The age old question. Don’t we all ask it at some point? Do we really want to know the answer?
As a counselor who works with good people of which obscenely bad things have happened to, I admit I have asked the same question. For believers, this question can shake one’s faith and lead one to question if God is actually good.
I don’t claim to have an answer, but when I consider the power of resiliency, the desire to ask why subsides as I contemplate the wow!
If you could sit in a counselor’s room for any length of time you would undoubtedly witness the wow!=resilience, bravery, victory, and strength. These words don’t usually reside in the same societal narrative as “mental health” “therapy” or “counseling” but THEY SHOULD.
When we focus on the why we give too much power to the negative circumstance. Yes bad things happen and in no way am I dismissing that gravity of these bad things. They are bad, often they are far worse than bad–but–when our narrowed focus gets fused on why we give up our authority to pursue the what.
C.S. Lewis writes after his wife’s passing, “But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t. Either way, we’re for it.”
C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”
So, perhaps the what, or maybe it is better said- for what (purpose)- is the more critical question than why.
Some “for whats” I have witnessed as a clinican include:
“For” an awareness of His Glory and presence.
“For” a break away from the dysfunction of generational issues.
“For” a positive and effective change that ripples through future generations.
“For” a clear and confident sense of self-efficacy.
“For” a deep compassion to facilitate healing in others.
“For” an accurate and full understanding of intimacy, the ability to express and experience it, the knowledge of the dangers that obscure it, and the capacity now to protect it.
“For” the opportunity to reframe one’s belief about themself and the strength to denounce the lie.
“For” belief in one’s worthiness.
We can ask and focus on the why or we can pursue the “for what”: “Either way, we’re for it”
Affair Recovery clients are a population I really enjoy working with. Their marriage is in crisis, the pain is raw, BUT what an incredible healing experience to witness as they grow through the following “ABC’s”
A: The first “A” is Avoidance. To some extent all affairs contain some level of avoidance. This avoidance may be avoiding conflict (trying to keep the harmony), avoiding painful emotions (stuffing them down or numbing), avoiding intimacy (likely because at one point in time it was not safe or acceptable to be close and intimate), or even avoiding reality (being invested in the mythical fantasies/expectations of marriage). Whatever the avoidance, it must be brought out of the darkness that it hibernates in. This requires a great deal of emotional safety. If the vulnerability underneath the avoidance has been exposed and then dismissed, shamed, or made fun of (other words exposed to an emotionally unsafe environment) then avoidance will likely be perpetuated. Much of therapy at the beginning is purposed for creating a safe environment to face what has been too painful or too feared to face before. Even then relapses occur and we bump into avoidant patterns again; however, we are not doomed for failure. We must also add awareness, which brings us to our second “A.”
The second “A” is Awareness. Awareness is key when therapy gains are not firmly rooted and old patterns pop up, as previously stated. Awareness is also needed when it comes to feelings identification, ownership, and regulation. Both spouses need to identify their feelings and effectively manage them independently. Depending on the other spouse to regulate one’s emotional experience will not bode well because that spouse may not be available to serve in that capacity. In addition, dependency may very well be an element that helped to create the opportunity for an affair to occur in the marriage in the first place. Awareness is also needed to identify the generational patterns. To prevent the transmission of patterns experienced in their families of origin, both spouses need to be aware of how their patterns look similar to those of their family’s and practice differentiation (see previous post!).
B: “B” is for the Balance needed for processing the meaning of the affair itself with the marital issues that precipitated the affair. For the betrayed spouse, the affair is the issue. For the spouse involved in infidelity, the marital issues are the problem. For healing to take place, and to cultivate a marriage where there won’t be an opportunity for a future affair, both the affair and the marital issues must be processed. Both spouses need to own the miss-steps they took in the marriage, which brings us to “C”
C: “C” is for Changing perspectives to a shared definition about the affair. When spouses are able to own their contribution and collectively define how it took both of them to get where they are in their marriage, the intensity of the emotional charge they feel dissipates and makes room for work to be accomplished. Therefore, “C” is also for Changing dysfunctional behavior. It took both of the spouses to get here. It will also take both of them to get out. When each spouse can identify and own their part, they can move forward in practicing new ways of engaging. Because systems adjust to change, as one spouse changes the other also responds with change. Which brings us to the last “C” Commitment. At this level in the process both spouses now have all they need to choose the marriage, and as with all life’s storms, they are likely stronger for it. Many couples share that in a weird way they are thankful for the affair because it led them to the quality of marriage they now have and enjoy.
This post has been gleaned from information presented in Emily Brown’s book “Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment” (see My Recommended Reading Library page).
Differentiation is a concept developed by Murray Bowen. It is one of the founding principles in Bowen’s Family Systems Theory. The following is my personal description of a well-differentiated self and an explanation of why its so important to be differentiated.
