Men and Emotional Reactivity

Young desperate man in casual clothes abandoned lost in depression sitting on ground street concrete stairs alone suffering emotional pain, sadness, looking sick in grunge lighting

Men face many unique obstacles when it comes to finding success and happiness in their careers, relationships, and overall lives. There are a wide range of blocks and barriers that men face, which prevent them from fully showing up in their relationships and lives in the ways they might want to or wish that they could. The vast majority of the barriers that men face can be attributed to the neglect, abuse, and trauma that they suffered throughout childhood.

Childhood Trauma and Development

When we come into the world, we are completely dependent on other people for survival. We look to our parents or primary caregivers to nurture, care for, and provide for us. We are innately social creatures, and we are designed to develop in the context and company of other human beings. Of course, the world is inherently imperfect, and our needs do not always get met. When our emotional needs do not get met on a consistent basis for a prolonged period of time, the way we perceive and interact with the world around us may be altered. When we experience neglect, abuse, or trauma during childhood, we must find alternative ways to survive. We develop behavioral patterns that help us to better cope and fend for ourselves. The survival skills that we inevitable develop are not meant to serve us in the long-term – in most cases, they are meant to provide us with temporary solutions to early childhood difficulties. However, we will typically end up holding onto these coping mechanisms and behavioral patterns long into adulthood. In adulthood, these life skills no longer serve us – in fact, they often prevent us from living fulfilled and contented lives.

Men and Emotional Reactivity

In some instances, the things we hold onto will cause us to react to certain situations in adverse and detrimental ways. Men who have undergone early relational trauma or abuse and neglect throughout early childhood tend to be very reactive, and are often triggered by the memories of specific past experiences. In learning to cope with potential triggers, men can begin to authentically connect with other human beings. They can begin to give and receive love, understanding and accepting their lovability and inherent worthiness. Learning to effectively recognize and cope with triggers rather than relying on reactivity and old, unhealthy behaviors is essential to personal progress (and the vital development of a true sense of self-esteem).

Say a young man is working at a restaurant, and one of his older, male customers begins yelling at him for bringing him a steak cooked rare when he ordered it medium-well. This disproportionate and irate reaction may conjure unfavorable memories of the way the young man’s father would act during his childhood. Rather than handle the situation professionally and collectedly, he may impulsively quit the job. Perhaps a man’s wife threatens to leave him. Rather than engaging in conversation and discussing ways in which to resolve the issue at hand, the man may shut down emotionally and isolate himself. While situations such as these would certainly prove to be difficult for anyone, they may push a particularly painful button in some – triggering a reactive response that no longer serves them.

Fight, Flee, or Freeze

As human beings, we are biologically and physiologically programmed to fight, flee, or freeze when under immense emotional or psychological duress. When our survival instincts are triggered, it becomes nearly impossible to rationalize the fact that we are still in control – that we can still make decisions, and choose how we react. We are inclined to return to old behavioral patterns; patterns that we know worked for us in the past. The key to recovery is learning to recognize these old patterns and replace them with new ways of coping. Rather than becoming angry, fearful, avoidant, or disconnected, we can learn to face uncomfortable emotions and situations in stride. Of course, because we spend the vast majority of our lives relying on and repeatedly turning to old coping mechanisms, rewiring our instinctual emotional responses will not be an easy task. It can be done, however – with a combination of intensive therapeutic care and the development and implementation of an entirely new set of life skills.

Our program of recovery is specifically designed to help men overcome the long-standing emotional barriers that may be holding them back or keeping them stuck in cyclical, unproductive, and unhealthy patterns of behavior. In order for men to overcome the lasting negative effects of early trauma and abuse, they must learn to accept and embrace their inherent worthiness. We at Next Chapter teach them how to do so.