• Troy Piwowarski

The Top 3 Concerns Men Bring to IRL Men’s Groups


By Troy Piwowarski, PsyD and Brian Thompson, AMFT

In Real Life (IRL) Men invites men to take off the masks that we’re required to wear in other parts of our lives in order to show up more authentically and find out who we really are.

A men’s group is about providing men with a powerful dose of the things we need and the things we crave: honest feedback, a sense of belonging, genuine care, the knowledge we aren’t alone in our struggles, a place to speak deep and difficult truths, and a place to step out onto the edge of what previously felt safe to find out what’s possible.  We accomplish this kind of rare space by meeting weekly with a consistent and committed group of men, and by challenging each member to show up as presently and vulnerably as they can.


As an introduction to the world of men’s groups, we want to share with you the top 3 concerns that men bring to IRL Men’s Groups to work on, and how these issues are addressed and worked through in the course of group work:


1.    Not knowing how to deal with conflict;


2.    Not knowing how to express or receive intimacy; and


3.    Nagging self-judgment and the fear of judgment from others.


We will provide you with some examples from real groups that we’ve been a part of to help bring to life how these concerns come up and get worked through in group.


Not Knowing How to Deal with Conflict


Many of the men who come to IRL Men’s Groups have a hard time owning and expressing anger or even fully owning their preference or opinion.  We often hear from conflict-averse members that they are sitting on feelings, but wonder “what’s the point of bringing it up and risking hurting someone and nothing changing anyway?”  


When conflict between two or more members does come into the open, it requires the entire group listen and help each member express what’s genuine, and to “sit in the fire” as we find our way through to the other side of the conflict.  Conflicts arise out of value clashes; for example, one member may value people being able to take whatever time he needs to work through something, where another member might grow impatient on behalf of himself and other members who might want to talk as well.


In this way, men’s group echoes the conflicts of the real world, in our romantic relationships, friendships, and our dealings with coworkers.  If we’ve only learned that anger leads to violence, dissolution of relationships, or to nothing changing anyway, it’s easy to see why we shy away from conflict.  IRL Men provides a holding space to work through these conflicts in the group, helping men develop relational skills that translate to relationships in their own personal lives beyond the walls of the group.  


One group member reported having one of the best weeks at his job during the week that followed a conflict in group because he felt so much clearer and less inhibited in sharing his genuine perspective with his colleagues.  It can be incredibly exhilarating to discover that we have options for dealing with value conflicts, and that we have the power to speak up. 


Not Knowing How to Express or Receive Intimacy


So many of the men who come to work with us also talk about feeling isolated, problems with intimacy in their relationships, or trouble communicating how they’re feeling.  In the group, expressing admiration for another group member can be anxiety-provoking.


For many men, the expression of positive, caring feelings between men is a completely foreign concept.  Perhaps the men in our own families shook hands but never hugged, demonstrated care through acts of service instead of saying “I love you,” and talked sports or politics, but steered clear of talking about their inner lives.  Brian and I help men to develop the language and the courage it takes to express and receive gestures of intimacy.


The edge for many men is how to take in care without dismissing it.  We hear men in the group say “I don’t know if I really deserve support” or deflect by saying “I’m fine now, can we move on?”  Brian and I often invite men to slow down and see if they can take in the love and care of the group, which is an extremely disorienting experience for men who have no previous training in how to receive authentic male intimacy.  


Over time, we have witnessed men grow in their capacity to receive and express positive feelings to others in the group. It is so satisfying when one of our group members spontaneously offers support, a vulnerable story that connects with another man’s pain, or a hug to another group member who is struggling.


Nagging Self-Judgment and Fear of Judgment from Others


Self-judgment is a major obstacle to having compassion for oneself, not to mention the confidence required for success in the dating world and climbing the career ladder.  As the men in our groups come to trust one another, many reveal that they harbor deeply-entrenched self-judgments that hold them back from living fulfilling lives, or from enjoying what’s good in their lives already.  “I’m a total fraud;” “I’m totally unequipped to be an adult;” “I’m such a piece of shit;” and “At my core, I’m really unlovable” are just a few of the negative self-beliefs that I’ve heard from men in our groups.


Most of these self-beliefs are baggage from earlier life experiences that cut us down while we were at our most vulnerable.  Not only do men carry these beliefs in the silence of their own minds; they usually anticipate that, once we really get to know each other, others will judge them similarly.

 

A member may begin to feel self-conscious about taking up too much time in the group, and anticipate that the group will become hostile toward him. At a closer glance, this member’s anticipation stems from the pervasive belief that “I don’t deserve love or attention,” which he has carried with him from an early age, largely because his family often shut him down when he expressed his needs.


The Gift of Men's Groups


The greatest gift of groups is that we get to try out new ways of being with one another.  Because we are social animals, we create our identity in community. Group is a rare opportunity to re-evaluate, revise, and at times, recreate ourselves in a big way. Brian and I might invite the member who doesn’t believe he deserves the group’s attention to choose someone in the group to check out his assumption and get real-time feedback.


Over time, getting honest and diverse feedback from group members will allow this member to have a better set of evidence to base his sense of deserving of attention in the group, and in his relationships outside the group.  Ultimately, this is what the work of men’s groups is about: giving men a new experience of themselves so they can be the men our culture needs in the real world and in their real lives.


Troy Piwowarski, PsyD and Brian Thompson, AMFT co-founded In Real Life (IRL) Men’s Groups after meeting in a men’s group 8 years ago. They are currently forming three new men’s therapy groups in Oakland and San Francisco that will begin this Fall.