How can masculinity impact on men in therapy?
Concepts of masculinity are often wide ranging in nature, organic and vary within different cultures.
Broadly speaking masculinity is defined by the attributes one has that are perceived to be typical of a man. Therefore there are two areas that these behaviours could come from. Firstly a direct result of one’s biology and natural make up and secondly via learnt behaviour. Most likely is that one’s own idea of how to ‘be a man’ would be made up of a mixture of both these factors.
For each individual man it is possible that having a masculine identity is not of significant importance for them and for others it may be of extreme importance to be perceived to be ‘manly’ and to be seen by others to be so. And for each individual this masculine construct will be specific to their biology and their own personal experiences. These experiences may be parenting, schooling, macro and micro cultures, work/social groups and many other factors.
Are masculine constructs positive or negative? Research has shown that there are both positive and negative attributes associated with masculinity. For example Allen and Gordon (1990) argue that gender socialisation to masculine roles in men can leads to stress, relationship difficulties and health problems. Mahalik, Good & Englar-Carlson (2003) identified a number of ‘masculinity scripts’ that can lead to men needing to be the ‘tough guy’, fear of intimacy with men and competitiveness that could lead to mental health difficulties, if the desire to fit these identities causes a strain in one’s life. Addis and Mahalik (2003) argue that resistance of men to either seek therapy or truly be open in therapy, may be due to feelings of shame at being vulnerable and intimate within relationships.
However Mahalik, Good and Englar-Carlson (2003) also identify some potentially positive aspects of masculinity scripts when working with male clients and strengths that men who conform to traditional masculine norms may bring to therapy e.g. assertiveness and problem solving skills.
It is always worthwhile to explore with clients whether these norms have positively or negatively impacted on their life in any way, or indeed if they feel that they are relevant to them at all. It is also true that women may feel that they have some masculine identities, as some of these norms are prevalent in our modern day society. In identifying how many of these norms have been internalised, a client has the opportunity to explore which of these norms are proving healthy or unhealthy for them.