Cracking the Armor: Men and Trauma

Cultural gender expectations shape how we experience trauma. What I found in my own research and work in psychotherapy time and again is that men are reluctant to disclose their emotional wounds because they are afraid that this would make them appear less masculine.

People regardless of their gender are wounded to different degrees physically, psychologically, or both at some point of their lives. It is part of the human experience. After the trauma it is common to avoid stressful memories and situations associated with violation among both men and women. However, for men there is an additional predicament.

Rigid norms about what it means to be a man have a profound impact on how we deal with distress and whether or not we seek help. As men we may deny support or delay help-seeking because we fear that reaching out would result in a loss of masculinity. Many men who experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress after a distressful life event feel less manly, because they have learned that being a man in mainstream society is ideally about power and control.

In my qualitative research and clinical work I found that once men identify that there is an emotional wound, they often tend to rush into re-framing it as something positive. For men living through trauma is often seen as a necessary means to become tough and invulnerable. Some men even see it as a way to obtain a sense of masculinity. In popular culture artists like Jay-Z assert, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

Post-traumatic growth is all about the positive change occurring in an individual after the experience of a highly stressful life event. The above-mentioned quote may be a way to acknowledge one’s own ability to survive traumatic events and learn from them. However, the personal growth and the integration of traumatic experiences usually occurs only if you are prepared to be vulnerable.

The masculine armor may become cumbersome in the long haul and make healing more difficult. Recovery from post-traumatic stress depends on how you deal with the wound inflicted on you in the here-and-now rather than about what happened in the past. For men who follow mainstream ideals of masculinity divulged through the media and politics, it is very typical to toughen up and pretend nothing has happened. But no human being can be invulnerable. Other people and circumstances in various ways of course affect the men I encounter in my field studies and clinical practice. To accept this fact is often the first step towards healing.

The attitude of invulnerability can be problematic when the armors keeps men from acknowledging personal needs and emotions. It can stand in the way of communicating with loved ones, seeking help, and healing from trauma. Healing is most likely to take place when the trauma is accepted and integrated into one’s life and identity, so it can drive preferred changes. How has your sense of manhood transformed as a result of the traumatic event? Cracking the armor may mean to liberate masculinity as you know it and become open for new ways of being a man. The ability to be vulnerable is part of this process and it needs tremendous courage to embody it.

 

Beyond the Brain: The Hidden Causes of War Trauma

Nowadays, much hope is put into neuroscientific efforts to penetrate the brain in order to understand and cure trauma, but almost nothing is heard about the political and social root causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The U.S. government’s latest plan to increase military spending made me think about this dangerous shortcoming.

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War is profitable and corporate business is going to benefit tremendously from the Trump administration’s proposed $56 billion upsurge in military spending. ‘At what cost?’ I asked myself and came to the conclusion that increases in military spending are likely to have a negative impact on mental health. I followed a simple line of thought: Further inflation of the U.S. military industrial complex serves profiteers that make money with wars through which people are killed and traumatized. In other words, trauma caused through war is linked to big business.

This is a good time to remember that a root cause of war-related PTSD and TBI is state-sponsored violence. Focused on the latest neuro-babble mental health professionals are commonly reluctant to speak out about the social and political nervous system of war trauma. I was one of them, until I realized the need to have a broader discussion about ethics that reaches far beyond the closed doors of a ‘psychotherapy’ practice. When I heard about the planned increase in military spending I thought of a wreath-laying ceremony that I attended a couple of years ago at San Diego State University. Back then nobody addressed the economic and political forces that drove the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and caused the death of the honored servicemen, let alone the mental health issues of veterans who survived them.

A root cause of mental health problems among veterans lies in the military industrial complex. Corporate profiteers care little about the suffering their business causes for veterans or civilians. During the wreath-laying ceremony, I noticed that the chairs in front of the memorial were covered with flyers promoting a panel of San Diego’s military industry that was organized by the SDSU alumni association. The flyer said that the city ought to remain “competitive” in the global market of military technology. Evidently, there were no critical voices at the ceremony. Emotions remained invisible behind the stern faces of the servicemen and women. To work through existential insecurity caused by war trauma would be synonymous with breaking the norms of militarized masculinity as well as the economic forces that drive it.

While veterans and their families suffer, corporate business continues to benefit from war and military spending. Almost a decade ago, anthropologists Matthew Gutmann and Catherine Lutz in their book Breaking Ranks: Iraq Veterans Speak out Against the War pointed out that an estimated three trillion dollars had entered the coffers of corporate war profiteers. The militarization of U.S. American society can be observed when looking at an ever-higher resource allocation for military purposes, but also the overall normalization of war in society that comes with it. Military spending goes hand in hand with talk that legitimates military actions on TV and has an impact on popular culture in which violent movies and video games have become the new norm. Confronted with the cultural and economic war machinery, people seem to be made believe that life is a state of permanent warfare. From this dangerous and distressful point of view, society must be subordinated to the military rather than the military to the needs of a democratic social order.

