It’s leap day – 29th February – and I am in the Dorset countryside to attend a men's retreat, the Unmasked Man. It seems like a good time to come. The retreat aims to help men who feel stuck or lost to reconnect with themselves, express their vulnerability and form relationships with other men. Their target market, I think, is me down to a tee. But, if I feel anything right now, it’s nervous.

This kind of thing does not come naturally. It was my girlfriend – who has done similar work on the women’s side – who motivated me to try it. I’ve been seeking to live a more abundant and thriving existence. But the reality of the situation is that the past few years have been tough.

Having reached my mid-forties, not having settled down with a family, I feel that I’m missing my centre. That devil-may-care I had in my youth has changed to devil-cares-a-little-too-much. And I’m unable to speak about feelings, happy to keep it all bottled up like the genie which I hope will never escape. I know I’m not the only one.

In 2022, there were 5,642 suicides registered in England and Wales, an increase on 2021. Three-quarters of those were males. According to a Priory poll, 77% of men have suffered with mental health issues like anxiety, stress or depression but 40% have never spoken to anyone about it.

My own experience has been to listen to the voice inside me which tells me that I am, in general, good with life. And if I’ve got some trauma then I’ve always believed the best way to proceed is just to get on with it. That's what men do, isn't it? Or is it? I’m hoping the Unmasked Man might show me another way.

The archetypes

Alexander Cottle, founder of the Unmasked Man, says he has seen it change men’s lives. The retreat is held over four days, each day formulated on four archetypes of masculinity originally devised by Carl Jung and then further systematised in a book by psychologist Robert Moore and author Douglas Gillette in the 1990s.

Day one is called the Lover. The men in charge lead 18 of us to a hall where incense burns and soft African music plays. Alexander tells us we are going to do a two-minute share on why we are here.

This is the part I wasn’t looking forward to. Scripts start going through my mind telling me what to say or what not to. Opening up is not easy. But seeing others do what I’m frankly shitting myself about gives me courage.

I get up and start talking. I tell them how I am sceptical. How my girlfriend prompted me to come down here. How I feel unworthy a lot of the time. That I feel like I don’t fit in.

That self-critical devil on my shoulder is expecting the worst, but there is no judgement. The men are all supportive and encouraging. I see what I can only describe as love in them. It’s not something I’m used to. And I feel uplifted.

Unmasked Man

Other shares reveal other wounds. Each one here carries a weight they may never have talked about before – at least not in this kind of environment – and I’m struck by their bravery to come and open up in a room full of strangers. There is undoubtedly a method to this madness.

Alexander set up the Unmasked Man with co-founder Mitch Campbell-Thomas six years ago after a long apprenticeship in self-development. He had suffered his own traumas.

“I want to help the very man that needed helping when I tried to take my own life after a stroke and came very close to killing myself,” Alexander says. “I was suffering so intensely mentally back then. I needed somewhere to go where I could process my emotions.”

He came upon the archetypal research done by Robert Moore and developed it to create the Unmasked Man. The aim, at a basic level, is to use body techniques, archetypal education and mindfulness to heal both psychologically and somatically. In the next few days, I’m going to feel what that means.

The Warrior

Day two – the Warrior –begins with an ice bath. The aim of this day is to explore the emotion of anger. It is likely to be one of the most intense parts of the retreat, Alexander warns.

In the still cold chill of winter the bath looks particularly uninviting. We are asked to go in pairs holding the other man’s hand. My own turn comes and I meet the gaze of my partner and we submerge. It’s like my energy is feeding him and vice-versa. It eases the pain of it and for others too, and suddenly this new camaraderie springs up in the group.

It’s needed for the next part, the ominously-named gauntlet. A group of men line up in pairs to form a long column, arms locked. The first man is invited to stand at the end of this line and prepare himself to break through the arms to get to the other end.

“Who has hurt you the most," says Alexander. “I want you to address it. Scream it out of you!”

We are told we’re going to rage against our repressed pain as Alexander and Mitch alternately stand on the other side role-playing the voices that have made us feel most unworthy and small in our lives.

