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John Wayne Syndrome By Kate Niles So many times in therapy I find clients ashamed that they ever needed someone. This of course is a by-product of abuse, and is the very definition of neglect: Had there been someone there, perhaps the abuse would have stopped and certainly no neglect would have occurred. But being kids (usually) when these things occur, we internalize our utter aloneness as the norm: what was the matter with us that we “couldn’t handle it” or “felt like crying” or worse? The irony is that many people who shame their emotional neediness are the very ones Caretaking everyone else’s needs, maybe especially the abuser’s. Stereotypically, it is women who get assigned the Caretaker role in dysfunctional families, but I have seen plenty of men with this issue too. They believe their sole role on Earth is to help others, but the minute they turn to focus on helping themselves, on self-compassion, the “You’re Selfish” demon-voice rears its ugly head and tries to shut this process down. To care about oneself, to find those sad, hurt, and angry emotions and address them, is to be “weak,” “needy,” “not good enough,” etc and so forth. Those of you with awareness around abuse are nodding your heads and going, “Well, yeah, that’s how the abuse keeps being internalized and how the abuser gets away with their crimes.” There are probably others of you who recognize your own versions of those demons, and they are in actuality fantastic protectors -- guardians of our raped and pillaged souls, pre-emptive strikes against the self so we don’t have to feel the damage done by someone else. In further irony, it is easier to keep knifing ourselves willingly sometimes than to feel what others have done. Sadly, though, the effect of this is to simply dig the wound deeper and to continue to buy into the abuse. Those feelings then come out as rage toward others (in worst case scenarios, we abuse others), or toward the self (depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts). Unfortunately, to get out of this mindset we often encounter mainstream white US culture, which is notoriously “hyperindividualistic” and – maybe especially in the West -- still in admiration of John Wayne underneath it all. (Sometimes not so underneath.) At some point in session, when my clients are learning to set boundaries and speak their truth, we run into Mr. Wayne. What helps here is to ask if my client would really want to be married to John Wayne. This stops people in their tracks. “Uh, no….” they say. And right they are! I can’t think of a dude less in touch with his emotional life than Mr. Wayne, and neither can they. Thus we (alas) lance the Cowboy Stereotype pretty quickly. Now don’t get me wrong – as a lifelong Westerner, I am a deep historian of its settlement by all peoples, Native, White, Hispanic, or other. I have come to find that the best Western movies are, ironically, superb psychological thrillers. (Check out the original Three Ten to Yuma with Glenn Ford. Yikes!) However, in healing our own wounds, we have to see the flaws in that cultural mirror so that we give ourselves permission to heal the trauma that happened in such isolation. When someone who has been trampled on first explores setting boundaries and speaking up, often that person is terrified of being “like the abuser” and cannot differentiate between simply saying “no” and being a total jerk. We explore how they can learn to do this in neutral, or even kind, ways. I differentiate between “kind” (being genuine) and “nice” (being that fakey Caretaker who puts on the smile and sucks it up). We explore what kind looks like and I remind clients that we teach people how to treat us. So until we are able to stop being a doormat and accept that we need to learn to ask for help and set up space for ourselves through setting boundaries, we will continue to feel run over. Sometimes, hiking way up high, or running across some godforsaken shack in the desert, I am reminded that for so long the United States had an escape valve in the form of westward expansion. We could run from terrible parents, religious persecution, awful economic conditions in the Old Country, or mental illness, by coming West and trying to make a go of it by mining some hole in the ground at 12,000 feet or ekeing out a homestead in some place like Pie Town, NM. My own family was some of the last to homestead, taking out a claim in extreme western Nebraska in the early 1900s. Native folk are right to see the spiritual sickness in this history, just as I am right to see to the curious pluck in making a go of it at all. Now, however, we are up against the limits of our ability to run. So we have to turn and face the flaws in the program, witness and hold space for our hurts, and learn to heal without the luxury of Manifest Destiny or a man called Wayne. It’s a tough job, but I have no doubt we are up to it. I am forever in such admiration of the courage of my clients – because that’s the true John Wayne: someone who stays with their tears, and listens to what they have to teach us.

Field Work

Margaret Mead once wrote that “the very core of field work [is] one person, all alone, face to face with a whole community.” I think this is very much like what a person does when they heal deep-seated family of origin trauma. It is field work with the self, and all the parts that are still scattered on the ground, waiting to be reunited with their siblings. It is the most difficult thing anyone does, but the extent to which you do it and then decide to help others heal is the extent to which you will be effective.

Then, as healer, to quote Mead again, “one must learn to do something correctly and not to become too absorbed in the doing. One must learn what makes people angry but one must not feel insulted oneself. One must live all day in a maze of relationships without being caught in the maze. And above all, one must wait for events to reveal much that must be learned.” So being a good psychotherapist is exactly the same as being a good anthropologist in a foreign village deep in some jungle far from home. You have to love this territory. And if you haven’t done your own internal field work “all alone, face to face” with the whole community of your soul, then you are likely to take people’s emotions as your own; you are likely to misunderstand where the right boundary is.

People think you need psychology degrees to do psychotherapy. Of course that is valid. But being able to participate-observe; being in love with the totality of the human condition, or in love at least with the curiosity of it – that’s anthropology. And so I think any good clinician is at heart an anthropologist.


Welcome to our new Riversage blog!  We hope to share new ideas, things we learn, tips for health and wellness, and other useful information for your benefit.  If you have something you feel would benefit the greater mental health community please see our one of our therapists to share your ideas.

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