Tearing down Walls

Elisa A Escalante/ LMSW/ 5-13-2020

Sometimes all it takes is one wrong saying, assumption or tone of voice, and that person may never want to open up to you again.” -EaE

My job, before therapy even starts, is to tear down emotional/ mental barriers. What are people protecting themselves from when they create these walls? It depends on who you ask, but in many cases there’s a vulnerability associated with emotional expression that many do not want to risk. Especially men, especially military men.

Six years working in military mental health meant going against a system that stigmatized emotions. It meant being a perceived threat to “stoic” men who as individuals, were taught and raised to believe its “weakness” to let down the walls. The more I gave therapy to men, admittingly, the deeper my empathy became for them. How lonely/hard it must be to not be able to cry even? No fear, no depression, no anxiety….? Deep down if they are human of course they felt these things, but no one could know. Anger and happiness was acceptable, but many other emotions forbidden. Accompany this with the constant pressure to provide for a family and always have their shit together, it’s no wonder they are always “ok”.

The other factor was that me, a woman, absolutely CANNOT know of or hear about these struggles they face. They absolutely do not want to talk about their emotions, erectile dysfunctions, strip club & prostitute addictions, and suicidal thoughts with a woman. Walls and barriers, more than ever. Met with rage if I asked the right questions … the ones that hit too deep and threatened the wall.

“Mental health is for crazy people”

“How will talking about it help? It just makes it feel worse”

“I’ll be fine”

“Other people have it worse”

“You wouldn’t understand, you’re just in the Air Force”

“You wouldn’t understand, you work in an office”

“You wouldn’t understand, you’re too young.”

“No offense, but women…..”

“Shouldn’t I talk about positive things since I’m in therapy?”

“What are you going to do for me? I’m still going to be in war when this session is over.”

“Nothing I say will fix this”

“I don’t need help, I was ordered to get help by my command”

A few other incredibly useful distraction/ avoidance techniques many clients might use include: heavy political discussion, humor, sports, gossiping about others and/ or saving/ rescuing others. The reality is I’ve seen and heard most of the tricks. From my experience some of the hardest people to break are military men especially in infantry and special forces. As well as anyone in a caregiver or first responder role, as those roles are full of people that are often saturated with survivors guilt/ savior complexes.

Techniques for tearing down walls:

⁃ Dont be pushy. Curiosity is okay, nosiness and pushiness is desperate and off putting.

⁃ Build trust and rapport

⁃ Be human

⁃ Be judgement free

⁃ Remind them you are their regardless of any “slip ups” relapses or episodes

⁃ We never say we understand. We truly dont!

⁃ Don’t pretend to have all the answers

⁃ Listen more, talk less

⁃ Don’t be phony. This includes being too touchy feely, or too robotic/ overly professional

Walls must get torn down before therapy can even begin to happen. Walls must be torn down before true friendships and relationships can happen as well. If someone is guarded, it’s important not to blame or rush them. Guardedness is not a coincidence. It’s taught and sometimes exacerbated with life traumas and betrayals and in turn, trust issues. It’s also socially pressured, especially in our men. After all, how can they be these strong, brave, independent individuals if they need help? Then, although modern day military encourages troops to seek mental health services, it still isn’t a “good look”. Unfortunately most walls will stay up to some extent while someone is still serving in the military, there’s just too much to risk when it comes to their reputation and career.

What we need to know:

⁃ Mental health is not a threat and walls are gently taken down at the pace a client is comfortable with

⁃ Emotions are a human response to our external and internal experiences and stressors. Ignoring them goes against human nature.

⁃ It’s not about forcing anyone to cry or have a breakdown. People can still have crying spells on their own time and use talk therapy for working toward solutions.

⁃ Processing/ sharing emotions can help us a) identify barriers b) solicit feedback c) self advocate d) obtain resources e) decrease mental and physiological symptoms

⁃ Everything society has taught us about denial & silence helping us “put things behind us”, was completely and undeniably inaccurate

Why silence/ suppression fail:

⁃ it’s impossible to get a third party perspective or any type of help with silence

⁃ Zero self advocacy means no additional resources

⁃ Silence creates an incredible amount of miscommunication which leads to more arguments and stress

⁃ Anyone who is silent is left to be the judge and jury of everything they have ever done or have thought about doing. (Suffering in isolation)

⁃ Silence leaves everyone that knows us ‘guessing’ what they think the issue/ solution is. They will likely be wrong if they have no info.

Worst case scenarios of suffering in silence post trauma/ griefs:

⁃ exacerbated mental illnesses

⁃ Substance abuse/ addiction

⁃ Rage build up

⁃ Legal issues

⁃ Occupational stress

⁃ Disconnect from peers, family & intimate relationships

⁃ Homicidal & suicidal ideation or attempts

If anyone finds themselves wanting to remove their walls but aren’t sure how, they wouldn’t be alone in that. It takes time, practice, patience, vulnerability and awkwardness. Opening up is whatever we want it to be, there are no rigid rules. Only willingness and execution are needed to progress in the skill of emotional expression. It’s important to note that holding back tears is just as unnatural as holding back a smile/ laughter. I challenge anyone reading this to try and do that the next time they find something funny. All emotions count.

“A man will kill someone before he will ever speak his pain.” -EaE

Published by functionallymentall

Social Worker, Writer, USAF Veteran

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