent fathers’ explanation may be statistically true, it tends to shift responsibility towards individuals, overlooking, among other things, the impact of class and ethnicity that is evident, for instance, in the mass incarceration of Black men in the US. Moreover, it assumes that ‘a father in attendance’ within a conventional family unit is the best thing for a son’s wellbeing. This view universalises the Oedipal family, overlooking the fact that even though, as Judith Butler explains, ‘the dependency of the child is not political subordination in any usual sense’, it does make the child ‘vulnerable to subordination and exploitation’.”
He goes on: “The ideological backdrop to the absent-father argument is the tenacious belief that the conventional family safeguards civil society, and that ‘culture itself requires that a man and a woman produce a child, and that the child have this dual point of reference for its own initiation into the symbolic order’. This belief is hard to shake; it is canonical in modern anthropology, a discipline revered in psychotherapy circles.” Is it hard to shake because it is the most basic building block of our existence? It is unclear why anyone should want to dismantle the family. Is there any evidence it would be in the best interests of children or adults?
Bazzano states: “A more fluid sense of self in a man in crisis makes space for listening to the concerns of others, for opening up to the hurt expressed by women and the struggles of transgender, gay and non-binary people.” The implication being that men with a traditional masculine identity cannot listen to the concerns of others or acknowlegde hurt expressed by women and the struggles of people who are not heterosexual. This appears to me to be unfounded and sexist. Bazzano does not cite evidence to support these assumptions. He continues: “Queer theory teaches us that fixed notions of heterosexual masculinity around which the conventional family is constructed imply the mourning of homosexual desire.” Is this really how we want to work with families in the therapy room, by introducing complicated ideas like this that don’t serve any obvious goal and, on the contrary, add confusion?
He goes on: “To become emancipated (from emancipare – to be sent out) is to be freed from the control of parents/guardians.” There is a mountain of evidence showing that all children benefit across a wide range of life chances if they are supported by both parents. He continues: “We need to ask: ‘Can the phenomenon of absent (or prodigal) fathers ever be a blessing in the life of their sons, rather than the curse it is conventionally purported to be?’” Bazzano doesn’t say how old he was when his mother died, but he does say that communication was difficult with his father after her death. Would he have preferred to have no father in his life? That seems to be what he is proposing for other people. I wondered, would a completely absent father be better than a father who is grieving and isn’t great at communicating with you, but who still provides for and protects you?
About his client, Bazzano writes: “Adam’s reflections reminded me of James Joyce, who, in his writing, transubstantiated his father’s drunken incoherence into wit, gregariousness and fundamental goodness of heart. I am reminded too of two other Irish writers, Oscar Wilde and WB Yeats. As Colm Tóibín has written, all three had fathers who were absent; all three sons found ways to recreate their fathers in their work, but they needed solitude and distance from them to do so.” This is an interesting idea, certainly worth exploring more. He continues: “This [the above idea] is counterintuitive in a therapy world currently smitten with attachment theory and, at times, disturbingly uncritical of the traditional family.” A lot of scientific evidence shows that secure attachment optimises life outcomes. The therapy world, like mainstream culture, is disturbingly uncritical of the consequences of broken families and schools run by predominantly female teachers. That is to say a lack of meaningful engagement with boys and young men to develop and harness their masculine instincts for the health of themselves and their communities is now considered ‘normal’.
I agree with Bazzano that “our task in therapy is, partly, to help clients create themselves – to find their autonomous voice.” I disagree that “in a man, this must mean emancipation from the strictures of stereotypical masculine narratives learned in the family”. This second sentence is full of assumptions: what if we can help a man understand and nurture his masculine instincts in a healthy way? So rather than judging the client negatively for perceived stereotypical attributes, we nourish him with a way of working that supports and engages his masculine archetypes? And the final part about family: too often boys aren’t learning anything at all about masculinity in the family because their dads are absent, which is a large part of this problem. For boys, growing up with an absent father has a particularly deleterious physical and emotional effect, as demonstrated by Warren Farrell in The Boy Crisis (2018), right down to a cellular level (boys’ telomeres, which are responsible for replicating cells, are frayed and shortened to a greater extent than their sisters’, which over time contributes to shorter life and greater health problems).
