Dr Simon Rowbottom is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. He has worked widely in the NHS including Oxford Health Psychological Services department, a community mental health team in Berkshire, and a specialist psychotherapy department in Surrey and Borders. These roles involved working with a broad spectrum of psychological distress and mental health difficulties. He has also worked as a specialist lecturer in counselling psychology.
Our conversation took place in Thame, Oxfordshire on 21st February 2022.
Becoming a Psychologist
I think I was in therapy at the time. And I think the decision to become a psychologist followed on from a suggestion from the therapist I was working with. Because I was completely lost from 2005-2006. I didn’t know what I was doing. Didn’t know where it was all going. Music wasn’t working and during a session with my therapist, I talked about having been offered a place at Liverpool University when I was seventeen. The Boo Radleys were starting up and I didn’t take it (the university place) up. The plan was to study Psychology and English because they were the two A-levels that I enjoyed. So, I was going to do a combined Psychology and English degree, but back then I didn’t have the goal of becoming a psychologist – but I think that when I went back, yes, I think that was the goal. I think my therapist was perhaps pushing me towards clinical psychology. And so, I think I was thinking about clinical psychology first, but it was during the first year that I became interested in counselling psychology, which, you know, it’s one of those difficult things at the moment because clinical psychology and counselling psychology are kind of going like that. (Gesture of convergence)
Counselling psychology started really, over here, it’s been going on in America quite a while, as a response to the kind of dominant medical model of mental illness, which kind of did go right through psychiatry. And right through clinical psychology as well, which was this disease mentality. It’s the medical model that if something is ‘wrong with you’ in inverted commas, it’s because there is something wrong in your body and therefore it needs correcting with drugs or therapy, along those lines. Whereas counselling psychology came from a far more humanistic viewpoint, which was quite a sort of existential one in a lot of respects, but one that suggested that actually there’s nothing inherently wrong with people suffering mental distress. It’s more to do with their social status, their experiences, their background, what they’ve been through. So, over the years, since counselling psychology started in the UK in the mid-nineties, clinical psychology has taken on that viewpoint far more, I’d say. Now there’s probably very little difference between the two, theoretically and philosophically. There’s probably little difference because clinical psychology has started to distance itself from psychiatry. Psychiatry also is starting to move away from the model espoused for the last century, moving towards therapeutic means and therapeutic understandings, which basically would see the model kind of turned on its head.
So, the psychiatry model would essentially say something’s gone wrong in somebody’s brain – and the chemistry of the brain. Therefore, they are suffering from depression. Whereas the counselling psychology or the dominant clinical psychology view now is that people’s experiences caused them to be under stress, caused them to, have psychological issues which then affects their brain chemistry, which then has a side effect on how they experience things. So, it’s a sort of top down, bottom up thing. I would say that’s the dominant kind of understanding now.
Therapeutic communities are very useful. They don’t really exist anymore in a health setting because they’re expensive. And that’s a real shame because it was the one way that you could really deal with people with personality disorders, that was the main thing. They’ve now turned towards DBT. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of DBT, dialectical behaviour therapy? Yeah. So dialectical behaviour therapy is basically like a watered down therapeutic community. It’s CBT based, but it basically means getting people to be aware of their own story, similarly to a therapeutic community. You know, the therapeutic community means people get called out on their stuff. They get called out on their behaviours. Because one of the problems with personality disorders is that you don’t normally see it in therapy one-to-one, so people will come in and often present as being fine. You know, they’ll present OK, they’ll sit and they’ll say: ‘I’m perfectly reasonable’. But in a therapeutic community where you’re having to cook meals and do the dishes afterwards, we have these behaviours come out, you see the jealousies and the splitting that they do. And so, it gets called out in the community that someone says: ‘What was all that about then? You know, when he got more food than you did and you fucking lost it? What’s going on there?’ I think that in those respects, the therapeutic communities are really good. The only thing I’ve ever seen up there was a documentary about 25 years ago, maybe a bit less, about HMP Grendon, which was really, really good. It’s a guy from Liverpool actually, who’s the wing psychiatrist. They’re all sitting there chain smoking, you know, so you can tell it’s from a bygone era. It’s really interesting.