The recently proposed increase in military spending should be concerning to health and human services professionals as well as their clients. In 2010, the U.S. Federal government was already spending as much on the Defense Department as for Medicare and Medicaid together. Federal funds to promote psycho-social development and wellbeing that prevent physical and mental trauma are likely to be further cut in the wake of increased military spending. This is going to be the case despite the fact that the United States accounts for the by far largest share of the worlds total military spending (40,1%), distantly followed by China (8,2%) which occupies the second rank. Unfortunately, the huge military budget did not bring peace and democracy to the world. In the contrary, it fostered the emergence of more terror and mental disorder.

There is a growing number of veterans who are speaking out about the post-traumatic stress experienced as a result of U.S. sponsored war, including torture and the massacre of civilians. Unfortunately, the majority remains silent. Militarized masculinity with its hallmark of stoic endurance may have something to do with it. The outcomes are devastating. By the end of the Iraq War, the number of suicides had dramatically eclipsed the number of troops dying in battle and accounted for nearly one death per day. Many of those who risked their lives for dubious reasons have become marginalized and mentally ill after deployment.

At the wrath-laying ceremony I learned that veterans are in need of acknowledgement and recognition for the sacrifices they made. I’m still moved by their commitment to serve a broader common ‘good’ and their honorable intentions, perhaps a commitment to create a better world. But in order to serve wounded warriors dramatic increases in budgets for health and social services are needed rather than steroids for the military industrial complex. I believe that for mental health professionals who treat PTSD and TBI it is an ethical responsibility to give a voice to veterans who are silenced in wrath-laying ceremonies and recent policy-making initiatives. It is part of our work to provide spaces in which they can enrich stories of trauma and go beyond cookie-cutter narratives that locate the cause of traumatic stress in the brain.

New Horizons in Treating Men who Committed DV

In the mental health field Domestic Violence (DV) is often associated with personality disorders and commonly conceived as the problem of individual men. But this approaches falls short of accounting for broader social, cultural, and economic issues that are at the root of the problem.

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While each individual has to be accountable for his own behavior, we need to take up a broader perspective to understand violence against women as well as viable ways to stop it.

All kinds of interpersonal violence have a history. They are broader problems that go far beyond individual offenders or perpetrators of domestic violence. I found that it is important for men who have abused to become mindful of the ways in which they have more or less consciously followed a culture of masculinity that condones or encourages violence to solve conflicts.

For the past ten years, I have been working with men who have abused, first as a researcher and then as a counselor. During this period of time, I have not come across somebody who was violent by nature. The men had often undergone severely traumatic experiences in their childhood or youth. Sometimes they were hardly aware of the fact that the people who had abused them in the past had at some point become their role models. Moreover, they followed a dominant form of masculinity that normalizes aggression and can be readily seen in movies, video games, as well as politics. At the same time they learned very little about how to communicate effectively or express personal feelings and needs. In other words, they were socialized into a gender straightjacket that encourages individuals to control and dominate others in order to become men.

Even gender justice approaches that take into account inequalities of power often fail see the complexity of violence. In the 1990s, Kathleen Ferraro already pointed out that a prior generation of feminists got it wrong. She argued that authoritative talk, writing, and law in regards to “domestic violence” created interventions and ideas that are not necessarily helpful. They construct and perpetuate a unified image of ‘battered woman’ versus ‘male batterer.’ This is problematic because women who have experienced abuse have their own independent will and can make choices; they are much more than victims. At the same time, men who have abused are much more than ‘batterers’ or ‘perpetrators.’ In fact, I believe that this type of labeling may hinder men from changing because it commonly leads to defensiveness.

The victim/perpetrator division also results in the tendency to target individual men for treatment while obscuring broader social problems. I have often heard from men that they found it hard to change because the skills they developed during group therapy were not valued in communities in which the use of intimidation, control, and dominance over others is often considered masculine. This is not just an issue for men. Some of my group participants reported that they were belittled and verbally attacked by female partners when they showed vulnerability and cried. A multifaceted approach to “domestic violence” needs to challenge ideals of masculinity that stop men from showing tender feelings. I found that men are often overwhelmed with the expectation of being the ‘dominant’ gender. Evidently, nobody can be invulnerable and this is even more obvious for people who struggle because of racism and economic inequalities.