My personal definition of differentiation: The ability to be connected and engaged fully with “we” while simultaneously exercising an established, whole, and defined “I.” Its a balance between “we” and “I”- not enmeshed/codependent, and not detached/cut off- it is a healthy space in the middle.
A well-differentiated person is:
someone skilled in emotional regulation – because of this is able to experience and express emotional experience effectively and carefully assess thought process
someone who utilizes principles/beliefs/values help guide decision making
someone who is able to act selflessly because of choice not due to pressure or feelings of obligation and without self-sacrificing
someone who can manage their own anxiety
someone who is assertive not aggressive
someone who is flexible and adaptable not a pushover
someone who more often responds instead of reacts
someone who can connect to others without losing “I” (their identity)
A poorly-differentiated person is:
someone who engages in active or passive attempts to control others (bully or chameleon)
someone who depends on the acceptance and approval of others (bully will pressure others to conform to their ways, chameleon will ascribe to the ways of others and engage in people pleasing)
someone who experiences frequent disagreements that threaten their sense of security
someone with patterns in rescuing (losing “I” in fixing/saving others) or manipulating (perspective that others hold greater power in “I’s” functioning, so “I” is lost in becoming fused with the management of others)
someone who is led by emotions-emotions heavily influence and guide decision making
someone who’s dependence results in chronic anxiety
So- Why is it important to be differentiated?
Research shows that well-differentiated people are more resilient and better positioned for authentic connections! They have a wide window of tolerance which means they are capable of managing a number of stressors without exploding or imploding.
Well-differentiated people are also able to identify and respect their needs, as well as, the needs of those around them. Though it sounds like it might mean seperatness, differentiation is not synonymous with isolation. In truth, differentiation is an essential ingredient for intimacy. If there is a whole and defined “I” and a whole and defined “you,” then there can be a whole and defined “us” where connection can be experienced at depth.
What can you do to pursue a well-differentiated self?
Grow in independent emotional regulation. “Feelings are real, but not always true”: first identify your feeling experience, then-write it out, work it out artistically, work it out physically, work it out spiritually. Examples: journaling, drawing/crafting, going on a walk, praying. Also helpful: guided imagery, grounding, doing something for someone else, gratitude journal. *Remember: It is important to reach out to others for help and share experiences. Humans were created to belong and connect. The danger is dependence. We are more empowered when we learn to cultivate our own happiness rather than looking to others to make us happy or needing them to make us feel better.
Stay in the here and now. Anxiety is often sourced in ruminating over hurts/stressors of the past, or worries about the future. If this feeling is influencing decisions, then what is happening in the present is entirely missed. “You can only experience joy within the boundaries of today”-Sarah Young
Invest in your independence. Find a (one or more) hobby/passion/interest/goal that is just for you and you alone.
Celebrate and appreciate differences. Identify strength and worth in attributes you hold that are different than those you know and strive to see strength and worth in other’s qualities that are different than yours. It’s tempting to believe that things would be easier if others see and behave as we do, but this assumption dismisses the beauty in humanity and how everyone is uniquely themselves.
Take ownership of growth-areas. These in NO way appraise you as holding less value. This ownership is actually empowerment toward responsibility for self and maturity in not attributing blame to others.
Learn what boundaries are, when to set them, and how to maintain them. This can be difficult because when a new boundary is set, most react by resisting acceptance of the boundary. It is important to know and believe that “no” is a boundary word, not an unloving word. Boundaries are a way to define an “I” and then provide the opportunity for others to honor “what is me and what is not me.”
Have you ever had a photo taken of you that you despised? No matter how many people told you, “You look great! What are you talking about?” or “I like that picture of you!” you still do not like that photo? What we believe about ourselves holds the greatest power.
EMDR Therapy is a well-researched and highly effective treatment originated for trauma survivors. One crucial part of EMDR Therapy, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is taking a negative cognition (perhaps one knows that they are enough, but they do not feel enough) and reframing it to a true positive cognition. This empowers the client to not just change, but maintain a new perspective of themselves.
EMDR can be difficult for some clients to buy into as it is quite different from traditional talk therapy. However, in my opinion, it is a much kinder way to treat trauma while getting to the core of the distress.
The first step in EMDR is establishing resources to help with emotional regulation. This way, when encountering a stressor, a client is well equipped with a variety of tools to manage it more effectively. Next, the client is asked to bring up disturbing memories. These memories may be big T trauma such as an act of violence or abuse, or they may be little t trauma such as harsh words a parent said or an embarrassing event that happened at school. Little t trauma is little not in that it is less impactful, but it is often less obvious. After memories are identified, clients proceed in a structured process to desensitize the emotional charge connected to the event and aid the brain and body in reprocessing the trauma adaptively. This is done with bilateral stimulation or BLS. BLS stimulates both hemispheres of the brain and can be done visually with eye movements, tactile with tapping, or auditory with tones. This enables the client to be both grounded to the present and an observer of the event being reprocessed. One of the best parts of EMDR is that details are not necessary for healing. Often only a few words or short phrases are needed. This protects clients from re-traumatization or retelling the trauma narrative. The last step of EMDR involves looking at the future and reprocessing any roadblocks that get in the way of one responding confidently in the way they desire.