And it was very much sought after, I think, because it was the only one of its kind. And I think people who would genuinely have an attitude of ‘I don’t want to go back to this life that caused me to do this’. I think it’s a very good place. So therapeutically, I would hope they would be making people very aware of their own emotional reactions, because that’s really, really important as you say, as a prelude to drinking, you know, being aware that they’re feeling all these things and not sort of, because the problem is, is that we’re not aware and we’re not sort of open to it, it’s kind of like, ‘shit, I’ve had a drink’.
And in those situations, always my question, in the same way, when people immediately come up with that, and it’s not a criticism, but it’s a question which is saying: ‘OK, so people have been through similar experiences, or worse, and don’t turn to alcohol. So, what’s the difference? Why do you turn to alcohol? That’s what you try and understand. It’s not the end of story. ‘I drink because of this.’ It’s like, well, why have you used that as your coping strategy? Other people might not, you know, other people might turn to religion or they might turn to friendships or even psychology, why is it that you’ve used that one? And I guess that’s the thing, is that your predilection towards that is the problem, as you say, it probably predates it.
The Future of Psychology
The problem is that psychology is such a broad spectrum. You know, it’s massive. It covers things from social psychology experiments about behaviour and stuff, right the way to how neurons are affected in vision.
It’s really interesting actually, because my daughter Elena is doing a psychology degree. She’s in her second year, so it’s really interesting to see which way the steer is being given. The problem with a lot of psychology is that psychology came from a more kind of humanistic way of understanding people. It goes with the flow. So, post-war, a lot of psychology experiments and understandings were about the war. Why did Nazis behave the way they did? How do good men do terrible things? So a lot of it was about group processes, groupthink, obedience, conformity, all these kinds of things, but then in the fifties and sixties what it really became about is the computer model.
So as computers began to play a more pivotal role in society and you realize that actually what happens with the computer as you input information, the computer processes it in a certain way, and then you get an output. So what a lot of cognitive psychologist started to think is, well, maybe we’re just like computers. Maybe it’s all about the input that comes in, how we process it and what comes out. So, this is really where CBT comes from, that kind of idea of cognition equals behaviour. You get the input, cognitions is the kind of processing that goes on and behaviour is the output. And more recently, psychology has gone towards wanting to be into the sort of more neuroscience side of it. So, you kind of see psychology pushing more towards the neuroscience.
I think what we need to do is draw the distinction between psychology and psychotherapy. You made a really, really important point. The bridge from religion to psychotherapy was medicine. So medicine took over from religion medicine by saying something along the lines of: ‘religion says that anybody who’s got mental health issues, it’s the devil, we’ll drive him out. Medicine came over and said: this is ridiculous – but didn’t get very far. They set up asylums, they tried drilling into people’s brains. But then what happened was Freud and those kinds of psychologists took over with the talking cure. But what Freud did is that Freud decided he was going to be a surgeon of the mind. So he adopted the kind of medical model, which basically says: I’m removed from the client. I can analyse them. I can interpret them. I’m a sculptor. But the big thing that happened, as you say about psychology being an art is that Carl Rogers came along and he was massively important. His ideas of empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence.
It’d be really good to look at Carl Roger’s work. He basically invented counselling. He basically said that the Freudian stuff was all very removed from the person and you’re like a surgeon, but we need to be in psychological contact with them. And there were six necessary and sufficient conditions for psychological change. But the three core ones are unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence – and congruence is a really important bit. This relates to what you say about psychology being an art. Because the congruence means that the therapist is themselves. The therapist is congruent with their own feelings. With their own self, they don’t play a role. They don’t try and be some kind of figure. I understand that you’re keen to draw a distinction between non-judgemental and non-condemnatory – but it is common sense to point out when the client is not acting in their own best interests. That was a bad thing, we know that’s not a good thing, but we need to help you find out why it happened. That in itself requires moral judgment.
