I asked him what he thought she meant when she said "something happened that was very hurtful and frightening."
Sam lowered his head onto his hand and rested his elbow on the armrest of the couch. There was a long silence. His voiced quivered as he replied, "I don't know why this is important."
"It's only important if whatever happened yesterday still gets in the way of your life today."
"I don't know if that's true."
I asked him if he was willing to find out.
"Why is this so fucking important?" His tone of his voice noticeably changed to anger.
"It's my marriage that's falling apart."
His face was turning red and he was pounding his fist on the armrest as he spoke. This calm man was beginning to transform before my eyes. No matter how important I thought it was that he face his demons, we weren't going to get anywhere unless he thought so as well. I wanted to help him get through these powerful emotions, so I asked him how he was feeling right now, hoping that he didn't think I was sounding like his wife.
"Then I'd like you to take a minute to check in with how your body is feeling. How do your arms and hands feel? How about your chest and stomach? What about your head and neck? What are your physical sensations?"
Sam quietly reflected on these questions. I could tell that he was focusing his attention to the various parts of his body. He looked up and said, "I'm kind of tense in my stomach and my shoulders."
"And as you were asking me, 'Why is this so fucking important,' what were you doing with your body? Was there a change in your tone of voice?" I hoped that helping him get in touch with his physical and behavioral signs to emotions would make it easier for him to identify his anger.
"Yeah, I guess I was pounding my fist and I raised my voice."
I asked what he was feeling at that moment.
"Maybe I was beginning to feel a little pissed off."
"Well, I guess I didn't like hearing that I needed to talk about my family stuff." He paused, then added with emphasis, "You're the third person to tell me that. I don't think it's that important. But I am about to lose my marriage, so I'm willing to do anything to stop that from happening."
Sam's story is typical of many men who were victims of childhood abuse. His life is troubled and he feels that it's beyond his control. He is not so much interested in seeking personal help for himself as he is trying to "fix" his marriage. He has a great deal of difficulty identifying and communicating his feelings. He doesn't see the importance of talking about his childhood experiences and how they may have been partly the cause of his problems today. Like many men Sam is not clear about how therapy works and why it can be useful in solving problems. Like many wounded men Sam has a pain inside that he tries not to think about or feel. But when someone starts to ask specific questions about what happened in his childhood, how he felt then and how he feels now, he begins to drop his guard and many of those old feelings rush in.
After several sessions Sam was finally able to acknowledge that he had been abused as a boy. His father beat him with a belt, a stick, or whatever was convenient, and Sam frequently had welts on his back, bottom, and legs. He refused to go swimming or wear shorts during the summer for fear that others would see his injuries. And his father's violence was not restricted to him. Sam frequently watched his father physically abuse his mother. The son could not recall a week passing without his father coming home drunk and getting into a fight with his mother. Typically his father slapped his mother and pushed her around. On several occasions Sam remembered his father choking his mother unconscious. Sam also recalled being so fearful of his father that he couldn't move. This is Sam's most vivid memory:
One night I was watching TV after a tense dinner. We were all walking on eggshells trying not to get Dad upset. He used to get real angry if anyone would scrape their plate with their fork or knife. All I could think about was not making a single noise. I was so focused on my plate that I don't even remember anything anyone said. I learned how to shut the world out. Anyway, the inevitable happened. Someone said or did something wrong and he went crazy. He grabbed my mother by the hair and dragged her into the living room. He was beating the shit out of her. I was so terrified all I could do was keep looking at my plate so as to not make any noise. I glanced toward the living room briefly to see him choking her. Her entire face was blue. I couldn't move. I was terrified. What would he do to me if I tried to stop him? I looked back at my plate and just kept eating.
As a result of these and other experiences Sam felt a great deal of anger, rage, and hurt. But he never expressed those feelings because it was neither safe nor encouraged. Therefore he never learned how to deal with these or other intense emotions in an appropriate way. Instead he would stuff them deep inside, hoping they would never show their ugly heads. Because he had no healthy way to ventilate these strong emotions he would resort to the violence he learned as a boy that worked when feeling intense anger, hurt, or fear. Whenever conflict would arise in his marriage, a flood of strong emotions would immediately surface. One time his anger led to physical violence, but more often he would become verbally abusive and intimidating.