Clients are frequently astonished with the change they see in themselves and how it has a rippling effect on their relationships. Many leave therapy stating they feel stronger, more empowered, and hold a greater sense of self-efficacy.
Below are some quotes I have frequently received from clients who chose to try EMDR Therapy:
“It feels like the trauma is being erased.”
“The memory feels far away and distant.”
“I feel like I have a foundation we are building on.”
“The eye movements help to dissipate the trigger.”
“I feel like we are healing the core of the trauma with EMDR when in talk therapy I have only got to the surface and been re-traumatized.”
“I know I have all the resources I need now.”
“I have always been triggered by this memory. Now I don’t feel any charge with it. The emotion is gone. I didn’t know how heavy it was until I had relief from it.”
“I am constantly more appreciative and impressed with how what we are doing in here helps to improve my daily life.”
“I am more secure and confident in myself.”
“The trauma doesn’t define me. It’s lost its power.”
“I don’t know how I have never heard of this before. It is life changing!”
If you are considering EMDR Therapy, I cannot recommend it enough! Check out the EMDRIA (EMDR International Association) video below for more information. Thanks for reading!
“But, the heart of the definition and recovery lies not in the other person-no matter how much we believe it does. It lies in ourselves, in the ways we have let other people’s behavior affect us and in the ways we try to affect them: the obsessing, the controlling, the obsessive “helping,” caretaking, low self-worth bordering on self-hatred, self-repression, abundance of anger and guilt, peculiar dependency on peculiar people, attraction to and tolerance for the bizarre, other-centeredness that results in abandonment of self, communication problems, intimacy problems, and an ongoing whirlwind trip through the five-stage grief process.”
Codependent No More, p. 34
I have not yet found a description more accurate or profound than the one above of what codependency really looks like. The sad and unfortunate piece of codependency is that the codependent becomes so absorbed into another human being (typically an unsafe and hurtful person) that they believe even their own healing resides in that other person. By the time they get here, even if the drunk stops drinking – the drug addict stops using – the narcissist finds another audience – the dysfunctional behavior changes—the codependent patterns will remain until the codependent becomes empowered enough to stop abandoning him/herself. They in NO WAY are responsible for the horrible things done/said to them. The wounds are real and valid. They are, however unfair or unjust it seems, accountable to their own healing.
“Codependent behaviors or habits are self-destructive. We frequently react to people who are destroying themselves; we react by learning to destroy ourselves.”
Codependent No More, p. 37
Sometimes I ask clients, “Do you feel like you are a barometer for each other’s feelings. If one of you is feeling something do you frequently find the other is feeling it too? Do you absorb the tension in the room?” This flags me to a possible codependent dynamic at play. Codependents find themselves heavily burdened with fixing or solving another’s problem that then results in a deeper issue accompanied by a brokenness that consumes them. They become so consumed that they can no longer identify what they need. They deny what they need or see themselves as not deserving of what they need. Something must be wrong with them to need… such and such. They are either overly responsible for others, underly responsible for themselves, or both. They’re invisible. They think they know how they got here, but the truth is they frequently see their pieces of the puzzle inaccurately or they don’t see the pieces at all.
“It (detachment) is not detaching from the person whom we care about, but from the agony of involvement.”
Codependent No More, p. 55
A mark of recovery for someone who struggles with codependency is when they are able to say “That (issue, problem, consequence, circumstance) is not mine and I don’t have to make you bad for having it or even for trying to put it on me. It makes sense that you would expect that of me because it’s what I have continuously done in the past. I’ll take what is mine, but I won’t make what is yours’ mine.” Detaching in love is possible, even when others do not respond positively to the boundary that has been newly set.
“We need to keep sacrificing our happiness as well as others’ for the good of some unknown cause that doesn’t demand sacrifice.”
Codependent No More, p. 94
Codependents are repeatedly told they are crazy. Crazy for feeling the way they feel, thinking the way they think, having the opinions they have, caring as much as they care, controlling as much as they try to control, hoping for something different, and more. What is actually “crazy,” or perhaps a better word for it is insane, is this cycle of sacrifice and the expectation of maintaining “happy.” Albert Einstein is quoted to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Codependents are very aware of what is pleasing to those they care for and what is not, what has influenced a change in another’s behavior and what has not (this is an attempt at control). They try different things again and again, but not really because every one of them is a sacrifice. In regards to the expectation of “happy,” happy is a temporary feeling. Happiness is not: constantly maintainable, a therapeutic goal, a foundation of which to make a big decision on, or dependent on something or someone outside of us (we cultivate our own happiness). On that warm and fuzzy note, we will move on to the next quote.
