Joe has to wait for what seems an eternity until the family huddles around the tree to begin to open the presents. Joe dives for his package, furiously rips off the bow, tears off the paper, and frantically opens the box. Because of his frenzied gesture, all the others have been distracted and are now fixated on Joe. His face is frozen, his eyes dilated, and his breath is heavy as he looks and sees the contents of the box: bricks. Joe feels dizzy; the room is spinning so fast he can hardly heart the hearty laughter of the family. "We got ya, didn't we, Joey?" he faintly hears his father say. He fights back the tears until the lump in his throat feels as though it could choke him.
Shame is the predominating feeling, and it fuels the adaptations that protect the child from actually experiencing it. No matter what disguise he adopts in order to fit into the family system, at the bottom, his emotions will rest on a bed of shame. What develops is a walled-off, highly defended frighten person who will trust no one other than himself. This need to handle everything by himself removes him from all cooperative intimacy with self or the others.
For Joe, the emotional scars from Christmas morning lay branded deep in his soul. His father's practical joke, although not intended as such, was emotional abuse. Joe's father carrying on a longstanding family tradition. When the youngest child was old enough, the parents would deliberately trick him into thinking he was getting his coveted present. The men in Joe's family had perpetrated this psychological hazing on each other for decades. It was not intended to be cruel; Joe's father was only doing what he knew to do, what had been done to him.
Building tough character was the foundation of Joe's family tree. And Joe's father was the architect of Joe's emotional fate--laying mortar and bricks one by one until Joey's feelings were securely sealed away.
In his book, I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, Terry Real asserts that trauma and the resulting repression of feelings are the foundation for depression. Although this is true for both men and women, men's cultural conditioning teaches them to refine this process to perfection. Terry describes the issue, "To understand depression in men, we must come to terms with the conditions that create it, the ways in which, in the name of masculinity and often with the best of intentions, we betray and deform or sons." Many say depression is often defined as "anger turned inward." And most men and woman are angry (mostly unconsciously) about the fact that they, to secure those walls, stuff those feelings, and pretend they don't hurt. This kind of conditioning is the breeding ground for all kinds of additions.
In my early work with clients, I want them to look behind the walls and under the anger, and to feel the pain. The problem, especially for men, is that such behavior runs counter to their conditioning, and it is terrifying.
Joe now stands six feet tall and has come to me, looking for help. His appearance, a tautly drawn jaw, sever, stern eyes; and a rock-solid stance... a tribute to years of his father's work. He is a man entombed, isolated from connection... a lonely, empty vessel adrift in an ocean of shame.
As Joe's therapist, I want to build enough trust with him to let him know that I am not there tear him down or to perpetuate the abuse he suffered. I want him to understand that I am there to help him believe that he has real worth, and that he deserves to feel secure. I want him to feel that he has the right to create an environment for himself in which he not only feels safe, but one in which he is able and ready to begin working on having healthy intimate relationships.
However, Joe's walls of emotional protection are securely embedded. He has become extremely rigid and angry in order to protect his underlying feelings of fear, pain and shame. When he feels threatened or vulnerable, he falls into a feeling of shame -- in Pia Mellody's work, such a feeling is called the "one down position". He will feel "less than" anyone else in the world.
Despite the fact that Joe is attractive, intelligent, full of humor, and successful in his own farming business, he will once again feel like that child devastated by the Christmas prank. He slips back into the feeling that everything is hopeless and that he is helpless. When a person is in such a state, he has a childlike ego. He has been propelled back into the original trauma, re-experiencing it in his mind, body and emotions.
In order to protect himself from being propelled back into that painful place, he returns to that walled-off position where he feels protected yet totally dis-empowered and vulnerable.
(To be continued.)