Experiential Reclamation Therapy – Transformative Therapy for Men Beyond CBT

 

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem. bell hooks

 

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a tried and true approach to working with men, particularly since it focuses on their belief systems and behavioral choices. Many mental health professionals thought that this paradigm was the most effective with male clients since it was a good fit with the traditional masculine identity. In other words, focus on men’s stinking and boorish behaviors.

 

Males Don’t “Do” Emotions…

In a way, this means that counseling professionals maintained the same common societal beliefs reflected so often in mainstream media. Males don’t do emotions. Men won’t open up with other men in groups, male clients will resist touching each other, and men balk at psycho-drama.

 

 At the Men’s Resource Center, we concluded that this belief about men is actually an artifact from hegemonic masculinity—the traditional and narrow view of masculinity. Men have been trained to experience their bodies and emotions in restrictive, competitive, and unhealthy ways.

 

Challenging Unhealthy Socialization…

As mental health professionals, we’re charged with challenging unhealthy socialization patterns rather than colluding with them. A few years back, my partner Charlie Donaldson and I found Experiential Reclamation Therapy (ERT) incorporating somatic therapy to not only be effective at ameliorating mental health symptoms but also transformative in developing men’s overall wellness to include emotional and relational intelligences.

 

ERT helps men take their healthy belief systems from a re-visioning of masculinity and greater behavioral stability into deeper work with their emotionality, sensations, and relationality.  If one thinks of CBT as top-down therapy (beginning with stories and narratives to potentially get to emotions), ERT provides an opportunity for bottom-up therapy (beginning with body sensations, mindfulness, and experiential relationships in group to explore how they are connected to narratives and behavioral patterns).

 

Although we use and incorporate traditional CBT into our therapies with men at the Men’s Resource Center, with ERT we help them reclaim their bodies and get reacquainted with their body’s many sensations, varying emotional states, etc … Engaging and reconnecting cognitive and intellectual processes at the social, emotional, and somatic level.

 

 

 

Much of this inner knowledge and life-enhancing resources are pummeled out of men from early childhood…

 

Reaching Out for Emotional Connections

For instance, boys are often considered “sissies” when they experience sorrow and disappointment openly. And they are sexually derided—called “gay”—when they reach out for emotional connections. This carries over into adult life and can lead to so many problems: unfulfilling relationships, addictions, anger and violence issues. When men engage in ERT, they can reclaim these resources and once again benefit from the sweetness and nutrients of male intimacy. Tragically, intimacy is often lost while in pursuit of the “pinnacle of masculinity” (sexual conquests, independence, competition, invulnerability).

 

Unlike traditional mental health treatments, ERT focuses on helping men develop into their full humanity. And in doing so, we aren’t emasculating men, we are cross-training them. It isn’t a zero-sum process in that we support and integrate the intelligences of masculine energy—strength, autonomy, and competition—while balancing and diversifying their development with emotional, somatic and relational intelligences.

 

It’s a reclamation of emotional resources intelligently understood and managed. Particularly when engaged in the mercurial business of intimate relationships. In fact, we think the mental health field has it backwards. Men don’t have relationship problems primarily because of addictions, depression, and anxiety diagnoses. They often have these consequential problems because they don’t have emotional and relational intelligences.

men talking emotions

 

Addressing Toxic Male Socialization

We don’t believe men can adequately address symptoms of mental illnesses without addressing the features of toxic male socialization: the rigidity of the gender binary that makes softer human attributes forbidden because of deeming those softer qualities “feminine” and associated with women and weakness.

 

This aspect of male socialization asks men to undergo problematic emotional responses and to underplay the importance of relationships to their overall well being. It can also lead to what Charlie and I have diagnosed as “mascupathy,” a diseased masculinity that exaggerates masculine traits while minimizing important human qualities such as sensitivity, intimacy, and patience.

 

If men can’t reclaim emotional intelligence and somatic sensibility, then even the best therapies for their mental illnesses will fall short.

 

In our experience, when men are reconnected to emotions and intimacy they very often develop in such a way that DSM diagnoses of depression and anxiety dissipate.  Moreover, when men reclaim and value the emotional and relational capacities in themselves, they are less likely to disrespect, devalue, and hate it in others – especially women and non-binary males.

 

The ERT Process…

Not every man is at a stage where he can step into the ERT process. In the addiction and recovery field, ERT would be most conducive in the stage that’s often referred to as “middle therapy.” We believe that ERT is contraindicated when men aren’t yet accountable, insightful, and relatively behaviorally stable in terms of sobriety from addictions or other behavioral problems.

 

We often have men begin participation in re-socialization therapy (i.e. psycho-educational, CBT, social learning and intervention paradigms) and eventually transfer into ERT programs. Although some men are farther along in their recovery process and are ready for ERT when they are referred to us. Men who are in ERT groups will also see their group therapist for individual counseling. The toggling between individual and group therapy provides a type of synergy that helps them process and integrate individually what they are experiencing in their weekly group sessions.

 

Given the preconceived notions of what addiction and recovery therapies look like, moving men into ERT can be challenging. When I explain experiential work—including somatic therapy—to my male clients, they are often anxious about engaging or want to dismiss it as “new-agey”, 

 

They bring a host of beliefs and experiences telling them that body work focusing on sensations and emotions is women’s work.

 

“It scares the hell out of me…”

Some have been brave enough to admit, “It scares the hell out of me.”  This intuition and somatic approach takes men into their interior landscape, a foreign territory, but it’s the next frontier for men who want to heal, evolve, and develop a more relational and wholehearted masculinity.  Over time, they develop a new narrative of courage and say things like, “If I’m afraid to do it or talk about it, it must be where I need to go.” 

 

ERT works. It works because when men affirm with each other new connections to emotional intelligence and its relationship to their bodies, they effectively re-socialize themselves.  So, feelings that were initially mocked, marginalized, and shamed out of men become the foundation and blueprint for affirming, empowering, and healthy peer relationships that help men stay accountable, connected, and open.

 

young men friends

 

Greater Emotional Intelligence

Men’s experiences with ERT end up being footings; moorings for a more grounded and balanced self-concept with greater emotional intelligence. They learn that their behavioral and relational patterns of control, aggression, stoicism, sexism, and over-dependence on sex for connection are partially rooted in their socialized disconnection from body, sensations, and emotions.

 

Accordingly, the enemy of violence is empathy…

 

They become less fearful and resistant to exploring their inner landscape. This increases their desire for greater intimacy with self and others and decreases their defensiveness and reliance on hierarchical positioning for safety and security. And if they are readily achieving that in their life, their wellness is enhanced and enduring. They ultimately learn and find great relief in knowing they don’t have to denounce their humanity to be masculine and they don’t have to lose their masculinity to be human.

 

For more information about ERT and to explore how it can work in conjunction with traditional treatments, contact me through the Men’s Resource Center.

 

Randy Flood, MA LLP is the co-founder and director of the Men's Resource Center of West Michigan, where he is the principal therapist in providing individual and group psychotherapy. Randy holds a master's degree in counseling psychology from Western Michigan University and has spent his career creating and developing specialized clinical services that address men’s issues. These include anger management, fathering assistance, sexual addiction recovery, and general personal growth counseling. Prior to co-founding the Men's Resource Center of West Michigan, Randy worked at the Domestic Violence Program for Men in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and founded the Men’s Program at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids.