Masculinity isn’t toxic, it’s the tonic society needs. An interview with therapist, Professor Miles Groth. November 2023
Masculinity isn’t toxic, it’s the tonic society needs. An interview with therapist, Professor Miles Groth.
Professor Miles Groth is a recently retired professor of psychology at Wagner College, New York. Some people will know him as the founder of two academic journals in the psychology of males who two decades ago developed one of the first undergraduate courses in the US on the psychology of boys and men. Others will recognise him from his appearance in the seminal Red Pill documentary film. Still others will know his work in daseinanalytic therapy, an existentialist approach. Ahead of International Men’s Day 2023, I wanted to find out from Prof Groth his opinion on masculinity and mental health, his therapeutic work with young men, and his school of therapy. Along the way there were some interesting asides, including why he says his career path into therapy would be impossible for psychologists today.
John Barry (JB): You have contributed a great deal over the years to the psychology of men and boys. From setting up journals, editing journals, writing papers, books, book chapters, setting up a men’s centre for research as well as teaching. Some people will recognise you from you appearance in Cassie Jayes’ The Red Pill documentary where you were filmed delivering a lecture to students. What prompted you to set up male centric work in the first place?
Miles Groth (MG): Ah, my film career! I had almost forgotten about that. First of all, thank you for the opportunity to address a few issues that are of importance to me and have been for quite a while. I think the clip is from a lecture I gave in Toronto in 2013 on the need for men’s studies centres on college and university campuses. I guess the lecture got some attention because a few members of the sponsoring group were affiliated with the so-called men’s rights movement. In my case, there was never any interest in that movement, although I did belong for a while to the American Men’s Studies Association and helped with their journal.
The background of that lecture is this. During my years in academe, in addition to my work as an analyst and teacher, as you noted around 2005 I developed one of the first courses on the psychology of boys and men offered in the States at the undergraduate level. I had founded two journals, what is now the Journal of Boyhood Studies and New Male Studies. I worked with a colleague from a college in Minnesota editing a book we published called Engaging College Men. Discovering What Works and Why (2010; rev. ed., 2019).
“masculinity may be just the tonic (remedy) needed by society at a time when it has recently suffered so many fractures.”
What led up to the lectures and book was that around the time the new millennium had begun I noticed that the male students in my classes seemed less involved in their studies, in classroom discussions, and in campus life other than athletics. Asking around I found that other academics were reporting the same thing and a few of us began to talk about how to understand this. We also noted that the number of male students at college was slowly decreasing, a trend that continues by the way. Some of us professors, some of us administrators, thought that forming a study group for the guys on our respective campuses might give them an opportunity to meet to talk about their experiences and expectations at college. At a few places, including on my campus, a formal research centre was also established. I secured funding for the start-up group and centre from a grant and then a private donor, who was an alumnus of the college and had a young son who would soon be going to college.
On one occasion, I held a conference which brought leaders from other schools to give talks and I attended similar conferences in Minnesota. I also travelled to Australia to lecture and, of course, to Canada. My research centre and study group continued for several years with a lot of success and I still hear from some of the men who were part of those discussion groups.
To be honest, I was surprised when I learned I was in the film! I haven’t heard much from anyone about how it was received and I think the so-called men’s rights movement has mostly disappeared here in the States. As for the findings of our research, I’d invite readers to have a look at the book in both of the editions to see what happened to the idea of college men’s centres from 2009-2019. Each of the dozen or so schools reported back on the progress of its group for college men. I would add that it is not entirely clear why enrolments of men continue to decline. And, yes, I encourage readers to have a look online at New Male Studies, which is quite active and still publishes excellent articles.
“Beginning around 1970 […] girls were encouraged to participate more generally in what were once for the most part boys’ activities, especially athletics. This has certainly been healthy for those girls […] But it became a bit confusing for boys to see that what they felt naturally drawn to do was being condemned if they did it while it was being promoted in girls”.
JB: My research a few years ago found 85% of people thought the ‘toxic masculinity’ narrative is harmful to boys, and my recent research found a correlation between reduced mental wellbeing and thinking masculinity has a negative influence on your behaviour. Do you think the things we tell boys about masculinity can influence them much?
MG: This question allows for a nice segue to what I wrote in response to the previous question. My latest contribution to New Male Studies is “Tonic Masculinity in the Post-Gender Era.” The first word is not a typing error. In the article, which was prompted by the findings of your research and that of others, I try to show what the positive features of healthy masculinity are and say why their foregrounding is important for our very difficult times. I explore what masculinity means as something in harmony (the tonic key in music) with being male oneself and in harmonious relation with females, both within one’s local culture and increasingly with males and females, men and women, boys and girls, all over the planet. I also suggest in the paper that masculinity may be just the tonic (remedy) needed by society at a time when it has recently suffered so many fractures. I think this certainly holds for the Western world, but from what I can gather from colleagues in Asia and the Middle East, I would say it holds for males in all so-called developed countries. Rather than repeating what readers can find in the article, let me supplement it with a few observations, focusing on the situation in the States, which I know best.
Apart from hearing that there is something inherently wrong with “masculinity” – which if put in those words doesn’t make sense to a boy, since this term is an abstraction – boys are getting the message that there is something wrong with being a boy. Boys begin to feel this in primary school, when they are often indirectly urged to behave more like girls, that is, when their impulses to run about, for example, are not just a matter of good social behaviour (which everyone must learn) but are associated with their sex, with their being boys. In many ways, the primary school classroom has been gendered. It has always been sexed – there were boys and there were girls, a boys’ rest room and a girls’ rest room. But in the past there was room for a variety of activities, some of which the boys found to be more engaging, others that the girls thought were more fun. Beginning around 1970, however, some forms of play and physical expression were discouraged and not given their place among a wide repertoire of activities. At the same time, girls were encouraged to participate more generally in what were once for the most part considered to be boys’ activities, especially athletics. This has certainly been healthy for those girls who had felt it was not feminine, for example, to compete in team sports but now were being encouraged to do so. But it became a bit confusing for boys to see that what they felt naturally drawn to do was being condemned if they did it, while it was being promoted in girls if they wanted to run about, compete in sports, “work out” and such.
