When words HURT

by Miles Groth, PhD

Physical injuries may heal, although their consequences may remain painful for decades. Emotional trauma, which is often a concomitant, may be far less obvious, especially among boys and men. Boys typically are socialized to avoid admitting they have been shocked, confused and enraged by physical and verbal attacks, especially over the long term, and especially when the attacks began during infancy or early childhood and are delivered by someone who is presumed to love them.

Recently (April 2018), I presented a paper in Frankfurt at a conference on interpersonal violence between males and females in intimate partner relationships. The congress was international, organized to draw to the attention of individuals engaged in research and treatment of domestic violence victims just how much male victims are overlooked by the services available.

The audience (and most people, I believe) were surprised to learn that about 40% of men have experienced such aggression, compared to about 60% of women. They rarely report it, however.

My contribution focused on what sort of therapy is most appropriate for such individuals. Briefly, I propose an existential approach—what I term daseintherapy—that would complement standard treatments including medication prescribed by a psychiatrist. The term ‘Dasein’ is not unknown among humanistic psychologists, but it requires definition here. ‘Dasein’ is German for ‘existence’—in its specialized usage applying only to human beings—and carries the additional meaning of a way of life about which the individual has knowledge, whether it is conscious to him or “not consciously known” (Freud’s famous unconscious). The term ‘Dasein’ highlights that actual experience and related behavior emerge against the background of a set of possibilities that characterize the unique situation of a person.

To be a man in contemporary Western culture—from the States, to Canada and the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and most urban European settings—is to be in a unique situation in which ambiguity about gender and sex, sexuality, social roles, and personal responsibility is pervasive. Existential therapy—therapy of a person’s Dasein (existence) when the possibilities of being human are grounded in having a male body—is effective when a man has experienced emotionally wounding aggression because it aspires to be non-interventional. Even words, it turns out, no matter how kindly and gently they are offered by the therapist, are often experienced as challenging to males when they have been exposed to chronic aggression. Such men fail to hear what is said and expect what is said to them to be critical and even harmful.

If words themselves, which are the medium of psychotherapy, are “tuned out” as readily as a gesture directed against someone causes him to blink and raise a defensive hand because the gesture is expected to land as physical blow, the therapist must find a way to be there with the person that has one goal: to make way for the person to recover his own present. Anxiety is the sign of a yearning to be in the future; depression suggests not only sadness but also being stuck in a past that seems to be fossilized. To relocate himself in his present is the desideratum of working with boys and men who have been brutalized.

There is much to be said about the comparative lack of success with men in traditional modalities of psychotherapy, ranging from psychoanalytic psychotherapies to cognitive-behavioral therapies. Pharmacotherapy may be valuable for the short-term, but when the treatment is with words alone, the special experience of men—both in general, since they are encouraged to express themselves in violent ways, including contact sports, and in particular when they have been the recipient of emotionally and physical aggression with individuals who are close to them—requires that we consider an approach to counseling and psychotherapy with them that takes into consideration the socialization practices and expectations of what it is to be a boy or man in contemporary society.


About the author

Miles Groth, PhD. Professor, Department of Psychology, Wagner College, New York, US.  Founding Editor, New Male Studies (Australian Institute for Men’s Health and Studies) (emeritus)

Author, After Psychotherapy (New York: ENI Press, 2017)


You can vote now (7th May – 20th June) for a Male Psychology Section of the BPS.

Details here http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/male-psychology-network/vote-for-a-male-psychology-section/




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