Working Early on Sexism

Finding a way to connect with our young selves in sessions can be a challenge. I would like to make a case for persisting, based on my own recent success.

I am a man who grew up with a separation distress. It probably started when I was hospitalized as a baby, without my mother, for a serious operation. After that I bonded with my highly respected Quaker father. Then he died unexpectedly the day I turned twelve. I managed to control the pain and didn’t discharge.

Over time I assumed my version of the dominant male in the house, especially regarding division of labor (women inside, men outside) and whose judgment prevails (I always thought I was being reasonable!). Pacifist-based control patterns kept most of my struggles inside my head, until years later when they began to spill out verbally at whoever was nearest and safest—usually my wife.

My wife gets all the credit for my even seeing that I had a problem. Like me, she was inspired in the early 1970s by Harvey Jackins’s description of the intelligent, loving, cooperative human and could easily tell [notice] when it didn’t fit me. I was especially stubborn about housecleaning, insisting that everything looked fine, and of course always had important outside work to do. Wisely, she never agreed with me when I was being irrational. But over the years the replaying of this standard argument wore on her, and it was increasingly embarrassing to me as an RC leader.

When I retired a few years ago and, like a preschooler, was again home all day, we both soon realized that something had to change. My old resentments about “women’s work” were still there, in spite of years of counseling on all the relevant topics. Fortunately, I was ready to see that the change needed to start with me. That was an important first step.

The second step was making up a corollary to the “no limits for women” direction: “no excuses for men.” That forced me to observe my feelings and behavior rather than just defend them. What I noticed, as my wife often had, was that I was “acting like a child,” saying things the grown-up me didn’t even believe.

It finally dawned on me [I finally realized] that if that child’s feelings were strong enough to overpower my adult intelligence, maybe I should give him a chance to speak. So in one fifteen-minute session, with my wife as counselor, I followed an impulse and blurted out, “I’m sorry, Daddy, I might not save the world!”

Those and other words I choked out between sobs in my little voice of deep despair began to lift my heavy lifelong burden. As reality simultaneously began replacing the pattern, I could easily see that the issue wasn’t actually housework—or being a good husband, or even a good son. It was about being a beloved little boy, brokenhearted and alone, afraid of never finding the important work for which his life was spared and his father’s was not, blindly lashing out at his mother (or wife) for expecting help with her work!

In the months since, I’ve been amazed at the strength of that one dramatic session and the range of emotions that were hiding within the dominant male facade. Feelings of loss, rebellion, shame, losing face, and even urgency about time have left my mind and haven’t come back! I no longer struggle to control them only to have them pop up the next time I’m tired or not thinking well. I still have work to do to change a few old habits, but it’s work I no longer resist.

Though I’ve had plenty of tearful sessions, that was the first in which I found the core of the distress. I stayed in the character of a child until the discharge was finished, and got to see a heavy pattern disappear.

So if we (1) take our best guess at where to work and what to say; (2) ignore our embarrassment; (3) use the words, tone, and inflection of a child rather than an analytical adult; and (4) persist even a short time, my guess is that the feelings connected to those early events will come flying back to us, ready for discharge.

John Thomas

Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

(Present Time 190, January 2018)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00