“boys have seen changes in traditional ‘girl behaviour’ supported and even praised while hearing that what, for most, seems a necessary form of self-expression – ‘ boy behaviour’ – put down and termed ‘toxic’.”
It is worth recalling that, as we have known for a long time, play styles are universally different among boys and girls, respectively, in vastly different cultures, the former tending to be in general centrifugal (boys will group together and then head off in every which way and direction), the latter centripetal (girls will tend to gather, form a circle and play within it). These tendencies are deeply evolutionary and the product of tens of thousands of years of sexed experience. They will never be eliminated, but only controlled, and in some cases they are now punished. This has happened in the case of boys when they spontaneously engage in rough-and-tumble play or seem enamoured of any kind of ball to throw or kick about. Of course, some boys are not drawn to this, just as some girls are not eager to get more involved in, say, soccer or basketball. In short, boys have seen changes in traditional “girl behaviour” supported and even praised while hearing that what, for most, seems a necessary form of self-expression – “boy behaviour” – put down and termed “toxic.”
“Gender as a concept appears for the first time outside of grammar books only in the mid-1940s. […] It is, in fact, a pressing issue for only a very small number of boys and girls, even though it’s now supposed to be a curiosity for all.”
This is a huge topic for discussion, but I would just add something about what I see happening and predict for the coming years. They are, for me, striking areas in which the more general issue of the approval or disapproval of traditional masculinity is a theme. The first is the transgender phenomenon. This is so very new that one hardly knows how to understand what it means. But let’s try. First, only a tiny minority of kids experience real confusion here, yet the topic has received wide coverage in the media so that many kids, especially girls, are presumably worrying over it. There is the problem of language to consider. Boys and girls hear about transgenderism but also about transsexualism, and the two notions get conflated.
Gender as a concept appears for the first time outside of grammar books only in the mid-1940s in the work of the American psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan, and the British sociologist Alec Comfort. Part of identity (another relatively new psychological concept, introduced into psychoanalysis and ego psychology by Erik Erikson), gender is said to be malleable since it is a matter mostly of behaviour. I simply don’t know what an “inner sense” of being a boy or being a girl means. Anyhow, there is now a call for complete gender fluidity, which is assumed to be possible for everybody. But such a notion cancels itself, rendering the ideas of masculine and feminine as determinative superfluous. It is, in fact, a pressing issue for only a very small number of boys and girls, even though it’s now supposed to be a curiosity for all. That said, all boys and girls in early childhood wonder what it might be like to be “the other sex,” usually a sibling or parent. It’s a passing issue though and with puberty, for most, the requirements of the male body and the female body lead to settling on either being male or being female. Menstrual periods and erections are compelling experiences.
Meanwhile, there is talk about transsexualism or changing one’s assigned sex, the sex assigned one at birth on the basis of inspection of the external genitals by the doctor and parents. Rarely is there disagreement. But one cannot change one’s sex. It is there in the genetic code of every cell. One can only suppress or enhance the amount of certain endocrine substances in the body or undergo surgical procedures to alter one’s appearance such as having genitals removed and secondary sexual characteristics such as breasts created or removed.
The problem, again, is that there is no inner sense of being one sex or another. There are only body parts and tendencies to move an express oneself in certain ways that are either encouraged or discouraged by other children and adults. It is certainly desirable that stigma associated with “feminine” comportment in boys and “masculine” comportment in girls has been all but eliminated, and that shaming a boy for liking what has traditionally been associated with the interests of girls is disdained.
A recent British series called Heartstoppers (now in its second season) is exploring some of this in a very sensitive way. In it, two pubescent boys find that they are drawn to each other emotionally, but not sexually. Neither of the boys is “effeminate” in behaviour. In a compelling film, Close, by the Belgian director Lukas Dhont, the natural closeness of boys at a certain age (roughly 9-11) has been beautifully essayed. Incidentally, Lukas was influence by the work of Niobe Way, who had published early on in my journal of boyhood studies and later wrote Deep Secrets. Boys Friendships and the Crisis of Connection. In the film, attributions of sexuality to the relationship by age mates lead to a tragic outcome. I mention these because they are examples of the contemporaneity of the issues of gender and sexuality in boys. They are also signs that we are beginning to pay attention to their complex lives. I understand that there is a wide audience of teens and young adults for the British streaming series.
The research you mention includes the disheartening fact that the suicide rate among males is four times that of females, aggregating around the early teen years and again in early middle age. This should be alarming everyone as much as the slow disappearance of males from higher education. We must be asking ourselves Where are the boys? What are they doing? If they are not going to college to prepare for a profession, whether it be teaching or engineering, medicine or law, or even psychology, then what are they doing?
“’Professional wrestling’, which is prima facie about winner and loser […] is at a deeper level about men looking out for each other. So while they pretend to be beating each other up to see who is “the better man,” they are carefully executing choreographed to protect each other from injury! […] boys who have formed “leagues” and regularly get together to “wrestle.” […] “Backyard wrestling,” as it is called, is paradoxically about male friendship and closeness.”
I want to add a comment about a curious phenomenon that your second question reminds me of. This is probably just an American thing. I don’t know whether it is found in the UK or in Europe. But it is something to consider when wondering what boys are doing. We have here a major entertainment industry in the States called “professional wrestling.” It is about violence, good guys and bad guys, and an unprecedented display of the male body. It attracts more viewers than our American football. Professional wrestling is a staged and scripted display of traditional masculinity modelled on Roman gladiatorial contests. Most would say that it is about gratuitous violence and therefore something to be discouraged, and that it serves as a model of toxic masculinity. However, something is going on in the spectacle that is more than meets the eye and says something about what the spectacle is sending as a message to those who watch it. As early as 1957 it caught the attention of the French literary theorist and essaying, Roland Barthes, who, writing about it in his book Mythologies, mostly saw in it the gestures of excess. There is more to it, though, especially given what boys recently have been doing with the scenario.