“Another problem with repressed feelings is they don’t go away. They linger, sometimes growing stronger and causing us to do many peculiar things. We have to stay one step ahead of the feeling, we have to stay busy, we have to do something. We don’t dare get quiet and peaceful because we might then feel these emotions. And the feeling might squeak out anyway, causing us to do something we never intended to do:scream at the kids, kick the cat, spill on our favorite dress, or cry at the party. We get stuck in feelings because we’re trying to repress them, and like a persistent neighbor, they will not go away until we acknowledge their presence.”
Codependent No More, p. 145
Avoidance is another part of the insane. Try something different. As the chapter this quote is found in suggests: feel your feelings. Relief and healing wont come until you do.
“Codependents are indirect. We don’t say what we mean, we don’t mean what we say. We don’t do it on purpose. We do it because we’ve learned to communicate this way. At some point, either in our childhood or adult family, we learned it was wrong to talk about problems, express feelings, and express opinions. We’ve learned it was wrong to directly state what we want and need. It was certainly wrong to say no, and stand up for ourselves.
Codependent No More, p. 181
Codependents were trained at some point to understand that passivity is protective, and it likely was. It may have been what they needed to do to survive a drunken screaming match, an embarrassing scene, or a physical blow. Recovery is reframing this understanding and taking power back. It’s learning to be assertive and the necessity of creating and maintaining boundaries. Most of all, recovery is believing in one’s own worthiness and expressing that belief.
“Even if we deal with our characteristics, we may still lean toward frogs, but we can learn not to jump into the pond with them.”
Codependent No More p. 127
Awareness is key. We can deal with what we know, we can’t deal with what we don’t know. Ultimately, you are accredited with the responsibility to make decisions about your life and that includes who you choose to spend your time with. If you are self-aware and well-differentiated (see future post!), you don’t have to “jump in the pond,” or absorb/react to the dysfunction, whatever it may be.
Thanks for reading. I hope this was helpful! All quotes are found in: Beattie, M. (1986). Codependent No More (pp. 1-238). Center City, MN: Hazelden. Check the “Recommended Reading Library” tab for a link to purchase this book.
If you are a child sexual abuse (CSA) survivor, or know a survivor, you likely have a close relationship with, or are a witness to shame. The following are common elements that contribute to where CSA survivors’ shame is sourced. However, the purpose of this post is to re-frame this shame and normalize trauma reactions.
⦿ Not telling a trusted adult about the assault
Some survivors feel ashamed for not ending the abuse by seeking help. Children are a vulnerable population. Because of where they are developmentally, it is easy to take advantage of this vulnerability. Perpetrators use this advantage to groom children, manipulate children to think it is their idea, lead children to believe this is normal behavior, threaten children into being fearful of telling (threaten to harm the child, themselves, someone or something the child cares about), confuse children into believing the assault(s) is an act of love and affection, tell children no one would believe them if they did tell, hold children accountable to the “secret,” and more. Further, the perpetrator is always in a position of power and authority over the child and very likely someone they have a close relationship with. All of these complicated pieces make it nearly impossible for children experiencing sexual abuse to share what’s happening to them. It can be painful as an adult to look back and see opportunities where it would have been possible to talk about the abuse with someone who could have had the power to help. However, retroactively applying adult cognitive capacity and worldview onto the child self results in unfair expectations. Examining the abuse in the context that it occured will remind the survivor that he/she did what he/she had to do to survive the trauma.
⦿ Experiencing pleasure during the event
It is not uncommon for what initially felt like violating pain to transform into feeling pleasurable. Some survivors share that they can remember when the abuse changed into something that was enjoyable. This in no way means that the survivor was a willing participant in the abuse. Everyone has biological and chemical reactions to sexual activities. Orgasms cannot be controlled as they are an automatic reaction involving muscles, nerve endings, hormones (particularly oxytocin which is a social bonding hormone), blood supply, and more. Some survivors confuse desiring this sense of pleasure with believing they desired the abuse. Some survivors take it even further and question that since they believe they desired the abuse, was it actually abuse? The answer is yes, it was abuse. There is a purpose behind laws regarding the age of consent (usually 17-18 depending on the state). A child, adolescent, and early teen does not have the brain development to give consent to sex, or sexual touching. Pleasure does not equate to giving consent. Consent to sexual activities is only possible when ALL of the following are present: when both freely give consent without coercion, both fully understand the physical and emotional consequences, both respect that consent for one event does not necessarily mean consent for all future possible sexual activities, both respect the other’s boundaries, and both have the cognitive awareness and intellectual capacity to offer consent.
