Trauma, American Style: The Socialization of Indifference

Much like the 1970’s show of a similar name, this expose will consist of multiple vignettes, a new one each week. Each will give insight into the way traumatic events insidiously leave their mark, alone and then as a culminating repertoire of experience. They are REAL life events that begin to tell a story of the making of a victim of trauma.

Many of you may find these stories disturbing. The fact is that trauma is an experience that links us all. Whether it reaches diagnostic criteria becomes irrelevant when events like these have the power to color the perception of ourselves and the world around us.

Many of you have dissociated yourself from the traumatic experiences of your life… “I am like a duck,” you tell yourself and others, “I just let those things roll off my back.”

Then you begin to take notice as the emotions spill over, your body seemingly too small to contain the amount of feelings that you have pushed down into its depths…. Standing on the sidelines of the Memorial Day parade you find yourself choking up, the tears streaming down your face. On another occasion while watching a television program you find yourself welling up with anger, and begin screaming at the television.  Sitting at the dinner table you experience a growing knot that you feel in your stomach every time you watch and listen to your son chew his food.

Each one of these REACTIONS tells a story… not about what you are witnessing, but about YOUR life story. Each one of these moments consists of emotional learning that is non-verbal. These are events that have NOT been explored and so therefore remain submerged until you come face to face with similar situations. Then old feelings begin to rise in the new situations that you find yourself….

We are living vicariously in this culture. Removed from the emotional connection to our own lives, we re-experience the spillover of our lives in the feelings generated through the observation of “others”. We react to “others” by projecting our own life issues onto them… Overcome with the emotion that we buried, we use our station of privilege; of parent, or, of “professional” to judge those in a subservient position and often comment about how they SHOULD think, feel, act, and behave. Given our place of privilege we then can act as we wish, often mirroring the patterns of behavior that we victimized us in the first place, and that through denial, we failed to learn.

I don’t mean to be a problem but…..

 

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I don’t mean to be a problem but….

I start every statement I make with this caveat. I have learned to do this over years of coming to  understand the broad implications of every day social interactions to the larger concepts of culture and community.

There was a time not long ago that my utterances would reward me with a smack across my face or an inevitable departure of my intended target, in the early days, my adoptive father.

“You know you are crazy,” he would say as he turned on his heels to walk out of the room.

Frantic to be heard I would chase him, tears streaming down my face. I was the family scapegoat! I was forced to spend 5 days a week in psychoanalysis and, little to my knowledge, would be forced to do it for 7 years of my life. I was the family’s holder of secrets and pathology. I was the one that was silenced by being trivialized. I was never given respectful attention because the conclusions that I was making about life were strikingly different than the people around me who felt interrupted by my presence.

Every interaction I had that trivialized my experience, labeled me as “crazy”, insisted that I was the problem, caused great turmoil in me and I was forced to retreat inside myself to decipher the meaning of my plight. It was clear that there would be no relief in relationships.

Despite my wish to isolate and withdrawal from the toxic evaluations being made of my thoughts and understanding of my own experience, I was forced to interact daily with a whole horde of people invested on keeping me silenced by the imposed shame of ridicule, harassment, labeling and abuse. In fact, it was the very nature of my thought processes and desire to be heard that seemed to justify the mistreatment by family and “professionals” alike.

I have a lot to say. I have been silenced too long. My perspective is unique and maybe disturbing. It is said that great genius can only follow chaos. From my vantage point, there is no greater time for the creation of chaos then now. I don’t mean to be a problem, but….Image

Male Bonding: The Cultural Cultivation of Loneliness

 

This is an overview of the cultural impact on social interaction between men and their families, most specifically highlighting the differences in perspective between the sexes.  Within these words will be reflections of each and every one of us, though the descriptions are not meant to describe the totality of the human experience for any one person. It is a starting point to critically think about the role of culture and society in the perpetuation of social problems that it insists on ameliorating through treatment services by professionals. Any intervention that refuses to understand the foundational elements of these maladies is complicit with the perpetuation of these afflictions through the loss of respect for the human condition!

I sat in front of a frantic man who was devastated by the demise of the only loving relationship that he had ever known. The grief came out in spasms of frantic and breathless verbal exclamations, disjointed and rambling… “How could she leave me? I gave her everything she ever wanted. I would do anything for her…” He looked at me imploringly as if I could impart some wisdom to release him from his pain.

“I remember a time,” I began, “when I was told that men have it far worse than women do. I doubted it at the time as a woman who has experienced the many horrors that can only be endured at the hands of men…. Despite that fact, I don’t feel that way anymore”.

He looked at me puzzled.

“From the time that boys are just babies, they have their emotional and physical pains belittled. Boys are breast fed less, they cuddle less, and have their own expression of real emotions trivialized and shamed. They are encouraged to perform in order to get the most rudimentary of acknowledgments from mothers and fathers alike. They rightly develop aggressive tendencies as the outlet for the overwhelming grief and disconnect that they have, not only with their own experience, but also with the gentle and giving nature of humanity. Eventually they can experience a complete disconnect with all that is emotional. That disconnect keeps them safe and allows them to maintain their culturally acceptable gender role as a male.  As a result, men are robbed of the language of emotionality because they are not allowed to practice it. They do not develop the skills to ask for what they need because they often are not aware that they are in need”.

