Iam often approached by people who ask if men ever come in for therapy. Each time, I am surprised. I suppose somewhere between the last decade and now, I have been expecting this question to turn. In a place where our most simple communication, every kerti houn or keroun ga carries with it effortlessly an entire facet of gender identity, it can become instinctive to genderize activities or practices. Therapy inevitably receives that of the feminine. This couldn’t, however, be farther from the truth.

It was only over a decade ago that I was a novice therapist who had just set up shop in Lahore after having only ever practiced in Australia at the time. The thing about being a virgin therapist is that you never quite forget your first time(s). Among my first handful of long-term clients was a middle-aged trader. He had come in through a psychiatric referral, and after being prescribed a mild dose of anti-anxiety meds, had been referred to me for therapy – a fairly unconventional move for most psychiatrists at the time. While his therapy process had panned out in a reasonably straightforward trajectory, I had found myself caught off guard. Most of our work wound up being an exploration of the deep, penetrating anxiety and frequent violent panic attacks triggered by the conflict between his wife and mother.

How had I grown up for much of my life in this country that was nearly obsessively fixated on the female dialogue around saas bahu, while never pausing to wonder about an integral character, the man in the middle? What was drowning out these men’s voices? Where were men convening with their experiences – was it in during their golf meets, weekend poker games, or segregated drawing room talk? Was there a parallel world from which women had been excluded? Indeed there was. But it was deathly silent. And I was quick to learn it was not just the women who had been omitted, it was the very men themselves. And thus began a kind of unraveling.

While women’s experiences are documented in TV dramas, serialized novels, comedy theater and over drawing room gossip, men wallow in shame at the very thought of their own. Anything that reflects either difficult or intense emotions with the exception of anger seems not to be socially permissible. Men come to therapy and de-armor with relief, and sometimes even with ease. But I soon learned that if there is one thing that feels more taboo to a man than being vulnerable, it is being vulnerable in front of another man. The mere fact that vulnerability translates literally in Urdu as kamzori is enough to contextualize this. So while ground is being broken in the therapy room, the hardest part seems to be how to extend it beyond that space.

I cannot emphasize enough the countless number of times men have expressed avoiding peers during difficult times of their life because they felt unable to discuss their experience, as only topics of politics, sports, work, money and women (only if strictly kept to objectification) were permissible in the boys’ room. Most of us did not grow up with fathers who modeled vulnerability. Men learn from their first blueprint of man-man connection, which is void of this. Fathers who modeled stress, resilience, hardship, and even love are not the same as those who allowed themselves an expression of their experience. Vulnerability is understood as feelings of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. If you pause and reflect, there is probably nothing joyous or tragic that was not born out of a vulnerable experience. While most of us are busy chasing godliness, vulnerability is our highest form of humanness.

It appears to me that men are denying their experiences even to themselves as a means of avoiding shame. Shame is a crippling fear of not being worthy or accepted. Given our collectivist roots, becoming ostracized is instinctively threatening. For our ancestors being away from the tribe would have signaled death by wilderness. Understandably, this is enough to keep most of us an arms length away from it. But what we now know measurably through research is that shame needs three ingredients to grow: secrecy, silence and judgment. Not only are men silencing their emotions to avoid shame, but it is this very silence that re-fuels that shame.

The shame that men carry (and avoid) is dense with expectations of being the aklota or bara beta, the sole provider, carrier of the family name, conserver of family business, and most of all, the need to perform all of the above roles unflinchingly. It is almost unavoidable for men to not pack all of their self-worth into their bank account balance or job title. And rarely, if ever, do they find spaces to voice the fear, insecurity and disappointment that is inevitably accompanied with planting your self-worth outside of yourself.

The psychological pressure to do or be something is perhaps the most haunting for men. They are conditioned to believe that they have to prove their masculinity over again in order to hold on to it, be it through power, success or avoiding emotional displays. Mard ban is after all no simple feat. Masculinity is a verb, not an experience of being but something that requires doing: hard to attain and easy to lose. A slight slip of tongue and ‘biwi ke thalay lag jana’ is only a sliver of a possibility away. Manhood in all its glory turns out to be this increasingly fragile identity requiring proof of an expulsion of all that is feminine. It began to dawn on me early on that men had been required to amputate an entire part of their being - their feeling and expressing selves - in order to get a ticket into the big boys club. They lived in constant threat of external variables such as ‘aurat ghar ki izat hoti hai’, convinced that if unable to remain in control of those around them, once again their mardangi would be under threat.

But if men are bullying men in the locker room, it is easy to see that women are also keeping them there. Women are now demanding that their men be expressive, emotional attuned and reflective. Yet it is sometimes women who unconsciously require these same men to model the knight-in-shining-armor we grew up fantasizing about. In moments of hardship or crisis, we often turn to our men expecting them to appear brave when feeling scared, in control when uncertain, and confident when insecure. In simple words, the world preps boys for warfare, and in the interim we expect them to show no signs of PTSD.

With women collapsing gender roles all over the world, there has never been a more critical time in the psychological identity of a man before. The rising hum from women of ‘I can do anything that you can’ has men exploring who they are, if in fact their identity is fueled by gender. Men are beginning to push back against the narrow and binary confines upon them. Globally, and in Pakistan, men are beginning to both privately and publicly, consciously and unconsciously, raise their voices. I was invited to speak at the Karachi Wellness Festival earlier this year on ‘the numbing of the male heart’ with Muzafar Bukhari and Adnan Malik - men who are truly doing the work. The audience was packed with those who were seeking community on the same journey of liberation. One of the easiest measures of a man, who has set out to do this inner work, is reflected in the capacity to engage in even just one single vulnerable male friendship. Recent years have also marked a shift in couple therapy dynamics. Last week I was told by the husband during a session that “my wife and I want an equal partnership in all ways, but she is refusing to help me financially even though we both earn similar incomes.”

In a world where men have ruled, it’s hard to imagine that there has been any violation at all against men, let alone a grave one. Part of recognizing all that men have been denied requires them to recognize all they have been given too. Our individualistic society has indeed led us to believe that being ahead, or in power, is real success. However, what we often overlook is that hierarchical structures are dehumanizing for people on both sides. After all, is it really absurd to question the impact on a child who grew up in a family owning slaves? A relational world or way of being, on the other hand, allows us to recognize that we are all parts of a whole, that we impact each other, and our liberations are indeed tied together. That we must extend the full scope of humanness toward ourselves and each other.

So where do we begin with all this unlearning? Everywhere and anywhere. It would be simple if I said we start with the children and settle for the next generation to do better. But that is far too idealistic. You see, children learn infinitely more from what they are unconsciously modeled than what they are told. So while it might be easy to toss aside the ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘you look so pretty’ dialogues, it is far harder yet absolutely essential that we do the work within ourselves.

Last night, I was at a dinner party with a group of progressives, who in so many life choices appear free of many gender expectations. Through all the cross talk at the table, I caught myself noticing the ease with which the women spoke about career ambiguity, self-doubt, self-esteem, parenting guilt. On the contrary, the men, it seemed, had been allowed to tread only as far as the macro permitted: disappointment around the cricket match, the collapsing economy and political letdowns. And somewhere between complimenting the haleem and serving myself seconds, I wondered, how many more years till we get there?

Jasmyn Rana is a Lahore-based adult and couples psychotherapist, with a psychodynamic and Jungian approach. She has spent the last 12 years working with South Asians from around the globe. Alongside her private practice, she is a clinical supervisor, has taught at university level, as well consulted with some of Asia’s largest corporations.

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