A slice of American culture is in a bit of upheaval. It has taken some time, but it is finally the case, at least for this moment in history, that sexual assault and misconduct is everyone’s problem, not just the women who have endured it. It has become the problem of men because the voices of women now have enough economical and political power to make it hurt; not necessarily because the perpetrators were overcome with insight, guilt, and remorse. (And let’s remember that women in poverty without mobility or privilege, as well as people who are not gender binary, will likely be the last to feel the benefit of this shift, and that the story of male victims also needs to be told. The headlines are binary and hetero, but this story belongs to many.)
As with any disruptive movement, there is backlash. Many fear the swift retribution, and while it is long overdue that a woman be believed, supported, and get justice, the force of this pendulum swing has broken the sound barrier. Waiting on the legal system to wend down an often protracted, retraumatizing, and disappointing road to justice was previously the only recourse. Now, there is no court that is handing out reasoned sentences with each crime judged by a law; rather, industries are acting swiftly to distance themselves from credible claims and social media is taking care of the reputations of the rest.
We have our own reactions, informed by our personal stories, to each one of the men who have been exposed. Some feel more obviously condemnable as grandiose, selfish, and lacking a moral compass. But some are good fathers; legislators who fought for women and minorities; smart men making positive changes in their communities. Many of these men were held in esteem, legitimately admired for who they were and what they did. And yet, they are also men who intimidated and assaulted women, leaving their victims, families, communities, and themselves with the task of reconciling how these opposing traits exist, seemingly unopposed, within one person.
Sexuality, aggression, desires for closeness, rage at being thwarted, and delight in being loved are all part of the human experience. As children grow, in an optimal situation they are taught to understand, manage, and use these feelings in the service of their goals, including forming healthy relationships and finding meaningful activity in life. Aggression and rage may be funneled into a love of social justice and activism, as well as long-term relationships that are marked by open conversations around needs and limits. A child who was able to safely depend on others may, in adulthood, have a better sense of judgement when relationships are unsafe and be empowered to choose healthier partners.
When this learning does not occur, children must then find other ways of managing their strong feelings. In the words of Freud, they develop defenses to protect against knowing about things inside of them for which they have no help. And for many, these defenses continue into adulthood, keeping natural needs, emotions, and drives at bay, and stuck in the unmitigated intensity of childhood.
These normal feelings can be split off in two ways: pushed underground and hidden from conscious awareness, or kept on the side, like an alternate version of the self, one with different rules and morals and, often, a terrible ability to delay gratification. A man who was raised to inhibit his aggression and deny his sexuality is not able to think about his needs and desires in an integrated way. Similarly, neither is the man who knows no limits on his behavior, as he acts on impulse and want, never learning to moderate himself long enough to think of others.
These kinds of splits serve their function by maintaining an acceptable sense of self that can live in the daylight. But it is a vulnerable self that is set up for trouble, because the sun always seems to set. A man could keep a sense of being a ‘good guy’ because the traits that are so fraught with conflict (e.g. sexual desire), or that bring such illicit gratification (e.g. power and domination), are sequestered into separate corridors in his personality. However, the boundaries don’t hold forever, and what often follows is destructive behavior that has a knack for avoiding immediate consequences. With either split, there is no integration of mind and body, of thinking and action. Impulses, needs, and desires then exist separately from the person who is having them. And this is how you can have good men who do bad things.
However, as with any story of human nature, it doesn’t just apply to ‘them’. The challenge of integrating our strong feelings and needs into a workable life is one we all face, and is at the heart of what we mean by mental health. In Minnesota, denying our rage and aggression is very popular, for both men and women. Managing sexuality is complex turf even without the influences of strong religious mores and cultural prohibitions. And it is also the case that so many have experienced traumas of many kinds, but lacking a supportive environment, were left with no recourse but to split off knowledge of what has happened. But as we know, the splits don’t hold and eventually symptoms start to show up: insomnia, depression, increased risk taking, self-harm, avoidance – the list is long, and it is familiar.
Perhaps there is more being churned to the surface than just the changing tides of sexual and gender politics. Perhaps there is something we can learn about our human nature that causes us to cut off, to stop thinking or knowing about parts of our selves we feel ill-equipped to deal with.
This is the kind of growth and change we are interested in at Emerge. We aim to partner with our patients to understand and integrate their emotional lives with thought and action so that less has to be split off and defended against. We are a holistic shop providing psychotherapy and therapeutic yoga because we believe the mind and the body are in an inseparable relationship, and that the body has much to tell us about our emotional and relational lives. (It’s one more split in the human experience we could all do without.) As we may ask our bodies to be more flexible and resilient to strain, we need to also increase our emotional range of movement. The more we can freely explore our needs and feelings, the less likely they are to wreak havoc within ourselves and on those around us.