An Interview with Dr. Shawn Smith, Psychologist – Author of The Tactical Guide to Women and The Practical Guide to Men.
Unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid all social media for the last few months, you’ve likely stumbled across the meme in which some insanely difficult and/or grandiose thing is preferable to men vs going to therapy.
Men will literally spend two decades trying to colonize mars instead of just going to therapy
Go spend some time scrolling Twitter and revel in both the hilarity and intensity of some of these example.
However, this – like most jokes – lands because it’s rooted in reality.
Therapy and therapists have long been at odd with men and masculinity, and it seems as if we’ve hit the peak. In fact, the American Psychological Association recently classified traditional masculinity as “harmful.” They issued a report citing all the right “sources” and buzzwords to show that somehow, men acting the way we have more millennia is not only dangerous to civilization but to our own happiness and self-development.
Trying to find a psychologist who doesn’t malign masculinity seems about as impossible as the quest for the Holy Grail or the lost city of gold.
But, just because these men are rare doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
I reached out to Dr. Shawn Smith – a psychologist based in Denver, CO – to ask him his take on the current problems men are tackling.
Here’s what he told me.
What’s the biggest challenge men in Western society face right now?
On the cultural front, I think men’s biggest challenge is the drumbeat of messages shaming men and masculinity.
Men today are inundated with the idea that we should be ashamed of our collective history, ashamed of “the patriarchy,” whatever that is, and ashamed of ourselves.
The messaging is anything but subtle. In addition to any number of sitcom tropes about fathers and husbands who are incompetent boobs, men are treated to outright hostility from media figures and academics.
For example, in 2018, the Washington Post published an editorial titled “Why Can’t We Hate Men?”
The author of that piece asserted that men regularly and routinely mistreat women, and we always have. As recompense, she said, men should relinquish to women all positions of power and influence. The editorial was standard feminist fare that you can find on any college campus. The piece was, in fact, written by a gender studies professor.
That same year, the American Psychological Association released its infamous guidelines for working with boys and men. While there were some useful points in the guidelines — for example, they acknowledged the benefits of involved fathers and the unique learning styles of boys — the guidelines on balance painted traditional masculinity as something amounting to a mental disorder rather than a collection of traits that have both benefits and liabilities.
More recently, a 26-year-old French writer penned the aptly titled booklet, I Hate Men. True to its title, it was more feminist screed, and it received a doting, almost reverent writeup from the New York Times.
These are just a few examples of overt animus toward men. The subtext of these messages is always clear: men should hang our heads in shame for our supposed historical and ongoing mistreatment of women, and we should atone for our sins by taking up less space in the world.
What all these messages seem to have in common is that they are written by some of the most privileged people ever to exist. Seemingly out of some sheer sense of misery or angst, they appear to be hell-bent on dominating men. Or, more accurately, shaming men into submission.
I think it’s no coincidence that shame is their weapon of choice. Shame is a powerful emotional demotivator.
Primary emotions — like happiness, sadness, fear, and anger — exist for the purpose of motivating us toward things that advance our chances of survival, and motivating us away from things that reduce those chances.
Shame is different. Rather than calling for action toward or away from a thing, shame calls for inaction. It constrains our behavior rather than expanding it.
According to recent thought on evolutionary adaptations, shame is part of an emotional system (along with guilt, gratitude, grief, depression, and compassion) that compels us to look inward and recalibrate our own behavior.
Shame, in particular, forces us to become small and silent, to make as few waves as possible so we don’t repeat whatever behavior is causing the disapproval of those around us. Shame compels us to think, I better sit down, shut up, and stop making things worse.
Of course, shame has its place. We wouldn’t survive in tribes, clans, or any other social group without an internal governor on our own behavior. Prisons are full of men who lack that internal guidance.
Unfortunately, shame is easily abused because it is so powerful. There are ideological groups that seemed to have hijacked our own internal governor by using shame in ways that are both subtle (for example, dismissing honest disagreement as “mansplaining”) and gross (openly proclaiming that hatred of men is both deserved and admirable).
I think the insidiousness of this tactic makes shame the greatest social challenge faced by Western men. If we wish to live up to our potential, we cannot let others shut us down, silence us, or compel us to stifle our own ambitions. We don’t have to become less in order for women to have more.
