Why I Do Men's Work
I came to men’s work late in life. For most of my adult life, I have been engaged in work designed to free myself from wounds, messages, and patterns that have limited my authentic expression of myself. In 1970 or so I moved from research Psychology to Clinical Work. In my experience, it’s impossible to probe others’ wounds, messages, and patterns effectively without seeing oneself more deeply in the process. I was committed to being as effective a therapist as I could be, so I willingly signed up for workshops and training where I could go deep into myself, all in service to more effectively help others.
The 1970’s were the heyday of theories and programs designed to make the psyche accessible to all without the mysteries and secrecy of psychoanalysis. I started with Sullivanianism, a reputed “psychotherapy cult” that was an offshoot (some would say distortion) of the work of Harry Stack Sullivan. From there I moved to Transactional Analysis, Gestalt Therapy, Psychodrama, Bioenergetics, and Family Systems Therapy. In 1981 I had just begun working in organizations when I did the est Training with Werner Erhard, and for the next ten years immersed myself fully in est and its successor program, the Landmark Forum, and also the organizational consulting wing of Erhard’s work, first called Transformational Technologies and later Tekniko.
I left Landmark in 1991 and went back to work as an Organizational Psychologist, consulting on leadership development, organizational development, and strategy. In this work, I encountered more and more organizations that had made significant advances in empowering women but had done little more than to challenge men in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Finally, in 2014, I encountered the Mankind Project, an organization founded in 1985 that does initiatory training for men. At the age of 71, I finally was able to pierce through the cultural conditioning of what it is to be a man - don’t show feelings (except anger), don’t be vulnerable, objectify women, etc., and was introduced to a healthier form of masculinity through initiation. As the philosopher Richard Rohr put it:
… on every continent, culture after culture, it was never assumed that the young male naturally grew up. He had to be taught…and that was called “initiation”… Basically, there was the assumption that cultures came to — and at this point in history, I don’t think it needs much proof — that unless the male was led on journeys of powerlessness, he would always abuse power.
And I know that seems damning, but the male just can’t handle power unless he’s somehow touched upon vulnerability, powerlessness.
Despite all the work I’d done on myself over 30-plus years, I had missed this key fact: that until I confronted my wounds and my shadow beliefs, until I became vulnerable and open, there would be a lid on my growth and development.
In my experience, personal growth is not linear. One doesn’t meet an issue, conquer it, and move on to the next issue (this is an essential piece of male thinking - think dragon slaying). Rather growth is a spiral, or maybe a fractal. I keep coming up against deeper and deeper versions of the same issues, and with each version, my understanding deepens and my compassion for myself and others grows.
So why men’s work? Why not just work? I’ve done both and both are worthwhile, but I’ve experienced a couple of critical factors when I work in an all-men setting. First, whether we are aware of it or not (and whether we’ll admit it or not), an important part of the tradeoff that is patriarchy is that men feel shamed by women. As the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward put it in Porgy and Bess,
Your mama was the first to name you, and then she tied you to her apron strings.
She shamed you and she blamed you till your woman came to claim you.
When men sit together in an environment that they perceive to be free of this shame and blame, they feel safe enough to open up at new levels.
Secondly, in ordinary circumstances, men act as enforcers of toxic masculinity with other men. In an all-male setting with appropriate boundaries and agreements they can drop this enforcer role and tell the truth about how they experience the “rules of being a man:”
Some years ago, I was consulting to the leadership team of a company in the Midwestern United States. This was a “smokestack industry” and all of the leadership team were men. Throughout the several days of the workshop the men “joked” by taking swipes at each other – teasing, insults, criticism, all cloaked as “humor.” Finally, on the last day, my (female) co-facilitator commented on this and asked how the men felt about it. After a long silence, one man said “it hurts my feelings. I hate it!” and then one man after another chimed in in a similar vein. When we inquired further, all of them said it was just part of being a man – it’s how men interact.
Finally, and related to this, men culturally settle for superficial relationships, and they maintain the superficiality by a set of unwritten but widely understood rules. Talk about sports, women, complain about work, be silent while watching sports on TV, these are known and adhered to. Don’t talk about feelings, don’t probe for hurts, and above all, “don’t call me on mine and I won’t call you on yours.” In men’s work, these rules are off. Men support each other, empathize, hold each other to account for behaving in accordance with values such as accountability, integrity, empathy, and confidentiality.
I can honestly say that my 40 or so years of work on myself laid the groundwork for the power I’ve found in men’s work. And I can say with equal honesty that what I found in men’s work brought all my previous work together and allowed me to get closer to the root of issues that I’d kept recycling for those 40 years.
By Ed Gurowitz, Ph.D