Toxic Masculinity and Trauma

Toxic masculinity as a cause of complex trauma has been well described, yet still it flourishes at all levels of society, and not only via toxic men but also by toxic women like Ghislane Maxwell who dance figuratively around the “maypole” of phallos to support them, and toxic systems such as the legal system which enables the perpetrators to be largely unaccountable while victims are further crushed and humiliated by the court system.

We know more about toxic masculinity today. The MeToo movement and books like Jess Hill’s “See What You Made Me Do- Power, Control and Domestic Abuse” have exposed how hard it is for women to push back against coercive control or abuse. Louise Milligan’s book regarding George Pell and the farce that was his legal proceedings, show how the most vulnerable women and men simply cannot rely on the court system to protect them.

Indeed, many clients over the years have tried to report sexual assaults or even organised/ cult sexual assaults to authorities. Invariably not only are they not helped by the police or legal system, but usually further retraumatised, humiliated and dismissed by the very system they turn to for help, and sometimes further put in harm’s way by these authorities.

Today in 2020 in Victoria, police are supposed to charge the abuser in situations of domestic violence, and ensure the safety of victims and children, but despite the change of law following Rosie Batty’s family violence Royal Commission, many police still leave it to the victim to press charges and fail to protect the children. Child Protection services are also ineffective, partly because our toxic politicians claim they can’t afford to fund it properly. Yet as we have seen in the CV19 era, there is plenty of money available when the government wants to spend it.

There is also at least one health professional I know of who uses his position of power to groom then violently abuse female clients who are particularly vulnerable. All done under cover of his particular specialty, and the power and authority of international recognition as an expert. Yet again, the College he belongs to would not protect his victims, so it is not safe for the victims to report him.

It seems that power does corrupt, absolutely.

In the eighties and nineties, partly in response to Jungian writers and themes of the era, some men’s groups attempted to heal the pattern of toxic masculinity via group work, often involving initiations such as treks, sweat lodges and other rites of passage, holding each other accountable for their shitty behaviour. But these too have largely fizzled out. The Men’s Behaviour Change programs are frequently ineffective even when men are mandated to attend. The problem, as set out in Jess Hills book, is the entitlement and lack of accountability of toxic masculinity.

With the world facing a global epidemic of toxic masculinity now, which is also destroying the planet through climate change, I ask myself WHERE ARE THE GOOD MEN?

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” attributed to Edmund Burke, (originally from John Stuart Mill, 1867.)

Women have tried to help and educate men for decades, but they are done with trying to help or educate men on their own. It is up to good men to educate themselves now, to show up with women, and to stand firm against toxic masculinity together. Now is the time for good people to come forward to save society and the planet.

Sexual Abuse-Healing the Aftermath

Healing and the Aftermath

Sexual abuse creates long term problems for many people, which may not show up until years after the abuse. Abuse can be open or subtle, can be part of a “special relationship” or secrecy. The victim may be blamed by the abuser for the abuse, or worse, be told that this is “love” or that they somehow  “deserve” the abuse.

ABUSE IS NOT LOVE!

Ross and Halpern (2009) describe many of the effects of  childhood sexual abuse. Abuse impacts the development of the sexual and personal identity of the victim in profound ways, even if the survivor can’t remember the abuse at all. Common problems include a sense of discomfort with one’s femininity, masculinity or other orientations, being uncomfortable in one’s body, hypersexual or hyposexual behaviour, alteration in how a person dresses or grooms, sexual addictions, anxiety, depression, dissociation, or confusion around sexual orientation.

On the emotional level, there is often self -blame, self- doubt or self- attack. People wonder if there is “something wrong” with them (shame or guilt). There may be fear of sexual arousal or the content of sexual fantasies. People often question whether their fantasies or behaviors are normal. Others avoid sexuality and intimacy to protect themselves. Others may dissociate from their body altogether and become a “walking head” as a survival based response.

Adding to this, any form of sexual contact, even sexual thoughts, can trigger anxiety, guilt, shame or flashbacks of past abuse. This can be frightening and distressing for the person. The situation may also be distressing for their partner who may be the unwilling, and often unknowing, catalyst for flashbacks, and who may be cast in the role of the perpetrator. This puts painful strain on both people in the relationship.

Some people do not have flashbacks but instead experience a range of problems with arousal, orgasm, or have other difficulties with sex. Boundaries with others may be confused. Intimacy or connection become complicated. Some experience gender dysphoria or gender identity confusion. Others may be fused with their partner and find it difficult to say “no” or to be an individual, while others convince themselves they don’t need anyone. Trust is often be a major issue.

Miraculously, I have seen many people with symptoms of trauma like this make changes, even late in life, that transform and heal many of the problems above. The journey to healing can be slow, but hope is always possible. People experiencing any of the problems above should seek professional help, from a trauma specialist or the Blue Knot Foundation.

Adapted from: Ross and Halpern (2009) “Trauma model therapy, a treatment approach for trauma, dissociation and complex comorbidity”, TX:Manitou Communications Inc.

Working Effectively with Trauma- Guidelines for Clinicians

As stated in the previous blog, a purely talk-based approach is not sufficient for most complex trauma patients, and indeed may further traumatize them(Van Der Kolk, 2015).

So if we cant do “treatment as usual”, what options do we have? To begin, we need to widen our skill base to include other types of therapy(Blue Knot Foundation 2019).

