The approach I take to therapy has at its core the three values of Understanding, Acceptance and Compassion. These values as I understand them are explained to the client in the consultation before we set about investigating how these values work through the four relationships men have to themselves. We conclude with a model of alignment and balance which clients use to re-orient themselves when times become difficult or challenging as inevitably they must.
Understanding. While we are trapped in our own narratives it is difficult to develop any but the most limited narrow band understanding of ourselves. We are set up to survive and a lot of our mechanisms override any efforts we may want to change. Therapy is firstly about understanding how it is we have come to be set up the way we are. Without a deep and far-reaching under- standing of our self and its relationship to others we are unable to accomplish common (but difficult) goals like forgiveness. Understanding is a carefully chosen word. It is not about critique or analysis. Understanding is gentler and more reflective. As clients soon learn from the method we have to consider all four relationships to ourselves as it is in the mix of these that a new under- standing can emerge. This is of course best done with a therapist who should be skilled enough to ‘hold’ the client as a new approach to their story emerges. As the client proceeds they should hang onto the phrase ‘the past is a reference point – not a map’. It is by believing that the past is laid out for them like a map that men stumble on being loaded down with duty, responsibility and their associated costs (alcoholism, addiction). Understanding the past is the first key to change.
Acceptance. It is essential that the client understand that what we mean by acceptance is primarily defined by what it is not. Thus acceptance is NOT resignation. Resignation is expressed in the following forms – ‘My dad was like that am so am I, “I’ve always done this: I’m an addictive personality; I have this condition’ etc. Resignation is the name we give to the tight and inflexible script that the client invests in. When people ask me whether hypnotism works I push the question back and ask whether there are phrases or modes of behaviour that they repeat to them- selves (self-talk) on such a regular basis that they form the outline of the truth they live within. Acceptance is very different. Acceptance does not deny the past but recognises that we cannot know the future. Perhaps more importantly acceptance is a daily practise is which the individual comes to realise their potential unbounded by past expectations of what the self should do. For example if the principle of responsibility has been installed in a child from a very early age then the man defines himself by it. The rewards of this responsibility can be considerable (for family, career, sense of value etc) but they can come at a cost. Resignation keeps responsibility going and some therapies become management tools or coping skills to maintain the role. Acceptance does not lead to irresponsibility but the understanding (in therapy) does offer the client a chance to see how they have got to where they are and at the very least change the way they approach themselves. Acceptance allows the individual to truly ‘be’ in their day and not in their role.
Compassion. This is a term that many men struggle with. For principally religious reasons com- passion has come to be seen as a weak and cuddly approach to individuals – like a posh version of pity. When men are asked to show compassion to themselves they are usually lost. Compassion as I understand it is based on a deep empathy for others. Compassion is the recognition that what we share as people is far stronger than what divides us. Compassion should be powered by empathy but this is a two-way street and can sometimes struggle to find a place in men who operate with a determination to defend themselves: thus compassion might feel like a weakness. The best way to convince men of the value of compassion is to get them to reflect on a time when they experienced compassion in their lives. This might be from their parents or in a moment they had when they were children or with their own children. Then I introduce the fact that compassion has within it a chemical element (oxytocin) and that if we relive the compassionate moment we can generate this chemical and its associated feelings. If men don’t feel confident enough in the room then they can try this experience at home. It works. Furthermore men can now go forward ‘armed’ with an understanding of how it can help them not only with others but with themselves. Compassion is set up as an active approach to be used when they feel the need. I encourage an exploration and development of this but it can only take root once they have passed through the steps of understanding and acceptance. The former help clear away the past and truly allow compassion to operate in the moment.
These three core principles are explained in the first consultation but they are more actively integrated in the method which is defined as investigating the four relationships we have with (i) Others; (ii) Thinking; (iii) Emotions and (iv) the Body.
(i) Others. Under this heading we consider the formative influences on the child as he developed through childhood, into adolescence and beyond into the present. Although men are often defensive or dismissive about this approach there is plentiful evidence that the early years play a very significant role in shaping the sort of people we are. One common character type is the other-directed individual. He or she is someone whose principal drive is to serve the real (and often imagined) needs of others. They can make excellent employees because they put their needs above their own. They value loyalty and service because they see that in their own actions. But while I had met many other-directed individuals I have not met any who enjoy the state of being always second to the needs of others. This pattern or style of living begins in childhood in the need to please parents or significant others. It is not one freely chosen. Once a client sees how formative patterns established in childhood have come to shape his behaviour and how he thinks of himself he is free to step back and consider the value and rewards he has gained but also to re-think if he want to continue feeling the same way
(ii) Thinking. When you ask a man about his relationship to his thinking you often get a very surprised look. A lot of men think that they are their thinking – that they are defined by it. Furthermore they respond to their thinking as if it were an aggressive foreman pushing them around and demanding quicker, faster results. This style of thinking offers no rest. It is a ceaseless drive to do more. Thinking works objects over and dismisses reflection as idle. It is the strict father or the tough teacher internalised. It is an enemy to rest. Therapy works to create a space in which individuals can see how their style of thinking has developed and how it works in the moment. How do they respond to it? Are they being bullied or do they treat thoughts as another useful source of information but by no means always necessarily the most useful or important one. This under- standing helps them to choose a relationship to their thinking which gives it its place rather than being bossed around by it.