Sam also told me that there were times when he felt as if he was "being possessed" by his feelings: "When we first started talking about the abuse, I would leave your office with this sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach. It was twisting, wrenching. It was as if I was a wet towel being wrung. Sometimes I would be sitting quietly or at my work and I would begin to think about what happened. Then I'd panic. I felt possessed by these intense feelings. All I could do to stop myself from screaming was to distract myself. Five o'clock never came soon enough." This is a common reaction early in the healing process. As old memories begin to surface you are also likely to feel the old emotions associated with the abuse.
These intense feelings were present even when Sam was mad. His wife, Carol, felt his anger just by living under the same roof with him. His friends, coworkers, and other family members also sensed anger within him. In order for Sam to heal from the abuse he needed to acknowledge the presence of these powerful feelings within himself. Sam needed to admit that he was a wounded man.
Sam's therapy led him to realize the effects the old abuse had on today's feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. The initial work of uncovering the memories was very difficult, but over time the intensity of the feelings lessened. Soon he was not only able to talk openly about the abuse, but he became better able to recognize when those feelings and attitudes of yesterday were affecting his feelings and attitudes toward his partner today. After six months' separation he and his wife entered couples counseling and three months later began to live with each other again.
The Wounded Man
If you were physically beaten, sexually abused, or psychologically maltreated as a boy, it is important for you to realize that you are not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of others like you. Many of these men have already successfully healed their inner wounds. These wounds cannot be detected with X-rays or blood tests; they are wounds of the soul, the spirit--the psyche.
If you have a great deal of inner hurt and rage stemming from childhood abuse, you are a wounded man. Ironically, as a wounded man, you may not know that you are feeling these emotions because you did not learn how to identify and communicate your feelings in a positive, productive way. Or you may have even learned to split off from your feelings altogether, as a way of coping with these strong emotions. But these powerful feelings don't go away by themselves. They need an outlet. You're like a pressure cooker: If you don't let the steam out, you'll explode.
Explosions of intense emotion are common for wounded men who haven't learned how to express their feelings in constructive ways. Unless you deal with the pressure directly, destructive behaviors are inevitable. These behaviors are destructive because they will continually cause more problems in your life. Such problems include denial, violence, and alcoholism or drug addiction. In order to change these unhealthy behavior patterns you must directly address the wound itself.
Wounded men are hurt, injured, and confused inside. If a broken finger isn't properly set by a doctor, the bone will set itself improperly. It may just look bent and be a reminder about the time you broke your finger; or you may realize that something is wrong with the way that finger feels and works. And even though the injury may not stop you from appearing "perfectly normal" to most people, you may develop an unusual way of using your hand to compensate. You have learned to adjust to your injury. But what happens when that finger is stressed? It may feel unusually painful or it may become even more vulnerable to breaking again. You may have learned to adjust to your emotional injuries in the same way. Unlike physical injuries, however, psychological injuries are much easier to hide. Yet psychological wounds linger in the back of your mind and remain dormant until you are confronted with a stressful situation that reactivates them.
The Wounding of Male Children
This year over a million and a half children will experience some form of emotional, sexual, or physical abuse and at least a quarter of these will be boys. But no matter what type of abuse a boy experiences, the physical and psychological pain that it causes may result in many different types of problems throughout his life. Most commonly, the grown man continues to abuse himself and those closest to him.
Many adults say, "Boys are flexible. They can handle it." Or "Kids forget about it when they grow up." My interviews with hundreds of men abused as children, however, have not proven this case. In fact the majority of these child victims of abuse have suffered for years. Many have numerous physical ailments, frequent nightmares, troubled interpersonal relationships, and serious behavior problems. Though many men try to forget their childhood experiences, the memories and their associated feelings still affect their lives.
It has only been in the last few years that counselors are beginning to understand the male victim of child abuse. Men are now beginning to overcome the social pressure to be mentally and emotionally strong and to seem unaffected by their pain. Women are helping men overcome these social pressures by encouraging them to express their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Fifty years ago it was considered unmanly to cry. Today men are hearing from women and other men that it is OK to show their feelings. Many women now view it as a sign of strength when a man shows his emotions.
Abuse may carry a particularly high price tag for men. Males perpetrate the majority of abuses and and males perpetuate the generational cycle of violence. In order to stop the cycle of violence, you need to heal yourself. In doing so you not only help yourself, but you contribute to a much-needed change in society. Today millions of adult male victims of child abuse suffer within themselves and many cause suffering in others. By bringing an end to your own pain, you are more likely to do the same for others--whether it's your child, your spouse, a sibling, a friend, a parent, or someone you touch professionally. Healing is contagious. When one person does it, it inspires others to do the same.
Am I a Wounded Man?
How do you know if you are a wounded man? Start with the obvious--your behaviors. Do you have an explosive temper at home or at work? Do you have a difficult time making a commitment in an intimate relationship? Is there a lot of conflict in your marriage? Are you addicted to sex? Do you have an extreme fear of homosexuality or do you question your own sexual orientation? Do you frequent prostitutes? A drinking or a drug problem? Do you have trouble remaining sexually faithful in your relationship? Have you been violent with your spouse, partner, or children? Do you have other addictive patterns in your life?
Another way to determine if these invisible wounds exist inside of yourself is to look at your attitudes toward yourself and others. What do you think of yourself as a man? What do you like and dislike about yourself? Most people don't consciously take the time to examine their strengths and shortcomings. Wounded men often have a poor self-image or low self-esteem. They are often critical of themselves and others. A good clue to how you feel about yourself is to think about how you treat others, especially those with whom you are intimate or emotionally close. For example, if you verbally insult your partner, you probably grew up with a critical parent. I wouldn't be surprised to find that you are also very critical with yourself. Another attitude to examine is trust. Do you trust others? Do you think that people close to you would hurt you if they knew how you thought or felt? Betrayal of trust is one of the outcomes of childhood abuse. A trusted adult uses his or her greater strength and power to take advantage of the child. As a result of this betrayal the young child grows up distrusting others, especially those close to him. How would you rate your self-esteem? What are you attitudes about trust?
A third area to look at is feelings. Do you know how you feel most of the time? Many wounded men lack an awareness of their feelings. As a result they are unable to communicate with others. On the other hand, you may be very aware of your feelings. In fact you may be overwhelmed by their intensity and confused when so many different types of feelings surface at one time. Men who experience these intense emotions usually find ways to anesthetize themselves. You may use alcohol and drugs to avoid feelings; but any compulsive behavior -- whether it's work, sex, eating, or withdrawal into a private world -- can serve the same purpose. It helps you run away from your personal problems. How well do you deal with your feelings? How do you avoid your feelings? Problems in any one of these areas may mean that the abuse you experienced as a child is still affecting you today. Being abused as a boy, however, may not be the only reason for these difficulties in your life. The problems may be compounded by the fact that the way boys are brought up in our society actually predisposes them to any one or a number of the issues described above.
The Wounds in All Men
Our experience as men is uniquely different from women's in two very important ways: an emphasis on thinking rather than feeling, and praise for using aggression and violence. Abused or not, the way most boys are raised in this society can predispose us to serious problems as adults, especially in relationships.
"Thinking" versus "Feeling"
First, from birth on, men are taught to use the "thinking mode" far more than the "feeling mode," to be "rational" rather than "irrational": to be emotional is to act like a girl or a sissy. Men also learn that reason and logic are the best skills for success.
Rob, a forty-year-old lawyer, recently came to me because of his problems with alcoholism. He was raised by his alcoholic grandparents because his mother and his father abandoned him at an early age. Rob's wife had just left him, and I asked how he felt about it.
He looked at me with a blank stare and replied, "How do I feel? I think she should come back to me!" This man responded by using his thinking mode. He "thought" that she should come back to him. In order to help him get in touch with his feelings I asked a series of questions. The first was, "When you 'think' about her leaving you, what changes do you notice in your body?"
After several minutes of concentration, he replied, "I get tense in my stomach."
I then asked, "If that tension in your stomach had a voice, what would it say?"
"Come back, I miss you, I need you."
Next I asked him to say, "I'm scared, I am hurting."
He repeated "I'm scared and I am hurting" several times, then he turned to me and said, "Yes, that's it, that's right." At that point Rob was beginning to learn the language of feelings.
Because men are often uncomfortable with their feelings, they have great difficulty getting through the windstorms of life. When emotional difficulties arise they struggle--often unsuccessfully--with solving problems by using only logic. Men sometimes lack the flexibility to resolve their deepest feelings through introspection and communication. The result is that men frequently try to think their feelings away, try to find the logic in their emotions, or, most commonly, try to find an external cause for the problem.