He nodded his head in silent agreement.

I appreciated the gesture, but knew that the work that needed to be done was far more than he was interested in doing at that point. He was articulating a desire for the only connection with a fulfilling emotional life he had ever experienced, which he believed wholeheartedly existed only in his wife. I had seen it before.

“When many men fall in love” I continued, “they offer their heart for the first time. Women, many times with their own issues, become aware of the vulnerability in their men. While they say that they want softer and gentler men, they also fall into roles that reject the emerging emotional nature of men. Men can end up feeling isolated and powerless without the appropriate skills needed to navigate what is often perceived as a betrayal”.

His mouth gaped open and he nodded his head absent mindedly.

What he wasn’t ready to hear was my understanding of men’s responsibility in the erosion of their fragile relationships… Men overwhelmed with emotions, are vulnerable to their women and some may come to resent what they see as a power that women have over them. Their anger may surface and they may become controlling to lessen their feelings of vulnerability. These relationships can become volatile.

“For some men”, I continued, “the role of provider becomes the way that they prove their commitment and love for the women in their lives. While women appreciate a man who is willing to financially support them, they may at some point come to evaluate partner’s performance negatively. Men can try to “perform” better while bestowing their partners with more material gifts to compensate for their inability to emotionally connect, but that can fall short as well”.

Other revelations that had come to me as a result of my work as a psychotherapist; the fact that I had raised 2 boys, had 4 brothers, and suffered victimization at the hands of angry men, would remain unspoken. He was focused on performing to get his woman back, something disconnected from the way he was really feeling about himself, her, and the potential nature of his own future. The answers to everything he ever needed and wanted lay within him, a person that he was so disconnected with that he was effectively being denied effective intervention of any kind.

I knew in my own mind that the nature of heterosexual relationships was much more complicated. But I have come to understand that western men are more invested in outcome and therefore lack the commitment to the process needed to get there. Mitigating factors always complicate relationships and they would have to be considered honestly… which would mean that this man would have to be able to share intimate details of his relationship. Feeling like a failure could make that difficult. As a female psychotherapist, he could feel the need to “perform” and change details so not to disappoint me. Every detail could be explained and blame absolved, but only if I got the chance.

There are men who will choose a woman who herself is emotionally disconnected. She will demand more and more in material compensation because she has grown up in a family that refuses to cater to her emotional needs. She will have the best clothes, and the best car but can have material needs that exceed her family or partner’s budget. She will acquire the label of “high maintenance” but there will be little understanding in how that was created. She generally will be the one who knows how to use the feminine whiles to entice the men that are the most able to provide the lavish possessions that she needs to insulate her from her own loneliness and self-loathing. Men crave this woman because it is her type that gets the media attention. She focuses an inordinate amount of time on her appearance, because it is what gets her the attention that she craves and needs to feel worthwhile. She worries about the size of her breasts, her hips, the gray in her hair, and the lines on her face. Her preoccupation with acquiring and maintaining the affections of a man keeps her from ever acting on her innate gifts and talents as they are squandered away on superficial details to make her worthy of the care that she needs to feel emotionally whole and complete.

I have known men who distance themselves from the emotional discord that develops within these many dysfunctional family scenarios. In order to feel more in control of their lives and to find solace, some men may develop strong friendships with other men who struggle with the same feelings towards their own partners. Times spent with these men can be kept superficial, nothing reaching the deep feelings felt with a life partner.  Disagreements mean less, arguments never as deep or threatening. There is a huge difference in being able to walk away without feeling like you have fallen short of someone’s expectations. Men are raised with the belief that it is their performance that ensures them the caring love that they crave so much and receive so little of.  Their women though, have problems with understanding that falling short of performance standards makes men feel emasculated and unworthy of the love that they have learned to perform for; in as much as a woman’s fading beauty and her man’s disapproval of her looks deprive women of the same feeling of worth. Disgruntled camaraderie and the voicing of frustration with other men boosts male alliance but does nothing to support the ongoing relationships that they have with their women as it distances both men and women, instead pitting them against each other in mutual destruction.  Women bitch that they don’t have what they need and men complain of the high maintenance attention that is needed to keep women happy. As a result men may bond fiercely with their daughters out of a desire for the unconditional love never received, creating a further distancing of the women in their lives by promoting and fostering a competition between the women in the house.

Men, in general, do not know how to bond with their boys. Within their boys they see the injured and empty children that they had once been. In rejecting that image, they end up rejecting their boys, thus perpetuating the internalized grief and dissociative emotional status once created within them. The cycle is self-perpetuating.

The answer to empowering men lies in critical observation without pathologizing resulting behaviors and emotional responses. It manifests by absolving people of being failures by providing explanations that validate their life narratives while offering other options to promote effective and fulfilling social interactions.