Wounded Boys/Heroic Men: A Man’s Guide to Recovering from Child Abuse

Wounded Boys/Heroic Men:

A Man’s Guide to Recovering from Child Abuse

by Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D.

Chapter One

Wounded Men, Wounded Boys

The first time Sam called my office to make an appointment his voice was soft but urgent. He said that he needed to see me immediately, he had a real problem: His wife had given him an ultimatum–“Either get into counseling or get a lawyer”–and then she had walked out. Two days later, when I opened the door to let him into the office, I was surprised to see a 250-pound man who looked like a guard for the San Francisco 49ers.

He seemed reluctant and angry as he entered my office and I had the feeling he was not there by choice. I asked him to sit on the sofa. He sat down, crossed his arms on his chest, and crossed his legs. His expression challenged me: “Okay. Do your thing, Doc.”

Sam was probably feeling the same way I did during my first session in a therapist’s office; I didn’t know what to say or expect. So I made nothing of his defensive posture. Instead, I asked, “Have you ever been to a counselor before?”

“Just once with my wife, but not alone,” he said. “In fact I’ve always figured that therapy was for people who were a little crazy. My wife was seeing a therapist because one of her friends was seeing one. That’s probably how all the trouble started in the first place, and now I’m here.”

“Many men who enter into therapy for the first time think the same thing,” I responded, and tried to reassure him that I didn’t think that he was crazy. “People seek a therapist’s help for many reasons. Usually they’re just looking for help with a personal problem from a person who can present them with a fresh point of view.”

He breathed a sigh of relief, unfolded his arms, and uncrossed his legs. I asked, “What specifically brings you here today?”

“My wife left me this weekend. We’ve been fighting a lot lately and I think she’s just had it with me and my temper.”

I asked about his temper.

“I want to be left alone when I get angry,” he responded, “so I go off by myself. My wife follows me and keeps pushing my buttons. She says, ‘Talk to me. You never talk to me.’ Then I get so mad I begin to talk to her. But it’s more like yelling. I kind of rant and rave. After a while I just calm down.”

I asked how his wife felt about his “going off by myself.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Frustrated, I suppose. If she doesn’t like it she should just leave me alone.”

I asked a similar question about his “yelling.”

“I don’t know. Maybe she gets pissed off,” he said. “She says she gets scared.”

Why, I asked, did he think she felt that way?

“I think her father used to beat her up pretty badly.”

“And have you ever felt like hitting her?”

He said emphatically, “It’s crossed my mind a couple of times.”

Then I asked if he had ever done that.

“Well, once before,” he said, cutting off his words.

“Can you talk about it?”

During what was a long pause, I noticed that Sam was quite uncomfortable talking about what happened. He probably had never told anyone about the violence. So I said, “I know talking about these problems can feel embarrassing. But maybe I can help you understand your situation from a different perspective so that you can approach your problems differently. Maybe you would feel better just to talk about it. That’s what counseling is really all about. Tell me what happened.”

“Well,” he began, “About five years ago I was drinking heavily and we got into a big fight about her family visiting. She’s very close with them–always talking to them on the phone and going to visit.” He paused, as if the memory was becoming clearer in his mind, then added, “I had just come home from work and had had a really bad day. Before she even asked me about my day she came right up to me and told me that she had already invited them to come visit us for two weeks. I said OK, but inside I knew it wasn’t. I just got real quiet. I guess you might say I started moping around the house.” Suddenly his tone became almost confessional. “Then I was slamming doors, throwing things down. I wasn’t very nice to her. I was in the bedroom watching the news and she came in to talk. She starting asking me how I was feeling. Once she started seeing this therapist, she was always asking me, ‘How do you feel?’ I don’t know how the fuck I feel! So I just ignored her.”

At this point Sam’s eyes became intense, and his voice grew angry as he remembered. “Finally she was right up in my face telling me if I wasn’t going to communicate with her that there was no point being together. The next thing I knew I was on top of her, screaming as loud as I could. I had my hands around her neck and I was choking her. I mean I wasn’t really choking her, but I was holding her down.” Then the confessional tone returned. “I know that there’s no excuse for it, but it was a bad time for me at work and she got real angry at me, accusing me of not wanting her family to visit.”

I asked him if there had been some truth to that statement.

“I guess so,” he said. “I’m not very close to my own family and I felt a little jealous of her relationship with hers.”

“What happened afterwards?

“We didn’t talk all night and most of the next day. And then we just kind of forgot about it.”


“Well, I tried to.”

I challenged him to think about whether or not she wanted to forget about the fight.

“Not from the sound of this letter she left me.”

Sam’s way of resolving the argument was by promising to never do it again. And although he never physically abused her again, he would frequently abuse her psychologically with threats and putdowns. They went to a counselor together. Sam talked about his alcoholic father, who also had a violent temper. The therapist recommended that Sam get into counseling as well. As far as Sam was concerned, his father was history. Like many men who were abused, he couldn’t see how digging up the past would change today. Sam was convinced that if Carol would just back off he wouldn’t get so mad. He agreed to make a few calls to therapists but always found reasons for not going, the best being money. After a while Carol just stopped nagging him about it. He came home last Friday after work and found this note:

Dear Sam,

I can’t live with your anger any more. I’ve been waiting three years for you to get help and you always have had an excuse not to go to therapy. I’m not exactly sure why you are so afraid to look at your childhood, but I guess that something happened that was very hurtful and frightening. I know that whatever happened then is still hurting you today. I have tried talking about it, I’ve tried ignoring it, I’ve tried being understanding and patient. Nothing seems to help. You are either cold, distant, and withdrawn, or you’re exploding out of control. I can’t get close to you. I am still scared that you will become violent with me again. I can’t live with your pain and rage any longer. I can tell you are avoiding having contact with me. You’re either at work, fixing something around the house, out with your friends, or drinking and watching television. Please get help before you hurt yourself or someone else. I want you to know that I am safe and will call in about a week, after I have had some time to sort things out for myself.

Love, Carol

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.

“I’m fine.”

“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.”

“About what?”

“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.

  1. Awareness and disclosure of being a wounded man and unlocking the thoughts and feelings that go along with those wounds.
  2. Understanding how and why the abuse occurred and ultimately how it affects you today.
  3. Learning new skills, attitudes, and ways of relating to others.
  4. 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:

It was very difficult for me to get beyond my anger toward my father for beating me all during my childhood. When I would think of him I'd only feel anger. As I began to look at his life and the problems he had, I began to realize, first, it wasn't my fault and second, he abused everyone he came in contact with. He grew up with a violent, alcoholic father and he just never dealt with his own pain. During the year in therapy that I began to deal with this part of my life, I actually began to develop some compassion for him. He was a sick guy. As I did I felt less angry and really began to feel in my heart that it wasn't my fault. Then I knew that I was beginning to heal.

Phase Three: Learning New Skills

The learning process is based on the assumption that everyone, both men and women, wounded or not, can stand to pick up new skills, attitudes, and ways of relating to others. You may have been feeling very angry all your life about the abuse. You are now experiencing dysfunctional patterns in your own relationships, but are doing nothing to change the present. You may have analyzed your past so completely that you now use it as an excuse or justification for your current problems. For example, when confronted about his abusive behavior toward his child, one man stated, “Oh, I do that because my parents treated me in the same way.” The understanding becomes an excuse for current behavior rather than a reason to change. So you first need to learn that change is possible. No matter how long you have had a particular way of acting or thinking, with persistence and practice you can learn new skills and attitudes.

Phase Four: Transformation

The transformation process occurs as you work through the other stages of the healing process. Awareness, disclosure, understanding, and learning help to change your attitudes, emotional disposition, and behaviors. You may begin to notice these changes in yourself; more frequently, however, such changes are noticed first by others. You will hear friends make statements such as: “You have changed in the last year”; or “You are less tense, less on edge lately”; or “You have been expressing your feelings a lot more lately”; or “You seem more self-confident than you did several years ago.”

The transformation process also involves using the experience to cultivate other sides of yourself. For example, if you have a tendency to think and analyze your feelings away, then you may want to learn how to feel more comfortable with experiencing and communicating your emotions. Or, if you haven’t learned to step back, deliberate, and understand your emotions, then you may need to develop your thinking skills. Men who find it easier to experience their anger may need to express their sadness more often. Extroverts who need constant attention from others may want to nurture their quiet side, becoming more comfortable with themselves.

Transformation occurs when you use the abusive experience as a springboard to enhance sides of your personality that may have been blocked. Sometimes this happens consciously, such as when the extrovert says to himself, “I am going to spend some time alone today,” or when the thinking type asks himself, “How do I feel about this situation?” At other times transformation occurs unconsciously over time through the process of healing.

You may have transformed your experience in more obvious ways, such as getting involved with programs that help victims or offenders of violence. Maybe you have been attracted to a profession that encourages healing, such as psychology, peer counseling, medicine, or other people-helping fields. You can help others with their pain if you are willing to work on yourself as well. In fact this can be an important part of your healing process. You may have entered a helping field and have worked with many victims of violence, only to discover that you too had an abusive childhood. If this is the case for you, attend to your own wounds so they won’t get in the way of your helping others.