⦿ Feeling special and chosen
A number of children who experienced sexual abuse became bonded to their abuser. Though it was an inappropriate relationship within an inappropriate context, an illusion evolves where the child is elevated to the position of an adult. The child experiences adult activities and adult conversation. The child can be favored by the abuser and this is shown in a variety of ways through gifts, through grooming tactics, through sharing secrets no one else knows, through being prioritized above other relationships (ex: if the abuser is a father, the child may be prioritized above other siblings), and more. Some survivors feel ashamed in how they grieved the ending of the social and emotional parts of the abusive relationship when the abuse terminated. This is a common experience as emotional needs were once met by the abuser (feeling valued and important, feeling accepted, feeling connected). We all possess emotional needs that are required to be met within relationships. It is important to understand that meeting these needs within the context of an abusive relationship are for the purpose of manipulation. The child was manipulated into believing these needs were met with genuine and moral intent, when in truth they were met for a malicious objective. The adult survivor has the choice and the capacity to have social and emotional needs met with a safe person.
⦿ Coping during and after the abuse
Human survival instincts are described as the fight/flight response. However, the most dangerous and rarely discussed response is to freeze. Many survivors hold a great amount of shame about their behavior during and/or after the trauma. Freezing during the traumatic event is the body and brain’s way of saying, “My coping mechanisms are overwhelmed. To keep myself safe, I have to shut down and become numb.” Freezing can manifest itself in becoming numb, experiencing dissociation, and repression. A common kind of dissociation CSA survivors experience is called depersonalization. Dissociative depersonalization can be an “outer body experience” where the survivor escapes the body and views the event from outside his/herself. Repression is blocking the memory of the event (which usually arises in pieces again when the survivor is in a safer season of life). After the abuse has occured, survivors can negatively cope in a myriad of ways. Some children act out sexually. Some age and continue numbing and avoiding by means of drugs/alcohol. Others may engage in sexually promiscuous behavior to gain a new sense of control over their bodies. Some turn the anger they feel inward and utilize self-harm. All of these only provide a temporary sense of relief, so healthier and more effective coping strategies must be developed.
⦿ Body memories
Most memories of the abuse are unwelcome, but body memories are those that typically lay outside one’s conscious awareness. An innocent touch can trigger a reaction that leaves the survivor confused about why it occurred. Many survivors are ashamed of their own bodies as the body houses the location where the abuse occurred and it remains with them at all times. A large portion of recovery is focused on becoming more aware of body sensations and befriending and accepting one’s body.
⦿ Revealing the abuse later on in life
We unfortunately live in a society that continues to frequently blame and ignore survivors’ experiences. Those who decide to reveal their abuse experience, or confront their abuser may be responded to with criticism, disbelief, and/or dismissing the experience. It can be excruciating to finally accept the existence of the experience for oneself and to share it with another who rejects the truth. The shame cycle is at risk of repeating if the survivor’s healing was dependent upon another’s acknowledgement. (This is not to say that another’s acceptance of the survivor cannot contribute to healing.) Lasting healing resides within the survivor.
“Rub some dirt on it.” “Don’t be a sissy.” “Big boys don’t cry.” “Come on, toughen up.” If you have heard these phrases you have been a witness to the gender socialization of men and boys. It is expected of men to squash feelings while presenting a stable, stoic, and logical appearance. Anything but anger and happiness is too vulnerable or risky to display. This message is delivered during childhood. Boys who swallow their emotions are praised for their “strength.” According to Cassano and Zeman’s 2010 study, fathers deemed emotional experience and expression of sadness in their sons as negative. This then transferred to their sons who also used negative language to describe their experience. Part of the human experience is the experience of the whole spectrum of emotions. Our culture socializes men to be ashamed of their emotions and hide their expression. This is imprisoning in that our experience is our truth and if our truth is not acceptable, this translates into a message that maybe we are not accepted for who we are as we are.
Men must maintain manhood status
Men are expected to display their masculinity and make up for the moments where they did not appear as society defines masculine. The phrase, “You just lost your man card” speaks to this concept. According to socialization, manliness requires a consistent performance to provide evidence, and it can be lost. To prevent the loss of manhood status, studies show that compensatory behaviors emerge. One study found manhood to be more fragile than womanhood; therefore, threats to manhood may be responded to with attempts at compensation to regain manhood status (like risk-taking and aggression) (Kosakowska-Berezecka, et al., 2016). In another study, De Visser and McDonnell (2013) found that sexuality, sporting competence, and alcohol consumption all increased perceived masculinity, but alcohol consumption was less of a contributor. These findings demonstrate how men will go to great lengths (sexual promiscuity, heavy drinking, risk taking) to maintain higher masculine capital.