Be Yourself in the Room
I think the problem that you’ve got, and this may be what you’re referring to (moral relativism). One of the course directors, said early on to us: what we need you to be is yourself in the room first and foremost – with the theories back there. And it took me a long time to realize what that meant. And that’s the skill and the art. A lot of people will do their therapeutic training and they’re terrified of being themselves in the room, so they will sit there and they will be there and have these ideas of empathy and compassion first and foremost, everything is about the theory and the real person just isn’t present. As far as I’m concerned, they’re fucking awful therapists and I’ve actually been with therapists like that, who I’ve spent a few sessions with and realised that they were just practicing their fucking training. Where’s the real person? And the reason why I think I’m an effective therapist – and certainly for a lot of disturbed people, a lot of people who are really suffering, is that they see you, the real you – but that is a very, very difficult thing to do. And this comes with experience. It comes with confidence to actually think, you know, all I have to be is myself and the theory is behind me. So, you asked me earlier on, you know, a piece of work or something that I felt was really, really good. I predominantly operate from three theoretical positions, which I’ve done a year’s training in each. The first one is the Freudian view, the psychodynamic view, which is all about the unconscious processes, conflicting emotions being driven down, it’s about childhood emotions. It’s about things that are done pre-verbally, experiences that we have pre-verbally and how we understand those. Then we have the Rogers view, which is about the false self and the fact that somebody hasn’t had the opportunity to self-actualize. So, Rogers’ viewpoint comes from this.
Carl Rogers and his Potato
I don’t know whether this story is apocryphal – but he’s living in 1940s America, didn’t have a fridge, so everything was stored down in the basement, so all the fruit and veggies are stored down in the basement to keep them cool and fresh. And he was going down to collect something one day and he noticed that one of the potatoes had rolled out and it had actually rolled into a crack of light. And because it was in this crack of light it had actually started to sprout it. It started to spread and grow. And his whole thing was actually organisms don’t become themselves unless they’re given the optimal conditions to become the best version of themselves. So that applies to humans. So, what he saw with humans was is that we come out, we wanted to be the best version of ourselves, but we are then given at not the optimal conditions. We’re criticized. We’re told we’re not good enough when children are treated badly. And so, they develop what we call ‘conditions of worth’. So, we develop a false self under these conditions of worth. I have to be a certain way in order to be worth anything. So, there’s that idea that that’s what the therapy room is giving – these optimal conditions. So, you’re understood or cared about, we have empathy for you and actually you can self-actualize and grow within that environment. Then there’s the CBT third way, which is how Aaron Beck who noticed that when he was training as a psychoanalyst, it wasn’t the unconscious thoughts that were causing problems. It was the conscious ones. It was the fact that people were saying: ‘I’m useless. I can’t do anything right. I’m not worth it.’ A negative internal dialogue. And so that was what he noticed. So, when I’m working with the client, first and foremost, I’m Sice. I sit down with someone and I’m like: ‘What’s going on?’ Talk to me, you know? And we talk, we chat, but underneath, in the back of my mind, I’m giving positive, unconditional positive regard and empathy, and I’m being congruent because I do genuinely mean it. You know, I am understanding that person saying, yeah, that was shit. You know, and I think this is the difference. You can understand that something was shit for somebody, but you can also say: but I can see where you took the wrong turn there. It was shit – actually what you did was you developed that coping strategy.
