No Room for Gray
The trauma of childhood sexual abuse not only complicates life, but adversely disrupts developmental life stages. As kids we first learn to interact with our world in black or white terms. It’s adorable at times. Never argue with a child who has learned that grass is green. No matter what form or color it comes in, dried, burned or pink filling an Easter basket, all grass is green. There are no shades of gray.
Now consider our abuse occurring during this childhood developmental stage, before our little brains have opportunity to grow, develop and experience different perspectives. We are stuck and frozen in a time continuum with one-or-the-other or black and white thinking. Our world partly becomes defined by the perceptions we held during the abusive experience. These perceptions, fueled by pain, guilt and shame, follow us into adulthood. As male survivors, no room for gray thinking often leads to lives devoid of supportive male relationships.
Drew sat in my office in tears.
“Sharon is heading out the door with the kids if I don’t get a handle on this. She says it’s just too much for her to handle. I can’t figure out why. I am going to therapy twice a week. I let her know everything that’s going on, but that’s not enough. I thought perhaps getting coaching from you might help.”
In Drew’s world, the emotional baggage was too much for Sharon to bear. Drew had no male bonds or friendships outside their marriage, no safe, emotional connections with other men. He heavily relied on Sharon as his sole emotional dumping ground.
Although not consciously expressed, internally he held the belief that all men were abusing him. Since his perpetrator had been male, no men could really be trusted. Even when life presented opportunities for Drew to build safe, healthy male friendships he resisted. His self-sabotaging of male relationships was a defensive mechanism. It was a challenge to disbelieve that all grass is green. His fear of revictimization stifled attempts to connect, bond and build friendships with other men.
I can relate to Drew’s predicament as it used to be my plight as well. Others could recognize it, but I could not until I began taking the challenge.
Black or white challenge
Give this challenge a whirl. It’s a list of simple polar opposites. Simply identify and write down one word that accurately represents the middle ground. No pressure.
- black and white
- up and down
- large and small
- easy and hard
- left and right
- good and bad
- fast and slow
- near and far
- happy and sad
- clean and dirty
- pass and fail
- calm and anxious
- loud and quiet
- pass and fail
- young and old
- shy and outgoing
Did you find it difficult to produce words that were representative of gray language besides the usual drab words such as moderate, middle-aged, average, or normal? Using dichotomous black and white language is easier, more convenient and requires less emotional vulnerability and attachment. Often when listening to the abuse experiences of clients, I hear tons of dichotomous language. It shortens, sanitizes and minimizes their complicated and emotionally involved experience.
Having been there myself, I understand. Resorting to dichotomous words changes the truthful reality of our experience. It downplays the internal struggle to connect with the story. It’s easier to say, “I’m bad, no-good, a failure, lazy” than to admit my life has been affected by sexual abuse therefore making it difficult to emotionally bond with other men.
Making Room for Gray
My coaching motto is to “cause them to think and encourage them to act.” I never end a coaching session without encouraging movement and progression. How do we make more room for gray or balanced language and thinking in our lives, therefore increasing our ability to develop supportive male friendships? You have already started with the black or white challenge. Now let’s begin to put it into practice. Start by increasing your daily vocabulary. Not just any vocabulary, but your emotional connecting vocabulary. Challenge yourself to express your inner world without relying totally on dichotomous black or white words. For example:
“Frank, how are you doing today?”
Dichotomous answer looks like this: “I am sad.”
Open, colorful or gray language looks like this: “I am utterly confused about my masculinity and finding it challenging to really share what I’m thinking and feeling right now.”
Whoa! Don’t freak out! I know what you’re probably thinking. That’s scary! It takes time, but eventually you will progress to that level of connection, honesty and intimacy. If you had a safe, emotional connection with a friend, which language would be more rewarding — the dichotomous or gray and colorful language? Work at your ability to express emotionally connecting words instead of polar words. Attempt to be aware when you are in black or white thinking mode. In a journal, write down the situation and scenarios in which you used the dichotomous words. Step back and assess. What promoted usage of the words? What other gray or color words choices could you have used to improve your story?
This can be a powerful exercise in bringing awareness to our stories. Let me be vulnerable and share. I discovered that often I used black and white language around my male friends who were fanatical sports fans. It was a defensive mechanism to keep my inklings of not feeling masculine enough around them, because I was not fanatical about sports like them, masked.
Catching and correcting my dichotomous thinking began my transformation from unrealistic to more truthful and emotionally connecting life. I began to develop and find more supportive male friends by engaging the gray side of things.