Why Men Need to Deal With Their Trauma
Whatever you don’t process, you will project
Your boss humiliated you at the staff meeting today. You leave with a red face and a bruised ego and slink off home.
You arrive expecting to find a place of refuge and peace where you can lick your wounds and regroup. But you don’t. In fact, the place is a bit of a mess. There are dishes in the sink. There is a pile of ironing to be done. The dog has peed on the floor. The kids are fighting somewhere in the distance. No one greets you at the door.
Finally, your partner walks into the room.
With scant regard for all the challenges that she may have encountered during the day, you snap at her for the state of the house (as if that were her responsibility) and storm off into the bathroom where at least you can have some peace and quiet.
Your wife, who is now triggered by your graceless rant, goes searching for the kids, and when she finds them fighting, of course, she unloads a barrel of guilt-inducing emotional ammunition in quickfire succession. “Look at everything I do for you kids! And all you do is fight! You’re so ungrateful! I’ve been working hard all day, and this is how you treat me!” And then she retreats to the safety of the garden where she can brood like a disgruntled hen.
The kids look at each other bewildered before one… usually the oldest, says to the other, “This is all your fault! You’re so stupid!” Then they reach for their headphones and crank up their music.
The younger child storms off to their room, kicking the cat on the way past.
An indisputable rule of life — whatever you don’t process, you will project.
I’ll admit, this might look like a caricature of real life, but it’s not too far from the truth. The circumstances and details may change, but the story stays the same.
It goes something like this: When you get hurt, humiliated, offended, or disappointed by someone, you pass it down the line. Sure as hell, somebody is going to pay the price for your emotional upheaval, and usually, it’s not the person who inflicted it on you in the first place.
It’s usually the ones closest to your who bear the brunt of your inability to deal with your own emotional mess — they are the ones who cop it. Your partner, your kids, your parents, your pet. Yet they are the ones you love most. Go figure.
At the Centre for Men & Families, one of the catchphrases that you will hear is this: Whatever you don’t process, you will project onto others. Or, to put it more crudely. If you can’t deal with your own shit, you will end up spreading it around. This rule applies to both the most minor offense that comes our way, all the way through to our most significant emotional trauma.
The invitation of pain
Every time we are offended, every time we are emotionally hurt, every time we are slighted by someone else, the animal instinct in us makes us want to react — often with anger or rage.
But, we are not animals. We are humans, and so we ought to respond in a more human way. There is a reason why my Mom made me count to ten when I would get angry as a child. It was because she wanted me to pause for long enough to hear the invitation. Yes, if we can resist that initial surge of adrenaline that pulses through our body when someone upsets us, there is an invitation.
Emotional pain invites us into a classroom and asks us to sit down and learn about ourselves. If we allow it, it will show us who we are and why we are so offended. What is more, if we listen really hard, it can even teach us why the person who offended us behaved like such a jerk in the first place. It turns out that it was probably because they refused to listen to the teacher in their own classroom.
Whatever we don’t process, we project. And maybe the person who upset you was actually projecting their own pain, and you were unfortunate enough to be a link in that chain. But you need not pass it on to the next guy. It can end with you. If you will just sit down, shut up, and answer the teacher’s question.
The animal in us says, “That hurt!” and calls us to anger.
But the teacher asks us a question that turns the anger away. The question is this: “Why did it hurt?”
Why “why” matters
The “Why” question matters because understanding why we are so offended in the first place often takes the sting out of our anger.
Imagine that you accidentally walk into a piece of furniture trying to find your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and you end up with a bruise on your leg. The next day, your child runs up to you and accidentally comes into contact with that bruise. It hurts. Did your child give you the bruise? No. But does it cause you pain when they touch it? Yes.
In the same way, when we are offended or upset by someone else, often the person who is offending us is not giving us a fresh wound — all they are doing to pressing down hard on an old one.
Going back to my original example of my boss humiliating me at work. The teacher in the classroom of my pain asks, “Why did it hurt?” And I spend some time thinking it through. “Because it made me feel that I don’t matter,” I say. “And when you got home, and the house was a mess, why did that hurt?” asks the teacher. And after spending some more time thinking it through, I say, “Because if my family cared about me, they would put more effort in for me after having a long, hard day at work,”
“Ah,” says the teacher. “So, you feel like you don’t matter to your family, either?”
Somehow I have this old wound. Somewhere along the line, I received the message from someone who was supposed to care about me that I don’t matter. They may not have meant to say it, and they may not have even said it with words, but somehow I got that message. And it hurt. That’s the bruise. Now every time someone else touches anywhere near that bruise. It hurts again. And I react.
Tending to your wounds
So what does knowing about my core wound enable me to do? Firstly, it allows me to recognize that when people offend me, it can seem so much worse than what it actually is. When I remember that they are probably touching an old wound, rather than giving me a fresh one, that grants me the ability to be more gentle with both the person who has offended me and with myself.
Secondly, it enables me to revisit an old lie and call out the truth over it instead. Do I matter? Heck yes, I do! But when someone touches my bruise, it triggers this old wound that tells me I don’t! Each time the trigger is pressed, I am forced to say to myself again, “Hey! You do matter! It’s a lie that you don’t matter! Don’t listen to the lie!”
Thirdly, when I see my own bruises, it helps me remember that other people are carrying bruises of their own. In fact, I have come to believe that most people are doing their best with the hand that life has dealt them. And so, I can at least show them more compassion than I might have otherwise.
Fourthly, tending to your own wounds helps you understand what it is yours to deal with. When someone attacks you, you can either assume they are trying to hurt you and try to hurt them back, or you can decide that they are just projecting the things that they haven’t processed. The latter enables you to be much more gracious and patient. Instead of getting angry, you are able to step back and say to yourself, “Wow! What must be going on for that person that would cause them to act this way?” It also prevents their shit from sticking to you. It’s okay to say, “This is theirs to deal with, and I refuse to carry it.”
Finally, and most importantly, when you can recognize that someone has inadvertently pressed your wound, and you can call it out for what it is, you are less likely to project it down the line by lashing out at someone else who really has nothing to do with the issue at hand. That’s good news for your partner, your family, your friends, and your cat.
Deal with it
Maybe it’s time to go into that classroom and take a lesson in what’s really going on for you. Perhaps it’s time to sit down and let the teacher do her work. I’m not going to lie to you. Sometimes this feels more like detention than a lesson. It’s hard work. It is certainly easier said than done, and sometimes, we need professional support to help us to process our pain.
Deal with it.
Do what you need to do.
Because whatever you don’t process, you will project onto others.
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