To be masculine is to deny and devalue any feminine (society defined) qualities
It may very well be that women are the oppressed gender partly due to men’s socialization to reject femininity in themselves. “You throw like a girl” is a derogatory comment towards boys/men in being compared to girls/women. Feminine qualities expressed by men are frequently interpreted as homosexual. In fact, research shows that when name-calling, the labels “gay” and “girl” are used interchangeably to represent the failure of meeting masculine standards (Myers, 2012). Taken even further, “Boys reject femininity in order to establish their dominance, and they must continually degrade girls and feminize other boys so as to maintain their status—even as they pursue girls sexually” (Myers, 2012, p. 128). So how is this imprisoning? First, it is exhausting to constantly be required to prove oneself as masculine and perform to meet masculine standards. This again reinforces the message that a man’s value and identity rests in his ability to be perceived as masculine. Second, in truth, masculinity and femininity are different but not opposites. They are constructs on a continuum and both men and women hold both traditionally assigned masculine and feminine qualities. Third, no matter your political persuasion, being expected to put down people groups (women and homosexuals) to elevate oneself is taxing on the spirit. Humanity was created for connection and this kind of destructive disconnection conflicts with the core of who we are.
Men must must not be perceived as weak
There are physiological differences between men and women and one of those is that men are typically built for greater physical strength. However, negative expectations accompany this. A strong man is expected to be tall, visibly muscular, able to grow facial hair etc. They are also expected to utilize and prove their strength. The concept of strength is often equated to masculinity. Which as discussed previously is a status that has to be consistently demonstrated and can be lost. A study by Berke, Reidy, Miller, and Zeichner (2017) examined this concept. After administering a gender knowledge test, men were given gender threatening feedback, or gender non-threatening feedback. Participants were then tested for pain tolerance. Those who received gender threatening feedback endured more pain (through pound force applied to the supinator muscle of the participant’s non-dominant arm) than those who received non-threatening gender feedback. So, essentially, those whose masculinity was questioned endured more pain to prove their masculinity. Further than that, not meeting masculine standards led men to question their manhood when they had no question prior to receiving the gender threatening feedback. The gendered expectation of strength moves well beyond what is effective when he feels shame for not measuring up to social standards. Shame says, “something is wrong with me.”
Brene Brown, a shame researcher and author, eloquently shares one reason why gender expectations for men are maintained:
“Here’s the painful pattern that emerges from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it. In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust” (Brown, 2012, p. 95).
We are all contributors to the socialization of men and women. Knowing this fact, we can be empowered to transform into contributors for change.
If you enjoyed this post, please see my previous post on Traditional Gender Expectations for Women. Thanks for reading!
Berke, D. S., Reidy, D. E., Miller, J. D., & Zeichner, A. (2017). Take it like a man: Gender-threatened men’s experience of gender role discrepancy, emotion activation, and pain tolerance. Psychology Of Men & Masculinity, 18(1), 62-69. doi:10.1037/men0000036
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly (p. 95). New York, NY: Gotham Books.
Cassano, M. C., & Zeman, J. L. (2010). Parental socialization of sadness regulation in middle childhood: The role of expectations and gender. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1214-1226. doi:10.1037/a0019851
De Visser, R. O., & McDonnell, E. J. (2013). ‘Man points’: Masculine capital and young men’s health. Health Psychology, 32(1), 5-14. doi:10.1037/a0029045
Kosakowska-Berezecka, N., Besta, T., Adamska, K., Jaśkiewicz, M., Jurek, P., & Vandello, J. A. (2016). If my masculinity is threatened I won’t support gender equality? The role of agentic self-stereotyping in restoration of manhood and perception of gender relations. Psychology Of Men & Masculinity, 17(3), 274284. doi:10.1037/men0000016
Myers, K. (2012). “Cowboy Up!”: Non-Hegemonic Representations of Masculinity in Children’s Television Programming. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 20(2), 125-143.doi:10.3149/jms.2002.125
The following is not an exhaustive list, but an overview of gendered expectations for women today. We as a culture have evolved, but certain expectations persist for both genders and some are harmful. The following demonstrates how commonly ascribed expectations can create barriers for women and girls.
◦ Women need men to take care of them
Ladies, if you have in the past/are currently constantly asked “When are you getting married? Are you dating anyone? How long has it been since you’ve been on a date?” at weddings, family gatherings, church, or the hair salon raise your hand.