The culture of machismo is often seen as the root cause of violence against women. But similar to the psychiatric fallacy the myth of “culture” as being the sole reason for intimate partner violence eclipses other social and economic factors. Research has found that men who are more marginalized than others are more likely to commit domestic violence. This does not mean that affluent men are necessarily more peace loving. We know this is not the case. It merely means that some men who suffer from multiple forms of discrimination based on skin color, lack of formal education, or unemployment are more likely to use brute force to empower themselves. Usually the violence is not directed against the wealthy, mostly white males, who own a disproportionate amount of the word’s resources and control post-colonial societies like the United States. The violence is commonly directed against partners, spouses, and family members.

What does this mean for counseling with men who have committed domestic violence? On the most basic level it means that we have to differentiate between the men themselves and the problem of violence. If you are a man who has verbally or physically been abusive the first step towards healing yourself and your relationship is to draw a line between you as a person and the violence with its multiple causes. This does not mean to let go of responsibility. In the contrary, once you can see the problem as a problem that is not just about you, there is no need to become defensive, get stuck in shame, or to bury your head in the sand. You are much more than a man who has abused. It’s time to disentangle yourself from the social expectations tied to being a tough guy or your endeavors to fit into the box of male gender roles. Have the courage to embrace your own vulnerability to break the cycle of abuse. People who really care about you are going to support you in the process of change. Then think of all the positive and loving actions that you have performed in your life in relation to others. There are ways to empower yourself peacefully in equitable relationships for the sake of both your partner’s and your own health and wellbeing.

 

Mindful Parenting: Beware of the ‘Boy Code’

Boys are often unintentionally put into a straightjacket of emotional constraint. Mindful parenting can help you cultivate compassion and put yourself into your son’s shoes. Instead of hardening a boy or young man by becoming emotionally more distant, you may choose to allow him to be vulnerable and dependent on the love and support of others just as you would with girls.

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Research has shown that mothers in the United States generally tend to use a greater variety in emotion language and show more vivid facial expressions when communicating with daughters. Both mothers and fathers commonly brush over more tender feelings when they are expressed by boys. This may happen to the extent that little boys expect their parents to respond far less warmly when they show sadness or fear.

Cultural stereotypes of the unwritten “boy code” keep boys from showing negative or vulnerable emotions and parents may reproduce them unintentionally. The result is emotional constraint apart from one strong feeling allowed: anger. When boys feel ashamed to show more tender feelings they commonly turn to anger. This is the case when the full range of emotional experience is constrained. Yes, it is true that gender stereotypes are changing. However, they are changing slowly and may present themselves in new guise. Today, psychologist William Pollack’s perspective is as relevant as almost 20 years ago when he wrote the book “The Boy Code”:

“…when we look closely at the behavior of young boys, and when we listen closely to their stories, we realize that what in men or older boys is often interpreted as a macho sense of rigor and cockiness, in reality often has much more to do with hardening. This hardening takes place and the mask goes up, not because boys or men feel particularly strong or self-assured, but rather because they don’t – they feel anxious to protect themselves from wounds to their already fragile male psyches. Once they have been shamed enough for failing to be fully masculine, once they’ve been told enough times that they should suppress their vulnerable feelings, once they’ve been actually physically injured for failing to meet the mark, boys allow the wounds to scar over, cover any remaining soft tissue, and act as if everything is going all right.”

A central tenet of mindful parenting is empathy and compassion. When you think back to your childhood, what did you most want from your parents? Children desire to be seen and accepted in the family for who they are, a desire to be treated with kindness, understanding, and compassion. This is true for boys and girls. However, when it comes to pressing children into a gender straightjacket of dominant stereotypes of masculinity, particularly boys and young men may lose out on warmth and tenderness given to them.

To be empathetic may be very challenging when the boy is yelling, screaming, or even starts to act out aggressively. This is why the ability to act compassionately takes intentional cultivation. It usually starts with becoming aware of what is happening in the moment. An awareness of your feelings is key. Only when you are able to pay attention to what is going on with you in a spirit of kindness, you are empowered to choose your response. You may find that you need to take a deep breath or get some additional support from another family member. In any case it is about responding rather than knee-jerk reactions.

To be empathetic and compassionate when kids are acting out is not easy. It is much less clear cut than traditional approaches such as distancing yourself and disciplining the child. As Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting” points out, there is no set formula. The challenge is to view difficult behaviors in a more non-judging and open manner that allows you as caretaker to keep a heartfelt connection to your boy – a connection the “boy code” wants to cut. This does not mean to be passive. Children are not fully able to self-regulate their emotions. They often need an adult caregiver to role-model sympathetic behavior and to give them some boundaries to hit up against and slow down. This is why mindful parenting is so much about being aware of what is going on with you in relation to the child, including your ideals and values about gender and masculinity.