The answer? Label the behavior, dissect the duplicitousness and fallacies, and mock it. Making light of identity-based bullying is a generally solid defense. Perhaps more importantly, it is an exercise of the very same spirit of personal agency that this shaming aims to undermine.
Given the “men will literally do x,y,z before they go to therapy” meme I’ve sure you’ve seen, what’s the role in action and creation in a man’s mental health.
Acting and creating are central to a man’s mental health. Therapy doesn’t hurt either, provided you can find a well-trained therapist who knows how to help clients identify and change patterns that aren’t working.
Finding such a therapist is a challenge, thanks to ideological pushes within the profession, along with ever-decreasing professional standards. That reduction in standards is perhaps most evident in the fact that clinical supervisors are increasingly hesitant about correcting their students.
It’s probably no coincidence that the increasing hesitance coincides with a great feminization of the profession. Over the last couple of decades, something like 75-80% of new doctoral trainees are women, and women are generally more concerned about protecting feelings when giving feedback.
Psychology was once dominated almost exclusively by men. That was a poor arrangement because so much human interaction occurs between the sexes. A one-sided conversation leads to misunderstandings, and worse, pathologizing that which is misunderstood.
Today, psychology is increasingly dominated by women. This is also a poor arrangement, for the same reason.
Female clinical psychologists (not all therapists are psychologists) are generally well-intentioned, but there are some fundamental things they do not understand about men.
Primary among those topics is the masculine need for action and creation. We might call it having a purpose. We can see in very blunt terms the cost of purposelessness in the increased suicide rates among both divorced and unemployed men.
Each of those conditions can cause a man to wonder why he should get out of bed in the morning. It’s incredibly important during times like that for a man to tackle the question of purpose.
Psychologists, particularly female ones in my experience, often try to treat a man’s garden-variety mental health issues (think depression, anxiety, substance abuse) without first understanding to what degree he has a sense of purpose and feels necessary in the world.
Sometimes the presenting complaint is so pressing it must be addressed first. But sometimes addressing a man’s presenting complaint without addressing his sense of purpose, his commitment to something larger than himself, is putting the cart before the horse.
I think it’s no exaggeration to say a man’s sense of purpose is his foundation for everything else — his work, his relationships, his spirituality. Finding and pursuing that purpose is a lifelong task, and it can be particularly challenging for young men who are just starting to find their way.
Most men seem to have an inherent understanding that we are expected to produce more than we consume, to have a purpose. Societies demand it of us. Men don’t receive automatic acceptance like women, little girls, and puppies. We need to provide something. This appears to be true across cultures and throughout time.
For many young men, that inherent understanding that he needs to perform sits along side the question, What the hell am I going to do with my life?
The task, I think, is to frame purpose as a journey, not as a destination. You’re never done. You have never “arrived.”
If that’s the case, then there is no emergent need to solve the question of purpose right here and now. Taking a step in any direction that is consistent with our values is one step in the service of our purpose. With every step, we can recalibrate our next step in the journey. Even when we feel lost, we can always take a step in the direction of our values and our purpose.
Also, it never hurts to learn how to solder pipes, shingle a roof, or build a website. Skills will often suffice when purpose is elusive… at least for today.
How do purpose and discipline help protect is against shame? Or is shame deeper felt because we’re not focused on purpose and are too easily distracted by the little things?
A man’s sense of purpose is foundational in maintaining his motivation and willingness to act. I have to point out here action is not contingent on motivation. It’s a common error to believe we have to feel motivated in order to do a thing.
That aside, purpose steels us against our own lethargy, and the effect of people who would like to shame us into inaction.
Think about the manager or leader who has to take a position that is unpopular among his subordinates. Maybe he has to reallocate some funds, or send people on an unpopular assignment.
He may not even like it himself, but if he sees the bigger picture, and how the decision fits into the larger purpose, then shame becomes irrelevant. It’s time to act, and that’s that.
When purpose becomes unclear, then allaying shame can itself become the purpose. It’s also easier to get distracted by short-term pleasure. That’s where daily discipline comes in.