One man starts and then another and the next few hours are like an explosion of raw energy that I have never seen before in my life. Guys scream out their anger against the things that have made them feel their most profound hurt. Many of them collapse to the floor in tears as they let out their rage. The pain, the emotion, is hard to take. I feel tears welling in my eyes as these men, grown men, erudite, intelligent, passionate, funny and charismatic men, are humbled like this. The levelling of us to children, with all the innocence and beauty we lose somewhere along the way in life shows so much vulnerability – and that is courage.

When it’s my turn, the setting, the stories I’ve heard, this growing feeling inside me that something wants to, no needs to change, leads to this pent-up rage coming out. The anger rips through me and I cry out against the deep wounds inside. It is so cathartic. At the end I feel exhilarated, exhausted and open. And again supported by each of the men around me.

Trust the heart

One of the bases of this retreat is to help solve the terrible relationship men have with grief. Getting it out, talking about it, moving on from it, feels so much more difficult than for women who seem, in general, more capable of expressing themselves when swamped by life’s challenges.

So in day three we meet the archetype of the Magician – the thinking, rational, often scheming part of us – and are invited to put this to one side. The aim is to get in touch with our hearts, confront our grief.

We get on our mats and start breathing, circular breaths – in and out, in and out, on and on and on. At first, I feel nothing. Just a little bit dull and insensible. Why is everyone crying? Why aren’t I crying? Shall I just pretend? But then something happens. This voice inside suddenly calls out, “Let down your armour!” and the floodgates open. The thick layer of protection that had hardened around my heart cracks. When it starts it keeps coming. Pain rushes out all at once. The friends I didn’t mourn, the relationships I lost, the kid who was abandoned, I let them go. It is horribly sad – but also so healing. I’m not the only one because the floor is cratered with remnants of long-held grief. So many genies have finally escaped their bottles.

It is horribly sad – but also so healing. I’m not the only one because the floor is cratered with remnants of long-held grief.

“I didn’t expect this to happen,” I tell Alexander afterwards, a mess of tears, elation and exhaustion.

“I did,” he replies.

The Unmasked Man’s techniques are developed to unlock the trauma that has set into the body over years and years of patterning. The pain we have buried deep inside needs to come out, like a frozen caveman waiting to be thawed. And what a change.

The guys who I saw on day one with grey, uncertain faces are transformed. I see sadness and age fall away to reveal bright youthfulness and joy.

The Unmasked Man has been joined by other retreats that have formed in the last few years to help men. Both Sides was set up by ex-rugby pro Anthony Mullally who wanted to pass on his experiences in the sport that had led to him to put on a front to cope with the macho culture around it.

“Probably a lot of that came from not having a father figure growing up,” he says. “So, I was left to my own devices, trying to decide what kind of man I wanted to be.”

The retreat draws on methods like cold water exposure, breathwork, jiu-jitsu coupled with more introspective things like wood carving and tea making – but seeks to address many of the similar problems of traditional masculine stereotypes, how to express perseverance over physical dominance.

Unmasked Man

There is also Mantra Menswork which offers retreats and coaching primarily in Scotland, also based on the Moore archetypes. These, and others, are examples of something new that seems to be building to help more of us men in the struggle to find our voices and communicate anxieties. I feel this will continue to grow as we seek to restore the balance to our crazy mixed up world.

At the end of the fourth day of the Unmasked Man – the King archetype, which is the crowning part of all this work and a celebration of your power – I feel that something has shifted in me. There is greater understanding and acceptance of my fallibility. There is vulnerability. I feel it is OK to show emotion.

But there is more than that. There is the fact that I’ve done it in the company of men to whom I feel bonded. A brotherhood has formed. I need it shortly after. One week on from the event, the floor falls away from under my feet when my girlfriend says she is breaking up with me. It knocks me for six. Scratching around for help I text a guy from the retreat. His words are so consoling. Then another reaches out. And another. In this awful mess I find there’s something moving for me. Something I never expected.

In truth, writing this all out here barely does the experience justice. But I’ve learned this is a place where I have been able to take the first step in revealing myself as a man. And that going through painful times, tough times, even good times doesn’t have to be done alone.

For more information, see The Unmasked Man. The next four-night retreats are in Dorset in May and September (£1,350 pp).