Women are often implicitly told that they are worth more when accompanied by a man. A single woman in her mid-late 30s is judged by “Hmm wonder what’s wrong with her?” A single man in his mid-late 30s is praised for his focus on his career and his bachelor life is much more socially accepted. This double standard begins early on in life. According to Cassano and Zeman (2010), in a study purposed to discover parents’ socialization of sadness, fathers in particular displayed more acceptance of and protection over their daughters’ emotional expression than their sons. This speaks to the gender role expectation of men to hide emotional expression to appear tough which will be expounded upon in the next blog post. For now, this finding, if pushed beyond its level of effectiveness (father comes to rescue daughter every time she experiences a negative emotion instead of allowing her to struggle with it and learn to cope/grow) teaches her that she does not have the capacity for independence. She needs a man. This distorted perception may very well contribute to patterns of codependency (Codependency is an issue many clients today experience and will be discussed in a later post).
◦ Women must appear youthful and sexy
Women are expected to look perfect without looking like they are working for it. This is frequently introduced in how women appear in the media. It is expected of women to stay youthful, fight aging, and make it look natural and effortless. How many eye wrinkle cream commercials do you see men in versus women? In fact, it is much more acceptable for men to age because gray hair helps them to appear “distinguished” and powerful. The expectation to remain youthful is an embedded message that many women absorb, but remaining young is not the only impossible standard women are expected to meet. Women’s bodies are constantly objectified in the media. See pictured below the double standard in objectification. The one exaggerating the male character’s rear is laughable, but the original poster is normalized. Women’s bodies are used to sell everything from beer to cars to hamburgers. Men’s objectification is increasing (also not ok), but still not to the level of women’s. The combination of these messages tell women that their worth and identity revolves around their appearance.
◦ Women (working outside the home or stay at home mothers) are responsible for all household duties and are the main caretakers for children
When expecting company, my mom often says to my dad, “If the house looks messy it reflects badly on me because I am the woman”.
My mom, along with all other women, have been socialized to understand that it is their responsibility to keep up with household chores and if they don’t they will be judged for their poor performance as a wife/mother. They have been trained to see their value attached to their household duties and their role as a mother and this is reinforced by the media. Last Christmas there was an ad on the radio that stated “You may think that getting your husband a tool for Christmas would be like him getting you a mop and a broom. It’s not! Get him what he really wants!” [insert eyeroll here]. The media is not the only evidence of this gendered expectation. In a study by Iwasaki, MacKay, and Ristock (2004) of individuals in managerial positions it was found that women experienced their lives as integrated (work, home, and their responsibility to/of others like their children), while men found personal/independent life of importance. The imprisoning piece of this expectation is that a woman can become invested in multiple areas without a partner to shoulder the burden. Further, if keeping house and being a mother has evolved into her only identity, important information about who she genuinely is beyond what she is responsible for is dismissed.
◦ Women should be submissive and defer to the men in their lives (often husbands) in decision-making
Scripture tells wives to submit to their husbands. This scripture is frequently taken out of context to mean that wives must defer to their husbands as the only decision maker, or even that wives are expected to do exactly as their husbands demand. It is not valid to assume that the Word commands wives to be under their husband’s thumb. The passage that uses the phrase submission is referring to protection and a covering. Husbands are given the role of a servant leader. Both men and women were given dominion over all living things on the earth. They were given this dominion/authority at different levels. A husband’s dominion is to protect his wife as Christ protected and served the church by dying on a cross to protect the church from its sins. Wives are commanded to accept this protection and respect their husbands.
Consider this 2005 study: According to Tichenor’s research, wives who earned more in salary and occupational status continued to perform majority of the domestic tasks, and for half of those participating, this triggered disagreements within the relationship. Further, “Instead of using their unconventional circumstances to alter the conventional balance of marital power, spouses work together to reproduce men’s dominance in a variety of ways” (Tichenor, 2005, p. 197). Wives who earned more than their husbands would lose decision-making power in the relationship, but husbands who earned more than their wives would maintain their power. How is this imprisoning for women? Their voice is hushed. They can perform compliantly only for so long and then contempt and resentment takes its place.
If you enjoyed this post, please read “How Traditional Gender Role Expectations Can Be Imprisoning for Men”
Cassano, M. C., & Zeman, J. L. (2010). Parental socialization of sadness regulation in middle childhood: The role of expectations and gender. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1214-1226. doi:10.1037/a0019851
Iwasaki, Y., MacKay, K. J., & Ristock, J. (2004). Gender-based analyses of stress among professional managers: An exploratory qualitative study. International Journal of Stress Management, 11(1), 56-79. doi:10.1037/1072-5245.11.1.56
Tichenor, V. (2005). Maintaining men’s dominance: Negotiating identity and power when she earns more. Sex Roles, 53(3-4), 191-205. doi:10.1007/s11199-005-5678-2
Myth #6: Counselors main method of responding is “How does that make you feel?”
This question represents another stereotype shown in the media. Feelings are a topic explored in counseling, but they are not the only topic. Further, this question is an inept way to initiate a conversation about feelings. Counselors engage in communication with clients in a variety of ways with questions, reflections, clarifications, activities, establishing goals and more.
