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Notes from Survivors
My Power, My Powerlessness
by Steven Morr-Wineman
When I was in my mid-40s, about 10 years ago, I began to identify as a survivor of childhood trauma. This happened at a point when my marriage was crumbling, and I was overwhelmed by the challenges of parenting a young child. I increasingly recognized that my unbearable feelings of rage, loss, and powerlessness were rooted in ways that I was abused when I was growing up.
Up to that point as an adult I really believed that I had left my childhood behind, and that I was an emotionally competent person. As my prolonged personal crisis unfolded, I realized that I was feeling pain that I had been carrying with me since childhood--pain that had festered for many years deep below the surface of my adult life, and that now was blowing up in my face.
Because I understand my personal experience in political terms, for the first time I began to view myself as an oppressed person. Before that I had defined myself in exactly the opposite way politically: as someone with too much power. As a straight, white, highly educated man, I have multiple points of access to privilege and power over others. As a pro-feminist man, I have defined an important part of my politics around the awareness of privilege and the commitment to struggle against it. Now I was trying to figure out, on a daily basis, what to do with profound and persistent experiences of powerlessness.
As I have grappled with the seeming contradiction between holding too much power and feeling intensely powerless, I have come to believe that the two phenomena are actually intricately linked, and that understanding the links between powerlessness and domination is critically important. And while there are naturally aspects of my own experience that are unique, I believe that the interplay of powerlessness and dominance is broadly relevant to the situations of men.
In my own life, I have learned that the times I am most at risk of behaving destructively and harming people I love are the moments when I feel most powerless. Here are two examples:
When my son was little, he liked to playfully run up to me from behind and jump on my back. I have chronic back problems, so this is an area of intense physical--and emotional--vulnerability for me. Probably even more significant was the impact of being caught off guard--literally taken from behind. My son's innocent behavior triggered incredibly deep feelings of helplessness, violation, and rage that were stored in my body from years of my older brother physically abusing me when we were kids. In those triggered states I was suddenly small again, being acted upon in a way that felt completely beyond my control. That was my internal reality. But the external reality was that I was an adult and a parent, holding enormous physical and emotional power over my young child. Fortunately, I never responded with physical violence. But I did lash out verbally in ways that hurt my son deeply.
Another example was a time when my partner made a joking comment about the size of my feet. Her joke sent me into a cold rage. I felt disregarded and emotionally abandoned in a way that, again, set off a traumatic response that was rooted in previous experiences of abuse that had nothing to do with my partner. My response was to go into a stonelike state in which I completely withdrew from her for the rest of the evening. At the time I had no inkling of how my behavior was affecting her; I only knew that I felt overwhelmed, helpless, and completely alone. In fact, my behavior--coming from an adult man in a heterosexual relationship--had a very powerful and hurtful impact on my partner.
In both of these examples, the external reality of my dominant position as a father and a man magnified the destructive effects of my behavior. But the internal reality of traumatic powerlessness that I felt was actually the driving force behind my destructive behavior.
I believe that this same dangerous--and sometimes lethal--dynamic applies in many instances of dominant and abusive male behavior: what looks like hyper-powerful behavior from the outside is driven by internal experiences of trauma and powerlessness.
Once I nudged the bumper of the car in front of me while maneuvering into a parking space; a man got out of the car, came up to my window and announced that if I touched his car again he would beat me unconscious. One can only imagine the ways in which this man had been violated, particularly as a boy, almost certainly including gross physical brutality. His behavior toward me suggested his own massive vulnerability and sense of powerlessness. He was responding to his bumper being touched as an intolerable physical violation of his own person. He lashed out with what was probably the only means available to him to try to defend himself (which of course does not justify his behavior).
This example is multiplied many times over in the situations of men who are violent against women. Neil Jacobson and John Gottman, in their book When Men Batter Women (Simon & Schuster, 1998), report that 80 percent of the men in their study believed they experienced themselves as "victims" within their battering relationships. Even more broadly, I believe that male socialization pervasively traumatizes boys by crushing their emotional capacities--teaching us not to feel, not to acknowledge vulnerability or "weakness," teaching us that it's shameful to cry, and so on--setting up vicious cycles of aggressive behavior driven by internal powerlessness among boys and men.
The understanding that internal powerlessness is linked to external dominance has been of practical value for me in a number of specific ways:
Traveling this road is complicated and difficult, but I believe it can be a path to liberation for men, and for anyone who carries the legacies of trauma into positions of dominance.