I think one of the most valuable things any man can do is to have some sort of meditative practice during which he reflects on what he is doing in life, and why he is doing it.
That can take many forms: walking in nature and reflecting, time on the deck with a good stogie, church, or meeting regularly with other men. It can be any discipline that pulls us out of our day-to-day and allows us to reflect on the bigger picture and the course of our lives.
How are men being pacified via social media and other methods and what can we do to protect ourselves against that?
In one sense, social media is nothing new. It is simply a challenge. The world has never cooperated with the goals of good men, and it never will. There will always be obstacles, both external and internal.
Thank God for that. What fun is there in coasting through life? Just look at the state of any man who has been sheltered from difficulty. Almost without exception, he is miserable and imploding.
So one of the challenges of the day is social media. Fine. Good. Men need challenges, and this one will suffice as well as any other. And like any other challenge, it requires discipline and fortitude.
In this case, it’s probably best characterized as the discipline of managing what we feed our minds in the same way we manage what we feed our bodies. We can’t always allow ourselves to eat that next bite of ice cream, nor can we always allow ourselves to refresh Twitter one more time.
This question of self-discipline is nothing new.
Marcus Aurelius could have been telling us to log off Facebook when he wrote, “We should discipline ourselves in small things, and from these progress to things of greater value.”
Aristotle wrote, “Whatever lies within our power to do lies also within our power not to do.” Clearly he understood the struggle against distraction and immediate gratification.
The Buddha wrote “To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind.” He, too, was clearly no stranger to the challenge of self-discipline.
Even Homer Simpson spoke of self-discipline, in his own way, when he said, “Son, if you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Now quiet! They’re about to announce the lottery numbers.”
The specific challenge of self-discipline may change form from time to time, but our human proclivity toward lethargy and comfort is very old. That’s good news. It means we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to follow the advice of our forefathers.
How would you tie this all together?
It’s in the nature of most men to serve those around us. That ancient injunction — that we produce more than we consume — is, in my estimation, our great burden and our great joy.
The downside is that we can easily come to put ourselves last. We can lose sight of our purpose and our own happiness. And, to repeat the point, our drive to bring comfort to others can be used against us by those who say, “You want to make us happy? Here’s how to do it: be small, quiet, and domesticated.”
An interesting aside: recently, there has been a bit of media attention on the fact that men are opting out of college in ever-increasing numbers. University enrollment is now roughly 60% female. The divide grows even wider in graduate school.
In the media and among academics, this problem is frequently framed as a problem for women more than men. For example, the renowned evolutionary psychologist David Buss has described the situation as a mating crisis among college women.
To be fair, that is not the only concern among those writing about this decreasing male enrollment, but it is often presented as the primary problem. It’s the old trope: “world ends, women most affected.” The message is that the problems of men really only matter in as much as they affect women.
This is part of that drumbeat I mentioned earlier: the struggles of men simply don’t matter very much to societies at large. Both men and women are complicit in that.
If it sounds like I’m whining, I’m not. Personally, I don’t think the struggles of men need to matter to a society any more than the struggles of a father need to matter to his children.
More to the point, it wouldn’t matter if I wanted society to be more concerned with the interests of men and boys. It might be possible to affect some minor changes at the margins, and I’m quite thankful people like Warren Farrell (author of “The Boy Crisis”) are trying, but for the most part it ain’t gonna happen. We are not going to meaningfully alter an arrangement between the sexes that appears to be as old as humanity itself.
I don’t think there is any loss in that. It just means we need to watch out for each other and ourselves. We must teach our sons now to navigate the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.
In fact, there’s a tremendous opportunity for brotherhood among those of us who choose to pick up the load and carry it. But we can’t be squeamish about pursuing our own interests and rejecting those who treat us poorly.
Most of us could stand to adopt much higher standards for our relationships, especially in romance. Men should never waste time where we aren’t valued and appreciated. This is the arena where we can affect dramatic change. But that’s a topic I have discussed at length elsewhere, so I’ll leave it at that.
If men in general could benefit from any one thing, it would be to stop seeking permission to take care of ourselves and to live in the service of our values and our purpose. Life is short, and life is fun. Men should never apologize for living fully.