New Focus on Men, Work, and Therapy

By Israel Helfand, M.S., Ph.D.


“Our fathers couldn’t communicate their desires.” Robert Bly

Why is it that the great majority of men view their work as a necessary evil? Ask men how they really feel about their jobs. You may hear something like this: “I don’t know,” “I never thought about it,” “What’s the difference, who out there really likes what they do?” or “It’s a job.” One of my favorites is, “I can’t make this kind of money anywhere else!”

Men’s work ethic is so engraved, so socialized, perhaps even geneticized into their beings that money and/or job security (the two common denominators of the work ethic) is a ruler by which man measures his own and others’ masculinity. Now, I don’t mean to imply that it’s as simple as that. It’s not. Work is far from the only issue man faces, but it certainly is a major one and is the focus of this article.

Robert Bly speaks of how, since our fathers left home during the industrial revolution to work in industry and factories, a shift took place. We, as sons, no longer received the teachings, physical closeness, and time from our fathers as we did when they came home from work as farmers or tradesmen. What we did get from them when they came home from work at night was their temperament. And how was that temperament formed? From the stress of their jobs: bosses telling them what to do; pressures of getting along with co-workers; meeting someone else’s quotas; responsibility of making a buck even if it compromises their values or morals, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. And constantly in the background, although maybe unconsciously, are their feelings about not being home anymore.

“Follow your bliss.” Joseph Campbell

So all of this formed our father’s temperament, which is the way we perceived him. If we were lucky enough that our father took us to work with him (lucky may not be the right adverb here), then we saw more directly our father’s interaction with his major identity: work. This begins modeling for us of male intimacy or intimacy substitution. Our fathers were more intimate, even if they hated it, with their work than with their families.

Just this Spring, in March, my family (my wife and our two children) had my parents and a couple of guests over for a Passover Seder (a Jewish dinner celebrating the freedom of Jews from the slavery of Pharaoh in Egypt). After I performed the service, I asked everyone to share how they have felt like a slave in their life and to follow that up with a statement about freedom. My dad, turning 70 years old this year, shared that he felt like a slave to his job for 33 years. “I felt like a slave every early morning that I had to leave the family in order to provide,” he explained. My father owned his own business, although he had partners to deal with. “I didn’t feel free,” he continued, “until last year when I retired.”

As a child growing up, I didn’t know that he felt like a slave. The concept was too adult male, and I was just a boy. I never really thought much about whether he actually liked what he did or not. We never discussed work in that way. Was it then taken for granted? I think not. I think it was part of my initiation. “Who really likes to go to work? That is why they call it work. You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.” Sound familiar?

When I was in college, I went through what I now realize was probably the emotional preparation for a male right-of-passage that was to come. It was a follow-up to my boyhood training in watching my dad go to work and going with him, I might add.

I was quite depressed this particular semester, looking toward graduation, but with no real direction — floundering, we call it. I was very frightened that I couldn’t do it, so I called my dad. In a nutshell, my dad did exactly what I realize now I wanted him to do. He offered me his business, but said, “I’m not sure that traveling to Harlem every day will suit you; it’s a bitch.” I worked for him that summer and made my first big career decision. I didn’t want to take him up on his offer, but his offer and my acting on it brought renewed confidence, and with choice-making comes feelings of empowerment and freedom. Today, I no longer react to thoughts of floundering with depression. Now it’s mixed with lots of anxiety, a kind of jogging in place — a much more manly feeling. That is why I believe that men who feel depressed are probably more ashamed of the depression than what they are really depressed about.

I was fortunate because my dad was not emotionally invested in my following in his footsteps. In fact, the feeling I received from him was quite the opposite.

So what did I do? I did the only thing I knew. I went back to school and worked as a carpenter’s helper until I finished my degree as a therapist In 1978 I started to do therapy just like everyone else: Unisex therapy, my friend and colleague Dan Richards calls it therapy where we treat women and men the same way.

