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25 Important Lessons Men Learned in Therapy and Couples Counseling

From anxiety-reducing techniques and breakthrough lessons about accountability to eye-opening truths about growing pains and arguments, here are some of the biggest lessons men learned in therapy.

Robin Taylor/Flickr

In recent years, therapy has seen a major change — and so has the stigma associated with it. While, yes, there are still many among us who, for myriad reasons, still view couples counseling, talk therapy, or any other form of therapy as a sign of weakness, more and more men are making an effort to better themselves. The availability of teletherapy options such as Talk Space have certainly helped this. But so, too, has a general acceptance that mental health is as essential as physical. While men still tend to avoid therapy, this is a big step in the right direction. 

Seeing as though therapy — be it couples counseling or some version of one-on-one therapy — offers insight to and assistance in lessening everything from problematic behaviors to relationship issues, this is good news. To provide a look into the benefits of therapy, we spoke to 25 men who’ve all experienced some therapy or another to talk to them about the biggest a-ha! moments they learned from therapists. All clearly articulated major realizations that made them better husbands, better sons, better fathers, and better men. Here’s what they learned. 

 I’ll Never Be Enough for the Wrong Person

“I’ve had several awful relationships in my life, and they all shared the common thread of me feeling like I wasn’t enough for the girl I was pursuing. My therapist told me, straight up, that I was right. I wasn’t enough. But, that was because those girls were the wrong people for me to try and appease. I gave them everything I had, and it wasn’t enough for them. But it will be for someone. That advice just hit me in the right place, at the right time, I guess, because it made a lot of sense.” – Matt, 35, Rhode Island   

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Rethink “What if?”

“I’m a big catastrophic thinker. My anxiety causes me to always defer to the thinking that goes something like: ‘What if this terrible, awful, unimaginable thing happens and it ruins my life?’ My therapist told me that ‘What if’ isn’t a bad thing, if you can balance it out with extraordinary positives. Like, ‘What if this changes my life in the best way?’ Or, ‘What if this becomes one of my favorite memories?’ It’s helped me not to overthink everything, including parenting.” – TJ, 35, Pennsylvania

Prioritize the Small Tasks

“One of my therapist’s rules is: if you can do something in five minutes or less, don’t put it off. So much of my stress isn’t actually big things, but little things that I let pile up and clutter my mind. Tackling the little things as they come — paying a bill, sending an email — just keeps the assembly line moving smoother, and allows me to focus on the present much more clearly.” – Neil, 34, California  

You Are What You Eat

“It’s an old cliché, but it’s especially true as a parent. What you eat totally matters, because scarfing down crap will do nothing but leave you sluggish, cranky, sick, and unfit. And you can’t afford to be that way as a new parent, or a husband. It gets old real fast.” – William, 33, Ohio  

Hold Yourself Accountable

“The older I get, the more I realize that nobody is watching me 24/7. When my therapist told me to hold myself accountable, I was like, ‘Yeah, no shit.’ But I don’t think I ever realized how little I actually did it. I’m trying to become a role model for my kids, and that means setting the example of good character. If I hold myself accountable, even for the smallest things, like leaving dirty clothes on the floor, or leaving dishes in the sink, I’m showing them what it means to have integrity.” – Adam, 40, Texas

Celebrate Your Victories

“As a parent, I’ve learned to take the victories when I can get them. Baby didn’t throw up? That’s a win. Baby slept for more than three hours? That’s a win, too. Dirty diaper was a false alarm? Huge win. You have to celebrate the little things and the progress in order to stay motivated.” – Seth, 31, New York

Accept Your Mistakes

“My therapist told me that parenting is basically 18 years of learning from your mistakes. Maybe more. Obviously mistakes teach us things about ourselves, but parenting mistakes can teach us about ourselves and our kids. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent, but the imperfections are like cracks that let the light in. The good stuff. Definitely his words, not mine.” – Scott, 35, North Carolina 

Know Your Triggers

“During my first six months of therapy, I learned my triggers. Specifically, I learned what made me exceptionally angry, upset, and uncomfortable. And so I learned when to excuse myself from situations that were bound to cause me stress or anxiety. Doing so made me feel more in control of my life, and more independent. It’s definitely rubbed some people the wrong way, but those are the people who seemed to trigger me most frequently anyway. So, win-win.” – Kevin, 35, Indiana