As you transform you will find that you are less affected by the past, and will feel better about yourself and how you respond to others. It doesn’t mean that you will never feel the pain again or that you won’t encounter problems in your relationships. But it does mean that you will not let your childhood experiences determine your response to those problems. You will have more choices, fewer knee-jerk reactions. Therefore you will have greater control over yourself. Mark was physically abused by his mother. As a result he would become very defensive whenever a woman would criticize him . Now he can catch himself when this reaction occurs. He can say to himself, “She is not my mother and I am not a child. Is she saying something valid or do I need to assert myself?”

Ultimately your process of healing will be unique within this framework. Therefore your timing will be determined by your own inner readiness for any particular stage. That inner clock needs to be respected by counselors and family members as well as yourself. The choice to heal rests with you, and only you can decide when and how that will occur.

Three years ago, during the week of Father’s Day, I asked each man in my wounded men’s group to imagine that his father was there in the group. Each group member was to tell his father something he had never told him before. I placed an empty chair in the center of the circle: “There he is: your father. What do you want to say to him?”

The tension in the room increased tenfold. Each person began to express his thoughts and feelings. Barry, forty-five, and unemployed, who had been referred to the group for physically abusing his daughter and wife, was unable to do the exercise. He said that he was afraid. When I asked him what he was afraid of, he stated, “If I got in touch with how I feel about this guy I might get violent.” He wasn’t ready for this exercise. He had only been dealing with these intense feelings for a few months. I told him it was OK for him to just watch and listen to the others.

A year later I repeated the exercise. This time Barry was able to participate. He was ready to open up to his feelings.

For two more years Barry struggled to heal his wounds from childhood abuse. He had witnessed years of violence between his mother and father. His father physically abused him and sexually abused his younger sister. When he was ten years old his mother killed his father with a knife. She was found guilty of murder and was sent to jail, and he lived in one foster home after another until he was eighteen. He developed a serious drug problem as an adult, which led to three marriages and three divorces. In each marriage he was physically abusive. He came into counseling after attempting suicide when his third wife left him for another man. He saw no hope for his future.

At his first session he disclosed his mother’s murder of his father. It was the first time in thirty-five years that he had talked about what happened. His rage toward his parents came up in every session. The hurt, fear, and pain were not far behind. The feelings seemed endless. Over time, however, they became less intense, less present and overbearing. Through his therapy he came to better understand his parents. He realized that he wasn’t the cause of their problems. He wasn’t to blame for the violence. Barry learned how the violence affected his own sense of self-esteem, and how he carried his rage into each of his marriages. He saw how he was blaming his wife for his pain, just as he was blaming himself for his parent’s problems. Through his participation in the group Barry learned how to talk out his feelings and problems rather than act them out.

Over a period of three years Barry was transformed. To this day he still has anger and sadness about what happened in his family. But he’s better able to recognize when those old feelings are getting in his way of seeing what is going on at the moment. He occasionally falls into old patterns, but he’s able to catch himself before they get out of hand. He says, “The memories are a reminder that I need to be careful. I don’t want to forget them altogether. Otherwise I may repeat the same mistakes. I’ve had enough abuse in my life.”


Wounded Heroes

The late Joseph Campbell, author of numerous books on philosophy and mythology, wrote an entire book about heroes and heroism entitled The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it he discusses the concept of the hero’s journey as seen by differing cultures and as reflected in art and literature. He found a universal theme surrounding heroism. It was quite consistent between different societies and the same themes were repeated throughout the history of those cultures. This book so inspired director George Lucas that he created a series of contemporary films about the hero’s journey, entitled, Star Wars.

When I first read about the hero’s journey I immediately related it to the healing process from childhood abuse. I realized that each of us who embarks on a dangerous endeavor is a hero. It takes a great deal of courage to face your inner wounds. None of us likes to look at our weaknesses or vulnerablities. But it is only by doing so that you can come to terms with your abuse and the personal problems that resulted. Understanding the phases of the hero’s journey as outlined by Campbell will help you see how the hero’s journey relates to your own healing process.

The classic hero’s journey has four stages: the calling, the leaving, the courageous act, and the return. Let’s look more closely at what characterizes each stage.

The Calling

Every hero’s journey begins with a message sent to the potential hero either from within or from another place. The hero may experience the internal message as uneasiness, discomfort, or a feeling that something is just not right. The message may also come from someone else either in verbal form or in written form. For example, your partner or a friend may tell you that you need to solve your personal problems. Many men have embarked on their inner journey because the court mandated counseling.

