Monday, December 23, 2013


Most of the Patients in my current psychotherapy practice are men. At this stage of the evolution of my professional life, 71 years old with four decades of experience as a psychologist,I have a strong desire to help men navigate the complexity of their emotional relationships with their partners and their children. I view it as a mentoring role within the therapeutic relationship. Most of my patients had fathers and other men in their lives who had limited skills for dealing with emotionally-laden situations.

In talking with my patients about this I find the iconic male image of "the toolbox" a very useful metaphor.For example, during a recent session with Hal, who at 38 is floundering in his efforts to connect emotionally with his wife and two daughters,I said "When your father reached into his emotional toolbox he found only two tools - advice-giving and the hammer of anger. Part of what I will try to do is to give you some additional tools." He smiled and nodded his head. This is a fairly typical exchange. We live in an era in which men are encouraged to connect more with their inner emotional landscape and to enter more into the realm of the heart in their relationships with their partners and their children. However, they have been raised by fathers, grandfathers and uncles from another era. So, while there is a cultural permission to define masculinity in a different way, they still have few models of what that actually means.

When discussing expanding their emotional skills I put my left hand over the edge of my chair, reach down to the floor and say, "Imagine yourself reaching into your toolbox and selecting the right tool that is needed for this situation." Oftentimes men will say that they feel helpless because they don't know what to do. My respond usually is "Often she doesn't need you to do anything. She needs you to be....Sometimes that means being an attentive listener who doesn't interrupt or give advice. Sometimes that means she needs you to be in your heart and not your problem-solving head - to be an open-hearted compassionate presence. Sometimes the tool you need is patience - to give your partner or child the gift of your time while something unfolds." We also talk about being a provider, which is certainly an archetypal male role. The use of that term resonates with my patients at very deep levels of consciousness. However, I'm talking about being a provider not only of their external needs, but also of their inner needs. That means asking the question, "What does my partner or child need from me at this moment to nurture their inner life. Do they need a warm soothing voice, encouragement, some affectionate touch, praise, celebration of an accomplishment ....?

As a way of reminding my patients to respond from their hearts to these emotional situations I recommend to them that they gently touch the breastplate at the center of their chests and do some meditational breathing. I suggest that they tap that spot for several minutes before they enter their home or apartment as a reminder to shift from the problem-solving mode that their work usually requires to the more open-hearted presence that their home life needs. I also encourage them to do that gentle tapping of their heart area during emotional situations at home so that they can respond from the realm of their emotional hearts.

This blog entry is based on the MEN chapter of my book "Working From the Heart:A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy"