Men and Therapy: The Five-Minute Tour
A lot of men wonder what this thing called “psychotherapy” is all about. How does it work? Why does it work? What goes on during it?
So here is my five-minute explanation of therapy — the way I see it and do it — and how it can help you.
Emotions: the Big Picture
Every single moment we are reacting to things — things going on in the environment around us, and things going on inside us. We’re always trying to figure out what we should do next.
When we’re at work dealing with a work-type problem — whether we write code or fix cars for a living — we’re usually using our cognitive minds — our thinking, intellectual brains — to puzzle out solutions.
But underneath, whether we realize it or not, we are also having emotional reactions almost all the time. These happen very fast — in as little as a tenth of a second — and we may not be able to describe them or even notice that we had them. But they shape our moods and reactions. Basically, except for the technical problems we solve with our intellects, emotional reactions shape almost everything we think and do and feel.
Emotional reactions aren’t bad. They’re simply the way humans are built. Our emotional circuits are what drive us. They’re both the engine and the navigational system. Take away the ability to have emotions – something that’s happened to a few poor souls due to an illness or injury – and a person is totally crippled, unable to manage life, make decisions or even function.
When Emotions Become a Problem
But there are problems with this system. For one, when our emotional system tells us we’re threatened, it makes us react first and think later. This is great for keeping us alive if we catch a glimpse of what might be a rattlesnake at our feet. It may not be so great when we’re at work, or relating to our spouses or partners or kids.
Another problem is that our emotional system, which is designed to tell us when things are wrong so we can change them, can get totally overloaded when we’re under enough stress. Then it becomes like a big loud alarm bell inside signaling things are bad bad bad, and nothing we do seems to get it to fully turn off. It just stays there, like a bad back or terrible toothache, never totally gone, and ready to become acute at any moment.
If this happens, your thinking brain may go on overtime trying unsuccessfully to solve the problem, so you stay up night after night thinking and worrying.
Or you may try to blot out your distress, using one method or another — TV, video games, alcohol, drugs, overwork, over-exercise….the list is long.
You might get very “touchy,” the way someone with a bad bruise will cry out in pain if someone so much as brushes against it. You walk around like a wounded bear.
Or maybe, like a lot of men (and some women), you’ve learned to deal with emotional overload by turning off your ability to notice it. This is an important skill to have when survival depends on having a clear head. A firefighter facing a building in flames has to stay calm and do what needs to be done — he doesn’t at that moment have the luxury of feeling his emotions. And no one wants the surgeon operating on them to be thinking about a fight they had with their spouse the night before!
But you can’t turn off emotional distress for very long periods of time without going numb, or possibly, having a severe emotional reaction later. (This is called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.)
What Therapy Does
So what does therapy do about all this?
Most of therapy is spent identifying and working through what’s really going on inside you — not what you or anyone else thinks you should feel, but what you really do feel.
Why is this important? Because paying attention to what’s really going on – directing focused attention from the more advanced, higher-order parts of our mind to our emotional state – begins to calm things down all by itself. It also starts the process of understanding what’s happening, which is the first step toward changing it.
Can’t you do this by yourself, or with your partner? Maybe – but when people are in emotional overload, their minds, left to themselves, tend to go into unproductive “loops.” And for a whole number of reasons, your spouse may not be the person you want to share it all with – and they may not be able to help you enough.
A lot of therapy involves slowing down the emotional brain – all of those tenth-of-a-second reactions – and figuring out when, where and why the alarms are going off.
Some of those alarms probably have to do with real problems and dilemmas that you have to solve in your current life. And some may come from experiences in your past that have caused your emotional system to react to present events as if something terrible is happening or about to happen, when it’s actually not.
Change is usually gradual, because we’ve been learning from the day we were born a certain way of surviving and coping, and that’s a lot to let go of. But real improvement is often felt rather quickly. And little by little, enough of the alarm centers get brought out into the light, until that you are no longer hindered by emotional distress.
Another part of therapy is regular old problem-solving, as we face and tackle your everyday problems. And a third major part is talking about the other people in your life, especially your partner, and figuring out why they act and react the way they do. A lot of distress is caused by misunderstanding and misinterpreting our partners (or our parents, or our children, or our co-workers) and not knowing how to respond to the things they say or do that upset us in ways that make matters better, not worse.
So that’s it – therapy with me in a nutshell. It’s about feeling better, coping better, getting out of emotional distress, solving problems, possibly making some changes in your behavior because you want to change them, and figuring out how you and other people tick.
Oh, and one more thing: It works.