Think about a time when your partner was trying to tell you her feelings. What was your response? Your first instinct was probably to try to understand why she was feeling that way or how you could make her feel better. If you didn't see the logic in her feelings you probably got frustrated. She may then have accused you of "not understanding." You may have tried even harder to talk her out of her feelings. And then an argument may have exploded, seemingly out of nowhere. This all happens because we feel uncomfortable with feelings. When we "think" that we have found the cause for feeling uncomfortable, namely another person, then we often attempt to get that person to change, or stop doing whatever we think it is that makes us feel uncomfortable. The problem with this strategy is that it never addresses the real problem of our discomfort with feelings. To compound the problem the other person experiences our response as controlling, not listening, and unsupportive.
When we use the thinking mode exclusively, rather than in combination with the feeling mode, we tend to put less value on other people's feelings. This is why men have trouble communicating with women. It is as if we speak different languages. Women typically want to discuss their feelings, while men don't understand what the problem is. Men want to give advice. But women get angry because they don't want advice; they just want to be heard and understood.
For centuries society has not given approval for men to experience and express their feeling, nurturing, relationship-oriented sides. Although men and women have the capacity to act in both traditionally masculine and feminine ways, boys and girls are saddled with sex-role expectations from birth. And such expectations limit their abilities to experience the full range of human potential.
Thus an important part of our healing process is to accept the various aspects of our inner self, both masculine and feminine. When we achieve inner balance we are able to respond in a flexible way to situations outside ourselves. If a situation calls for a feeling response, then we are free to respond in that way. If it needs a thinking response, then we can think.
Tom, a thirty-eight-year-old, self-employed contractor, came to counseling in the midst of his divorce. This tall, thin, well dressed man can into counseling on the advice of a friend. He was continually anxious, and unable to sleep, relax, or concentrate on work. He had been severely psychologically abused by his father, who never showed him any physical affection. As far back as Tom could remember his father told him that to cry, or show any emotion, was being a sissy. Tom grew up the epitome of the thinking man. Feelings were simply not a part of his repertoire.
This wasn't too much of a problem until he married a very emotional woman. The more emotional she got, the more analytical he became. He felt intimidated by her feelings and responded by becoming even more analytical and emotionally distant. Over time he became estranged from his wife and found himself out of love with her. Eventually his wife left him. Now for the first time in his life, Tom began to feel something. But these feelings were so intense that he didn't know how to verbalize them. I told Tom that this was an opportunity for him to get in touch with his feelings, to learn how to deal with a part of himself that his father had never allowed him to experience.
It took a major crisis for Tom to let himself feel strong emotions. Over time he became more and more comfortable using his feeling mode when the situation called for such a response. Such a crisis is often the factor that propels men into facing their emotions. If you are in a similar state you can learn how to make use of your feeling mode in all areas of your life. Uncomfortable situations arise in our lives to teach us lessons. And until we learn the task at hand they will keep coming up over and over again. When a wounded man refuses to face this challenge the crisis can become very frightening.
Men and Aggression
A second difference between men and women is that, from an early age, males are taught to use aggression and violence.
As infants boys are handled more roughly than girls. Boys are encouraged to participate in "rough-and-tumble" play. As we get older and are able to utilize our "thinking mode," we are encouraged to solve problems using logic and common sense. However, if that approach doesn't work, most males don't automatically switch to the feeling mode; instead, they usually resort to force.
Fighting is a "skill" every boy learns either to develop or at least to confront while growing up. We have to prove manhood by demonstrating our physical strengths. Fighting becomes a rite of passage. If we don't go out there and pick a fight, one will eventually come our way. Fighting also has rules. The first rule is: You should never walk away from a fight. If you do walk away, you are a coward, a sissy, or worse, according to the rules acting like a girl. The second rule is: If you fight and get hurt, you shouldn't cry, because only girls cry. Showing hurt is not a boy's alternative; there is no alternative but to tough it out. And this rule is enforced by male role models from TV, movies, sports, and music, who give boys the same message: Be tough, be aggressive, and show strength.