Joseph Pleck & The Myth of Masculinity
What you’re referring to is the crisis of masculinity. Because men don’t know what masculinity is any more. I’m perfectly happy to talk about this because I’ve done a lot of research in this area. A guy called Joseph Pleck wrote a book called ‘The Myth of Masculinity in 1981. That was really important. That basically sort of started to outline this idea of what we might call toxic masculinity. So, this idea of the traditional male gender role norms. You’re strong, tough, breadwinner, the traditional 1950s stuff. And what he basically said is that this is massively problematic for several reasons, because one, it’s completely unobtainable. Weak men feel less than because they don’t meet these goals and actually all that’s happened is, it’s slightly shifted. So, when you think a lot of these young lads, you think who their role models are, it’s kind of gangsta guys. It’s the guys with the blades. They’re the toughest guys. They’re the money guys. They’re the guys with the women all over them. And it’s only moved in the same direction as the 1950s corporate guy who had the money, the cars, the beautiful wife. So what Pleck basically said is that this is completely unattainable. So, men feel a failure constantly because this is on the table. The other thing is, that even if they get close to obtaining it, it’s not good for you. You don’t have any connection with people. You don’t have any warmth. You don’t have a new love in your life. And the third thing is that even if you are going towards that, the actual process of achieving it is really, really damaging. What happens is that boys get separated. So one, yes, the crisis of masculinity basically means who are men supposed to be in it? Who are our role models? Who do we look to? Who do we say, okay, that’s how you be a man? We’re all massively, massively confused. And Gender politics means that there is no such thing as a masculinity anymore. There are pluralities of masculinity. There are lots and lots and lots of different ways to be a man. There’s a book by Raewyn Connell called ‘Masculinities’ which highlights the fact that there’s a huge raft of different masculinities. And one of the things that Raewyn was there is a hierarchy. And that this idea of the traditional male is at the top, and at the bottom, it was gay And But I think this thing about men and boys is really important and there’s a vast amount of literature. I It’s actually a lived reality because if you are the type of guy who wants to support your family and wants to be at home with your kids, you are actively discouraged from that within work environments. ‘What do you mean you want to leave at three o’clock to go and pick your kids from school? You’ve got work to do’ So, so you are actively discouraged from doing the park. All life, the are actually really, really important. So boys and men, we don’t get the things in life that are actually really important. But this is the question, you know, how do you be a man in today’s society? What does it mean to be a man? Which form of masculinity do you pick? How do we, how will we, how do we be a good man? How do you be a good man?
It’s taken a lot of sweat and tears to get to that point where I feel comfortable with myself. It doesn’t just happen. I’ve had two nervous breakdowns. The first one was a major mental breakdown. That was in 2012. I was in my third year of psychology training. And what was really interesting was that a lot of that was about the masculinity pressure because I was training to become a psychologist. Sarah had been supporting us for like five years through my training and it was all getting too much for me. And now I would recognize it. Now I would be able to say to myself: ‘Hang on, this is all getting too much.’ I was absolutely exhausted and things were starting to fall apart for me. I couldn’t sleep. It was so stressful and I was falling apart and I just didn’t stop. I kept going and going and going and going and I eventually just went ‘boom’. I couldn’t get out of bed for two or three months.
What’s really interesting is that having gone through that experience, I now understand what led to it, what actually happened and how you come out of it. And that has been immeasurably helpful. That experience is immeasurably helpful in clinical practice because I see an awful lot of people. I never turned to drugs, but I think many people in that situation quite easily could do, to manage their life. That’s what a lot of people do, use substances to manage their life. I’ve got to the age of fifty and I kind of get it, but it’s like you say, it’s only by understanding my own weaknesses, my own emotional biases. I know I have a huge problem with anything, potentially, and I know where that comes from, but I know that that’s my predilection. There’s a lot of stuff out there about how men needs to talk about their feelings – but the only feeling they’re referring to is sadness. The only feeling they’re referring to amending sort of when men feel like crying, that’s what they’re talking about – but men don’t talk about anger. They don’t talk about resentment, they don’t talk about envy.
The Bridge Between Psychology and Religion
The problem is that religion is completely wrong in that respect because there was a prohibition about the seven deadly sins. Now that for me is, is just stupidity. I come from a kind of evolutionary, psychological perspective. That’s the biggest influence on me at the moment, which basically says, you know, everything, that’s here, everything that’s in us. Everything that’s in humans has remained there for a reason through our development, through our evolutionary developments, because it has been evolutionary adaptive. So, for example, envy and jealousy, because they’re two distinct things, are there for a reason. Envy is the feeling you get when somebody else has something you want. Jealousy is when something that you think is yours has been taken away. And this feeling of envy gets passed on through our genetics. So, that’s the thing, that it gets passed on. Genetics, all these things. That’s the idea of evolutionary psychology is that these things that we’ve been left with have been genetically passed on. But the important thing about these things is that the seven deadly sins exist, but the important thing is accepting that they’re there. Accepting that they’re part of us but that we don’t have to act on them. That’s the difference. And that’s an awful lot of what I do with emotions in therapy is the acceptance that emotion is there for a very good reason. And with men, one of the biggest challenges I have is explaining the difference between the experience of anger and the expression of anger. I’ll say to people, I get as angry as you, but I can sit and say to the people, absolutely feel restaurant. Now what I don’t do is stand up and start kicking the chairs around and smacking people. Our experience is the same, but our expression is very, very different. That’s a key thing for men to understand. For a lot of men, crimes that they commit are based on the experience of jealousy – but what’s really interesting is that everybody denies jealousy.