“Professional wrestling,” which is prima facie about winner and loser and a champion with a huge “golden” belt to wear around his waist, is at a deeper level about men looking out for each other. So while they pretend to be beating each other up to see who is “the better man” and are cheered on for doing so, they are in fact carefully executing choreographed moves to protect each other from injury! Instead of really fighting as gang members do, they are acting out fighting. They are as some French intellectuals say, “deconstructing” male violence. The audience knows about the fakery, of course, even while reacting enthusiastically to the spectacle. This is where its having been adopted by boys is relevant, by boys who have formed “leagues” and regularly get together to “wrestle.” They now videotape their “shows” and post them on social media. They pretend to vie for a coveted “championship” belt. Why are these groups significant?
“Backyard wrestling,” as it is called, is paradoxically about male friendship and closeness. At a time in the States when one of three boys is raised by his mother only and the divorce rate is 50%, these boys are in a very real sense fathering each other or “big-brothering” each other, the one (the tough father figure) “controlling” the other (the son who must submit to control). At the end of a “match” they congratulate each other, hug, and go off until the next “match.” Not uncommonly, these groups also show themselves gathered together for a group “pic” labelled, for example “Family.” I should add that these groups are indifferent to socioeconomic group and race and cut across such differences. Also, some of these “league” (“family”) members are fit and athletic, some are not, just like a real family’s members. There is even a place for a fellow who is awkward or even disabled, who will act as “announcer” or “referee.”
This parody of traditional masculinity is significant in pointing out its inevitability and even necessity in the lives of boys. Psychologically, however, it is an alternative option to isolation and self-harm, and to real gang fighting, which is another result of a mostly fatherless society. Of course, boys and young males are also found in other groups such as “rock” bands which meet, rehearse and perform. But it is still a puzzle as to just what else they are doing, but I take it that much of it has involved gaming as well as participating in regular sports, working out together, and the like. Perhaps they are beginning to talk to each! Well, take the parody of traditional masculinity part as you will, this is a curious phenomenon that has some part to play in the unfolding picture of what it means to be male in Western society.
“If we are to understand the “trans” phenomenon, then, we have to look at parents’ behaviour and expectations. […] Certain behaviours, let’s say, that are generally thought to be “feminine” are applauded and reinforced, while other behaviours that are conventionally “masculine” for the family and the culture are ignored or discouraged.”
JB: Recently there has been some suggestion that one of the factors the is feeding into the trans phenomenon is that some boys don’t want to be men because they have been raised to believe that masculinity is a bad thing and femininity is a good thing. What is your opinion on this?
MG: This, again, is a tough issue to understand, especially because it is so new. I would add to what I said earlier about mixing up sex and gender. The question is really: “Why do some boys not want to be a male?” Framed that way, though, the mixing up of biology and behaviour, anatomy and the performance of gender, is still there. As I’ve said, I would deny that there is an inner sense (something psychological) of being one sex or another. Each of us is handed over to the world as male or female (apart from the very few genetic intersex anomalies). We are handled differently from the moment after delivery when seen to be a male or a female. We touch male and female babies differently. Sex is in the eye of the beholder for several years until kids discover that there are two sexes, based on what they see with brothers’ and sisters’ and perhaps parents’ bodies. If we are to understand the “trans” phenomenon, then, we have to look at parents’ behaviour and expectations. At what age does a human being know for sure that it is a male or a female. In one sense, only after puberty when the genital (primary) sexual and secondary sexual characteristics have fully developed. When does one understand the difference between “masculine” and “feminine”? As I said earlier, these are abstractions, ideas that become clear only gradually. I cannot imagine that even the brightest 10-year-old XY (male) human being goes to a parent and says, “I think I’m a girl trapped in a boy’s body.” Why such imaginary declarations have been presented as likely at all or even common is a mystery to me.
We have known for a long time that a child who was “supposed to be” a boy but turns out to be a girl at birth is treated differently than if the desired sex of the newcomer matches what was delivered. “We wanted a girl,” say the parents. Now the parents’ ambivalence about the baby boy begins to permeate the interpersonal atmosphere. Certain behaviours, let’s say, that are generally thought to be “feminine” are applauded and reinforced, while other behaviours that are conventionally “masculine” for the family and the culture are ignored or discouraged. Switch the sex and apply the same interpersonal dynamics and you see how masculinity and femininity are constructed by a child with respect to itself.
I think we have to also add to the picture changing expectations about women that have taken place in society since about 1970, which are all for the good; for example, that access to preparation for an occupation should not be denied anyone on the basis of the person’s sex. This has meant that women have been encouraged to broaden their behaviour to include what have been traditionally masculine roles, but also attitudes such as assertiveness and competitiveness. Conversely, men have been called on to engage in what were traditionally feminine role activities such as infant and childcare. The interesting thing is that this has not led to the femininization of men. Caring for infants has not required that men give up other, traditionally masculine roles and attitudes.
I would only add that there is so much more to be said here and too little space to do so on this topic. Just to provide a few hints for further discussion, though, consider that compassion and caring are not feminine features. They are universally human, but are necessarily executed differently by a human being with big hands and one with smaller hands. As for assertive, even aggressive behaviour, think of a woman protecting her small child from an intruder. She will be as ferocious as she needs to be. And, last, there is a change that hasn’t been given much notice. In males, behaviour associated with being homosexual has increasingly ceased to include effeminacy, that is, the parodying of a caricature of a certain sort of “glamorous” woman. Some homosexual men still affect such but more and more do not. The extreme role-play “in drag,” for example, has no interest for most young homosexual men. They are at the gym, working out, body-building, learning martial arts and, yes, even wrestling. The caricature of femininity that was the model for “gay” men has been revealed as just that, a caricature, and it is being jettisoned. Looking at this from a cross-cultural, anthropological perspective, I’ve often wondered where this model of the female as hyperfeminine came from. Perhaps it is a product of urban life, or simply an artefact of Hollywood. Apart from their wearing a dress or wearing pants, if you look at the faces in photos of even my great-grandparents’ generation and, given how much hard work both men and women had to do then, they were more similar than different. That is probably still the case in chiefly agricultural rural societies. This question of “trans” has to come to terms with two caricatures!
