Michael Salas is a psychotherapist and owner of Vantage Point Counseling Services, which is a group private practice in Dallas, Texas. He specializes in helping people with sexual issues and trauma in their relationships and lives. For more information visit his website at https://vantagepointdallascounseling.com.
By the time we reach the end of our lives, most of us will have experienced some type of trauma. Devastating life events can cause this, but it can come from something more subtle as well. Emotions that are left behind can be as varied as the traumatic events themselves. Physical illness, war, natural disasters, or childhood abuse and neglect can all leave wounds behind. For men, they can often appear like they have worked through this. However, playing this part promotes disconnection, and authenticity can be a serious challenge.
We most commonly think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when we think about traumatic aftereffects. Trauma doesn’t always lead to a diagnosis of PTSD though. Regardless, traumatic experiences can still bleed into our relationships and lives. For men, owning this can be isolating and shameful. There is a long list of rules regarding emotional regulation, bravery, and strength that we must follow. We’re taught that owning the aftermath of a traumatic experience means that we’re weak. Even when family and friends are supportive, our media and society sends other subtle messages about how we should cope. This leaves many men denying their own experiences and feelings, for the perceived betterment of everyone else.
Men can become masters at appearing OK. They go to work, complete their responsibilities, and offer superficial support to their families. When asked how they’re doing, they say that they’re “alright.”
For some of these men, this is mostly true. Life seems as good as it ever could get. They’re no better or worse off than their fathers. They remember their fathers going through difficult, or even traumatic situations. They remember how they got through them as well. Boys notice how their fathers cope. When they see them detach, pull away, shut down, become distant, and pretend that they’re “fine,” it all seems normal and practical.
There are no obvious signs of serious trouble, because many of these reactions are culturally acceptable of men. In fact, these reactions are even cultural expectations. Boys also see how family and friends respond to their fathers. When they see these men struggling, they also witness that others rarely offer support. Everyone stays comfortable. It’s these structures around and within these male role models that hold this foundation of perceived strength together.
But all of this comes at a cost. Where we have cultural stereotypes of post-traumatic struggles including violence, substance, and anger, many others struggle in a more subtle way. Men find reasonable ways to disconnect, detach, and regulate emotions and vulnerability. They step in place, and prevent themselves from shaking things up. By doing this, they work against the very fabric of how humans are built. I see it in therapy every week. A client sits in front of me, completely confused about how he ended up in my office. He feels lost about his dissolved marriage, his complete sense of loneliness, or his lack of self-esteem. He never thought he was depressed, but is suffering from other problems in his job, sex life, or relationships.
My job is to help them reconnect with themselves, and the others in their lives. It’s in this process that many of them realize that in the sea of normalcy, they got lost by following the rules. They coasted along, because that’s what men are supposed to do.
I validate the confusion that they’re feeling. There is no betrayal bigger than following all the rules, only to feel directionless. However, the way these men are feeling is understandable and deserves validation. Everyone is responsible for decisions that they make in their own lives, but these men are part of a system that promotes a frozen, detached path. They simply took that pathway.
Humans are built for connection with each other. Lessons that men learn about emotional expression come into direct conflict with this. Connection requires to others. To add to this conflict, men have to be able to tolerate the failure of missed connections, and the emotional outcome of this. Also, many who aren’t used to connection, struggle to tolerate it.
For men who have experienced intense levels of trauma, this can be even further amplified. Our social structure helps them trap trauma, rather than promoting it to release. Release requires awareness, exposure, and support. When those things aren’t well tolerated, this requires practice to build up a tolerance for these experiences.
The Body-Mind Connection to Work Through Trauma
Our minds and bodies respond negatively when we don’t address old wounds. Many clients will come into therapy recognizing when their thought patterns become irrational. This does help them in their journey to feel better. On the other hand, some very thoughtful, rational men still struggle. This is evidence that rational thinking fails to be enough in overcoming trauma. The body carries these experiences as well.
The nervous system and brain hang onto elements of trauma. When this goes unrecognized, there can be emotional and situational reactions. Therefore, building a body-mind connection is important. The first step to this is recognition. Without recognizing that there is a problem, and how that problem feels in the body, it’s impossible to allow this to release.
There are two polarized forces working against each other. On one end, we have our need for connection. On the other end, we have our overwhelming intolerance to handling the vulnerability that it takes to connect. This polarized force is enhanced by our fear of social rejection. Our social structure is so powerful, many men lose touch of how their bodies feel about connection and relationships. Every week, I have to help clients increase their body-literacy. They don’t have a great understanding of emotions and how these are experienced with the body.
This is how men can become master illusionists. Magicians really. Phones, computers, sports, and television can all help regulate a dysregulated system. They create a protective layer around hurt, loneliness, and isolation. At the same time, there are no outward signs that this could be a problem.
However, the human body isn’t easily fooled. We hold emotions and sensations that are related to old wounds. No amount of illusionism can erase this. This means that emotions come out at inopportune times. This can shape the relationships men have with other people. It can also impact the relationships that they have with themselves. Romance and connection can be tough. Sex and other forms of intimacy can be overwhelming and difficult. Emotions can be difficult to express, and they can become extremely intense.
Overcoming trauma means deconstructing the protective layer. This is accomplished by practicing understanding the story of your body. Through increased openness, you can experience being seen in the struggle, because you allow yourself to feel it. This leads people to tolerate higher levels of vulnerability and connection. This means that the trauma doesn’t have to remain held behind that protective layer.
Through the experience of body awareness, men can find a space of increased connection and trauma release. It’s not easy to get there, but it’s well worth the wait. This is where camaraderie can be found. This is where reconnection is rebuilt. This is where healing is.
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