(iii) Emotions. It is a pretty much a truism that men don’t like talking about their emotions. It might be considered acceptable to get upset at family gatherings but beyond that expressing emotions is seen as risky or rather effeminate. Unfortunately this approach doesn’t banish the emotions – it just pushes them underground. Trapped or repressed emotions lie in wait ready to jump out at wholly inappropriate moments – for example seemingly irrational rages to being over- taken on the motorway or floods of tears at an advertisement for biscuits. Therapy is not about making men emotional incontinent but helping them to acknowledge that they have emotional cores and that these have to be both understood and accepted. Once men see that their approach to their emotions is not something they have chosen but have learnt (from their father, popular culture, peer groups) then they are able to gently allow emotions to play a role in their lives. Sometimes this approach to the emotions has to be ‘sold’ to mens’ competitive instincts but once installed men can feel their emotions as an asset enabling them to live calmer more considered lives.
(iv) Bodies. Ask a man about his relationship to his body and he’ll either talk about the gym or some serious overindulgences in the pub, the office party or his dim and distant past. His body has been the instrument he has relied upon for so long that it is sometimes an effort to get him to understand it as something more. But we are our bodies not floating brains who use them. This relationship to the body is fundamental to our whole well-being but it’s one that men usually take for granted – something that becomes quickly evident once a problem occurs . For the body to work well it has to be well fed and rested – not always tested. They body is a resource that we can learn to rely on rather then being a machine we have to be constantly attentive to. Our aim is to help men change their relationship to the body so that they can be healthier and more at ease with themselves. They key is to guide clients away from notions like efficiency towards embracing a warm and more flexible intimacy with the body – one that appreciates and cares for it now and not when it has achieved a certain goal.
In my experience the key to successful therapy lies in a mixture of clarity and gentle, open and creative exploration. Men like to have goals and enjoy plans. They can find their place within such structures as they seem to have a relationship to their work processes for example. I en- courage all clients to make notes and to return to the 3 principles and the four relationships on a regular basis. Checking in on these relationships and expressing gratitude for how they have un- folded in the day is a useful night time exercise. But therapy has as its core exploring how men have set up modes of being via the four relationships. They have to be dislodged from their ownership of such scripts by subtle means. In other words the four relationships have to explored in a non-systematic way. We might begin and end with one of the four as a focus but the actual exploration should take place without a map. To achieve this the therapist ‘holds’ the client as they explore the subject together but then returns to the chosen relationship at the end as part of the gradual process of getting the client closer to himself and more in balance.
Alignment and Balance.
The reader will know that the terms alignment and balance are two age-old ways of understand- ing our place in life. Ancient methods of divination, astrology, sacred work etc all concur on the fundamental relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. I am not casting the runes here but I am suggesting that a feeling of alignment and balance is core to our sense of well-be- ing. What is of interest is how conscious we are of our role in choosing or responding to these.
In parochial terms alignment is your place in a village, tribe or community. It is what others expect of you principally because of their own alignments. Balance is the tricky business the individual undertakes to find an acceptable degree of autonomy and agency while still serving the needs of the community to be aligned. In olden days alignment was made explicit in a series of religious beliefs and rituals that one was expected to take part in or fulfil. Balance is the practical work of fitting in to those activities. I have talked to clients about their relationships to a circuit of expectation – the modern version of balance and alignment in which what we are to others is gently negotiated privately and publicly. The circuit is activated by expectation and fulfilled when those expected behaviours take place in the individual. However certain societal forces and the pressure of the tribe can exercise itself very powerfully on individuals policing their behaviour and making it difficult to express a view that violates that of the tribe. In our time both traditional and social media play a very powerful role in shaping our consent ie pulling us all into line – and punishing the transgressors. Our freedom to think has certain limits and is best defined by consumerism where individuality can be bought off the rack.