“I have the impression that many therapists are a bit frightened of boys and men. I never experienced that”
JB: In an article you wrote titled ‘Working with Young Males in Psychotherapy’ you discuss your approach to, and experience of, working psychotherapeutically with young men. Can you share some of your insights, including what you think are important characteristics of the psychotherapist working with boys as well as the type of therapeutic setting?
MG: Most of my experience as a therapist has been with college age women and men. The greater proportion of that population has been young males. My first clinical experience was at a small city’s mental health clinic. As it happens, the first client I had there was a teenage male brought by his parents to be seen there. I was at the time also beginning my tenure at an all-men’s college nearby. There I began to see my first clients in the context of the counselling centre of the college. I might add that I had attended an all-men’s college myself. (That was my parents’ choice.) It was by chance that the college near my home where I first began to teach just happened to be an all-men’s institution. All of this was fate, but it meant that my earliest experiences as a young therapist were with males not much younger than I was. I can tell you more about my path to being a therapist a bit later, if you like, including that first clinical experience.
In any case, as I learned more and gained experience, I realised that although I was successful in my work with women, working successfully in therapy with young males depended on a few characteristics of my own personality. To this day, I can only describe the effects of those characteristics.
“There is no feeling that a boy or man can experience that is more unsettling than feeling ashamed. Thus, for boys and men, being made fun of is perhaps more injurious than being harmed physically.”
I have the impression that many therapists are a bit frightened of boys and men. I never experienced that, and I think they sense that. In the institutional settings in which I have worked and in private practice, by word of mouth it was heard that there was someone young men could to talk to who was easy-going, not terribly serious in his demeanour but someone who took you seriously. That was me.
In addition to these features of my personality, there my growing sensitivity to the matter of shame in boys and men. Understanding it turns out to be central to the adjustments one needs to make in working with male. I believe we have given too little attention to the fact that one of the primary experiences of growing up male revolves around shame. There is no feeling that a boy or man can experience that is more unsettling than feeling ashamed. Thus, for boys and men, being made fun of is perhaps more injurious than being harmed physically. The reason is easy to find. From infancy through the end of puberty, the male has to come to terms with a part of his body that is both over-valued but subsequently seen as somehow dangerous: the penis. A boy gets wildly mixed messages about this symbol of his being male. It is given great attention by the mothering figure and handled especially carefully when being attended to. It thus becomes something to be foregrounded and even to show off. But then, one day, the same parent who had been fascinated by it insists that it must be covered. It is therefore first perceived by the boy to be something to be pleased with and display but then something, for some unknown reason, to be ashamed of. Why else should one have to hide it? And if shown, the alarm goes up! Bad boy! That’s not for anyone to see! Here is origin of the reaction of shame. Subsequently, shaming of any kind becomes especially hurtful.
All this to say, that when encountering a male of any age in the consulting room, it is important to recall this common experience of males. Nothing worse can happen to a male than having said something that he believes has made the other feel ashamed of him. In general, the reticence of males to talk about anything private and personal is analogous to talking about that most personal, private part and place of his body. To extend the analogy further, to “expose” themselves – their thoughts, fantasies, feelings – is much like exposing something that is in fact by its very nature very sensitive and suffused with feeling, both somatic and affective, and now ambivalently associated with being proud of and being ashamed of. I think we have to be aware of this hidden sensitivity of males, which is compensated for, as we know, by various ways of appearing to be invincible and strong, that is, not susceptible of letting the private out of the bag as it were.
“It was our first meeting and it was 9:00 am. He was already clearly intoxicated […] Most males will not say they are in trouble in any sense. They will, however, show you the problem.”
In this connection, working with a young man means often waiting a long time for him to disclose himself. He must feel sure that what he reveals of himself will not be ridiculed. This is, of course, true in general in working with anyone, but it is especially important in working with men (younger and older), who in any case usually prefer to say less and do more, another deeply ingrained tendency.
Of course, there are occasions when a direct confrontation is necessary, when a “frontal assault” is necessary. Let me give you an example, a quite poignant example, I think. “Tom,” a college sophomore (roughly age 18-19) had come to see me in the setting of a college counselling centre. It was our first meeting and it was 9:00 am. He was already clearly intoxicated, unkempt, but mild. He was coherent but obviously “stoned.” We talked about what he wanted to tell me – that he wasn’t sure whether he should stay on and continue classes or drop out.
His speech was slurred as he complained about his classes, the demands made on him, that he had no friends or interests . . .. It was the end of the hour, so I looked out the window to the pathway outside my office that led up-campus. He also looked out the window, so see what I was looking at.
“So where are you going now?” I did not announce that it was the end of the session.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“OK,” I said, smiling, “I’ll go there with you.” He might have gotten the joke, but didn’t show it.
We got up and left the office and building, and started up the pathway. He was a bit wobbly. About halfway up, I stopped and turned to “Tom.” He paused and I locked in a glance, waiting a few seconds until I was sure he was in full eye contact with me. I put a hand on his shoulder. “You know what, Tom? You’re so “fucked up” and it’s only 9:00 in the morning. You’re full of whatever you’re “doing” [i.e., taking]. If you do this to yourself enough times you’re going to kill yourself. You know? You’re going to overdo it and die.” I waited a few seconds more and looked into his eyes.
He looked stunned, took a deep breath, and tears welled up. I walked him to a bench a few yards away and we sat down. A minute or so passed; nothing was said. Then I asked him: “Do you want me to take you to the nurse’s office? . . . Do you want to get something to eat, or do you just want to sit here for a while?”