Think about how you came to recognize your own calling. Perhaps you felt inside that something was not right, unresolved, or uncomfortable. It may have been your own inner need to heal that brought you this far, or your calling may have been through someone else. You may have read a book, a newspaper article, or watched a television program or movie that motivated you to embark on a healing journey. Both the internal and external messages are there; but if the hero doesn’t respond the messages get more extreme until they fall on your head like a hundred-pound weight. Divorce, separation, and arrests for violence or drug abuse are just a few of these overt messages that we get.

At some point the hero decides whether or not to respond. If he doesn’t the messages simply get more demonstrative. If he does choose to acknowledge the calling, he is faced with the next task in his journey, the leaving.

The Leaving

Once the hero heeds the call he must depart from a safe place and venture into uncharted territory. Breaking the denial that has kept your safe all these years and talking about long-ignored feelings, thoughts and memories may be the first step on your journey.

Embarking on your healing journey can be frightening and unnerving. You are out of your daily routine which removes your sense of predicability and security. The healing process can be like a roller-coaster; Sometimes you will feel frightened, angry, and depressed and other times you will feel energized, excited, and hopeful. Most important, the leaving means you must come face to face with different parts of yourself, both positive and negative.

What makes this frightening part of the journey a little easier is the presence of a spirit guide or mentor who will assist your transition into the unknown. In the movie Star Wars, Ben Kenobi helped Luke Skywalker across the threshold from earth to space and taught him the importance of getting in touch with his own inner force. Your spirit guide may take the form of a therapist, another man who is already on his healing journey, an AA sponsor, a close friend, or a lover. Your guide can be just about anyone you respect and trust and who has taken a similar journey. Ultimately this guide will help you prepare for the most challenging part of your journey, the courageous act.

The Courageous Act

At some point in his journey the hero is faced with a challenge of enormous proportions. He may have to do battle with a frightening creature or another person. He may have to reclaim a treasure that was taken away or save the life of another person. Usually the hero has to use not only his physical strength but other resources, such as feeling, intelligence, intuition, or sensitivity. The hero has to put aside his ego, become humble, and do what is necessary to complete the task.

You will find many challenges in healing from childhood abuse. Perhaps you will have to do battle with your inner abuser or reclaim your lost inner child or rescue your own inner feminine/feeling side. You will have to do battle with your inner abuser’s tendency to blame yourself for the abuse. Combating low self-esteem is another challenge of the healing process. Learning to get in touch with your feelings may be the greatest challenge of all. You will face other inner challenges, such as acknowledging your weaknesses, admitting that you can’t do it alone, being willing to make and learn from your mistakes, and learning to ask for help. This will require courage and persistence, but when you return you will have changed in a fundamental way.

The Return

When the hero returns from his journey there is something different about him. The courageous act has brought about an inner change that others notice immediately. Your partner, friends, or coworkers may tell you that you seem different. You may even notice the difference yourself, feeling more centered, at peace with yourself or happier with life. You may not feel noticeably different from the way you felt last week, but you may feel radically different than you did six months or a year ago.

An important part of the hero’s return is talking about what he has learned on his way. This doesn’t mean bragging about his heroism but spreading an important message that captures the essence of the journey. For you this may involve encouraging other men to embark on a similar healing journey. It may also simply be encouraging others to talk about their feelings rather than hide them. You may find that your message will go to your children in the way that you choose to raise them differently from the way you were raised. It may be helping a friend in crisis or supporting your partner in a different way than you have in the past. Some men have written about their experiences in the hope that other men could find courage in hearing another man’s story.

Leaving and Returning

Heroes usually don’t go on only one journey; adventure is a way of life for them. There is a continual leaving and returning, coming and going, facing new challenges and reaching new heights of awareness and change. Your healing journey will consist of a similar process of leaving a safe and comfortable place, facing and meeting a challenge, and returning with a new attitude or other change. After a while you will venture out again to face new hurdles and overcome new barriers to finding peace of mind. But with each journey you will develop new skills to make the next one easier.

Facing the intense pain of childhood abuse takes courage of heroic proportions. You are a hero for answering the call no matter in what form it came. You are a hero for asking for help and taking deliberate steps in healing your wounds. You are a hero for facing your inner demons and reclaiming your lost self. You are a hero for coming back a changed person and passing on your knowledge to others. You are a hero for continuing to struggle with your wounds and make peace with yourself and others. Through your healing journey you will discover your own heroism and learn to appreciate the heroism in others.

Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D.
1505 Bridgeway, Suite 105
Sausalito, California 94965
(415) 332-6703

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Wounded Boys, Heroic Men: A Man’s Guide To Recovering From Child Abuse by Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D. (Amazon rating 5 stars). $10.36.