Mind Reading Isn’t Real

“I’m terrible when it comes to expecting people to read my mind. My wife, my friends, my family. They should just know what I’m thinking, what’s bothering me, and what I want, right? My therapist’s exact words were, ‘You’re not that fucking special.’ I think that jarred me enough, especially coming from an objective source, to reconsider my expectations.” – Tommy, 36, Ohio 

Avoid “Always” and “Never”

“I learned that those two words are proven to put people on the defensive, and make them want to prove you wrong. And, many times, they’re not true. If you think about it, one exception makes both of them untrue. So, I try to avoid them as much as possible. Even if something feels like always or never, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re not the most accurate words to describe a situation.” – Mark, 29, Virginia

Remember Other People’s Struggles

“I’ve always had trouble with empathy. Not compassion, but the concept of really trying to feel what another person is feeling, or has felt. It’s very hard for me, but my therapist framed it in a way that made sense. He listened to me talk about many of my struggles and challenges, and then explained very specifically how they shaped me in both positive and negative ways. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I feel like I’m much more able to consider a person as a whole, as opposed to just what’s standing in front of me.” – Evan, 32, Connecticut 

Regroup, Don’t Retreat

“I have a tendency to shut down whenever I get involved in confrontations. My brain just turns off, and I’m not really sure how to act. My therapist calls it ‘retreating’. I’ve been working a lot more on what he calls ‘regrouping’, which is basically acknowledging the shut down instinct, but clarifying to whoever I’m arguing with that I just need time to regroup instead of just flatlining. It seems to help me feel a little more in control, which has really helped my overall confidence.” – Mike, 34, New Hampshire

“I Feel” Statements Are Bullshit

“I’ve had a lot of therapists talk about using ‘I feel…’ statements to communicate with a partner. So, it was refreshing when my current therapist — the one I’ve liked the most — said they were bullshit. Supposedly, the goal with ‘I feel…’ statements is to avoid accusing the other person. But, really, you’re just fancying up those accusations. I’d always thought that, myself, so it was very reassuring to finally hear a professional say it, too.” – Robert, 41, Illinois

Body Language Matters

“Whatever ‘resting bitch face’ is for men, I have it. My face is just naturally sour-looking and frowny. And I’ve learned that I tend to cross my arms a lot when I get into discussions with people, which comes across as very defensive. My therapist actually video taped us over the course of a few sessions to show me that my body language wasn’t at all what I thought, and explained how certain things I do can completely contradict my intentions in a bad way. My face is still pretty ugly, but at least I’m a little more aware of it now.” — Daniel, 40, South Carolina

“Therapy” Isn’t a Dirty Word 

Admitting you need help takes more strength than facing it alone. I think, as guys, that’s the biggest hurdle to getting proper help. We want to be tough. Figure shit out on our own. I had a friend put it to me this way: ‘Do you want to be ‘strong’ and miserable? Or do you want to ask for help, and be happy?’ That was like the knockout punch to my bravado. And my therapist has echoed the same thing, over and over. Reminding yourself that going to therapy, for whatever reason, takes incredible strength is a great way to realize just how much it’s benefiting you.” – Jerry, 38, Arizona  

“Do You Want to Vent, or Do You Want Advice?”

“In couples therapy, my wife and I learned to ask each other that question whenever we’re charged up about something. Because, most times, it’s one or the other. For me, since I’m a problem solver, I usually seek advice. How do I fix this? But my wife is the opposite – she usually just wants to vent. So, asking that simple question has saved us a lot of frustration because of misreading the other person’s needs.” – Michael, 36, Washington, D.C.

Anxiety Is Instinctive

“Hearing that anxiety is a survival mechanism made me feel less self-conscious about it. Basically, my therapist explained that early humans had to be anxious about things in order to survive. Like, they had to be anxious that saber-toothed tigers were going to eat them. It’s a natural instinct. We don’t have saber-toothed tigers now, but we still have the instinct for anxiety. So, we make up our own ‘saber-toothed tigers’ to be afraid of. I’m sure he said it smarter, but the gist is that a lot of the stuff we’re scared of or worried about isn’t really that big of a deal. Definitely not as scary as a saber-toothed tiger.” – Rich, 35, California  