“No. I’m going.”
I waited for him to get up, then got up myself and shook his hand.
“You know, you can come back tomorrow and talk if you want to. Thinks things over. Just let me know.”
Again, I asked “Tom”: “Where are you going now?”
“I’m going home,” he said. “Tom” lived off-campus and had driven to see me. He was about to set off for home by car.
I learned some weeks later that “Tom” had taken a leave of absence and didn’t return to campus to see me. I was relieved to know that he had made it home that day without crashing his car. The point of the anecdote is two-fold. It says something about the daseinanalytic approach that I take and about working with young men—about which much more next. Suffice to say, what is most important is the freedom of the person. “Tom” was 18 and legally an adult. He was free to choose to continue to poison himself with drugs and risked over-dosing at some point. I did not admonish him. I took seriously his choice to intoxicate himself. I also intended to shock him with my observation about the worst case scenario he faced if he did not stop heavy illicit drug use. My language was direct, colloquial, and I was brief. Note that I offered to put him in the hands of medical care and if need be buy him something to eat to maybe dilute the drugs he had ingested. He chose not to take me up on either offer and I did not force him to do either. I believe I showed him that I wanted him to stay alive and that I believed he also wanted to stay alive. I was also optimistic at the end of our encounter because he had come to see me at all in the wretched state he was in. Most males will not say they are in trouble in any sense and he hadn’t. He talked about annoying classes, not about being in trouble with himself. They will, however, show you the problem. My verbal candour and improvisation following the formal hour constituted what was therapeutic about my encounter with “Tom.” The therapeutic moment was outside on the walkway.
Now I might say something more about the daseinanalytic approach I take. We can worry about the term a bit later. What matters in daseinanalysis is the freedom of the person to choose or not to choose to realise any of the possibilities within the scope of his or her existence. Freedom occurs as the opening up and out of existence, and it is not the business of the therapist to interfere with that unfolding, since that is the very point of daseinanalytic therapy. And note that the therapist cannot “unfold” for the other. In short, the approach I take, which seems to be especially effective with males, is to allow for an unacknowledged freedom to display itself and be followed. I’ll have something more to say about the approach a bit later, I hope, but for now.
“The therapeutic moment was outside, in the open, in public […] I generally never completely close my office door during a session, but leave it open an inch or two. This has not prevented some analysands from saying “Can I close the door?” desiring a privacy over which they have control.”
I might add a word about that “first client” I mentioned, the teenage boy. The boy brought to me was a concern to his parents, who remained in the waiting room while he and I talked during the visits he had with me. I am not clear any more about the details of our conversations, but after several visits I realised that his problem was his parents’ worrying, which had caused him to be more withdrawn since he didn’t know what to do to help them worry less about him. Young people should not be occupied with worrying about their parents’ worrying, or anything else for that matter, but today that is forced on them more and more, given the high divorce rate and their being divided up between split-up parents, caught up in legal battles of custody, visitation and the like.
As for my “first,” after the third or fourth visit, I phoned the family and spoke to the mother. I had in the meantime taken the case to supervision at least once and there were my notes for the clinic director to review. In any case, the mother asked how her son was doing. I said, I thought he was a nice young chap and said we had talked about school and what he was interested in.
“Is there something wrong with him, Mr Groth?” she asked me. I repeated that he had some really interesting things to talk about and said I thought he was figuring out what he liked to do. And, I added, I thought he was doing all right, that there was nothing to worry about. I did not offer a clinical opinion. No diagnostic terms were used. She seemed relieved. I ended the call by saying that she and her husband should give me a call to set up another appointment if their son thought it would help. There were no subsequent appointments with him. In this instance, I think that what was therapeutically effective (although I could not have articulated it at the time) was identifying the source of “problem,” which in this case was the parents’ worry, and attempting to transfer agency to the son by saying that he should have a say in whether he wanted to come back to see “Mr. Groth.”
On the matter of where effective therapy can happen, which you raise in the question, I would again point to the interactions with “Tom.” To repeat, the therapeutic moment was outside, in the open, in public where the path (in more than one sense) was laid open for him and where, in this case, a pat on the shoulder could not be misconstrued, as it might have been in the private space of my office. As a footnote: I generally never completely close my office door during a session, but leave it open an inch or two. This has not prevented some analysands from saying “Can I close the door?” desiring a privacy over which they have control. Boys and men don’t like to feel they are closed in. With boys and young men, it is often better to meet out in the open somewhere, a park bench, for example, where there are relatively little traffic and people don’t have much of an opportunity to see who the guy is that I’m talking to. In fact, however, through the years nearly all of my work was done in one of my offices.
“”Boys will be boys [. . .] we must protect them from being denied that time.” […] Think of cats […] When they are “playing” with each other, they are rehearsing what they would do if they needed to fight. […] Even though we regret seeing certain sorts of behaviour in boys and men, we should not be surprised that such behaviours are there.”
JB: You’ve stated “Boys no longer “will be boys.” More and more, the cliché does not at all apply.” Can you explain a bit more about what you meant by this?
MG: Almost 15 years ago in the paper in Contemporary Psychotherapy that you cite I was already especially concerned with how boys were increasingly in danger of missing boyhood. I was trying to say that the “boys will be boys” judgment had become dismissive and disdainful. I would pronounce the sentence differently: “Boys will be boys” and add that we must protect them from being denied that time. My earlier example of the informal “wrestling” fraternities is relevant here since they allow boys to them to seriously play. There’s no contradiction here. Think of cats “playing” with a toy. They are learning how to parry with and catch prey. When they are “playing” with each other, they are rehearsing what they would do if they needed to fight. Well, boys are not cats, but they are “programmed” and then taught to play certain roles in society. One of them, sadly, is that of soldier. Males no longer (usually) fight for a mate, although the market for films and drama that have this as a theme is still vast and lucrative. Nor do they have to fight off predators to protect a female mate and their offspring. Male play nevertheless remains rehearsal for these three roles. I wish we no longer needed to prepare soldiers, but there seems to be no end of that in the near future. In some societies, that role is being extended to females, too. My point is that even though we regret seeing certain sorts of behaviour in boys and men, we should not be surprised that such behaviours are there. To denature such tendencies will take a very long time and will require vast social changes on a global scale. Adding females to the ranks of fighting soldiers complicates matters further and is related to the masculinization of the woman I’ve pointed to. Eliminating such roles for “European” and American men will require something like a sameness among all peoples and cultures, Western and non-Western, which I doubt we can expect any time soon and probably should prefer not to see. Cultural differences are flavours of humanity.
