‘How circuit training for the brain can benefit men’

New developments in neuropsychology can help males open up and express their emotions, writes Gayle Williamson

(First published in the Sunday Independent, September 3, 2017)

There are few things more poignant in therapy than seeing a man – indoctrinated since childhood to be strong – break down in tears.
In my experience, it happens very occasionally, but when it does it is powerfully affecting. I mean, it’s just not what men do, is it? Or rather, it’s what we’ve told men in various ways that they’re not ALLOWED to do.

I have great respect for anyone who enters therapy – self-examination is a challenging process – but my admiration is perhaps more so for men. It generally, though of course not always, comes more naturally for women to open up and share very personal thoughts and feelings. But men have been raised with the messages ‘Don’t be weak’; ‘Don’t ask for help’; and ‘Definitely don’t talk about your feelings’ – don’t show your sadness, your shame or your self-doubt.
And yet sitting with a male client, you see a hunger there – to express themselves, to receive validation and support. I think many men are conflicted and confIused about their male identity and about what’s appropriate in terms of their emotional expression. How angry am I allowed to get before I’m labelled aggressive? How much sadness am I allowed to show before I’m labelled weak? How needy am I allowed to be before my macho self-sufficiency is called into question? And in bed, how honest can I be without scaring off my partner?
A former client. Danny (not his real name), is a good example of the conflicts many men are dealing with. Married for several years and with two teenage children, maths lecturer Danny was extremely polite and compliant in our sessions, quickly apologising, for example, if he should ever forget himself and swear. His initial reason for coming was to deal with work stress but the real reason didn’t emerge until many weeks into his therapy: “I’m sorry, I haven’t been totally honest with you, Gayle. The reason I came here is, well, I’m having an affair with this woman at work.”
He couldn’t look at me while saying this, such was his shame. “You must think I’m terrible… I recognise I need to end it but I don’t know if I can. It shouldn’t be this hard… I still love my wife and I know I don’t love this woman; I’m not even sure I like her, to be honest.”
The affair also went completely against how he saw himself and the image he worked so hard to present to the world – that of a hard-working, loyal family man with strong values.
“So I wonder what it is you do like about Jenny,” I asked.
Danny and I explored this over a couple of sessions and the essence of what emerged was that with this woman, Danny could be bad. He didn’t have to be the dutiful husband and father, the dependable, gentle guy that everyone liked. He got to let the more aggressive, selfish, spontaneous, even animalistic side of himself out with Jenny, and the relief was great.
Danny had been denying his emotional, true self for years, and we set about understanding why.
By the time we are two, it’s said we already know how to put on a facial expression that differs from what we’re actually feeling inside – so that even at that early stage, we can be said to have a public, adaptive self and a private, core self. How our self further develops is most likely down to a complex mix of genes, parenting style, cultural and societal influences, and the child’s own temperament and experiences – ie, it’s not a question of nature or nurture; it’s both.
The whole area of mental health is in a very exciting period of growth, greatly informed by brain imaging studies and work in the field of neurobiology by the likes of US neuropsychology researcher and psychologist Allan Schore and US neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel. And while there’s a popular narrative that the brains of men and women are innately different and that they therefore process emotions differently, actually there’s probably more in common neurologically between the sexes than is different, with men born just as emotionally capable as women. However, Schore and Siegel and others have found that particular experiences of attachment – ie. the kind of emotional bond you shared with your primary caregiver, eg. secure or insecure – will cause one brain hemisphere to develop more fully than the other. We see this in those who have suffered childhood trauma, but there also seems to be a distinct gender component.
A little brain science: when we’re first born, it’s the right, more emotional, side of our brain that is more dominant; then, after a couple of years, the logical left hemisphere becomes most active. By age 3, the corpus callosum, a network of fibres connecting the two hemispheres, is sufficiently developed to allow for the exchange of information between our left and right brains. In an ideal world, our brain operates in an integrated, balanced manner, sharing information and processing between the two hemispheres. The left is less emotional, more logical and verbally proficient; whereas the right is concerned with things like empathy, recognising facial expressions, social capacity, our ability to feel and listen to our bodies, emotion regulation, our survival instincts and our sense of self.
What’s fascinating is that, as shown in studies involving blood flow, women seem to have greater similarity in the level of functioning of both sides of their brains; whereas one hemisphere, either the right or left, appears to be favoured in men. The male hormone testosterone plays a role in this lateralisation, it is thought; but it’s not hard to appreciate what else might be at play. Think about how we speak to boys compared to girls – “Be a big, strong boy for mummy’’, “Come on now, big boys don’t cry’’. Studies have actually found that mothers use less right-brain targeted, emotional language when interacting with sons as young as four as opposed to daughters of the same age – apparently already preparing them to fulfil the macho stereotype in adulthood.
And it’s not only parents who teach boys to suppress their emotions. While women might say they want men to be more vulnerable and share their feelings, actually such is our hardwiring about what a man SHOULD be that women are often turned off by men who tell us too much. It seems men can’t win.
So what are the implications if one brain hemisphere is dominant? With my client Charlie (not his real name), an accountant in his 40s, his father had died when he was just 12. His dad had been a hard worker, whose priority in life was providing for his family. However, the only emotion he showed was anger, and he didn’t say very much – Charlie recalls never having had a father-son talk with his dad, they never hugged and his dad certainly never said he loved him but of course Charlie craved his affection and attention: “I did know he loved me, he just couldn’t show it… how could he? His dad never showed it to him.”
At a brain level, Charlie probably dealt with his anxiety about pleasing his dad and his sadness by blocking the less predictable right-brain processes from his consciousness and taking refuge in his detail-oriented, logical left brain. And this left dominance was deepened with his dad’s death, where it was made clear to him by his mother and various relatives that he now had to be the man of the house. And of course his role model for how that should be done was his stereotypically masculine father.
Now as an adult, Charlie had clearly spent many years attempting to meet others’ expectations, not expressing what he really felt or thought, and had developed a false self so that ultimately he didn’t really know who he was or what he felt – about anything. We use our own facial expression and the state of our bodies to become aware of how we feel – but of course this ability was hampered in Charlie due to his underdeveloped right hemisphere.
The good news is that, thanks to the power of neuroplasticity – where our brains have the ability to change and develop throughout our lives – Charlie and I were able to work on developing the circuits that control emotional expression and improve the integration of his brain. The day he came in and told me that his wife had thanked him for empathising with her over an incident at work (before, she would have complained that he didn’t listen and didn’t understand her), and that he himself was actually thinking of leaving his job to run a gardening service, I knew his brain was back on the right track.
We need a serious rethink regarding how we raise sons and treat men – in years gone by, perhaps they needed to be ‘toughened up’ in order to be the hunter-gatherers of old or more recently the main breadwinners or the ones who went to war. But now we live in a very different world, one where it should be possible for men to shed the old stereotypes if they want to, where they shouldn’t have to shoulder so many expectations regarding how to BE in the world. There are now many different life options, many different family compositions and there should be many different ways to be a man.

Client confidentiality has been respected. Gayle Williamson is an Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy-accredited therapist. www.ferneytherapy.ie

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