By Owen Marcus
As kids, we did the best we could under the circumstances while having no agency to effect change. We at EVRYMAN speak about this often, as do many researchers and therapists such as John Bowlby, MD and Sue Johnson, PhD. Even from what appeared to be the most benevolent families, we came out feeling trapped.
Childhood presents an interesting juxtaposition: We need connection, we need to feel our parents care for us. We also need freedom to explore. We need to know that we can go out and push the boundaries, and then come home to a safe, caring place. Knowing that we will be welcomed home with love makes us feel safer to travel outside of the home.
The need for safety, connection, and freedom is innate in us. If they are not allowed, we suffer.
Few of us got all of those needs met sufficiently, so we found our own ways to survive. And we did it — we survived. The problem is that the strategies we used to survive became some of the primary saboteurs of our success as an adult.
In one episode of the hit Apple series, The Morning Show, Reese Witherspoon as Bradley Jackson escapes from her brother, a drug addict who comes to visit her show while high and enraged. Julianna Margulies as Laura, Bradley’s lover, share this conversation over the phone:
Laura: Have you ever had therapy?
Bradley: I’m afraid they’ll tell me I’m crazy.
Laura: You’re not crazy.
Bradley: I’m not?
Laura: No. You learned behaviors to help you survive as a kid in a crazy environment.
Laura: They’re not helping you now.
Bradley: Oh, my God. My family has just really f*cked me up. Mm-hmm. And I love them so much, but I can’t fix them.
Laura: Right. So maybe it’s time that you stepped away from them.
Bradley survived by lashing out and caretaking for her family. Her success did not quell her demons; it just gave them a bigger stage.
As kids, most of the time we could not fight or flee, or if we tried, it was thwarted. We were trapped, feeling, and often eventually accepting, that there was no way out.
So now what?
Rather than blaming ourselves, or our parents/guardians, we can step back to see that the social system is rigged this way from the start. And with that, we may start by releasing ourselves from guilt and shame. In ancient — or what we may describe as “primitive” cultures — kids had more autonomy to discover on their own. They had the tribe watching over them, guiding them. Yet, adults were not telling them what they should do — their own experience told them. They had a social support system that supports them to have an authentic experience in an emotionally safe environment. That social system should in some way models how to be and what to do in challenging situations.
This BBC article describes how for centuries, Sámi reindeer herders have used unique parenting practices to prepare their children for survival in the Arctic. For example, kids were not told what to wear. If they were not wearing enough clothes, they would get cold, come back in, put on more clothes, and then go back out. More than learning how to deal with life, they learn how to develop agency. They felt empowered because they were empowered.
Imagine what your childhood would have been like if you had had the ability to make many of the decisions yourself. Sure, you would have made more mistakes, but you also would have learned that you could correct them and survive.
Below you will find an exercise that we’ve shared with our network of EVRYMAN Groups, for them to practice at their Group meetings. With some simple training, a man can become part of an EVRYMAN Men’s Group. The magic of an ongoing men’s group is that we get to pick up where we left our power as kids. Through the authentic interactions, challenges, and wins of a group, we discover we have feelings and a voice, that mistakes are okay, and through all this, we are accepted. Therapy can intellectually unpack what was loaded on us. Through interacting in relationships, we learn new ways of being. We do it with the relationships and families we create — as difficult as that can be. Having a group to practice these new skills with makes it easier, quicker, and more fun. Every man in the group is doing it with you.
Bradley had a father who was an alcoholic, a mother who had checked out, and a brother who had become an addict. What did you have? In a sentence or two, describe the main characters in your play. As you do this, feel any sensations that arise in your body, and feel the emotions that come up. Feel how you may try to rationalize, polish, justify, twist, deny, hide, divert… Try to feel these sensations and emotions without all the ways you escape the hard truths. Speak them.
Now that you have the characters, what is the message of your play? In The Morning Show, you see how Bradley learned to fight, and that gave her drive and passion, yet it would also sabotage her life by blowing up her relationships and her jobs. How has your life been sabotaged? How has the survival strategy that saved you in your childhood prevented you from having the life you want as an adult?
Don’t focus on the analysis; slow down and focus on the reasons themselves. Speak from the feelings and overwhelmed sense (from which we see Bradley speaking). Let the victim part speak from being the child.
This work can be some of the most difficult work when done well. It can also be some of the most powerful. I have seen men sob from feeling and revealing the truth — then go on to transform their lives and careers. Acknowledging, and witnessing ourselves, our bodies, our feelings, and our patterns, is the first step towards rewriting our path.