This is what a lot of men need, this idea of understanding your own experience of what’s actually happening. Jealousy is a massive one because so many blokes will do it, they’ll sit in sessions and they’ll give me a scenario. And I’ll say, so I guess that made you feel jealous? No, no, no. Didn’t feel jealous. Didn’t feel jealous. And I’m like, so why not? Why wouldn’t you feel jealous about that? Why not? Actually, your emotional reactions are completely normal. Why wouldn’t you feel jealous in a situation like that? The problem is, is that there’s this distinction between behaviour and experience. So, I’ll say tell them that jealousy is not a problem. If my wife’s in the bar and she’s talking to another bloke and I experience jealousy. She’ll come back and I’ll say ‘I was feeling really jealous’ and she’ll say ‘Oh, well, okay.’ But that’s the end of it. The difference is, is that the way emotions have been experienced is that if you say to somebody’s I’m jealous, what is being communicated is: you need to change your behaviour because I don’t want to feel that. I’m hoping that this is some of the work that they will have already done in Grendon. Because the key thing is, that all your behaviour, all your controlling behaviour, all your smacking the shit out of a man or woman is all because you, a great big man, can’t tolerate a feeling. You can’t sit there and go: ‘God, this doesn’t feel good.’ Just tolerate it. Just tolerate it. Just say: my stomach’s flipping over, I’m sweating. Just tolerate it. Sit with it. You’re a big, hard man.
I think that, as you suggest, we might be able to adapt the phrase ‘Man Up’, but I think unfortunately the phrase ‘Man Up’ actually means: ‘suppress your emotions and don’t express them’. Working with men and boys is the understanding of our own emotional experience and the whole spectrum of it, not just the sadness, that seems to be what is said at the moment, that men need to talk about their feelings, but ‘feelings’ translates only as sadness. It doesn’t mean the ones that are really problematic for them.
I would hope that when we look at emotions, you think about all the emotions there are, the spectrum of ones that we can name. They’re very, very negative. There’s very few of them that are actually good. Happiness, contentment, joy, excitement, peace. But you’ve got all the other ones which are: anxiety. You’ve got, anger, sadness, fear, disgust, disappointment, just a whole raft. So, part of the thing is about understanding that we don’t have a natural inclination to be at peace. Our very existence is actually all about the negative emotions because that is what’s kept us safe. That’s what’s kept us safe or that’s what’s helped us reproduce or what’s helped us get resources.
So, it’s really about understanding that our own experience is not necessarily positive – but that doesn’t mean that we have to go around feeling shit about it. We can accept that. We can accept that actually peace comes from knowing that, yeah, this is a human experience and, as a normal human experience, I can accept it. I can accept why I’m feeling it, but I don’t have to do anything about it other than maybe talk to somebody. This is where our understanding of talking is that talking is a tool. Language is what humans have developed instead of behaviour. We’ve had to, because we can’t go around beating people over the head any more when we feel jealous. So how do we deal with that? Well, we deal with it through language – and that’s why language and communication is the important part because it’s the behaviour at the end of the emotional feeling, what do we do with it? Which is why it’s perfectly acceptable to say to somebody in a non-threatening way to say: ‘what you said there has made me absolutely furious.’ That’s the key thing – and that behaviour – It does something, it expresses it, it finishes off that emotion.
I don’t see toxic masculinity as being a pejorative term, that actually you’re criticizing men. I see it as toxic for the men themselves, and the reason it sort of chimes with me is because essentially that was my dad. My dad subscribed to all the gender role norms in line with toxic masculinity – and it made him unhappy and everyone around him unhappy. And that’s the reason why I kind of stick with that label now. And I don’t just want to sit on this idea of toxic masculinity and use it as a stick to beat people with. It’s fine to examine all the positive aspects of masculinity – but you can’t just jettison the negatives, which have actually been a huge problem and are a huge problem in society.
One of the things that I think that was most toxic for me, was growing up and seeing representations of masculinity in the media. For example, I would grow up watching James Bond films, and I learned, wrongly, how you’re supposed to be with women. Through James Bond films. So, the idea is that you’re impressive and that women will fall over you, this kind of thing. There was no talking with or relating to or any of these things. Who can live up to that? And what a way for a young boy to sort of learn about relationships with women, or relations from the men for that matter. The problem is that it’s still out there. You just have to flick through Netflix.
It’s that idea that we were talking earlier on about Rogers and about conditions of worth. There’s nothing wrong with these personality traits or these behaviours per se, but it’s when they’re imposed by society or family, any of these things as: you do not have worth, unless you have these traits’ that’s the problem. There’s nothing wrong with them, per se, but it is the imposition that actually you’re not proper man unless you can live up to these traits.
The big thing for me in parenting, which was enormous was that I didn’t know how to be a dad. Because I knew that I did not want to be like my dad, but I didn’t know how to be a good dad. So instead, I became a mother and what I did was I decided that I was going to stay at home with the kids. And I was going to take the mother role. But what that did is cause a lot of problems between me and Sarah, because Sarah was kind of like, well, that’s kind of my role. You know, she was brilliant. She accepted it and said, well, I’ll go out to work if that’s what you want to do. But the problem was is that I then didn’t necessarily know how to provide. And this was a big part of my kind of crisis, if you will, back in 2005, 2006, when both children were at school, it was a huge thing of like, who am I? You know, how do I be a dad? I’ve been a good mum. I’ve been there and I’ve cared, but being a dad, that was a really, really difficult one. And I still don’t know. I still don’t know how does one really do that? Because I think the problem is that now the pressures on men are far too much – and I’m not excluding women here. I think the pressures on women are far too much as well, but for dads, like you said about your two weeks of paternity leave. We’re supposed to be good and we’re attentive to our children. We’re supposed to work hard. We’re supposed to have a career. We’re supposed to bring money home. We’re supposed to have good relationship with our wives. We’re supposed to have good relationship with our families. We’re supposed to be friends. We’re supposed to do sports. We’re supposed to be creative. Where’s the fucking time for this? Who’s got fucking time for this? And again, this is the thing that I deal with a lot is that people are driving themselves into the ground, trying to meet all these objectives. And so, the question is, what’s achievable, what’s attainable, for men? How do we do it in the hours that are allotted to us?
The problem is that toxic masculinity has been adopted by people as a pejorative term. It came originally from a very compassionate male-centered way, of men writing about men, people like Joseph Pleck. And there’s a huge writing about saying we need to help boys and men understand that this isn’t good for, so coming from a place of love and you’re right, it’s become a pejorative terms which has now been weaponized, but the way, I’ve always understood it is the Joseph Pleck way, in that by having to try to conform to these masculinity norms, we’re damaging boys, we’re damaging ourselves. We’re damaging everybody involved and that’s why it’s toxic. It’s not a kind of finger pointing thing.
The really important thing, weirdly, something that was reiterated in Harry Potter that it’s about the choices that we make. We always have a choice. Now, what I think is really important that in therapy, we understand ourselves a lot more. So, it creates space to make that choice.
What is going to be really, really important is how far the men on your caseload have come therapeutically, because this stuff doesn’t happen overnight. I always say to people that this isn’t like learning to play the guitar: this is an A chord, G chord, D chord – now off you go. It’s not like that. I have to tell you that this is how we get familiar with our emotions. You have to go away and you have to practice that. That’s the difference.
And like you said earlier, Jules, the difference between thoughts and feelings is massive. I often ask my clients to give me one word. Just give me one word, because the thing about emotions is that it’s normally one word. Don’t tell me what you’re thinking. Tell me the feeling in one word.
If I was able to say anything that I’ve given to my children as a dad, it’s that ability to understand themselves. So, when they come home and they’re crying and something’s happened at school, it’s not a case of like ‘Oh, it’ll be all right. Stop crying.’ Or it’s not a case of ‘poor you, there there.’ Tell me what happened. Let’s understand what you’re feeling. Why might they have said that mean thing? And what did that make you feel and what did you want to do? We talk. And maybe we can’t change anything. Maybe you just have to feel like this for a little bit, but it’s okay, come here and we’ll feel it together. And then soon it goes, and that’s the thing with emotions. The more, we accept them. The more, they just drift away, the more with anger, bring it on, allow yourself to feel it. That’s the thing about the thing with, with men that’s often helpful is about emotions saying, you know, come on, you’re a big, tough guy. Feel that emotion, just say, bring it on. I can feel anything.
That’s the thing about evolutionary psychology – that our emotions are there to drive our behaviour, that’s what they’re for. So, any emotion that we feel is to drive a behaviour, anger is there to overcome a frustration or an obstacle. That’s what it’s there for. It’s kind of like, you know, it was good if we’re being attacked by a lion, you know, if I see our family being attacked by a lion as well, like all these things, it has a reason, a purpose, but our every impulse is to make it go away. That’s the thing about anxiety, when we feel anxiety, we want to get up and run away. We want to do something because every impulse says I have to ‘do a behaviour’ to make this emotion go away. So, what we’re asking people to do now is actually really against our biological imperative. We’re asking people to stay with an emotion or asking people to feel that discomfort and not do anything, which is hard, but it’s possible. That’s what you’ve got to teach people. And for men, that is the training we are not given. Our male training is too, to not understand these things. And nobody teaches us this stuff and it’s not innate, you know, that’s what I always say is that actually all this stuff about understanding ourselves. How are you supposed to know that? Nobody teaches it, nobody tells you.
I mean, there were apocryphal tales of kids turning up to the doctor because there’s something wrong with their stomach and they’re having all sorts of tests or whatever. And eventually, they sit down with a sympathetic GP at six months of tests and the GP says that they’re anxious. You know, this feeling, that pain they’re describing is butterflies. They’re anxious. But because these kids are not educated and told that this is what happens – it’s an unfamiliar situation. Anxiety is totally normal. There are some really good primate studies out there, comparing anxiety, that basically say that primates show anxiety whenever they’re introduced to a new primate. They like to stay within the troop. But human beings are introduced to more strangers in one day… and even more with social media, we’re introduced to more strangers, more danger because strangers represent danger, than any other primates do.
America has had the psychological division of men and masculinity for a long time. John Barry, and Martin Seger were the first to set it up over here. They brought a lot of over here. I think we sort of adopt a different philosophical view and I can actually see the utility of John Barry’s viewpoint because John viewpoint is that male and female traits are innate. So, this is where I think they probably butt up against quite a bit of gender studies at the moment. So, I think John Barry’s viewpoint is how do we make the best of those innate traits? So those things like strength, power, physical power, how do we help men and boys with those things?
I think the differences is that I see that those traits that we’ve carried from an evolutionary sense, in the same way that I see worry, as something that comes down from an evolutionary standpoint is no longer useful to us, and that’s the difference. And I think that actually, we need to say: this is no longer useful to us. Violence is no longer useful to us. And we need to not necessarily see how it’s best utilized, but to actually move away from it. We need to recognize that it is inherent in us, but that actually it’s not good. The problem is, that I very much come from a feminist viewpoint. And so does an awful lot of the research. An awful lot of the male research has been very much influenced by the feminist kind of viewpoint and just really adopted it to the male kind of thinking.
But I’m not saying that the people at the Centre for Male Psychology are wrong. I think you’re absolutely right in recognising that they’re providing something that’s useful for men and boys.
Trauma, as you said earlier on, it’s about language and it’s about certain phrases being usurped in the same way that toxic masculinity has been usurped, trauma has now been usurped. And I think the problem is, is that trauma refers in the literature to a very specific thing. Trauma is essentially, not an experience. It’s something that happens to the brain. It’s something that happens to the brain when you are faced by overwhelming fear or danger that you cannot escape. So, this is where trauma is a very particular thing that happens to people. Post-traumatic stress disorder – you’re talking about things that are life threatening. So, people who are in life-threatening combat situations, they are in a disaster area, 911, something along those lines. That’s something that happens to the brain because the brain cannot deal with it emotionally.