It’s Okay to Go to Bed Angry

“I think our parents’ generation impressed upon us the notion that you should never go to bed angry. In therapy, my wife and I learned that living by a rule like that puts a lot of pressure on a couple to wrap things up before they’ve been properly discussed or addressed. Plus, the longer you stay awake trying to resolve something, the more likely you’re going to get exhausted and frustrated, and just make things worse. Our therapist encouraged us to be civil about it, and just sort of agree to table arguments or disagreements until the morning, when we’re fresh and in a better state of mind. It’s been a game changer, for sure.” — Russell, 37, Maryland

Leave

“My therapist helped me get out of an abusive, unhealthy relationship. I knew I needed to leave, but I was plagued by second-guesses. My self-esteem had been rocked to the point where I thought I couldn’t survive on my own, or would never find anyone else. I went into therapy hoping to learn ways to fix the relationship, but my therapist helped me realize that it would never be healthy or fulfilling. The benefit of a therapist, in that case, was an objective, outside perspective that I could trust had my best interests in mind. It took a while, and it was messy, but I was able to break free and move on thanks to the confidence therapy helped give me.” — Patrick, 29, Ohio

The Problem Is the Interaction, Not the Other Person

“This one really illuminated the struggles my wife and I were having when it came to arguing. When you argue, our therapist said, it’s the dynamic of the interaction that becomes frustrating. He helped us realize that our arguments seemed to follow patterns, and that breaking those patterns — or at least becoming aware of them — would help our discussions become more constructive, and cut down on our resentment for the other person. For example, for whatever reason, most of our disagreements happen in the kitchen. I guess it’s just sort of a default location where we both always end up. Once we became aware of that, we could say, ‘Okay, let’s go sit on the couch and talk about this.’ It felt more like coming up with a plan, than having an argument.” — David, 35, California

It’s Good to Argue

“Obviously, you don’t want to be in a constant state of fighting with your spouse. But, arguing or disagreeing over something shows that you both still care, and are passionate about coming to a resolution. Our therapist cautioned us against always brushing everything to the side, because it just breeds apathy and resentment. We used to think we were doomed because of how much we argued. And, maybe we did argue more than the average couple. But now we’ve learned to argue as a way to solve a problem, as opposed to winning the argument.” — Eli, 33, Kentucky

Growing Pains Are Real

“Any good relationship is constantly growing. You’re constantly learning new things about each other, making mistakes, and evolving. Growth hurts. It’s like a constant state of puberty. And it can be really ugly, at times. But, my therapist told me to use those pains as opportunities to be vulnerable and, ultimately, come back together stronger than before. My wife and I have only been married for a year, so I’m constantly wondering, ‘Is this normal?’ So hearing my therapist confirm that growth is a messy, constant process was extremely comforting.” — Charles, 36, New Jersey  

There’s Nothing Wrong With Scheduling Sex

“I think my wife and I both knew this one going in to therapy, but hearing our therapist explain why it’s necessary gave us some comfort. When we were younger and first dating, sex was easy and often. But then we got busy with marriage, kids, and a new, mutual life that was different than the two individual lives we’d had before. We were worried that scheduling sex meant we were no longer attracted to each other. But she explained that it’s quite the opposite. Scheduling an appointment doesn’t mean you’re less into to someone, it means that you’ve reserved your time and yourself specifically for that person. Once we saw it like that, I think we both felt a little more comfortable about adding ‘sex’ to our calendars.” — Sam, 40, Florida  

Just Because He Is My Father, Doesn’t Mean That I Am Him

“My father leaves a lot to be desired. And, despite my best efforts, I see parts of him in myself all the time. I hate it. My therapist told me that there’s no shame in being like my father but, with regard to the parts of him I don’t like, I should work not to stay like my father. If I didn’t notice the similarities, I’d be more likely to continue on the same path. But, because I do see that some of the traits we share aren’t that great, I’m in a position to work on changing them. That was probably like four months of therapy distilled into a few sentences, but it’s the truth. And it gave me a lot of peace.” — Danny, 39, Michigan  

There Is No Winning In Marriage

“In a marriage, you always have to remember that you’re on the same team. It’s not you versus the other person — it’s you and the other person versus the problem. You don’t need to fight against each other, you need to fight for each other. To grow and thrive as a couple. Once our therapist taught us some techniques for dealing with problems in that way, our relationship changed dramatically for the better, and we were able to let go of a lot of unnecessary resentment.” — Lee, 41, Tennessee