I approached writing on this topic in January 2018. For no reason, in particular, it is just a topic to discuss, with and for men. Not a pleasant topic but a necessary one. Well, this ended up being an emotional firestorm for me. I started in January but I have revisited it a dozen times with several long intervals marking the passage of time. Needless to say, this is not an easy topic to discuss and I knew that coming into it. For the men who might read this, try to read the whole thing. I know all the reasons men will not like this topic. I really, really do!
For the women reading this, I hope you get some insight but do not diagnose the men in your lives based on what you read here. If there are some parallels, remember it is their story to tell. You might not be the right person to discuss it with them. Remember also, there are lots of similarities in symptoms that may indicate something totally different.
Childhood trauma in men is a fact. It is not a fact in all men. As a counselor with primarily a male population, I have to address it often enough. I’m no stranger to it but it’s a lot easier sitting in my counselor chair focusing on someone else than it is formulating my thoughts on it. Not every man has childhood trauma and it often takes several sessions to read the tea leaves and get a picture.
Easily said, childhood trauma in men is masked by most every other problem men have in life: adulting, careers, relationships, friends, performance, etc. So it takes couch work to piece it together as a possible root cause of their issues. Remember, men are programmed to deny anything that reeks of weakness. I judge any man willing to go into counseling as courageous…. especially those who will do it with another man.
What I Hear….
The most common things client will admit to is they are unsure why they are in counseling. I recognize this as just their opening salvo and they are just looking for reassurance from me. Men will report self-doubt and recall decisions made or not made that left them confused and empty. One or two examples of self-reported missteps (in life, relationships or careers) and they are acknowledging a lack of confidence in themselves and how safe they feel. I know they are approaching the ‘F’ word but have voiced it yet. I usually try to help so I will say ‘You feel fearful’. And the response is usually ‘Yes, but I’m not afraid’. Yep, clear as mud to me, too.
What Symptoms Appear
As the sessions continue, I start to listen for the symptoms that are experiencing. This is an interactive Q& A process. Few men are fully emotional aware and insightful. So sessions become give and take. They give responses and I take to continue building their emotional and psychological profile. The profile of a man with childhood trauma does not present itself quickly or easily in my experience.
The following represent some of the symptoms that men with childhood trauma are likely to state:
- Sad/Emotionally flat – They have a lack of emotion for many things they enjoyed in the past. Finding something to get excited about is more arduous. This may appear as a persistent depressive disorder which is a long-term low-grade depression or they may be downplaying clinical depression symptoms.
- Relationship issues – Doesn’t everyone have relationship issues at some time or other? The degree to which they occur, the outcome/resolution and the frequency are telling for these men.
- Self-Worth/Self-Esteem issues – These are self-deprecating thoughts and behaviors about themselves personally. They will recall their mistakes and (to me) over-emphasize the problem and fall on the sword, blind to the fact that sometimes life just happens.
- Anger – When understanding men, anger is like the golden ticket to diagnosing depression in men. This is a gender-specific symptom but not exclusively to men. However, the source of the anger has to be investigated.
- Trust Issues – Most of us will imbue basic human trust to others even strangers. For men with trust issues, I have found that trust issues are a learned behavior from prior hurts and emotional disappointments. But from where do trust issues originate?
- Alcohol/Drug Use – Has to be investigated. I don’t know what normal consumption is for anybody but I know when people are using substances to cope with problems in life then it is a yellow flag.
- Development Issues – This usually shows up as behavior problems in school, learning problems experienced, ADHD, etc.
- Adaptable Personas – I call this the ‘situational chameleon’ phenomena. They are people who change their personality/self-identity to better fit into a situation. This is often an unconscious act to be viewed as a better, more successful or more powerful man than reality would judge them to be. This is a significant defense mechanism for self-esteem issues.
- Dishonesty – This is a moral judgment. When someone talks (or brags) about cheating the system or ‘getting one over on’ a person, place or thing….it is telling information related to trust and anger (vengeance) issues.
Lots of symptoms to parse through and still not a sure diagnosis.
What Feelings Men Share…
For men, I don’t complicate discussing feelings versus emotions. I have a wonderful resource list of ~200 emotions I can share when needed. But for men, I stick to 5 core feelings: Mad, Sad, Glad, Fear and Surprise. I prefer talking about behavior and the thinking that preceded them. Men with childhood trauma tend to struggle to pick a primary feeling. Sad is the logical choice and Fear a close runner-up. However, what I usually hear is they feel ‘weak’. And weakness in any form for any man is perceived to be unacceptable. When men feel weak, the behaviors that follow often attempt to compensate.
Weakness can also have a physical component so it can be prudent to probe their medical history, last physical exam, sleeping and eating habits. It is common to refer them to get a doctor’s opinion and blood work. Is it stereotyping to assume men don’t take care of themselves or not?
Breaking the Barriers
The two most difficult things in dealing with men who (possibly) have childhood trauma are: building trust and encouraging vulnerability. As already stated, trust issues exist and as a counselor, I’m telling them to trust me. I have no agenda; I have no judgment. Asking them to be vulnerable when they feel weak is a complete anathema to what they do unconsciously. If no trust is extended, then we will only work on surface stuff. If vulnerability is not experienced, we will only work on surface stuff. Working on just surface stuff is not a bad thing. It can alleviate some of the problems/issues they are currently experiencing. They just don’t get to the root cause of the surface stuff. So life is better for now.