JB: A research paper found that most therapists don’t feel comfortable with suicidal clients, especially if they are male. Do you think people need better training in how to deal with male clients?
MG: Therapists and counsellors of all stripes need to hear much more discussion about the particular differences between the experience of being male, from childhood (boyhood) on through the life cycle. This is going to be fundamental. I must confess that reluctance to work with suicidal males is news to me. I suspect that the data reflect more the fact that more and more therapists are women. In that case, the problem would be about why women (whether they are therapists or not) feel uncomfortable with suicidal men. Looking at the study you mentioned, I see that 271 of the random sample of 331 therapists were female, and that the sample was quite young (average age 39). I suspect there is something to look into here.
“Since I take a daseinanalytic approach […] while I would be cautious about making any generalisations about what to suggest to do when encountering a male in therapy, as a person living in our time I do not forget that certain challenges are being faced by males that are unprecedented.”
JB: The adjustments you advise to make to existing ways of therapy for the male client are what we at the Centre for Male Psychology would describe as ‘male-friendly therapy’ (e.g. the BPS guidance by myself and Martin Seager). Although we don’t have clear research data on the benefits of this, it’s clear from anecdotal evidence that adjustments can improve therapeutic outcomes. Can you share your thoughts and any experience on your successes on making appropriate adjusts for males in therapy? And what you think might have happened to your clients had you not made those adjustments?
MG: Since I take a daseinanalytic approach, I would say that I don’t first make adjustments for working with males versus working with females. What I have written on such adjustments needs to be supplemented by consideration of the overall approach I take in providing therapy. As I’ve said, my experience has been extensive with young men. What started out as happenstance turned into a career of working mostly with young males. But I want to quickly add that many women have sat across from me in the therapeutic session, and not all of my male analysands were well-heeled solid middle-class guys. Early on, I also worked with criminals in a combined education and counselling program for convicted felons here in New York.
I might here take this opportunity to say a bit more about my approach, the daseinanalytic (existential-phenomenological) approach to make my point about adjustments clearer. My approach in general speaks to the relation between an analysand and me, that we are there together, one existing human being with another existing human being. Each of us is an instance – a named actualisation – of existence (Dasein). This is where the word ‘daseinanalysis’ comes from. It means “analysis of existence.” It is based on the fact that being human is not first a matter of sex or age or race or nationality. It is, well, a matter of being human! From my perspective, the individual who sits there (or if the couch or recliner is used, who is stretched out comfortably near my chair) is first not principally a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. “It” is a human being, otherwise I could not go on to speak of “it” as a “who” with particular features, as a named actualisation of existence. Given this relation, the therapeutic partnership is possible.
Of course, particular features and very significant details come to be part of what the analysand says from the start, for example by their necessary absence. A male will have nothing to say about dealing with the menstrual cycle and a female will have nothing to say about erectile functioning (at least not her own). Each analysand is, as human, the same and yet a unicum, a one-of-a-kind. To put this in the language of my approach, the particular combination of features that make the individual being a human being is present in each individual in therapy (these are termed the “ontological structure” of being human) but the particular combination of features that make for “Tom,” for example (as above), has never occurred before and will never occur again. These all add up to what we term the “ontic” realisation of that being-human. I hope the reader will look for my book to be published next year for a fuller account of daseinanalysis. It will be published as “Why in the world not? An Introduction to Daseinanalysis (London: Free Association Books). Readers might also be interested in the American Daseinsanalytic Institute, which I opened in the fall of 2021: https://daseinsanalysis.org.
But, back to the consulting room and some principles of daseinanalysis. The “Tom” I see at our first meeting and the “Tom” who comes a second time (if he had come back!) are not quite the same. Much has happened, small changes have occurred (in “Tom” and in me) even in a week’s time. In this way, I can say that each meeting with anyone in daseinanalytic therapy is the first (and, of course, potentially the last). I proceed, using the words of Wilfred Bion, “without memory, desire or understanding.” Or at least I try to do so as best as I can.
As I listen, I try to bracket out or “forget” the details as which the individual has shown himself (or herself) up to that moment, both in earlier meetings and in the current meeting. By the way, this is why the observation “Well, Dr. Groth, I think I have always been a woman trapped in a man’s body” should not come as a surprise, as little as any admission made in the therapeutic environment would or should not be a surprise. Thus, six months I hear from a young man: “You know, I actually don’t think I am woman trapped in a man’s body after all.”
Daseinanalysis is not about solving intrapsychic, interpersonal or social issues. It is about the enhancement of the conditions for the greater realisation of the possibilities a given human being discovers in analysis and had overlooked before undertaking such work.
“two years ago, when I should have started sitting on a beach somewhere, I opened the first daseinanalytic institute in the North America. It has drawn the interest of therapists from a variety of orientations, from psychiatry to clinical psychiatry and pastoral counselling.”
JB: Your work is rooted within the existential-phenomenological and humanistic movement in psychology. For those not familiar with these concepts can you briefly explain what they mean and why you were drawn to these. Why did you choose existential therapy rather than other more common therapies such as CBT?
MG: I’ve said a bit about the daseinanalytic approach I take but not about how I came to adopt it. My background is in a Dark Ages by contemporary standards. It would not be possible to replicate now what I did beginning in 1972, when I completed my first degree in psychology. The flexibility I had to pursue three different parallel paths that sometimes overlapped is usually not available now to young people, who must nearly always follow a lock-step program of preparation that begins in the undergraduate (college) years and culminates with a terminal university degree and licensing in a profession (clinical psychology, social work, counselling). Here in the States, each commonwealth or state licenses its psychotherapists, who have passed a national examination and a local ethics examination. In my case, when in 1972, I approached the director of the local general hospital’s mental health clinic shortly after completing my first degree and asked whether I could have some experience counselling individuals, after we talked a second time and he reviewed by CV, he said: “Go right ahead! I’ll introduce you to the receptionist, who will give you the key. Use can my office evenings and we’ll talk every week about what you have been doing.” You heard about my first “patient” earlier. Impossible today.
My interests then were psychoanalysis and Continental philosophy. In fact, my undergraduate degree was in philosophy (and a second major in English literature), not psychology. With that same master’s degree I also began to teach psychology at a liberal arts college nearby and continued my graduate studies at Duquesne University, which was one of the two or three great centres of phenomenological research in the country. It was an accident, again a bit of fate, that I lived only 45 minutes from the university. The only other places to study in the area were in Boston, New York and Chicago.
Early on, even as an undergraduate, I had been aware of a little known approach to psychotherapy that was only then taking shape in Switzerland, the Daseinsanalyse of Medard Boss. His, the first daseinanalytic institute, had been formed in 1971, but his re-envisioning of psychoanalysis had been underway in earnest since 1959. Boss had been in analysis briefly with Freud himself and then went on to complete the formal psychoanalytic “training” program in Zurich, London and Berlin. He had also come under the influence of the ideas of the German phenomenologist, Martin Heidegger, in the late 1940s and worked closely with Heidegger from 1959 until the latter’s death in 1976 – the year, by the way, I met Boss at his office in the Zollikon district of Zurich. His approach to therapy was rooted in orthodox psychoanalysis but had been transformed by the existential analysis of human beings Heidegger made known to the public in 1927 in his book Being and Time. I was drawn to this new synthesis of ideas.
There was no daseinanalytic training institute in the States, however, and at that time I had not completed a doctorate, which was required for entrance to the institute in Switzerland. There were, however, daseinanalysts in the Northeast Corridor (Boston to Philadelphia). I found one in Philadelphia and began an analysis with him. The formal way forward for me, however, was pretty much as it had been for Boss himself, via psychoanalysis, but with a difference. I interrupted my daseinanalysis after several years, moved to New York in 1981, and then trained as a psychoanalyst – a lay psychoanalyst – at two of the four lay institutes here, where I still live, resuming the daseinanalysis in 1986. I needed to be affiliated with organisations in order to get referrals.
I soon began to practice independently, de jure as a psychoanalyst but de facto as a daseinanalyst! I continued to teach psychology, at first part-time, and then full-time at the undergraduate level, retiring form that work after 25 years on the faculty at Wagner College. All the while I continued to see patients – or, rather, ‘analysands’ – many many of them in the context of the college, but also privately. During that time I also had the eye-opening experience of teaching the existential approach to residents in psychiatry at a local hospital. That’s another story for another time.
My connection with the humanistic tradition has been minimal since, because as it turns out, like psychoanalysis, most existential modalities are grounded in the medical model. Only daseinanalysis is not so grounded, which is what I understood from early on drew me to it. That said, most people correctly still have a general idea that the “existential-humanistic” approaches differ significantly from the behaviourist-based approaches, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and, somewhat earlier, Albert Ellis’s rational-emotive behavioural therapy (REBT). So, if asked whether my approach is existential-humanistic, I’ll answer in the positive, but with some reservation. To be precise, it is existential-phenomenological, that is, daseinanalytic. The most important difference between the other modalities and the daseinanalytic or “existential” approach is the starting point, the way we initially “see” the other human being whom we encounter in the therapeutic setting; namely, not as a rational animal or an organism, or even as an ego or psyche, but as existing, as Dasein.
The renaissance of interest in daseinanalysis in the last ten years has been remarkable, so much so that a little more than two years ago, when I should have started sitting on a beach somewhere, I opened the first daseinanalytic institute in the North America. It has drawn the interest of therapists from a variety of orientations, from psychiatry to clinical psychiatry and pastoral counselling. We are recognised by the international association of six daseinanalytic institutes located in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Greece, Brazil, and, of course, Switzerland.
I should emphasise that what has interested people in daseinanalysis – and all our candidates enter the certificate program with a doctorate of some kind and clinical experience – is the dissatisfaction they have felt using techniques such as CBT and, in the case of psychiatrists, prescribing medications to manage the behaviour and experience of their patients.
“The principle of therapy is that anything goes and everything is open to discussion, but unfortunately some therapists admit that they take a stance on certain issues and even base their self-branding on these beliefs.”
JB: What has the response been to your teaching and talking about male issues? Have you noticed a change over time to how people react? Or maybe different responses from different demographics?
MG: To return to a topic that is still very important to me, I can report that I taught the psychology of boys and men for over twenty years, lectured in the States, Canada and Australia on the topic, and have published a fair amount on the topic, including the book on college men with Gar Kellom. I suppose I’m proudest of having launched the journals that continue to publish research on the topic of the lives of boys and men. They will continue, I hope, for a long time after I’ve stopped making contributions to the field. A lot has changed in the last 25 years, in academe and in society, and in the consulting room. My interests have turned more and more to daseinanalysis, that is, to therapy and how it can be practiced to make it a human science in the basic sense of the word.
When I talk to people about boys and men these days, the atmosphere is different than it was twenty years ago. We are more open about many topics—male homosexuality, for example; but people—academics even—are now selective about what they think should not be talked about and challenged. This is regrettable. On the other hand, it means that only in the therapeutic setting are people free to be entirely candid. This includes talk about politically charged topics. A principle of any therapy, of course, is that anything goes and everything is open to discussion, but unfortunately some therapists admit that they take a stance on certain issues and even base their self-branding on these beliefs. Look at some of the online “ads” for individuals offering therapy. This often plays out as “specialising” in certain disorders. Here the daseinanalytic perspective is especially precious since it has abandoned the notion of psychopathology and the practice of manualised treatment of diagnostic entities. What brings a person to therapy is always the same: a limitation or constriction of his or her openness to actualising possibilities that are within the province of what the individual can do. It is about their freedom.
When I talk about boys and men these days, I focus on what they can become, not what they have been described as being. There are possibilities, then, for being male that have not surfaced. This is exciting, no? We busy ourselves talking about some dead-ends limiting males to certain roles, but we might spend more time talking about what has been lost of primitive masculinity that we have forgotten and might do well to recover. Here I’m talking about that “tonic” I mentioned at the start. I think it is not helpful to say, for example, “Men are only . . ..”
“Finally, I would say that we need to stop thinking about psychotherapy as a service provided by professionals. Therapy is a calling and what we do is give something of ourselves to those with whom we work. It is a gifting”
We need to listen to men and boys—again. We shouldn’t start listening with the attitude that “they” have all the answers. Women don’t have all the answers. No group has. But if what I said about young men feeling not welcome is true and they grow ever more silent, we are going to lose out on hearing what half of the world has to say. Some conversations are good for everyone to take part in, but I think there should be room for talk just among “the boys,” just as there is a place for talk just among “the girls.”
JB: You retired in 2019 after 25 years at Wagner College. What advice would you give to therapists today, and those training to be therapists? Are you happy that therapy is going in the right direction, or are there any trends that concern you?
MG: This is maybe the most important question, since it is about what is to come. I think that what I have said about daseinanalysis makes it clear that its renaissance is very much in reaction to a general dissatisfaction among patients and therapists alike about what happens in the privacy of the consulting room. The young therapists who are joining the certificate program of our American Daseinsanalytic Institute are clear that what has brought them to us is a clear frustration with the ways of practice they have learned, much of it limited by insurance requirements, heavy scheduling, an emphasis on fixing something broken rather than on freeing up what is by nature whole but has become tied up and limited in its freedom to move about. That is, of course, human existence itself.
Would I enter the field today if I were an undergraduate? I have to say that I would not, primarily because the kind of experiences I had are now nearly impossible to have and the sort of course I followed, which had several directions, is foreclosed given the way programs of instruction and training are set up for clinical psychologists here in the States and, from what I can gather, everywhere.
Recently, Jonathan Shedler published a report commissioned by a psychiatry journal on the success rate of psychotherapy on the psychodynamic model, broadly speaking. The results indicated a 9% success rate! I don’t know what CBT claims for its patients who would say “I am better as a result of therapy and have remained better for long while.” Limiting treatment to 6 weeks or 10 weeks, mixing psychotherapy with pharmacotherapy, forcing someone into treatment who does not want it—all these are sure predictors that it is very unlikely there will be a possibility for lasting change. If I am right, that whatever a person says brings him to therapy is not the real reason for being there and the real reason is always the same—namely, to recover lost scope for freely living out one’s possibilities—then I would say everyone with an interest in helping those who are suffering from a sense of existence Koyaanisqatsi should look into the existential-phenomenological perspective. I would also suggest that anyone who is thinking about doing therapy have an experience of it on the other side of the desk. This, by the way, is a key feature of the daseinanalytic preparation. In this it follows what psychoanalysis, on which it was modeled, requires of its candidates.
Finally, I would say that we need to stop thinking about psychotherapy as a service provided by professionals. Therapy is a calling and what we do is give something of ourselves to those with whom we work. It is a gifting, if I might choose a curious word to say what psychotherapy provides. We are then truly health care providers, not mechanics of a sick psychic apparatus, retrofitting people to get back into society as workers and consumers, and occasionally lovers.
JB: Now you are retired, are you up to anything now, such as any new projects? Or are you taking things easy?
MG: I am working on a primer of daseinanalysis, which should be at the press by the end of 2024. So, I’m busy with the manuscript. The Institute has me teaching a bit, supervising a bit. I did retire from full-time teaching and am glad to have more time to write. So that takes up a lot of time. I’m always trying to make contact with young people, since they are—obviously—the future. I enjoy informally mentoring as much or maybe even more than “professing,” with all that that requires. For the rest, by the time this is posted, I will have been in Brazil for the first time to talk about daseinanalysis at a conference on the topic there, a place, by the way, that is very interested in existential-phenomenological psychotherapy.
I expect to be in Europe next year to give seminars on daseinanalysis in Poland in August and Austria probably around the same time. If there’s interest, I’m ready to go to Singapore and Hong Kong, where two of our candidates are located.
When I was a kid there was a television show (television was just catching on then) called “Life Begins at Eighty.” That’s four years down the road for me, so if the name of the program fits reality, I’m getting ready to begin my life.
Prof Miles Groth might not be as big a name in psychology as Warren Farrell or Jordan Peterson, but his contribution to the field has been significant to the many students, clients and psychologists who have benefitted from his activities. I’m grateful for example to have had some of my early work in male psychology published in his journal New Male Studies, especially because at that time mainstream academic journals were decidedly uninterested in this topic. These publications included original research in 2015 on sex differences in therapy, which helped inspire the idea of gamma bias, seminal research in 2016 on the mental health benefits to men of visiting the barber shop, and a theoretical paper in 2016 on the gender empathy gap, co-authored with Warren Farrell and Martin Seager. There are no doubt many people who are grateful to Prof Miles Groth for the various ways in which he has inspired and supported them, and I hope this interview captures some of the originality with which he has approached the psychology of boys and men.
Miles Groth, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Wagner College, New York. He is the author of six books, eleven book chapters (including in the Handbook of Male Psychology), 43 peer-reviewed journal articles, and is former editor of the journal New Male Studies. His recognition extended beyond academia after his appearance in the film The Red Pill.
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