Why Many Men Think Therapy Isn’t for Them

A therapist looked inward to get men to open up.

Aymann Ismail and Avi Klein.
Aymann Ismail and Avi Klein.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Lisa Larson-Walker and Sasha Maslov.

In a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail went to his first-ever therapy session. He talked with Avi Klein about how the #MeToo movement has affected his clients, why men don’t talk about their feelings, and why stoicism may not be as bad as some therapists make it out to be. A portion of their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Aymann Ismail: Maybe I’m just trying to rationalize it for myself, but I’m wondering if stoicism is that bad. If every way to cope is valid, are we in a place where we can tell others that they’re wrong for wanting to hold their tears in?

Avi Klein: Take it out of “right” and “wrong” and look at what happens if you keep your emotions inside and out of your awareness. My understanding of what people talk about with stoicism is an awareness of what you’re feeling: You know it, and you let it go. And maybe that’s an acceptable coping strategy. But in practice, what often happens is repression: I’m not going to acknowledge it.

What happens with unacknowledged feelings is they take a really big toll. That’s anxiety. Anxiety is the beginning of a feeling. It’s not a feeling in and of itself. It’s saying, This feels hard to feel right now. I’m scared to feel this. If you’re not aware of what you’re feeling, you’re going to feel a lot of anxiety. But also, if you can’t handle your feelings, you might drink a lot. One of the consequences with men is we’ve said one of the only acceptable feelings is anger, and it’s like a funnel. Every feeling you have you just channel it into anger, and that’s horrible for everyone around them, because then you’ve got these really angry people.

Ismail: That doesn’t surprise me at all.

I wonder how much the #MeToo movement impacted the way you engage men in therapy.

Klein: A lot of men do cope in the way that you and I have coped with our feelings, which is pushing things out of our awareness. And when it comes to our relationships with women, that can be really dangerous. We’ve been talking about pushing away sadness or pushing away fear, but one thing is you’re not really able to be so selective about what you push away. You push one feeling away, you’re pushing away most. And when you push away your feelings, there’s a kind of emotional blindness that comes up. You’re less aware of how you are with other people, because your feelings are a huge social tool. So what was so amazing about #MeToo coming into public conversation was that it forced men to recognize something that they would never have talked about in therapy. It would not have been on their radar to bring up, and suddenly they were bringing it up and looking at themselves. So it opened up all these interesting doors that wouldn’t have been opened otherwise.

Ismail: It was kind of a referendum on the way that women have had to deal with men for basically their entire lives.

Klein: For basically all of human history.

Ismail: It almost felt like that level of introspection was necessary. Not just it’d be nice if men talked about it, but we need to.

Klein: I think it’s been a catalyst for men really looking at themselves and really starting to own why am I doing this? I just thought that was such an interesting question: How could women have one experience and men have a completely different experience? Most men don’t think of themselves as monsters, and so what was happening in between?

Ismail: It sounds like it created some really interesting revelations there, where you get someone to acknowledge how they maybe were a monster.

Klein: Men’s reaction to it was deep shame, when they started to take accountability. And the shame actually blocked them from changing, because they felt so bad that they would get numb and ignore it and not really pay attention, so it’s a balancing act between how do you help someone hold their shame and not think of themselves as a monster because, really, people are complicated. You can do maybe a monstrous thing and not be a monster, and still be a good person.

Ismail: In the piece that you wrote called “How I Finally Got Men to Talk About Their Feelings,” you talked about how therapists themselves can be sometimes part of the problem. What does that mean?

Klein: A kind of unacknowledged bias of not respecting men’s tenderness, not respecting their sadness, on one side, and not respecting the totally valid need for stoicism that they’ve learned to utilize. It’s either communicating in some way that they did think they were weak for feeling so sad, or not respecting the boundaries they’d put up and trying to tear them down so that they’re super emotional. And both of those ways communicate to men that they’re not welcome in therapy.

Ismail: I like what you just said, about therapists acknowledging the need for men to be stoic sometimes. Because even when I’ve been doing this podcast, from the very beginning I’ve been trying to tear that away and see what was underneath all of this stoicism. And when I started doing that, I felt like I was also tearing away very important experiences that shaped who I am, and that prevented me from really understanding why I think the things that I think. Because once you pull all of those experiences away, everything that’s left is not a complete version of me.

Klein: Right. You’d need to stand up for those parts too. That would feel really bad, to disavow something that is incredibly strong.

Ismail: Yeah, and I think that it’s a little necessary. I understand how dangerous stoicism could be, not just for the men experiencing it but also the people around them, especially when we talk about abuse and this need to numb yourself from what you’re feeling. I just am worried that it might be way more complicated than removing or burying one’s stoicism to reveal what’s underneath it.

Klein: There’s this Aesop’s fable where the sun and the wind have a contest: Who can get this guy to take off his coat? The wind goes first and tries to blow it off of him and he just holds onto it tighter, and the sun warms him up and he sets it down. I think about that with men and acknowledging, in a kind and compassionate way, “You’ve needed to be stoic, and there are good things about being stoic—and there’s also something missing if you only rely on that.” My hope is to make it comfortable enough to not be stoic for a little bit, instead of demanding that someone cut it out.

To hear the rest of the interview—and Ismail’s therapy session with Klein—click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.