How does this emphasis on aggression manifest if you experienced abuse as a child? As you begin to look inwardly you discover a great deal of hurt and anger. But society hasn't given you a vehicle to express your inner feelings, so you try to think them away or just to ignore them, or worse, turn the situation around to match violence with violence. Social conditioning makes men prone to act out their feelings rather than to communicate them, so you may be more likely to act on your aggressive impulses. Why? Because that's what you learned as a child.
The potential for aggressive responses to stressful situations is great for the wounded man. To say to yourself, "I'll never be like him (or her)" or, if you have already been abusive toward others, to tell yourself, "I'll never do it again," is not enough to bring about a change in your life. You need to go beyond words and face your inner feelings, develop new attitudes toward yourself and others, and learn new skills in dealing with personal problems. It is imperative that you actively begin to heal yourself. The healing process described in the book will help you bring about these changes.
Is Healing Possible?
Healing is possible. It will take some time and work. Many men and women in the helping professions have found methods that have been effective in helping men overcome the devastating effects of childhood abuse. I have personally watched hundreds of men rise above their wounds and find peace of mind. I like to think of these individuals as heroes because it takes a great deal of courage to go to battle with our inner demons.
It is very important for you to know that changing your patterns of behavior today does not totally depend on first healing all your childhood wounds. You can develop specific skills along the way to help you stop violence and substance abuse as well as to resolve marital difficulties. But, in the long run, only by healing your inner wounds from childhood abuse will you become able to prevent such serious behavior problems from reoccurring.
The Phases of the Healing Process The process of healing your wounds from childhood abuse will, in many ways, be unique to your particular situation. However, four phases to healing are common to all men embarking on this journey. Healing is not a linear process so you may not experience each phase in the order given below. But throughout your healing you will experience one or more of these phases individually or simultaneously.
- Awareness and disclosure of being a wounded man and unlocking the thoughts and feelings that go along with those wounds.
- Understanding how and why the abuse occurred and ultimately how it affects you today.
- Learning new skills, attitudes, and ways of relating to others.
- Transformation, the process that allows the development of different aspects of yourself.
Each of these phases have qualities that are particularly important for you.
Phase One: Awareness and Disclosure
Awareness and disclosure means acknowledging that you were abused as a child, and accepting all the thoughts and feelings that go along with that fact.
We have many secrets that we keep from others. Some secrets are meant to be kept to ourselves. But the most damaging secrets are the ones that we fail to acknowledge, even to ourselves. This may be the case for you. The thought of facing the abuse is so uncomfortable that you may want to take the memories (and all the thoughts and feelings that accompany such memories) and lock them up in a trunk in the basement. You may do this consciously; or you may have done it so long ago that you have forgotten all about it. In either case, even though the trunk is locked, the secret will unconsciously control your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors Once you acknowledge the abuse you will begin to take control. You will no longer be a victim to the secret.
Once you have acknowledged the abuse and the emotions to yourself, the next step is disclosure--telling someone else. One result of hiding the secret is that you may feel a certain amount of alienation. Wounded men often feel misunderstood, detached, or estranged from others. Saying, "I was sexually abused" or "I feel angry at my father for physically abusing me" will have a cathartic affect on you. You are likely to feel an immediate release of inner pressure, as if a load has been removed from your chest. The disclosure process may involve telling friends or other family members of the abuse, although this does not mean you should blurt out your secret to everyone you meet. Telling your secret to a supportive person will help you feel less alone in the world. Disclosure is not very different from the idea of confession: it is a cleansing process that helps you feel a sense or relief.
Eventually you may want to confront your abuser. But this should not happen until you have become quite comfortable with your own healing process.
Phase Two: Understanding
Understanding goes beyond recognizing the long-term effects of the abuse. Answering the questions, "Why did the abuser act in that way?" and "What other problems were occurring for the person at the time?" may be a part of this stage of your healing process. Most important, this stage involves the realization that you were not to blame for the abuse. You did not cause the abuse or allow it to happen in any way. It is up to adults to protect children; it is not the child's role to protect himself from adults. Developing a general understanding of why people abuse others--children, in particular--can help you step back from your experience and view it from a different perspective.
For example, after many sessions of anger and tears, Mark, a fifty-two-year-old, well-dressed businessman who lived a fast-track lifestyle, was able to step back from his experience and understand why his father physically abused him: