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BlogThought Leader Interview

MenLiving Thought Leaders: An Interview with Andrew Smiler, PhD.

By August 16, 2021January 22nd, 20222 Comments

In his second entry to the MenLiving Thought Leader series, Patrick interviews Dr. Andrew Smiler.

Dr Smiler is an author and licensed therapist with expertise in adolescent boys, men, and masculinity. He is the author of “Is Masculinity Toxic?: A Primer for the 21st Century“, the award winning Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy,” and co-author of “The Masculine Self (6th ed)” with renowned researcher Chris Kilmartin. He also wrote “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of the promiscuous young male.” As a therapist, Dr. Smiler helps teenage boys and adult men understand themselves and find better ways to communicate with the important people in their life. In addition to issues such as depression, anxiety, and family conflict, he also works with clients around issues related to gender identity, sexual orientation, and other issues related to sexuality. He conducts both individual therapy and family therapy.

Patrick McKenna: 

It’s great to be speaking with you. I’m wondering what made you decide to make your life work researching masculinity and working to help men and boys understand how to communicate their emotions?

Andrew Smiler:

It was what was presented to me. I did my undergraduate at Virginia Tech. I got into a clinical psychology program at Towson University to become a therapist after that. Then I moved back to Philadelphia where I had grown up, and that was where I got a job. For five years I was working as a therapist, and I always preferred working with teens instead of younger children. Because I tended to be one of the few men on staff, probably 70% of my cases were always teen boys.

I guess I was fairly good at it because my clients seemed to make progress, and I certainly enjoyed it. Once I went back to school and got a PhD in Developmental Psychology, there were two things that happened that really solidified this as a path for me. One was that I took graduate seminar on psych of gender, which was really the psych of women, except for one week when we talked about boys and men.

Patrick McKenna:

Interesting.

Andrew Smiler:

Then, I was at a conference of the American Psychological Association, and I discovered that there was a group of folks there who were looking at the lives of boys and men. That became the focus of my dissertation and subsequent research. I left academia and came back to practice, and I decided I would focus on boys and men because they are the people that I have mostly worked with and because I had all this additional knowledge.

Eventually I realized that the academics who study boys and men spend a lot of time talking to each other but not really talking to the general public. So I started writing books and have since authored a couple, including a book for teenage boys that’s basically a how-to on dating and sex. In some ways this is serendipity and, in some ways, it just seems like it was what I was meant to do. Here we are 30 years later and I’m still doing it.

Patrick McKenna:

That’s fantastic. In your work as a therapist working with men, what is the biggest thing you encounter when it comes to them feeling unable to be vulnerable and open regarding their emotions? 

Andrew Smiler:

Guys will talk about two or three — or sometimes even more — reasons why they don’t talk about their feelings. One is that they’ve never really been taught how to do that. For instance, if you have a six year old boy and you’re with him out on the playground, say he skins his knee. He comes over to mom or dad, they dust him off and send him back out on the playground, and they tell him he’ll be all right. Now if your six year old girl skins her knee on the playground and they get parents of either genders saying, “Oh, my god. Are you okay? How do you feel? Do you want to sit down? Do you want to go back?” 

So even at a young age, we treat our boys and girls very differently. There’s a lot of examples like that where these subtle decisions that parents make provide points of emphasis or points of non-emphasis for our kids. Boys don’t get as much encouragement to talk about their emotions or to notice their emotions from parents. You see this kind of things in sports. Somebody gets hit, gets an injury, and you never hear the commentator say, “Wow, I wonder if he’s going to be worried about ruining his career and what he might do after this if he can’t play again?” We don’t talk about that worry. We talk about how he’s going to go to the locker room and get repaired, like he’s a machine.

Patrick McKenna:

That’s an excellent point.

Andrew Smiler: 

Compare that to something like soap operas or even romantic comedies that are all about emotions. They’re all about “How do you feel about this? Are you happy about it? Are you upset about it? Are you excited?” There’s a lot more discussion, a lot more modeling, a lot more vocabulary building and indirect experience. 

Guys I work with recognize that. They’ll say things like, “I don’t actually know what I sound like when I’m happy or sad. I just do my thing and don’t even notice my emotions.” That’s a big piece. The other piece is that a lot of the clients I work with say that when they’re sharing their emotions — especially deeper, more powerful emotions — they feel vulnerable. They’re worried about getting rejected or getting made fun of, so they’re very careful and cautious about doing that.

So again, in the way that we bring up boys and girls, boys don’t get encouraged to take those risks to be emotionally vulnerable. 

Patrick McKenna:

When you’re speaking to teenagers and younger adults, what’s is the biggest trend you hear when they talk about why they feel like they need therapy?

Andrew Smiler:

We talk a lot about a lot of those same things. They don’t really know how they feel or notice how they feel. They talk about not wanting to be made fun of. They may say, “I can’t tell my best male friend something like I’m sad or I’m worried. He’ll just make fun of me, or it’d make him uncomfortable because he wouldn’t know what to say. We’ve never talked like that before.” That’s even though they’ve known each other for five or 10 or even 20 years. There’s this reoccurring piece of just avoiding this kind of emotional discomfort. 

Patrick McKenna:

So once men you’ve worked with in therapy are less reluctant and more able to share their emotions honestly, is there a trend you see in the kinds of growth they experience?

Andrew Smiler:

Some of what initially stands in the way of this is men not paying attention to their feelings or not having the language for their feelings. One of the metaphors that I use is most of us have grown up with cable TV. We have eight million channels, and we watch 20 of them and we skip the rest.

Patrick McKenna:

Right.

Andrew Smiler:

The emotion channel is one of those ones that as guys we tend to skip over. We’ll talk about like, “Okay, time to tune into the emotional channel here.” One of the things I use is an emotion wheel, which the folks who really study emotions have put out a number of these. My favorite has eight different families of emotion words from less intense to more intense. I have a couple of those sitting in my office, so I’ll ask my clients to pick one up and find the feeling word on there that describes what they’re feeling. We might go from something like kind of annoyed to angry to enraged, and that’s the same family with different levels of intensity. We start talking about these emotions, and it starts to give guys both the language, but also a framework for how to think about and understand their emotions.

Patrick:

That sounds like a great pathway for them to articulate their feelings.

Andrew Smiler:

Right. So that’s a very straightforward way that I can provide it. Part of that challenge is that I had to adjust how I do therapy given who my clients are. That challenge gets into some of the systemic stuff. Look at who teaches people to be therapists and who’s learning to be therapists. Here in 2021, the vast majority of people who are learning to be therapists are female and non-binary, and that’s at least 70% of the student body. It varies some depending on exactly what kind of therapy program we’re in. Most of their faculty, if not all of their faculty, are also not men. So students never get a course or even necessarily a day in a course that teaches cultural competence on working with men. 

There aren’t that many men learning to do therapy, so there are maybe not as many appealing choices to these men. Maybe the person that he chooses, male or not male, is familiar working in men’s issues and maybe they’re not. Maybe they speak his language and maybe they don’t. One of the big debates in the research on therapy is why do so many men drop out after going to just one session?

Patrick McKenna:

And what do you think contributes to that?

Andrew Smiler:

I think part of that is they finally get up the courage to go, and then they sit in a room with a therapist, and the therapist doesn’t seem to understand them because they don’t understand how men speak. They don’t understand the language we use to describe feelings because we don’t have the feeling words. A lot of men go once, and it doesn’t feel good, and they don’t come back.

Patrick McKenna:

I’m sure that there’s also discomfort from therapeutic conversations being foreign to lots of men. Whether they’re struggling to open up or not, there’s probably discomfort just because in terms of those social spaces that are generally where men communicate with other men, it’s mostly on a surface level. Or, even if you are trying to open up on a deeper emotional level, you might be met with a more logical response from another man. 

Andrew Smiler:

Exactly. Even the settings, like what a therapist’s office looks like, there’s a couch and two comfy chairs and they are spaced probably a little bit more closely than a typical living room. The space is really setup to facilitate eye contact and intimacy and closeness. That is not the experience that most men choose in their day to day life.

Patrick McKenna:

From what you’ve experienced for the 30 plus years doing this kind of work, what do you think we as individuals can do to be more supportive to men when they attempt to become open and honest about their emotional and mental state? 

