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A question we are asked by at least one person every time we do the trainings on the Helping Men Recover curriculum: How can we get men to open up in a meaningful way? That, of course, does not mean traditional treatment doesn't help men open up. In fact, every training we learn about the great innovative tools that men and women have come up with to help them get through to men. The question is how does a treatment center create a culture and have the necessary skills where there is a fundamental belief that men want to and can really open up about their internal lives?
As I have mentioned in previous posts the number one factor that prevents men from opening up is not so much a lack of awareness or ability to talk about their inner lives. It seems to be more than anything a lack of feeling safe to do so. And, how many men are going to tell you that they do not feel safe? As men we learn so very early that it is not manly to admit weakness or talk about our challenges because we should be able to handle it on our own. Couple with that, the prohibition against sharing the majority of their feelings. By the time the majority of men come into treatment it is all three of those prohibitions that are destroying their lives.
Once you have gotten past the barrier of men opening up, in general, then you have to confront the barrier of men beginning to touch upon their experience of trauma. Again, men do not talk about trauma because they do not want to but because they do not feel safe enough to do so. Sure, they can talk about how alcohol and other drugs are destroying their lives but to then move into the part of their past that is heavily guarded by every little centurion in their psyche. Not easy. Not at all.
Just like in any other human relationship, the best way to get through to someone in an authentic way is to create a space where they know they are safe enough to do so. The power of the treatment counselor to do this cannot be overstated. Nobody is more responsible for - or able to - create safety than the counselors and therapists working directly with the men. Here are some of the core elements for creating what is called a “safe container:”
• Consistent Structure – this is most important when doing groups. Have the same opening and closing for every group and let the men know what you are going to discuss for each group and review what the previous group covered
* Summaries and previews
• Accountability – the counselor needs to hold themselves accountable as much as holding the men accountable
• Normalizing adverse experiences and emotions – help the men realize that the feelings they have are part of the human experience and have nothing to do with their masculinity
• Allowing participants to struggle – the counselor’s job is not to fix or rescue; we have to deal with our own discomfort when someone is not where we think they should be - not push them from our agenda