Why Is Trauma a Four-Letter Word for so Many Men?
“Don’t ask for help.”
“Always be in control.”
“Don’t display any vulnerability.”
“Don’t acknowledge pain.”
“Don’t be weak!”
In my previous blog post “Why Gender Matters,” we looked at how these messages are communicated to men in a variety of ways throughout the course of their lives. The messages calcify into “rules” that govern behaviors such as how men dress, talk and interact with others. Conforming to the rules provides men with a measure of safety, both emotional and physical. Unfortunately, this also constrains our behavior, limits our choices, and makes it extremely difficult for us explore and express our inner world. It becomes especially difficult for us to acknowledge challenges or painful experiences, such as traumatic events.
Effects of trauma for men
Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading researchers on trauma, defines it this way: “Trauma occurs when an external threat overwhelms a person’s internal and external coping mechanisms.” He stresses that it is the individual’s response, not the event itself that constitutes trauma. What may be traumatic for one person may simply be an unpleasant experience for another. His model also asserts that the response of the environment (which includes other people and/or institutions) will be a factor in how damaging the event is over the long term. These key elements unfortunately predict that for the boy or man experiencing the event, there may be internal judgment on both self and the others in his life.
Trauma is highly correlated with a feeling of powerlessness. A man who suffers a traumatic event might feel a loss of control over his environment, his relationships, his physiological responses, and his emotions. When a man feels powerless or weak, he is likely to feel like less of a man. He may believe that he doesn’t deserve the attention and support of others. He may fear that in asking for help he might be rejected, or worse, he might be judged as inadequate. This profound sense of shame prevents many men from seeking either familial support or professional help. Real men don’t get overwhelmed. Real men don’t feel pain. Real men don’t need others. Real men don’t have trauma.
It is also important to note that for males, childhood trauma usually comes in the form of neglect or abuse perpetrated by a person who is supposed to love and protect. The pain and damage caused by the traumatic event is exacerbated by the inherent betrayal and loss of trust, which predicts against being able to find refuge in relationships later in life.
Childhood trauma in adults
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz wrote an essay for the April 18 edition of New Yorker magazine entitled, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.” This is an unflinching and visceral “confession” of not only what happened to him at eight years old, but also how this trauma has affected every aspect of his adult life and why he kept it hidden for four decades. I strongly encourage anyone wanting to understand male trauma to read this piece. Shortly after Díaz’s piece appeared, the New York Times published an article containing allegations of his past sexual improprieties and other abusive behaviors toward women. In response, Díaz acknowledges his actions, takes responsibility for them, and states that this is why he has told his story of childhood rape.
Though wholly unacceptable, Junot Díaz’s behavior is entirely understandable. In a zero-sum world, where the weak are vulnerable to the whims of the powerful, it is far preferable to be the perpetrator than the victim. For too many men, this dynamic becomes the most compelling drive in their lives: To feel safe, they must either keep others at a distance or dominate them by any means possible.
Helping men face trauma
Our awareness and understanding of trauma has evolved rapidly in the past ten years. New technologies have afforded a glimpse into the way that our brains and nervous systems respond to traumatic events and post-traumatic stress. Promising therapeutic interventions such as EMDR, brainspotting, somatic experiencing and virtual reality graded exposure therapy are being developed and refined.
Perhaps of even greater import is the remarkable recent shift in our public attitude toward male trauma. Beginning with combat veterans and continuing with the courageous men who spoke out against abuse in the church and in the locker room, the national dialogue on trauma has created a space where men can feel a bit less inhibited in discussing their experiences. And in health care and social services, when we see boys or men acting in self-destructive ways or striking out against others, we are beginning to change the question from, “What’s wrong with you?” to, “What happened to you?”