I want to end on a more positive note. I am interested in engaging with therapists with different views and values in a respectful way in the interests of furthering the profession and better serving the public. I believe that discussions like these are an important way to bring the public in on the debate. I’d like to finish with these lines from Bazzano, which I wholeheartedly agree with: “Rather than power over others (a sign of weakness), genuine power is the cultivation of vulnerability – the ability to sustain the intensity of the world, its beauty and its pain, without falling apart or resorting to conceit. True power is the power to be affected.”
The other day I was facilitating a men’s group at Mudita House in Penzance, a charming space that’s used for therapy and meditation, and came across a book in its library called The Warrior Within: Accessing The Knight In The Male Psyche. It was published in 1992, at the height of the men’s movement, an awakening of the ancient spirit of masculinity in which men tried to understand themselves outside the context of modernity. The authors, Jungian psychoanalyst Robert Moore, a co-founder of the men’s movement, and mythologist Douglas Gillette, look at the aggressive energy of the male psyche’s inner warrior in a non-judgemental way.
Here is an excerpt: “In the warrior’s aggressive energy, men discover their drive for daily life, career, and social contact. Perseverance and fidelity are products of the warrior’s determination. With a growing sense of what masculinity entails, many men are today recovering their birthright warrior energy, empowering themselves, and offering a plan for personal empowerment to others. Today’s male warriors are pledging their loyalty to metapersonal concerns: their workplaces, communities, and families.”
Yet a look at UK suicide rates (75% were male in 2016) would suggest that sadly many men have not connected with these inner resources. Since the 90s mainstream culture has problematised the archetypal masculine qualities like assertiveness, to the point where boys and men are routinely criticised for not being more like females. Instead of understanding and nurturing the potentially pro-social force of the archetypal masculine warrior we prefer to dismiss as ‘toxic’ anything that looks too masculine.
Ironically, this misunderstanding produces more destructive behaviour, not less. The male initiation rites that were universal in indigenous cultures were a way of harnessing the potentially destructive energy of the masculine psyche for the good of the group. If we want to try and do that today, or at least catch the men who are getting close to the edge, a good starting point is a chapter in the Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health (2019) called From Stereotypes to Archetypes: An Evolutionary Perspective on Male Help-Seeking and Suicide. By coincidence I happened to be reading this at the same time as the book I mentioned above.
Here are the author Martin Seager’s credentials, before I go on:
• consultant clinical psychologist and adult psychotherapist
• former head of psychological services in two NHS trusts
• former branch consultant to the Central London Samaritans and adviser to the National Samaritans
• formed a national advisory group for the Health Secretary
• adviser on mental health and psychology to the College of Medicine
• co-founder of the Male Psychology Network and the annual Male Psychology Conference at University College London
• inaugural chair of the new Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society (meeting this summer for the first time), which he fought for 10 years to establish
Seager believes it’s hard to change the biological drivers of masculine archetypes but much easier to change our judgemental attitudes to them if we want to help men. Those with what is currently a mainstream view of men, who take a social constructionist view of gender and downplay or deny biological drivers, won’t like this. Seager spells it out:
Within human beings perhaps the most obvious universal patterns of sexual difference are: Female (1) Beauty, attraction and glamour (including body adornment) (2) Bearing and nurturance of new-born infants and young children Male (1) Physical protection (strength) (2) Risk-taking
These universal patterns can be seen in the way males take risks in order to protect and provide for their families and communities, right up to today, says Seager, when 96% of workplace deaths in Great Britain are male — “it makes obvious sense in evolutionary terms to prioritise the survival of the female gender that physically carries the precious and vulnerable offspring”.
He goes on: “Across all cultures and throughout all known history, women and children have received the collective protection of men. These differences cannot be random. When individual men hide their own personal vulnerability, therefore, they are in effect only conforming to a male archetype that is reflected in collective and unchanging societal expectations of men.”
