How to Help Men Break “Man Rules” and Talk About Trauma

Man rules make trauma informed care essential for therapy with men

When someone asked me, “Do you treat men?” I realized I needed to openly address mental health concerns and challenges specific to men. From a trauma-informed point of view, there’s not much difference in the course of therapy when working with either men or women.

What is different, if anything, about therapy for men?

As therapists, we need to be aware of how men may show up differently than women in therapy. Cultural beliefs, norms and expectations shape how men experience emotions and relationships. These norms even impact how they come to understand themselves, their needs, and even their ability to find support in therapy.

So when I heard that Dan Griffin, M.A. of Griffin Recovery Enterprises, would be speaking about The Man Rules®, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the messages men receive that impact their own emotional health. I want our culture and our work as therapists to help men and women equally meet their own needs for self-care, healing, and connection.

The Man Rules®

Dan’s training draws our attention to the set of unwritten rules many men are expected to live by. These rules — norms that society, family, friends and other people impose on men’s lives — are what he calls The Man Rules®

These rules include: Don’t be weak, don’t ask for help, don’t cry, don’t show emotion and be brave.

As a trauma-informed therapist, I ask myself how these expectations are likely to impact men struggling with a history of trauma. By trauma, I mean the experience of feeling unsafe and emotionally overwhelmed, which a person is unable to resolve alone. Attachment based trauma, for example, arises when a child cannot develop a healthy sense of self, or a sense of safety and belonging with one or both parents. A parent’s absence, substance use, emotional detachment or other issues can lead to attachment based trauma in a child’s experience.

Other stressful experiences can also lead to trauma. A person may feel overwhelmed and ‘not okay’ after witnessing violence, such as gun violence, combat, or a car accident. A person may experience trauma with a serious illness, domestic violence or sexual abuse.

One landmark study — the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs study from 1995 to 1997 — attempted to score the amount of toxic stress endured in childhood for 17,000 people in a health maintenance organization. It asked 10 questions about the most common types of childhood trauma known at the time, such as: “Did a parent or other adult… Swear at you, insult you, put you down… Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?”; “Did a household member go to prison?”

The ACEs study found that trauma is much more common than anyone ever imagined. Almost two-thirds of all people in the study — including thousands of men — scored at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE). More than 20% of people scored at least 3 ACEs. The higher the ACE score, the higher the danger to a person’s quality of life. The more ACEs, the greater the risk of substance use, alcoholism, smoking, sexual violence, and other negative outcomes for the survivor. Trauma leaves a trail of unhealed psychological injuries that persist into adulthood, and wreak havoc on life and health.

Why The Man Rules® Make Trauma-Informed Care Essential in Working with Men

Trauma survivors struggle with intense emotional chaos inside, and most do not know this is due to trauma. More people need to know trauma’s aftermath is treatable. So if men have trauma, how can they feel it’s okay to admit this struggle, when they’re expected to be strong and not ask for help?

To face trauma, they must break the rules right from the start. Facing trauma means facing one’s inner pain, and being vulnerable! Dan asserts that following the rules makes it impossible for men to feel safe enough to process their trauma unless they can feel assured the therapist knows how to proceed safely. That is why it is essential that the therapist is following a trauma-informed approach; such as Judith Herman’s three stages of trauma treatment, and which makes six key principles including safety a priority.

Reducing the Stigma Against Talking About Trauma

Both men and women experience trauma and abuse, but for men, such experiences are far less talked about. There has been a huge stigma for men to even admit to themselves they have trauma because they are supposed to “be strong” and “just man up.”

One hopeful sign of progress is the recent openness of high profile men in popular culture and sports who have raised up their own mental health issues, including:

Marc Savard, Jed Ortmeyer, Joey Votto, Howie Mandel, Jon Hamm, The Rock, Tyler Posey, and Dan Harris are others who have come forward to share their experiences. I think they are so amazing for giving this gift of showing vulnerability to help others!

“Man Up” is Not the Answer

How can we help rethink these unwritten rules to help free more men from limiting stereotypes? Each of us can help by bringing awareness, speaking out and deciding to live life consciously and authentically! Want a new perspective on the term “man up”? In this brilliant video (which uses profanity), national slam poet Champion, Guante shares Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’.

The Man Rules® Resemble Coping Mechanisms for Trauma Survivors

I see a striking similarity between The Man Rules® and the “rules” that trauma survivors develop as coping mechanisms for the internal chaos that threatens their ability to function in daily life. Men feel that to be socially accepted and respected, they need to follow emotionally repressive rules. Likewise, many trauma survivors come to believe that they shouldn’t be weak, shouldn’t ask for help and shouldn’t show emotion. Dan Griffin’s man rules are just as damaging to men as a trauma survivor’s self-imposed beliefs are to either gender. These beliefs are the same ones imposed by perpetrators of trauma, and by people who don’t understand the impact of the trauma!

Many men and trauma survivors alike share the core belief that they are supposed to stay away from their vulnerability. Both The Man Rules® and “the trauma survivor rules” function as coping mechanisms to provide protection. They exist to provide a protective shield for the person’s sense of safety—yet these beliefs keep people emotionally isolated. Isolation prevents healing because ultimately, healing requires being vulnerable and making one’s authentic self available and present in healthier relationships.

How Can We Move Forward?

Dan Griffin says, “We can’t just change what men think, we have to change what we think about men.” In The Eight Agreements, he asks: What would men tell us if we created a truly safe place and listened to their struggles instead of telling them what they are and are not? The answers in the Eight Agreements are a great starting point to understand men and therapy—and provide the beginnings of safety and stabilization necessary for vulnerability—where true healing can occur.

How can we help men, women, everyone… be the person they want to be? Dan Griffin reminds us, “It is not about doing it [life] perfectly, it is about doing it consciously!” This means we must ask questions about how we want to show up in our own lives. What kind of person do I want to be?

Trauma-Informed Therapy IS Essential to Effective Therapy for Men

Dan stressed the need for real trauma-informed care—and of course, I couldn’t agree more! Safety and stabilization are paramount to treatment for men –just as they are for women, adolescents, families, couples – really all humans! For all humans, compassion, consistency and healthy relationships are all essential elements of a trauma-informed recovery.

Whether you’re a man or woman—if you’re a person who has experienced trauma, you need a trauma-informed therapist to help you become the person you want to be—free from any “rules” that don’t align with your authentic self! (Check out my recent article on Why You Need a Trauma-Informed Therapist, Even if You Don’t Think You Have TRAUMA.)

Thank you!

I am grateful to the treatment centers who made Dan Griffin’s training available to therapists from Alexandria, Virginia to Annapolis, Maryland:

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