Unisex Therapy Does Not Work

For example, let’s take a look at John and Maria. (Please note that any similarity to actual people is purely coincidental.) John is a 31-year-old executive, working for a large corporation, and Maria is 29 and is finishing school as a dental hygienist, which she has been doing part-time now for five years. They have two children (4 and 6 years old) and have been married for ten years. They have come into counseling at Maria’s request. She is feeling more and more distant from him and complains about being a single parent to their children. Maria has been in counseling before to deal with her mother’s death three years ago. This is John’s first time in therapy and he obviously is uncomfortable and would rather be doing just about anything else but being here right now.

So let’s do unisex therapy with them. We, need to get John to change because, obviously, he has a problem being intimate with the family. Maria is in touch with her feelings and is communicating them while John is just being defensive, close-minded, and in denial. His line is, “What do you want me to do, quit my job?” Neither of them feels understood or close to each other. Exploring each of their feelings will be a difficult task of push/pull and John may feel even more frustrated at their differences and decide what he already knew in the first place. “Therapy can’t help. I’ve got to do this on my own. Bullshit to all of it!” A good solid manly position.

Discovering Deep Masculinity

What’s unique about therapy with men is that they are consciously and unconsciously vigilant to maintain their idea of male identity, but without it being discussed specifically. This is not about John not loving or even feeling intimate with Maria. He may feel intimate with her as well as with the children, even though he is physically at work long hours, and for that reason. Being a slave to his job is how he’s proving his love and how he’s being a man. In fact, the more the resistance to his long hours, the more he’s convinced that he’s doing the right thing because as men the feeling of self-sacrifice is deeply normal. Look at how few men go to therapy versus women, how many men lack close male friends, how many men die seven years earlier than women, etc. Look at the repressed emotional and spiritual pain of not spending weekdays, sometimes even weeknights or weekends with their families. John constantly stated that the family was the most important thing to him, but Maria would take a look around and say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” She didn’t see it.

It would not serve John or Maria well to unisex their problems and/or solution. John needs a chance to be witnessed as a man without judgment or shame. His work lies in exploring his deep masculinity, even in just the struggle of defining it for himself. For then, he may have choices that he doesn’t have now. John, while resistant to suggestions of changing his work patterns, may be somewhat open to a discussion about the script society in general, and his father and father’s father specifically, wrote for him about being a man, a father, and a husband. This isn’t really addressed on a clear or conscious level in families. Men have become successful objects, measured by their money and job: Human doings instead of human beings.

New Definitions for Men

In my Men’s Groups, I don’t have anyone share what it is they do for a living because I want them to begin with the process of defining themselves by who they are, not by what they do. The first time I experienced this was on a 10-day, all-male vision quest in the summer of 1990; a wilderness experience drawing from the Native American tradition of going solo into the backwoods and waiting for a vision during personal meditation and ritual. We men, in preparing for our solos, did not know what we did to make money or how much we made in the outside real world. This, to me, was a wonderful freeing experience. It freed my ego from doing what men often do — compare, criticize, and judge each other’s worth. It freed me from focusing on others and got me to focus on myself without outside distractions. It got me in touch with the deep masculine.

Imagine how it would be for John to spend days on end without talking about work or his job. Remember, as men, we all have a little of John in us.

After over ten years of being a psychotherapist and almost two years of working exclusively with men’s issues as well as my own, I have come to believe that men need to work with other men on their issues of deep masculinity. Having been primarily raised by our mothers, we continue to see the nurturing of women. We unknowingly re-enact the negative lessons that our fathers did teach us. If, for example, we were put down, ridiculed, or never touched by our fathers, then we become afraid to trust other men. To change, we must continue the inner work that our fathers did not know how to do.

During my vision quest in the Adirondack Wilderness, Ari Kopolow and I met for the first time. We have since been dedicated to changing society’s current view of the male heart and we run programs for men to get more in touch with deep feelings and to learn to value themselves as men. Together, we defined the deep masculine as:

The deep masculine is the core spiritual social and psychological qualities of being a man valuing life, honesty, and integrity, feeling responsible toward the planet and its people, and acting responsibly with commitment, energy, sensitivity, and compassion

When we connect with the deep masculine, we learn to find a comfortable balance in being strong without oppressing, being powerful without overpowering, and taking control without controlling.

We learn that being loving and forgiving are deeply male traits.