Society takes this for granted and is therefore less empathic towards male death and injury (examples abound — he gives rough sleepers: 85% were male in 2016/17 in the UK, yet the charity Crisis doesn’t highlight gender in any of its five key principles for tackling rough sleeping. Ditto male suicide: given that the biggest risk factor is being male, you’d expect research to be dominated by studies of male psychology and behaviour, whereas the opposite is true — studies focus instead on other factors).
If there is an empathy gap, argues Seager, it follows that men will be more driven than females to kill themselves because of: a. A greater instinct to ignore personal safety and confront danger b. A greater instinct to protect others (and greater shame at failing to do so) c. A lower sense of entitlement to receive help or protection from others
This also means that by understanding archetypal gender differences we can develop gender-specific solutions to male suicide. His team uses three elements of the masculine archetype: a. Fighting and winning b. Providing and protecting c. Maintaining mastery and self-control
His research has found that the more people thought they needed to be fighter and winner and have control over their feelings the more suicidal they felt, whereas higher scores on family harmony, an element of the feminine archetype, predicted decreased suicidality.
The elements above are about honour and strength, and when a man feels these are missing, says Seager, he experiences the opposite states of masculine shame and failure. So trying to encourage a man to open up could risk violating deep rooted masculine instincts, possibly increasing his sense of shame and failure.
Saying to a man that strength does not matter is like saying beauty does not matter to a woman, which would violate equivalent female instincts. But we can reframe the message to fit the archetype for better clinical efficacy — here is his suggestion: 1. “By seeking help you are taking action, taking control and fighting your problems” 2. “It takes strength and courage to confront and master your problems” or 3. “Looking after yourself means protecting your family”.
We can also listen better. Seager helped deliver training at Central London Samaritans that exposed volunteers (80% female — slightly less than the proportion of females working as counsellors and psychotherapists in the UK) to male culture and male issues such as blues music and female actors trying roles of power and responsibility in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. After a year the number of male callers abandoning calls in under five minutes had fallen from one in three to one in four (the number of women callers dropping out remained constant at one in six).
Do we have the foundation of a new approach to helping men here? It feels like it. Thank you for your work Martin Seager, let’s bring this practical knowledge about archetypes into the mainstream for the benefit of men, women and children.
The myths around domestic abuse are really unhelpful, but sadly they persist. We used to think that babies didn’t notice screaming and shouting — now we know they are the ones most severely affected. Their state of fear changes their brains. Being too young to process consciously they have night terrors, they experience difficulty attaching and bonding, and they develop a survival strategy as they grow up that is deeply disturbing for those around them. They are labelled as bad, secluded from school, and they end up with mental health problems at a rate higher than kids who are victims of physical violence.
We now know that unacknowledged pain can transform into violence, and so child victims of domestic abuse can become perpetrators of abuse. They discover that it feels better to punish others and they feel no remorse. This elicits a negative response from people everywhere they go so they grow up believing that no one likes them, and they get stuck in a pattern of proving they are bad and they don’t care. None of this is true — deep down they do care, they are in pain, but they are hopelessly lost.
Often they cut themselves or turn to suicide. In schools this is the elephant in the room, but there are now initiatives to help teachers understand the science behind toxic stress — the horrible effect that months or years of feeling unsafe has on a child’s body and mind. Simply Counselling, a Lottery funded domestic abuse centre in Plymouth, is single-mindedly pushing a biochemical understanding of toxic stress among its staff. Over the two years I worked there the training and intensive supervision it provides made me a firm believer in the central importance of neuroscience in therapy.
This all starts with trauma of some kind, which means any event encountered as an out of control, frightening experience that disconnects the child from safety, with no one to help them. “Abuse” doesn’t have to be aimed at the child for it to be harmful. It’s enough for the child to hear it. Sadly most definitions of domestic abuse fall a long way short of the reality. Women’s Aid says it’s a “gendered crime” in which “the vast majority of cases” are “experienced by women and perpetrated by men”. Not true: what about all the children? And the men? Every third victim of domestic violence is a man, and practically the same percentage of men as women are victims of severe acts of domestic violence.
