“Many of us harbor hidden low self-esteem. We deem everything and everyone else more important than ourselves and think that meeting their needs is more important than meeting our own. But if you run out of gas, everyone riding with you will be left stranded.”
-Bishop T.D. Jakes, Author and Founder, The Potter’s House
“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children, than the unclaimed lives of their parents.”
-Carl Jung, Psychiatrist & Author
My Dear Readers,
There are many within the African-American community that see the community as the image of solidness and strength. It is the impression that “we are one”.
In reality, we are not one, but many individuals whose diverse voices and stories are never heard. Why? Because we are too busy maintaining that image of singular strength. As a result, we suffer in silence.
One of the first rules as children we learn is that image means everything. We are taught:
- To never let others know that you are hurting, physically or emotionally
- That to look strong is to be strong
- That no one respects the weak
These teachings are passed down from generation to generation. Instead of setting us free, it just reinforces the chains of our traumas. I now realize that in the recent blogs I’ve shared regarding the impact of complex trauma on the African-American community, I too have contributed to reinforcing this false impression of African-Americans when referring to ourselves as a community. We do not speak as a voice of one; instead, we are the collective voices of many.
The word community, as I, and others have used it, is monolithic in nature. Dictionary.com defines the term monolithic as “characterized by massiveness, a total uniformity, rigidity, invulnerability.”
Given this definition, we cannot say that there is such an entity as “the African-American community.” Each individual person who considers themselves African-American is distinct, separate and divisible from others, and operates independently with separate and distinct wants and needs. We (and others) may find it easier to label ourselves as “a community,” but what we, and others who choose to use that term, are really doing is choosing to ignore the many different ways that we express our “African-Americanness.” Doing so assumes that all African-American people think, feel, and act the same, which only feeds the stereotypes and illusions of us in our interactions with fellow African-Americans, and with people of other races and cultures.
This week, let us listen to one of those individual voices and stories. Jennifer grew up in a closed societal system and now that she is married with two children, she is trapped in another closed system. Let us walk with her a while as she walks her journey towards healing from the permanent emotional scarring and long- term psychological injury that can result from being impacted by complex trauma.
Below is such a story…
Dear Dr. Kane,
I am writing to you because I feel trapped and I don’t know what else to do. I am a black woman raised in the Pacific Northwest. I have been married for four years and I have two children: a three-year-old boy, and a 14 month-old girl. Both my husband and I are college educated and are employed in the aerospace industry.
I know that I should be happy, but instead, I am very unhappy in my marriage. My husband is very secretive—he does not tell me how much he earns from his job, or contribute to paying for our household expenses.
He always brags to others about his family, but he refuses to spend time with the children or with me. When I want to go out with my girlfriends, I have to hire a sitter because, as he often tells me, he does not want to be “stuck at home” or have to “babysit the children.”
He can be emotionally abusive, especially when it comes to the weight I have gained since having the children. He’s put his hands on me violently several times. I haven’t filed domestic assault charges because I know that in doing so, I would cause him to lose his security clearance. I know how hard it is for a black man to get a job and I don’t want to be the reason he loses his employment.
I am terrified now because in one of our most recent arguments, he threatened to take the children away from me. I am now afraid to leave my babies with him because he may leave the state and never allow me to see them again.
We both had hard childhoods. My husband grew up in an emotionally and physically abusive home. He used to watch his father repeatedly beat his mother. I also recall emotional and physical abuse in my home. My father left us when I was five years old.
I made a promise to myself that once I married, it would be a lifelong commitment. I remember how painful it was when my father left us. I was five years old and I can recall everything that happened that day. I can also remember the pain I had in growing up without my father involved in my life, and I don’t want to inflict that on my own children.
Please tell me what I can do to save my marriage and keep my family together. My husband has threatened many times to leave. I am afraid that one of these days, he will follow through on that threat. I have suggested marriage counseling, but my husband won’t agree to it.
My mother wants me to stay in the marriage, but she doesn’t feel that my husband should be forced to attend counseling. She is concerned about the children, but is also concerned about the potential for a divorce to negatively impact her own image in her sorority, our church, and our community.
I do not want a divorce. I want to save my marriage. I want our family to remain intact. What can I do? Please help us.
