Men Revisiting and Resolving Trauma
"I Know Who I Am, and Who I May Be, If I Choose" (Don Quixote de la Mancha) by Philip Hemphill, LCSW
The trauma group begins with informal references to current events, the weather, the latest sports score, an individual request to leave early, etc. as the members settle into their individual chairs. Perhaps one last joke or comment before the ‘official’ group begins, as everyone seems to be attentive and desiring a beginning point. Each person begins to summarize, organize, and synthesize their day or week in a purposeful manner, reflecting potential themes to explore further and deeper during the ‘therapeutic’ process. This is often characterized by intense emotional responses disguised as lengthy narratives during introductions. This affective response is usually abandoned until deemed appropriate by the group norms and permission is offered to delve in and discover.
This typifies my interactions with adolescent and adult males during therapeutic trauma groups or individual sessions. Although, this informal process may seem irrelevant, it is necessary for the individuals to begin to relax their defenses and allow introspection. The transformation from the public to private self offers a time for reflection, meaning, and purpose as they answer “Who am I at this moment?”
I have found that each man's ability to engage in this method of discovery varies and must be respected. There are numerous forces which influence one's capacity and pace of understanding this unfolding experience. Men are generally socialized to be ‘alexathymic’, which is the inability to utilize language to describe emotional states. Therefore, the need to listen to what's being focused on, minimized, and omitted during the introduction and subsequent session becomes imperative. Themes emerge.
I recall a man who was having difficulties practicing and displaying intimacy skills. He complained about starting group late, was highly confrontive of peers’ behavior, and had an external focus during his introduction. As the group proceeded, the topic of affect regulation and interpersonal effectiveness surfaced. The group was collaborating on conflict resolution and anger management skills. This prompted him to become very agitated, then tearful, as he explained the difficulties he had containing his genuine affective state throughout the day. He continued to reveal to the group his ‘authentic self’ which had been grieving his father's death during the past week as the anniversary date passed. This provided an opportunity for other group members to transition from intellectual to expressive communication. He transformed an affectively charged experience into a new narrative with empowering, meaningful language.
This approach-avoidance posture is a common experience in group behavior and epitomizes my experience with boys and men. The motivation for ‘pausing or resetting’ the forces in one's life vary and may dictate one's capacity to engage in this process. When individuals make a transition from having external motivation for change to an internal one, the freedom to accept, respect, integrate, be accountable and inclusive is available to them. This experience offers an opportunity to be a participant in life.
I believe exploring the core beliefs and socialization of males in our society is imperative to solving traumatic life events.
Males are often traumatized during this transitional process as they attempt to prove one's masculinity. I recall numerous initiation rituals and ‘rites of passage’ which require redefining. Males may develop dysfunctional and maladaptive coping strategies to prove one's masculinity. An example of overworking, physical altercations to solve conflicts, or addictive process may be demonstrated. Finally, the boys and men may perceive a huge discrepancy between the ideal male and who they are on this very public continuum of masculinity. Men have always been portrayed as iconic patriarchal models who have the power and abilities to transcend natural realities with historical, man-made realities. Tolerating and encouraging the exploration of these central and fundamental paths will strengthen the resolution of traumatic life events.
Finally, self-discovery and awareness allow men to enter deeper relationships with others, including one's spirituality. As a clinician working with men, I strive to achieve affective competence. I am expected to be emotionally engaged and willing to share affective experiences and reactions. This access to my emotional state does not overwhelm me nor am I overwhelmed by the intensity of the feelings experienced by others. This requires attending to and modeling how to manage emotional states instead of denying them altogether or ceasing to function. The goal of this supportive process is to promote ‘existing in the mind of another’ and the ‘experience of being understood.’ This goes beyond mirroring which can translate into more intimacy in interpersonal relationships.
In closing, Don Quixote's exploits and eventual discoveries allowed others and himself to ‘live’. His disenchantment with chivalry offered a transformation back to Alonso Quijano the Good on his deathbed and his madness disappeared. What an opportunity!