Radical feminism has made it harder for people to empathise with boys and men. In April 2018 there were 913 boys and 27 girls in the secure estate (secure children’s homes, young offender institutions and secure training centres). When Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield and Dame Louise Casey decided to pay 10 of these tormented souls a visit “to learn about their lives before entering custody and understand the factors that led to them being imprisoned and what, if anything, could have been done to change their trajectory”, can you guess who they chose? All 10 were girls.
Children who end up in the secure estate, like their adult counterparts in prison, have often been in care. Many of them have experienced domestic abuse from a very young age which has left them in a permanent state of hypervigilance and toxic stress. They feel permanently unsafe and react to normal situations at school — being asked to sit still and concentrate — with apparently outrageous delinquency, and so they are excluded.
Although parents involved in domestic abuse often assume the kids didn’t hear anything, it’s usually a different story — they don’t miss a thing. As for the damage it does, the impact is even greater on children who hear domestic violence than those who hear and see it. The images the brain conjures up are more traumatising than the real thing, and these sensory images are laid down in the amygdala, the seat of the emotions, especially fear.
A baby within earshot of a horrible argument, either in a cot or in the womb, acquires a felt sense of violence that it can’t articulate. It’s stored away and harms the development of their brain and body. Children don’t ask for much: food, shelter, love and a sense of safety. When a child doesn’t feel safe it can affect their development in ways that might look like autism but that began as a healthy response to danger. The problem is the chronic nature of the perceived danger, which causes red alert mode to stay on for months or years, with the body pumping out adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol continuously.
This alarm is in the amygdala, which is located in the brain’s limbic system, the seat of attachment. Attachment is a really important part of this story. Our child victim of domestic abuse develops a negative attachment style that supports the core belief that “I’m unlovable, others will let me down, I am unvalued and ineffective”. We all know a child who prefers to sabotage a nice shared moment than risk losing control of their own negative narrative.
With the amygdala’s fear thermostat left in the red, the child’s capacity to learn is halted because they cannot access the frontal lobes for logical thinking. Double maths becomes impossible. It becomes difficult for them to think of themselves positively and they begin to judge their own behaviour without conscious thought. They’re on a hair trigger and they replace social engagement with defensive behaviour. If this happens before the age of four the developmental effects can be severe because the child struggles to make friends, which are a critical source of learning.
It’s very hard for a child to break out of this cycle. They sense danger everywhere, screening out the “safe” sounds of a teacher’s voice while they listen out for “dangerous” higher and lower tones. They misinterpret non-verbal cues from classmates and teachers as threatening looks. Their heart races, their palms sweat, they’re shaking. They can’t sit still. They are in agony from the minute they wake up each day to the minute they go to bed, and they often live like this for so long that they learn to cut off their sensations below the neck. They act like nothing is happening, and they collude in the narrative about them that parents, teachers and other children begin to repeat: they are naughty, bad, stupid, they just don’t care. But underneath they do care, they are in pain and they are waiting desperately for help.
And we know how to help. The long term impact of trauma is now understood thanks to the huge Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study in 1998 that followed more than 17,000 adults in the US. Many follow up studies, including two in England, have corroborated the findings: toxic stress caused by ACEs damages the function and structure of children’s developing brains, and people with four ACEs have a huge risk of adult onset of chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide and alcoholism. An ACE could be physical, sexual and verbal abuse, physical and emotional neglect, a family member who is depressed, witnessing a mother or father being abused, losing a parent and exclusion at school. There are many more and the list is growing all the time.
There is a fix, and the science behind it is astonishing: telomeres hold the end of chromosomes together like the hard bits on the end of your shoelaces. We regenerate cells with our chromosomes but as we age they fray and the telomeres get shorter, so eventually we die. Children who have witnessed violence have shortened and fraying telomeres. However a substance called telomerase can repair the telomeres. It’s produced through enriched relationships, where the child is heard and received by an empathic adult who uses play and builds trust with them. Even kids with the highest ACE scores can protect themselves from adverse outcomes through access to a single adult offering empathy and support before the age of 18. This is the work that counsellors and psychotherapists do.