Therapy is an open non-judgemental space where clients can explore how they have lived with their own alignment and balance and ask themselves crucial, deeper questions about whether they would like to return to an older state of alignment and balance or try to force a new one with the tools and understanding acquired through therapy. (This perhaps also marks the difference between short and long term therapy and a change in the relationship with the therapist. The quick function is repair, the longer one is exploration).
Let’s use the four relationships outlined above to consider some popular forms of misalignment and (consequently) imbalance to make this point clearer.
Others, A young man grows up in a community of folk who have strict religious or ethical beliefs which over time he feels instinctively are wrong for him. He educates himself and this reinforces his feeling of alienation. However he also needs to survive and the community is the means of that survival. He voices or goes along with practices that he does not believe in just so he can survive. But he feels alone and torn apart. This form of individual imbalance is fundamental to so much drama between the individual and the group. It is difficult for this man to express himself freely and so he creates and lives with a misalignment. Even as he breaks free from this space to live in a different community he will always be internally marked and uncertain about how much of himself is truly being expressed in a relationship and how much is what is required. Remaining the same means choosing conformist alignment and balance is found in fulfilling the duties required.
Thinking. An executive is given instructions to carry out the latest company directive. He may well have moral, ethical or political objections but his thinking is in charge and the directive is stripped of these dimensions so that he can carry out the orders. In popular parlance his thinking
is the ‘boss’ of him. This is a man who reasons his way through life. He defers to his thinking as the main arbiter and relegates all his other functions to very minor roles. He is the company man ‘aligned’ with what is necessary for survival who finds his balance in carrying out orders. And then the company collapses. Suddenly the executive finds his thinking machine trying to survive without the struts and supports he’s used to. He gets pushed around by his thinking trying to find an alignment with a new organisation and while he searches he feels an imbalance as other people, his emotions and his body loom into view in ways he is not used to and does not feel able to manage away. At this point he has a choice on whether to realign in his role as a good employee or create new and challenging alignments in which all aspects of himself and his relationships are in play.
Emotions. As he drinks with his mates in the pub a man begins to observe them with a slightly detached view. He knows that X is having serious problems at home with his son. Y is on the verge of a divorce and Z is deeply worried by the threat of redundancy. And yet all they are doing is shouting at the telly with huge passion as the match plays. He knows (as they do) that this is not the place for emotional displays. But he also knows that the cost of not talking about what’s going on with them is forms of substance abuse – an abuse that he is in the middle of right now in the pub. And then he thinks about the pressure of the group to stick to a narrow band of subjects. Then he thinks about the wider community of men who also keep their emotional life under wraps – perhaps his own father and grandfather are the same. And then he thinks that maybe that’s how things ought to be. And so he develops a misalignment with his own emotions.
Rather than experiencing or exploring them he relegates them to the psychic basement and maintains a series of imbalanced behaviours to keep them in check (drinking is one of them).
The body. As he runs on the treadmill in designer brand-wear a man looks at the readout to see how close he is to his personal best. It is 5 am. He begins work at 7am. He considers his body as an efficient machine. Its important that he be efficient. Efficiency has been the key to his success and the body has a fundamental role in maintaining that. He has made the investment and it’s paid handsomely. And yes, while it may be that his body seemed to want a lie in till 6 am this morning he overpowered this. The body wanted to eat too, and to drift around the shops but he overpowered these irrational impulses and pressed on. He has made a simple alignment with the body as machine and balanced behaviour is in servicing this ideal. After all a computer screen can’t be wrong. I need hardly add that this very popular misalignment relegates the body to a merely maintenance role and neglects to appreciate all the other intuitive and easeful responses that can make life so much easier. The crucial notion here is seeing and possibly changing this alignment is trust. A man focused on his thinking can easily make the body an ally in alignments in the name of efficiency. Trust argues that the body can be so much more than that if we allow ourselves to move beyond measure and into ease.
There are of course extreme examples but variants of all four relationships can be found in most people. Alignment and balance are simply new words to describe the tension between the individual and the place and role of others, thinking, emotions and the body. Trust grows in a shared exploration of the self and in being prepared to be open and honest.
At the core of what I offer the client is the ability to make his first really well-informed and open choice.
One common and brutal expression often thrown at those suffering with addictions or perennial problems is ‘you had a choice.’ But it should be clear that not everyone is in a position to make free choices as a range of factors beyond the individuals determine the field in which choices can be made. Social environment, education and peer group pressure are just three of the powerful background influences that considerably narrow the individual’s ability to choose freely. By establishing the three principles and working through the four relationships men can come to see how they have become defined in certain ways – to themselves and others. They then know that the alignments and balancing behaviours they have engaged in are a product of circumstances beyond their control. Choice is expressed in a re-orientation to the self – and in alignments freely chosen. This is the liberating moment.