Andrew Smiler:

I think there’s a couple of different things. One is to really recognize that for most guys, this is an act of courage. It takes a certain amount of bravery or courage to be willing to let someone into your inner world and to really let them know what’s going on in your heart. I think the second one is to allow the conversation to happen at a slower pace than most conversations.

We have guys who are really checking in to see what their feelings are, but that’s going to a channel they don’t usually go to. They may not quite have the wording or know how to say it. As the conversational partner, it’s important that you don’t keep jumping in to fill the silence there. Allow a bit more silence and let the conversation unfold at that pace. A lot of men are doers and problem solvers, and especially for a man talking to another man, it’s easy to go for that default of offering advice and solving the problem. But that might not be what your conversational partner is looking for here. 

Patrick McKenna:

Totally! That validation may be all they need. What encourages you most when seeing this increase of men’s groups like MenLiving?

Andrew Smiler:

I’m really excited about learning about MenLiving. In the last 10 years or so, there has been a low but persistent level of public dialogue about what are men’s roles and what should masculinity be. I get frustrated because it tends to be presented as an either/or, as though there are only two choices. I don’t understand that. I go into a supermarket to buy food and I want corn flakes and I have 12 choices. If I go to the store to buy jeans, I have 116 choices. I don’t understand why I only have two choices about masculinity.

Patrick McKenna:

That’s a good analogy. I never really thought of that, but it’s true. 

Andrew Smiler:

Right? You’re either a super feminist man or you’re a super hardcore real man. Somehow those are the only two options we get. Most guys aren’t a hundred percent either of those camps. Most of us are somewhere in between. 

So I am both heartened that there’s more and more conversation about this and kind of frustrated. We go through this cycle, and we’re overdue. There was a couple of books around 1980 that really focused attention on men, and then we went 20 years without, and we got another round of that in the late 90s. “Real Boys” by William Pollack was the big one then, and we’re kind of due for another breakthrough book, but it doesn’t seem to happen. I thought Peggy Orenstein’s, “Boys and Sex” might do it because she’s Peggy Orenstein and she has a big name there. But it didn’t really get the same kind of traction that her other books got. I’m hopeful for Andrew Reiner’s book. I saw it in my local bookstore, and I sent him a picture. But unfortunately he didn’t get too much traction there. None of my books have gotten the traction.

Patrick McKenna:

That’s frustrating. Like you said, the resources are growing, so you just want to be able to get it to more people and make this information accessible to more men.

Andrew Smiler:

If folks don’t know the resources are out there – whether that’s my books or MenLiving — they can’t use them.

Patrick McKenna:

Very true. So if you were to lead a meeting at a men’s group like MenLiving, what would be the biggest thing or message you would want to convey?

Andrew Smiler:

I will choose the more advocate answer, and that’s from the guy whose research is on dating and sex and that’s where he still makes a fair amount of his living. The definition of masculinity and the standards of what it means to be a man have changed throughout US history. They’re certainly different in different places around the globe. We have the ability to define masculinity, to define what it means to be a man in any way we want. Some of that is by making statements about what it is, and some of that is about living up to those statements through our actions. We do not have to have a definition of masculinity thrust upon us. 

Even today, here in 2021, people still talk a lot about how you have to be a real man. You go back 50 or 60 years, nobody talked about being a real man. We talked about being a good guy. Those evoke two very different images of values and behaviors. You go back another 50-60 years, to the turn of the prior century, again, a very different image of what it means to be a man.

Patrick McKenna:

Absolutely.

Andrew Smiler:

It changes, so, to some extent, we can control that change.

2 Comments

  • George Marx says:

    I find a number of things – related to what you are talking about. Some younger men are much more open to their feelings, than many of us who are older. Where one can develop trust – between (peer) men, as men feel heard and safe, they often will open up and start sharing their feelings. Sometimes – they need to get over the presumptions – that they are Gay (when they aren’t) – in sharing feelings- sometimes that’s not an issue. As we feel heard – we realize how much we’ve missed in not having meaningful relationships with men. As men – we often can understand much about other men – that they and we – can’t comfortably get at with most women. Being with men – we need to share our stories – and Not try to change each other. We will grow and change – as we learn to share our hearts- rather than facts about us – moving beyond superficialities into deeper conversations.

  • Kevin Rogers says:

    So interesting. Nice work Patrick.

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