The Root Cause
Emotional Poverty is an all-encompassing term that seems to fit and includes:
- Abuse – People assume this is the primary cause but it is not the only cause. This category includes family violence (witnessed or experienced), emotional, psychological and sexual trauma.
- Neglect – Some parents are not able to be at home as much to provide enough emotional nurturing. This includes parental neglect from the struggles of being poor. For men, this also points to the problems from father-figure incarceration.
- Absence – similar to neglect but this one includes men raised with a missing and unknown parent.
- Incompetence – Parental incompetence is when the parent is simply unable to give/provide for the emotional needs of the child. This is often seen in families where a parent is missing due to death or divorce. In essence, the parent is not able to give away what they do not have themselves. The parents are struggling with their own issues unsuccessfully.
- Historical – Unfortunately, childhood trauma can be a cycle. As parents, we raise our kids the way we were raised and that may include passing on our own traumatic experiences. Few people realize they are doing this. In the worst cases, some parents re-enact their trauma on their kids.
Economic poverty means different things to different people. Wonderful people do come from disadvantaged families. Poor doesn’t always equate to potential childhood trauma.
What Male Childhood Trauma Is
Childhood trauma in men is expressed in a loss of their childhood. Memories will be vague. Their experiences forced them to skip or grow into development stages prematurely. Men will experience a feeling of having lost part of themselves. It is bewildering but it is indicative of some dissociation. We grow up through development stages for a good reason. Skipping or fast-forwarding through them means we miss something developmentally important.
Men with childhood trauma tend to have riskier behaviors including sports and occupations. Seen as an attraction to destruction, it is usually unconscious and serves to block them from other experiences. To combat feelings of weakness, men go out and do something that reinforces their views of strength and power even to the point of self-harm or abuse. They also adapt their experiences by adopting different personas.
This attraction to destruction includes relationships that are abusive or ones where they rescue their partners. Abusive relationships reinforce their unconscious need to be rejected. Rescuing reinforces their need to nurture another to feed their lack of nurturing from childhood.
Relationship avoidance is not uncommon. Several failed relationship or few relationships are indicative. Avoidance feeds their need for self-protection. They are desperate to not get hurt (again) yet they desperately desire a nurturing relationship.
Avoidance of oneself is common. This appears as unworthiness, self-condemnation and a desire to look externally for happiness and acceptance. Being able to put on a new persona helps accept themselves, too. Looking inward at oneself can be a powerful trigger of prior trauma. Activating these memories and feelings is too difficult to handle. Unfortunately, one important task of moving into adulthood is the ability to self-reflect and self-correct. Avoiding oneself impairs adolescent and adult development.
One symptom expressed is feeling emotionally flat or sad. With childhood trauma, men find it difficult to deal with their emotions. So they disassociate from them. They lack the ability to integrate their emotions so it is better to suppress/repress them. What results is often impulsivity: knee-jerk decisions, anger, etc. Prior traumatic memories produce confusion and emotional flooding. Love, hurt, need, want, fear, rejection… overwhelm these men. This is one of the reasons relationship formation is difficult. In the worst cases, it leads to an unstable sense of self.
Escape Behaviors Men Do
Men with childhood trauma are not aware of why they do what they do. It is self-protection. They do and act in order to prevent being in contact with painful emotions from the past. They do and act to prevent experiencing a desperate desire for love and emotional safety and security. Pushing away is instinctual for them. It is dysfunctional but it is basic survival for them. These are defense mechanisms that protect them and yet keep them from getting the things they truly want. It keeps them unavailable and yet safe.
When men are hurt, they respond with anger and sadness (ding, ding, ding). When those feelings are not responded to, they withdraw as a self-defense mechanism. These are escape behaviors. These behaviors are indicative of traumatic shame. Their hurt inner child is telling them:
- I am bad
- I am unlovable
- I cannot trust anyone
- I am not safe
- I am worthless
- I am alone
- I am powerless/weak
What Do We Do ..(for Our Men)
Self-care is the first place to start. Physical and psychological health go together for men. Keep men healthy and happy on a day-to-day basis. They need help but they need to feel comfortable about seeking help. Encourage them to talk about their past and get them open to talking about it. This helps remove some of the stings from further vulnerability. Compassion and patience in oneself are important for men to deal with being vulnerable. Remember, they are facing the ultimate emotional exposure. They are being truly courageous.
Men need to find at least one other person with whom to feel safe and accepted. Ideally, that is a counselor but one other person (e.g. wife or best friend) will help them at the moment. Men are social creatures and need connection lest they cease to exist. Relationships are not easy. As men age, making new male friends is even more difficult. And talking on this subject is somewhat taboo still but much better than 20 years ago or more.
Being future-oriented and having forward-looking goals is essential. This is the kind of emotional work that men cannot be mired in. There has to be something to strive toward either personally or professionally. Both are ideal. Accepting the past and committing to a future go together. Learning to not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it is tough stuff. There has to be a carrot of motivation beyond emotional wholeness. With emotional wholeness comes a brand new perspective on life. Define it, describe it….grow to live it.
It is important to remember: they didn’t cause It, they couldn’t control It and they cannot cure It. However, they can become much more than It.
So I wrote this and hopefully, it helped you or a loved one or helped shed light on the subject. Sorry for the length but I couldn’t see how to break this into 2 parts. I certainly wrote more than intended but also left out so much more. If you managed to read to the end, please comment and let me know what questions you have or comments for improvement. If this resonates with you or someone you know, then contact me and I will work to find you or them help. Before I published this I had to seek out sage advice from a trusted colleague. I am lucky in that regard.