Remember, there is no magic treatment approach that will help everyone. For example there is growing evidence for EMDR for complex trauma and C-PTSD, but Bessel Van Der Kolk suggests this may be best used with people who have single incident trauma- not complex trauma. I have found it useful to include practices such as trauma sensitive yoga, especially where there is significant dissociation, however where clients are body- phobic this may be inadvertently re-traumatising . Nonetheless it is useful for clinicians to have a wide skill set to complement existing skills, for example Sensorimotor psychotherapy or somatic experiencing training, art therapy training, equine therapy training, EMDR, the Conversational Model, Trauma Sensitive yoga training, child and adolescent trauma therapy, family therapy, neuroscience etc. I would suggest adding to your skills gradually so you aren’t putting too much pressure on yourself to be the ” perfect” therapist.

How we “show up” in therapy is also important. The Blue Knot guidelines (2012) suggest following 5 threads from Shapiro, which I compare with similar ideas and practices from Gestalt Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment therapy(ACT) Mindfulness practices.

  1. Presence (defined as `getting into the here-and-now experience of body, affect, and thought’) In Gestalt this is described as the phenomenological attitude, for others this is known as a state of Mindfulness.
  2. Dual awareness (`holding the trauma in mind, while maintaining focus in the current time and place’) In Gestalt this is known as “bracketing”. In ACT this is known as “holding lightly” “being present” and “observing self”
  3. Affect (emotion) while in relationship (`It’s not that the affect is discharged, though it might be. It’s that it’s felt and not avoided [ie within the `window of tolerance’] then witnessed and survived, then transformed into a memory, and no longer a developmental catastrophe’) In Gestalt this is known as “entering the experiential world of the client”, done with patience, reverence and respect. In Mindfulness, this is called “rolling out the welcome mat” for emotions.
  4. Relationship with self and other Patients gain tolerance and acceptance of their own affect and history and the capacity for relating to others through having a relational experience of tolerance and acceptance in the room. In  ACT, this is about acceptance of what is, and commitment to taking action to build a life enriched by values. However, where the patient has disorganised attachment, it is important to seek supervision regarding how to proceed, as attachment also creates terror or anger and may sabotage therapy. Handling disorganized attachment is much more complex, and the Janina Fisher website has many resources on this subject. Also, the principles of Richard Schwartz on Inner Family Systems are useful to bring into relational work with people suffering complex trauma.
  5. Making meaning of the traumatic events (`often accompanied by anger, then grief, then great relief’)227       In Gestalt we make meaning together. We believe that grief and shame need to be witnessed for healing to occur. In ACT Mindfulness we try to profoundly accept that suffering is part of the process of living. Rather than avoid, we make contact with suffering, grief or shame, with support from the therapist We are not trying to get rid of suffering, but rather to change our relationship with it.

Locating these 5 `threads’ helps to orient to what is now a rich, expanding but also contrasting landscape of therapy modalities for working with complex trauma. Again, the strengths, resources and preferences of the patient need to be included, including their age and cultural requirements. Children who have limited words for what they are experiencing can be supported via the generosity of the free resources on the Australian Childhood Foundation website. I have found some of their resources useful when working with adults.

  1. I would add 8 further dimensions to those above when working with people with complex trauma, starting with awareness of the role of culture, gender and other forms of diversity, presence or absence of external supports, and inclusion or exclusion of family in the work, including acknowledgement of intergenerational trauma.
  2.  The work should be phased- with stability and safety as phase one, as per the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) guidelines. However, if sessions are limited in number by funding or other issues, focus on safety and stabilization, and liaise with other experts eg community psych support services. Don’t try and do too much or do the work on your own.
  3. Management of risk should be done carefully, sensitively and thoroughly, and decisions about how to reduce risk be made with the patient where possible. I will write more on this later this year, as it is a painful truth that many patients presenting to health services with risk have reported they are shamed or treated badly by those services (Benjamin 2019).  As much as possible, patients need to be empowered to make choices that best support them when they feel unsafe or have high risk behaviours.
  4. It is important that the power base of the work is not “one-up one-down”. Clinician should never consider that they are “expert”, instead a collaborative, respective and co-equal approach is best (Benjamin, 2019). Therapists should be committed to lifelong learning including from consumer forums online as the field is rapidly and significantly changing in multiple fields eg the neuroscience of attachment.
  5.  Unlike other types of psychotherapy, clinicians in this field should be careful not to foster attachment to them too soon by the patient (Fisher 2017). Work is enhanced by adopting a curious, respectful and collaborative stance with the patient about their parts, and by teaching the patient to distinguish between triggers which reprise past trauma or trauma happening now. This is best done gradually and by working with all parts of the fragmented self of the patient with equal care and consideration. Psychoeducation and Mindfulness training should be foundational, and teaching the patient how to manage strong or uncomfortable emotions is essential.
  6. Clinician should learn to be grounded, centred, and calm, no matter what is happening with the patient in the room (Schore, 2012). Our state helps to model, anchor, settle and soothe patients, to give them a beginning experience of secure attachment (if or as much as they can tolerate.) Eventually the work will lead patients to secure attachment with themselves, built on a foundation of awareness, compassion and trust. This in turn will change the way they relate to others and the world.
  7. This implies that all therapists who work with traumatized patients have undertaken their own psychotherapy previously, so that they can be the solid ground from which to do the work. Personal therapy offers many advantages to the clinician including awareness of their own character strategies and defences, and how this affects their way of working, e.g. what things are avoided in the room.
  8. Clinicians should be reliable and consistent, and with good written terms and conditions including boundaries, and explaining the limitations of therapy. Annual leave and the like should be advised beforehand, and time allocated to process the effects of the clinician’s absence on all parts of the patient’s inner family system.
  9. Clinicians who work with complex trauma must have regular supervision, by someone with recent experience and additional training in this field. This is to help prevent burnout or vicarious traumatization, and also to ensure that practices are up to date.

I am hoping these guidelines are helpful and welcome your feedback and comments on this series of blogs offering guidelines for clinicians working with complex trauma.