Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a man, and what it means to be an adult.
When I think of the men in my life who exude the hallmarks of adult manhood, there’s one feature that stands out: they know where they stand.
One of the forefathers of Existential therapy Jim Bugental was fond of invoking the Greek term “pou sto,” roughly translating to “a place to stand." Jim used it to illustrate how therapists develop the internal sensibility that guides moment-to-moment decisions in the course of a therapy session.
I believe this concept of “a place to stand” can offer us some guidance about what it means to grow into ourselves as men.
I am part of a healing community of therapists that meets once a year to do personal work together for a week. During the course of our time together, individual members of the group have an opportunity to work with the facilitators, utilizing the rest of the group for support or role plays as needed.
This past year, we had done some particularly intense work together in the first couple of days and were heading toward the end of a long day when the facilitators approached a group member to do some work. As the facilitators approached him, I saw the member’s face and felt his energy saying “no” to the work, though he wasn’t explicitly saying “no.” I felt a dilemma arise in my stomach.
Part of me wanted to slow down the process and check in with him to make sure he was on board for the work. At the same time, I felt afraid to speak up, concerned that I would interrupt the process or usurp the role of the facilitators. Ultimately, I stayed quiet.
Later in the week, I found out that my intuition was correct. He had indeed wanted to say “no,” but felt pressured to say "yes" because the facilitators were suggesting it.
This kind of dilemma arises for most of us all the time in small and large ways. Many of us have been conditioned to obey, to follow the rules, to follow the leader, to avoid “rocking the boat.” And these traits are laudable. They make it possible to have civil discourse, to get along with one other. They protect us from the discomfort of conflict and possible retaliation.
But sometimes we need conflict. Sometimes we need to say “no,” or “something doesn’t feel right here.” Sometimes we need to be able to slow things down or to fight things out because whatever is happening is not right.
Our pou sto is our internal “yes” or “no” to a given scenario. I could see the “no” on my fellow group member’s face; I could feel the “no” in my churning stomach. I knew where I stood, but overrode my “no.”
So much can get in the way of us following our pou sto. In my example, the fear of interrupting an authority figure kept me from speaking up. Other blocks to our pou sto include dissociation (“I need to get the hell out of here, even if only in my mind”), derealization (“this isn’t really happening”), diffusion of responsibility (“this isn’t my problem to solve”), and apathy (“I wouldn’t be able to make a difference anyway”).
The antidote to these blocks is having experiences that show us how important our “yes” and “no” are. A few weeks after the group experience, I reached out to my fellow group member and apologized for not speaking up. He appreciated my apology, but it was clear that my speaking up would have made a huge difference in his experience. My internal “no” to what was happening mattered.
In an era of awakening to our responsibility for our own actions and our responsibility to each other, it’s hard to pick a more important skill for us to cultivate.
One place that we learn and experience the value of our pou sto is in group work. Many men come to our groups with no sense that their perspective matters, or how they can make a real impact on anyone else. Some feel reluctant to give honest feedback out of terror that they’ll actually influence someone else's life.
This is a sad byproduct of societal individualism gone too far. Just as we need to feel free to make our own choices, we also need to know that we matter to one another, and that our voice has the capacity to make a difference in our community.
I want to encourage us as men to cultivate our pou sto. Our communities and our world deserve to know where we stand, and deserve the impact we can make.
Troy Piwowarski, PsyD and Brian Thompson, AMFT co-founded In Real Life (IRL) Men’s Groups after meeting in a men’s group 8 years ago. They are currently forming three new men’s therapy groups in Oakland and San Francisco that will begin this Fall.