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How (and How Not) to Communicate With Stoic Men

Experience as an inroad to emotion with the FDNY after 9/11

Image: Flickr/MendysPhotography

Most of the firefighters looked wary. Some looked expectant. And some were openly disdainful. But there I was. I asked them to sit with me at the kitchen table. I told them about my experience working with Vietnam Vets and how I hoped those experiences would in some small way help me to understand their experience. Yup. It happened. My intro was met with a lot of shifting around in their seats, sideways glances, or eyes fixed on the floor. Uncertain what to do next, I pulled out a notebook, began taking names and asked each man what he felt on 9/11.

Several got up and walked out. Those who stayed did so out of politeness and the sense that walking out might have been even more awkward than continuing to sit there (which is saying a lot). Finally, the alarm sounded, the men escaped, and even after they got back, no one set foot in the kitchen again that day.

In retrospect, I understand what a terrible idea it was to try to engage them by asking about their feelings at work as a group. These are men who don’t talk about their feelings in public, and often in private either. Not only is appearing “weak” fraught with shame and guilt, but, practically speaking, in order to do their highly stressful and dangerous jobs, they have to learn to disallow fear, insecurity, or any of the other emotions that could compromise their performance.These guys do their best to hardwire themselves to suppress emotion, because feeling emotions could get them and their fellow firefighters killed.

However, this same skill that had always helped them on the job and was such a necessary part of their culture had also drastically compromised their emotional and physical health, which in turn affected their relationships. This deeply felt discomfort with discussing their feelings kept them from working toward healing in the aftermath of 9/11.

Without a chance for expression, the horrific and extensive collective and personal traumas these firefighters had been forced to absorb was bouncing around in their heads, turning in on itself until it magnified and transformed into something even worse – something that threatened to rip them apart mentally, emotionally and physically. There was survivor guilt, magnificent feelings of anger and helplessness, usually so alien to these capable men of action. Yet, they felt like they had to keep the trauma contained and that if they allowed themselves to be pierced in any way, they might explode like a balloon.

The FDNY after 9/11 is an obvious example of intense emotion trapped within, but I see the same phenomenon with men who’ve experienced other traumas like abuse or neglect, or a myriad of other traumatic experiences. The shame and guilt and consequential emotional shutdown is immense. I have leaned through experience that even in extremely capable men, if their families didn’t encourage emotional communication and it wasn't modeled for them, being frozen in a traumatized state becomes a part of their DNA.

It turned out that the inroad to the firefigthers' emotions was through recounting their experiences. Instead of talking about how they felt on or after 9/11, we talked about what they saw or what they heard, what they did, what happened that day. Once the dialog began, they called on each other to fill in the missing pieces. I learned to ask specific questions about where guys were or ask them to elaborate on something another guy said, and continued to build their collective and individual stories. Building the story provided relief and brought defenses down. And most importantly once the guys got comfortable in recounting their versions of that day, emotions arose.

Now, in life after the firehouse, roughly half my practice is men, and I continue to appreciate how powerful putting words to a deeply embedded experience is for people who aren’t predisposed to it, who might never otherwise talk about their emotions and their experiences — especially when the experiences feel too big to describe. The story comes first, and the emotions follow. I’ve learned to be patient with these guys for whom discussing the emotional impact of trauma is often a new language. "I feel" doesn't come as readily as "I think, I saw, I did, or I have."

Building a story – what some psychologists call a “cohesive narrative” – can be calming and can help people who are silently burdened with trauma feel lighter. It can help a guy make sense not only of what he feels, but how those feelings have manifested as attitudes, choices, reactions, assumptions, and behaviors. Allowing a stoic man to create a cohesive narrative of how he got where he is can open up new dimensions in his outlook and his relationships.

9/11 and its aftermath shattered families and relationships within the fire department and beyond. These relationships would never be the same. Firehouse life post 9/11 has come to be known as “The New Normal.” Being loyal, consistent and caring earned their trust. Over time, this led to more open communication and it became clear that posing specific questions about actions and events—rather than the emotions attached to them—was a much better way to get to the guilt, shame, anger, despair and helplessness they felt in the wake of 9/11. It was just like peeling away the layers of an onion. We worked collectively and individually to construct a cohesive narrative of that day, the days that lead up it, and the days since. Through creating the narrative, they expressed the emotions that lay underneath in a way that occurred at their own pace so it felt less threatening. In this ongoing and imperfect process, we worked to move forward into the new normal after 9/11, but also appreciate and absorb the impact of their experience. After intense emotion comes a feeling of being lighter. Being lighter changes the dynamics of a relationship in a positive way. Relationships that once felt closed and one-sided can become more open and collaborative.

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I wanted to write about my experience with the FDNY in the context of helping stoic men learn to create a cohesive narrative. But, given how substantive and meaninful that experience was, I am also going to write about this experience just to tell the story. This Thursday, I'll give it a try.

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