Fighting For My Family,
My Dear Woman,
I can feel the pain and suffering from your letter, and for that, I extend empathy and compassion to you. However, while you are seeking my help to save your marriage, you are also looking to extend your suffering by sacrificing yourself to maintain this painful situation.
In focusing on “saving” your marriage, you are making three significant errors:
- Sacrificing yourself to remain in a marriage that is physically and emotionally abusive
- Sacrificing the wellness of your children so that your husband will potentially remain present, and the family unit can be maintained.
- Acquiescing to the willingness of your mother to prioritize the image of herself in her sorority, her church and community over the safety and wellness of her daughter and grandchildren.
The Marital Relationship
In all honesty, the marriage that began four years ago no longer exists. All that remains is a title and the image of success that you show the people of the community in which you live.
A marriage is about a covenant made between two individuals. In any form or language, it speaks to the commitment of two people:
“To have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”
This marital relationship was put in jeopardy the moment that domestic violence was utilized as a means to communicate between you and your husband. Violence of any kind—emotional, mental, physical, financial, and many other types—erodes trust, which is the foundation of any relationship, especially a marriage. The two of you must feel comfortable being vulnerable and exposed with each other—this is a key element in the development of a secure marriage. This security is threatened when there are repeated threats to leave the relationship.
The Family Relationship
Just like the marriage, your family has the appearance of solidity and contentment from the outside, but there is no substance within. Trust is lost when one parent shows open hostility or resentment when it comes to providing individual care for the children.
Trust is also lost when one spouse threatens to remove the children from the safety of the parental relationship. Parenting and involvement with one’s children are essential in aiding the development of your children’s identity, reinforcing their self-esteem and the teaching of values and mores in preparing them to become productive and contributing members of society.
Analysis: The Individual Relationship = The Psychological Self.
What is not mentioned in this letter is the complex early childhood trauma experienced by both Jennifer and her husband. Both spouses were emotionally abused and psychologically impacted by their parents’ dysfunctional relationships.
Jennifer’s husband continues to act out his memories of his father’s domestic violence on his spouse. On the other hand, Jennifer is willing to sacrifice her own psychological self and well-being to avoid the pain she experienced when her parents divorced, and to spare her children the same experience.
Holding on to these complex traumas enable both individuals to, in their own way, protect the imagery of marriage and family. They relive this pain every day to avoid revealing that their union isn’t as solid as the “community” would expect it to be, despite the fact that many in the “community” themselves suffer in similar ways.
Rather than focus on saving the marriage, I would encourage both Jennifer and her husband to focus on their individual empowerment. This can be achieved by investing in individual psychotherapy with the stated focus on the healing their wounds from the complex trauma they experienced in their childhoods and continue to relive today. However, both individuals may not ready to choose this course of action.
The major impediment they may face is the fear of letting go of learned behaviors, such as the habit of holding onto image at the expense of substance. This may occur regardless of the negative outcomes they experience as a result of these learned behaviors.
The sense of “community” may be based on the sharing a common history of 400 years of slavery, segregation and the psychological traumas that result from shared history and current shared responses to racism, oppression and discriminatory treatment. However even with a group identity, if we are to either recover/heal from traumatic emotional and mental injury or empower ourselves, we must seek to do so on an individual basis, accepting individual responsibility and not be confused with group identification.
Therefore, for the purpose of this and future writings, we will examine complex trauma with an eye towards individual treatment, and how individuals who have addressed their traumatic experiences can benefit their physical communities and social groups.
- African-American communities throughout the United States are comprised of individuals who are responding to cumulative incidences of complex trauma that occurs not only on an individual basis, but also as a racial and cultural group. Not only are these experiences psychologically wounding, but individuals who experience complex trauma continue to remain vulnerable to the impact of these experiences.
- The African-American individual responding to complex trauma is, in and of themselves, a closed system. Traumatic experiences tend to encourage individuals to close themselves off for protection, but this actually can make the wounding worse. Generally, closed systems are isolated and not emotionally sustainable, relying on the emotional wellness and the regard of others to survive. As a result, closed systems can be particularly susceptible to psychological wounds arising from the experience of complex trauma.
- The African-American individual responding to complex trauma engages in avoidance and denial behaviors. Avoidance is the act of dodging, shunning or turning away, where denial is the failure to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion. It can also be the refusal to accept the reality of an event or the reliability of information received.
We will continue to explore this in subsequent writings. Until then, the journey continues…