Men & Trauma: Moving From an Adapted to an Authentic Self
I've interviewed several men on my podcast, Therapy For Guys, who have spoken about their childhood trauma. Dr. Jonathan Tran shared the story of losing his older brother when he was 5 or 6 and how that shaped the rest of his life. Lewis Dene talked about an early memory of riding in an ambulance after his father threw hot soup at his sister. Many of the guys I work with have major traumas that impact their identity and relationships in negative ways. Trauma is a tragedy for most men. That said, I think Jeffrey Kripal is on to something when he says that trauma can also be a window into the transcendent. A trauma can open up possibilities for seeing oneself, others and the world in radically new ways.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is the Greek word for wound. Trauma is a psychological wound. Trauma is a person's emotional response to a distressing situation. A traumatic experience is more severe than an ordinary hardship. Trauma involves a serious threat to a person's sense of safety and feels beyond a person's control. Common traumas include: sexual abuse, physical violence, exposure to war and natural disasters.
While not every negative experience is traumatic, I agree with Mark Epstein that, "trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people; it is the bedrock of our psychology." No man escapes the grip of trauma, even if they were never sexually abused or beaten as a child.
Overwhelmed or Abandoned
James Hollis writes that life is inherently traumatic. As children, we all have an encounter with some form of overwhelment or abandonment. Overwhelment can be physical violence or an overbearing parent. I am frequently amazed at the psychological damage an anxious or overbearing parent can inflict on a developing child. Abandonment can be literal abandonment or the subtle ways that mothers and fathers neglect their children and fail to offer empathic attunement.
Hollis points out that after a traumatic experience, we develop a strategy for coping with its awful reality. Hollis refers to these strategies as existential adaptive patterns. These protective mechanisms are not consciously planned out or even chosen. They are the psyche's response to the unspeakable trauma of existence.
According to Hollis, common adaptive patterns in response to overwhelment include:
Avoidance: avoiding conflict, procrastination, distraction, numbing, etc.
Power complex: brute force against others, controlling, manipulation, etc.
Compliance: getting along to not stir the pot or create conflict.
According to Hollis, common adaptive patterns in response to abandonment include:
Identification with lack: low self-esteem, self-sabotage, over-compensation by grandiosity.
Power complex: using others for narcissistic self-aggrandizement.
Excessive Neediness: Constant need for approval, affirmation and self-assurance.
Hollis notes that what brings men into therapy is not their original traumas, but the person they've become in response to their trauma. I could not agree more. Who we become, or rather how we adapt, in response to trauma leads to patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that result in great suffering.
Adaptive Self vs. Authentic Self
Donald Kalsched believes that trauma is any experience that causes unbearable pain or anxiety. Anything that leaves the child feeling that the essence of who they are is defective or “bad”or missing in essential value and therefore at risk of annihilation. When we experience trauma as a child:
The essence of the child – the creative, relational, authentic spark of life which is at the very core – goes into hiding, deep in the unconscious. At the same time, another part of the child’s psyche –what Winnicott called the “false self”— grows up prematurely and becomes a rigid adaptive self, complying with outer requirements as best it can, while protecting the lost core of the self by hiding it. (interview with Donald Kalsched)
As we develop into adolescents and adults, we live our life (school, work, relationships) as a "false" or rigid adapted self. Terry Real argues that what gets men in trouble is the patterns of behavior that stem from their adapted self.
Karen Horney developed a typology for understanding how our adapted self shows up in relationships with others. These three styles of relating connect to our psyche's response to overwhelment and abandonment.
This describes a style of relating where a man uses force or verbal aggression to resolve conflict or meet needs in a relationship. This is a manifestation of the power-complex in a relationship.
This style connects to avoidance. The man who disconnects from his family, or never wants to "talk" about what's going on is caught in the grip of this adaptive strategy.
This strategy is closely linked to compliance and manipulation. The man in this style is overly "nice" and will say and do almost anything to make sure their partner is not upset with them.
Terry Real believes therapy can help a man move from his adapted self, to his authentic self. The authentic self is the self that is no longer governed by the traumatic ghosts of the past. This is the "true" self. A self connected to a man's inherent beauty, creativity, vitality and worth.
Carl Jung once wrote, "until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” My understanding of this quote, in light of the material explored above and my clinical experience, is that a man will continue to mistake his adapted self for his authentic self until he starts processing his trauma. Men will continue to struggle in their relationships until they have a firm grasp of how they came to their adapted self and why they continue to move against, away and toward others.
The good news is that any man can understand his trauma and work to change some of his existential adaptive strategies. Those strategies worked for us when we were children. As adults, those strategies are destructive. We do not have to be imprisoned by our adapted self. We can free our selves to live our life as our authentic self.
My term for the way our authentic self should relate is moving with. As a therapist informed by Relational Cultural-Theory, I believe that growth-fostering relationships are our primary source of meaning and empowerment. Men are healthiest when they are embedded in vibrant, mutual, vulnerable relationships with others.
A man who moves with others is one who is:
Managing his negative emotions
Balancing his work and family responsibilities
Present to his relationships
Connected to other men and women
A man moving with others will handle conflict not by attacking or running away. Instead, he will seek to communicate in nonviolent and constructive ways. When we live out of our authentic self, this does not mean that we are perfect or saints. It suggests we are aware of our traumas, adaptive strategies and flaws. With this greater awareness, we can choose what kind of person we want to be, rather than being governed by our old traumatic scripts.
Therapy For Men Can Help
Therapy for Men can help you as a guy understand your adaptive self and learn how live out of your authentic self. One of the ways to help you identify your trauma is by signing up for therapy for men. A male therapist is someone your son can trust and develop a relationship with.
A male therapist can also work with you to develop goals and healthy coping strategies. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy(CBT) is one of the most effective ways to work with men. CBT is a short-term, problem focused approach. CBT is effective at treating a variety of problems.
Start Your Therapy For Men Journey with Quique Autrey: Katy, Tx & Houston
You do not have to do this alone. If you don't know what to do next, please contact me and set up your first appointment. I am here to help. I can work with you to bring healing and hope. I'm just off of I-10 and 99. I am centrally located for those living in Katy and Houston. To start your therapy for men, follow these simple steps: 1. Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling. 2. Schedule your first appointment with Quique Autrey. 3. Begin your therapy for men journey and start healing. You are not defined by your struggles. I want you to realize your true worth and potential. I want you to embrace a bright future. Imagine what life will look like for you free of struggles. The mission at Katy Teen & Family Counseling is to restore hope, happiness, and connected family relationships. I look forward to starting this process of hope and healing with you!