Mentors of the Mind

TIMES HEALTH WRITER

You don't have to get in touch with your feelings: You can manage them. And instead of plunging into self-analysis, you can concentrate on innocent-sounding things such as emotional intelligence, better relationship-management skills and a more successful personal style.

What regular guy would consult a therapist when he can have . . . a coach?

Though most men are still very reluctant to seek traditional, one-on-one therapy, more and more of them are now consulting professionals who call themselves life or career coaches, psychologists say. Coaching is not the same thing as therapy, experts agree. One is an open-ended exploration of the origins of emotional makeup; the other is usually short-term and focused on achieving concrete goals, often in the context of career.

But the number of experienced therapists who now consult as coaches has at least doubled in recent years, psychologists estimate, and they are exposing more men than ever to the benefits of psychological self-evaluation.

"The very word 'coaching' is appealing to people, especially men, and allows them to access basic psychological principles in a way that's socially acceptable," says psychologist Bertram Edelstein, who runs an executive coaching practice, the Edelstein Group, in La Jolla.

"You begin talking about work, and that's the one place where most men feel competent, or at least comfortable," says Richard Sherman, a psychologist in Tarzana who does coaching and runs his own clinical practice. "And at some point you begin to ask about work-life balance, and that acts as a bridge into the personal life."

Steve Finden, a 36-year-old insurance company executive living in Encinitas, began consulting with Edelstein about three years ago as part of a company-sponsored effort to improve teamwork. Finden describes himself back then as "a typical guy, pretty wrapped up in myself, and in my work," and hardly the type to seek individual psychotherapy.

After taking a personality test and reviewing reports of how others perceived him, Finden got a lesson in self-awareness, he says. "I thought I was an effective strategic thinker, a good communicator," he says. "It turned out I was about the only one who thought so."

Part of the problem was that others didn't think that Finden passionately believed in what he was saying. That apparently superficial observation got him thinking more deeply about what shaped his personality. "You can't help but think about where your habits and style come from, how you got that way, and how you come across at home," he says.

Often enough, Edelstein says, people trace their personal style at work back to their family of origin, and sometimes even back to some defining crisis, such as losing a parent, the illness of a sibling or an alcoholic parent. And when it's effective, says Edelstein, career or life coaching induces changes that usually move from the person's work life into their private life. "Nine times out of 10 times I hear from the spouse that the side effect from coaching is improved personal relations at home," he says. Men in particular are more likely to respond to advice when it concerns their effectiveness or promotability. "Their spouse could have been saying the same thing for years and they ignored it," he says.

"We weren't having problems to start with," says Finden's wife, Elizabeth, "but I would say that now that he's managing people and he's learning to work with them, he's become more present, a better listener, less concentrated on himself."

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Analysts attribute therapists' move into coaching to two phenomena: managed care, which has put a squeeze on longer-term psychotherapy; and the growth of Internet and tech companies in the 1990s, which happened so quickly that employees and managers had to learn social and management skills on the fly. "These are the IT types who are accustomed to working by themselves, alone in a room, and suddenly they're managing 500 people and they know nothing about human dynamics," says Steven Berglas, a psychologist and author who has an executive consulting practice in Marina del Rey.

The technology itself has changed the way people relate to one another, Sherman says. "I'm now dealing with employees with virtual offices seven days a week--cell phones, faxes, computers, Palm Pilots--and part of what I try to do is help them not lose sight of their other life, their family and friends."

And by and large, these are not men who seek solutions on the couch, despite the popularity of shows such as "The Sopranos," in which mob guy Tony Soprano regularly confers with a therapist. Overall, men account for only about a third of all people seeking some kind of individual psychological attention, psychologists say, which is not much different from a decade ago.

"The problem is that therapy itself is antithetical to everything it is to be a male in this society," says Rob Pasick, a psychologist who teaches in the business school at the University of Michigan. He co-edited a 1990 book called "Men in Therapy" that helped fuel a surge of interest in men's issues. "Asking for help, showing weakness, admitting you have no control, revealing yourself to a stranger--these just aren't things guys are taught how to do."

So it is that therapists-as-coaches are now resolving personality problems--of ego, temper, anxiety, fear of failure--for people they otherwise would never see, most of them male. If Tony Soprano is altering the perception of psychological help in the popular culture, they say, then life and career counseling is doing the same in practice, in men's work and home lives.

Glenn Good, a psychologist at the University of Missouri who has written a guide to counseling males, says the growth in coaching represents a broader trend that is bringing psychological services to men in more accessible ways. "We've learned, for example, that traditional men's men will talk about their personal lives, but they're more likely to do so in a seminar, or in a career context" than a traditional psychotherapy setting.

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For all that, psychotherapists still have some strong reservations about life or career coaching. For one thing, the field has no widely accepted professional standards; the International Coach Federation, a professional organization in Washington, D.C., estimates that there are more than 10,000 people calling themselves coaches, and only about 600 of those have completed the Federation's certification process. The Federation's Web site (http://www.coachfederation.org) allows individuals or companies to search for certified coaches in their area.

Another risk is overtreatment--therapists luring clients into longer-term psychotherapy who may not need it or want it. "In coaching, the biggest danger is that you don't let go when the behavior you're hired to treat goes away," says Berglas. "Once the problem is solved, your job is done; that's it."

Finally, life or career coaching can never be a substitute for psychotherapy. There are many men whose problems go deeper than any occupational personality test, and trying to "coach" them through it is irresponsible, psychologists say.

Craig Paxton, a 34-year-old Web designer living near Ann Arbor, Mich., ended up in Pasick's care after a job ended badly. He was losing his faith that he'd ever find work again. "Confidence was becoming a huge problem," Paxton says. "It didn't matter how much people would tell me how good a job I was doing; I still saw the flaws."

But further discussion revealed that Paxton's anxieties ran deeper, and were partly related to the suicide of a good friend. He showed signs of depression as well.

Paxton was referred to regular therapy and now attends a men's therapy group. "I just don't understand the stigma that therapy has for men anymore," he says. "You've got to support the world on your shoulders, and you can't ask for help? If I can do it, anybody can."

Psychologists say that, whatever its limits, the arrival of psychology in the context of life and career goals has at least tipped off many men to what therapy can offer. Says Finden, "I've figured out about as much as I want to know at this point, and I think it's had a nice spillover effect on my personal life. You'd need to go much deeper to understand everything. But at least I know it's there."

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