Myth #7: “I’ve (we’ve) been to counseling before and it didn’t work, so it wont work this time”
Counseling is an art as much as it is a science. What I mean by this is that the counseling process is influenced both by who the counselor is and how the counselor was trained. It is possible that previous unsuccessful counseling attempts “didn’t work” because the counselor’s personality and style was not a good fit for you. It is crucial to note that not all counselors are trained the same. For example, going to counseling for addiction issues with a counselor who specializes in grief counseling will not be fully beneficial. Going to marital counseling with a counselor who is only trained in individual counseling will not be fully beneficial. When choosing a counselor, ask questions about the counselor’s credentials and how they were trained to better ensure a successful counseling experience.
Myth #8: The counseling process is problem focus with pain and dark emotions as the primary topic
Although it is important for the entire spectrum of emotions to be freely (and effectively) expressed, counseling is not about becoming more stuck in the presenting issue. The counseling process is focused on what the client needs to get out of the experience for the purpose of no longer needing to attend counseling. For this reason, client goals, dreams, achievements, strengths, and an awareness, acceptance, and expression of these often become the focus of sessions.
Myth #9: Faith based counselors will impose their values on me
If faith is not part of your belief system and you do not want faith to be incorporated into your counseling experience you can make this known to your counselor and she/he will respect this desire. If faith is apart of your belief system, but you fear counselor values being imposed on you please know that it is our job as counselors to remain as objective as possible. Counselors are people and hold their own opinions and values, but it is ethically and morally corrupt to force value systems onto clients.
Myth #10: Counseling is a long and expensive process
Counseling is an emotional and financial investment. However, if finances are a concern a number of options exist. These options may include: a shorter session time, less frequency of sessions (not recommended for crisis situations), seeing a provisionally licensed counselor or counseling intern, or referral to a center that uses an income based sliding scale. It is often said that counseling is the one field whose purpose it is to put itself out of business. Essentially, this means that the purpose of counseling encounters is to launch clients, so that what happens in the counseling room is something they have learned to create for themselves in their world outside of counseling. Depending on the presenting issue, the client(s) level of investment/ activity, and the timing of intervention, perhaps a limited number of sessions will be required.
This is a continuation of a previous post. Please see “Counseling Myths 1-5”
Myth #1: Counseling is only for severe issues, “crazy people”, diagnosed mental illness, or couples on the brink of divorce.
While counseling is beneficial to those facing a crisis or critical issue, these are not requirements to seek out counseling services. In fact, I often hear clients say they wish they had started counseling much sooner. Counseling is beneficial for a number of reasons beyond a current trial filled season or chronic issue and can be a proactive intervention to prevent potential issues from emerging in the future. This kind of counseling experience may be described as primary prevention or maintenance. The purpose of maintenance can be any combination of the following: increase self-awareness, develop more effective coping mechanisms, conflict resolution, more effective communication, increase relationship satisfaction, personal growth, and more.
Myth #2: Prayer and the strength of one’s faith can and should be the only place to seek healing and can effectively replace a counseling experience.
If your faith is a part of your worldview you may have been told in so many words that “More prayer and a stronger faith is all you should need to overcome a particular problem or circumstance.” If you have heard this message you may feel shame for seeking help outside of the church. However, we know that God is not a God of shame. It’s crucial to debunk this myth and provide hope that a combination of faith and counseling is possible. Just as Jesus uses the hands of surgeons to heal the body, Jesus speaks through counseling professionals to heal emotional wounds. Prayer is powerful. A counseling experience with a trained, empathetic professional is powerful. Both utilized together can propel one toward healing.
Myth #3: Counseling is for the weak
Actually the opposite is true. Seeking out counseling requires a certain amount of courage to initiate change. In all effective counseling encounters vulnerability is present. With vulnerability is the presence of bravery and the strength to share one’s truth.
Myth #4: Counselors are advice givers
Often the purpose of counseling is to facilitate greater awareness of where a solution resides within the client. Counselors operate as fellow travelers on the journey toward client goals rather than all knowing experts. When clients can independently (with encouragement, guidance, and support) claim victory over an issue, they are more empowered to tackle a future trial.
Myth #5: Counselors and the counseling experience are accurately depicted in the media
Films and television shows frequently display counselors as inappropriately involved with clients outside of a professional relationship. Counselors are bound to ethical and legal codes of conduct. Unfortunately, violations to these codes do exist, but not to the exaggerated degree shown in the media. The counseling experience is often shown with an individual laying on a couch while a counselor passively engages with the individual and authoritatively writes on a notepad. In true counseling experiences, most environments are warm and welcoming with an actively present counselor. Clients are free to make themselves comfortable (I’ve had a client take shoes off before starting a session), but laying down on a couch is not required or expected.
Thank you for reading! I hope these were helpful. Please see continued post for myths 6-10.