The Past Is In The Past. Right? Men and Childhood Trauma
By Stephen Rodgers, LCSW
Dave sits down on the couch in my office. He has come to see me because he is getting frustrated and angry at his wife and kids. Dave tells me “I am miserable and pissed all the time. I don’t know why. I love my family. But they make me so mad.” He has also started to drink heavily to cope with these feelings. This has been building for many years. However, recently things really came to a head; “I got so mad at them that I almost lost control. That scared me. I told myself I’d never be like my dad.” When I ask Dave about his childhood with his dad he responds in a vague and casual way; “my dad was an asshole. He drank all the time. He’d beat up my mom. Me too. But that stuff is in the past.” Over the course of our next few sessions, Dave opens up with more details about growing up with an abusive and alcoholic father. When I tell Dave that he experienced trauma in his childhood he first looked at me with hesitation, anger, then relief. Through our work, he was quickly able to link the trauma he experienced as a kid to his current depression and drinking. This is when our work really took off.
I’ve talked to many men who have gone through traumatic childhood events. Often these guys come to therapy “feeling stuck” in their adult lives. They are unaware of how trauma is at the root of their feeling stuck. It’s important to understand that the term “trauma” is very broad. Trauma can refer to a wide range of negative experiences. On one end of the spectrum are events like near death experiences, seeing someone else die, sexual abuse, physial abuse or a bad accident. On the other end of the spectrum are repeated experiences that often take place in interpersonal relationships. Examples of these experiences include emotional abuse, neglect, chronic bullying, overly critical or cold parents, or a parent with an addiction. Think of each end of this trauma spectrum as a bucket being filled with water; the former is a bucket being filled up in a single pour. The latter is being filled over time with repeated drips of water. It’s important to note that in both cases the bucket gets filled with water. It is very common for us men to minimize these experiences from our childhood, to brush them off as if they were unimportant. We tend to think that the past is in the past and that there’s no use in dealing with it now because as adults, we’re fine. I’m fine.
But are you? Negative life experiences from childhood are strongly linked to poor mental health and substance abuse. As adults, our current mental health symptoms are very often rooted in adverse childhood experiences.
Men experience more trauma than you might think
According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, men are significantly more likely than women to have experienced these 7 violent behaviors exhibited by a parent, step-parent, or guardian:
● Something was thrown at them
● Pushed, shoved, or grabbed
● Slapped or hit
● Kicked or bitten
● Beaten up
● To have been hit with an object
● Threatened with an object other than a gun
But that’s not all. The nonprofit “1in6” reports that at least 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted during their childhood. The organization goes on to say that only 16% of men who suffered from this trauma consider it to be sexual abuse, thus most men are under-reporting sexual abuse. Another study found that out of 1,011 adult men 50% reported experiencing an “unwanted sexual experience” before the age of 18. And men who have had such experiences are at much greater risk of developing serious mental health problems such as:
● Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
● Alcoholism and drug abuse
● Suicidal thoughts
● Intimacy issues
● Underachievement at work or school
Why don’t (some) men talk about their trauma?
As men, we’ve been taught by movies, music, TV shows, and our peers and families that to overcome adversity, we have to have “true grit,” to simply grin and bear our pain and suffering alone. But this notion of having to overcome your fears and pain without help is misleading and dangerous. The pressure by society to “be a man” or “act like a man” means we find it difficult to talk about our problems because we’re constantly told we shouldn’t, because it’s perceived as being whiny or weak. In addition, trauma often results in feelings of shame, powerlessness, victimized, weak or less than. These are all feelings that according to traditional masculinity men cannot have. If they do, they are not men. In other words, to acknowledge your trauma and these feelings means you are acknowledging you are not a real man. These are strong and consistent cultural factors and messages men learn about masculinity. Because men learn that they must be strong at all times, they minimize and even ignore their traumas to the point of denying the impact of the trauma.
Another way to think about this traditional masculinity is the “Man Box”. The good news is, you can learn to break out of it.
What You Reveal You Heal
Childhood trauma has many layers. There is the actual experience of the trauma and the aftermath. For many men, the aftermath can be particularly difficult because we often keep the trauma secret due to the shame of “being the victim, not a man.” As the years go by, the weight of the secret gets heavier and we feel more shame. But as the legendary rapper Jay-Z said of his own therapy, “You can’t have a solution until you start listening to the problem. What you reveal you heal. Right? If I have a tumor and I ignore it doesn’t mean it goes away. I have to diagnose it first.” By acknowledging our childhood trauma, we take the first powerful step in addressing it. Don’t brush it off like it’s no big deal, that will only compound the problem. Accept that bad things happened, and then resolve to address them. Remember that as a child what happened to you was not your responsibility. But, as an adult, you have the responsibility of healing from it (if you choose to). If you’re not ready to share these experiences and your feelings with a loved one, then talk to a therapist. Starting therapy with a therapist specifically trained in trauma (like EMDR therapy) is an effective way to start resolving the trauma(s). Like many difficult and important things in life, it might seem impossible to start. But once you get going on the journey you will realize that it is not as overwhelming as it first seemed. The rewards of treating the trauma are powerful and life-changing. Just ask Dave.
Written by Stephen Rodgers, LCSW.
Stephen loves to fly fish, ski Colorado powder, and mountain bike. He’s also a psychotherapist in private practice in Denver, Colorado. He specializes in Men, Trauma, and Addiction. Stephen is a certified EMDR therapist and Approved Consultant. He advocates for Men and Mental Health through training and speaking. Stephen is the founder of Denver Men’s Therapy and Stephen Rodgers Counseling and Consulting.