And so trauma happens. That’s a very specific thing. You’re also talking about chronic trauma, which is children who are brought up in a very violent threatening household use of sexual abuse. Long-term sexually abuse, or even sort of one-off sexual abuse post-traumatic thing. The problem is that I think that trauma has been co-opted to mean any negative, psychological expense. People will say, well this is trauma because they went through this when they were in school. People will say that I was bullied in school, so it was my trauma. This is the difficulty, for example, you will see Will Young diagnosed with PTSD because he went through a difficult experience when he became famous. But it’s not PTSD. An awful lot of what people go through trauma. What that means is that we have trauma reactions to drive new stimulus. And one of the trauma reactions which is usually what people mean about is that we have the fight or flight response. But there’s another level to the response, which is the freeze response which you see in animals. When we say that animals play dead, they’re not actually playing dead or pretending, they go into a freeze response. The body shuts down because they can’t fight, they can’t escape. So they go, so they literally, the body shuts down. And this is what happens in trauma. I work with people with dissociative responses and they basically shut down when they’re triggered, they’re not really present anymore. So, these are very traumatic responses. But the problem is, that this trauma idea has been shifted onto other things.
Mental health is a catch all term. It’s a massive term. It’s like describing music. Is it reggae? Is it acoustic? Is it classical? mental health means a vast amount of things. What’s happening with mental health which is going on and on at pace, is the medicalization of normality.
So, children will say, I can’t do an exam because of my mental health and I’ll be like, what do you mean? Well, I get anxious. We’ve supposed to fucking get anxious. We’re seeing this now with a lot of high-level athletes. The Emma Raducanu situation was really badly handled. I was really disappointed with that because she basically had a panic attack because she was playing at Wimbledon under a huge amount of pressure. They called it breathing difficulties, which I thought was really, really bad. But the point is: you’re supposed to be anxious. You’re supposed to feel these things. And so, my problem, is the conflation of normal emotional experience with something wrong. If you’re an athlete, a big part of sport at the highest level and your golf is how you control yourself.
I do believe it’s true that some people will feel anxiety more severely. Some people will feel jealousy most severely, but I guess the question then is, well, what do you do with that? Because the problem at the moment that I see going through the schools is that, is that people are being excused from doing things because they feel anxiety. And that’s not how you build resilience. You can’t go through life removing yourself. Our most natural defence against anything is avoidance. If we see something as threatening, what do we do? Avoid it!
It was a sensible, necessary evolutionary adaptive – but in our modern lives, it’s a terrible thing. The problem is, that once we start to avoid certain things, we keep on avoiding things and our lives go smaller and smaller and smaller.
How to Motivate Boys and Men
This is actually something that you might ask John Barry about when you speak to him. don’t know whether you can put it in this way, but one of the most difficult things I find to work with are twenty-something, non-motivated men, who don’t know how to handle their emotions, usually anxiety. And they have a complete lack of motivation about life. Their world is basically their mum and dad looked after them. They’re in their room. Their world is online. They smoke a bit of weed – and that’s their life. And when I have to work with them trying to get a motivation to change, they don’t want to. And so how do you motivate men and boys to get out there? How do we motivate them? I struggled with that. And actually, I would say, that having talked earlier about therapeutic successes, then my biggest failures in therapy have been that I cannot motivate those people. They don’t have an intrinsic motivation. Now, maybe that’s an interesting thing about removing this idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ that actually what they don’t have any more is this sense of shame about who they are.
These are people that I’ve had to end therapy with because essentially, I reach a point where I say to them, nobody can do this for you. You know, I go through it and I set plans with them. I say, right, this week, you’re going to go and do this. You’re going to go into town, you know, go on your own coffee shop and talk to someone, you know, this is what you’re going to do. I come back and I say, so how did it go? Oh, I didn’t do it because, and there’s always an excuse. And in the end, I will say, nobody can do this for you. Your mum can’t do it for you. I can’t do it for you. There comes a point when you’re the one that has to stand up and put one foot in front of the other.
I think that comes from modelling. It’s really interesting to see what my kids have gotten interested in and it’s stuff that we’re interested in. It’s weird. Neither of them have got particularly interested in music or football, neither of them really care about that, but the one thing they both taken on is a love of film. We would always watch films and we talk about films and I never thought that that was a push for them. I never thought that it was a big thing in my life, but they both picked up on that. That’s what they both love. You know, Elena loves her acting, she loves her drama. William’s now working in a film archive. That’s what they picked up on. It’s not something that you forced on them but as long as you’re enthusiastic about things, they probably will be too.