PTSD, Emotions, and the Role of Military Culture

Last post, we covered how your childhood might teach you to keep your feelings to yourself. Today, we will expand on that a bit.

Even if you had a great childhood, we live in a culture where it’s considered “unmanly” to get emotional and cry, and unladylike to get angry.

Military culture kicks that up a notch.

Here’s my understanding of how feelings work in the military: your “standard-issue military feelings kit” comes equipped with two flavours: “I’m okay” and “I’m messed up”. It also comes with the message that if you train hard, focus, and dedicate yourself to being a good soldier, then no matter what happens – you will never feel messed up.

Not that the military is the only culture to have this idea – police officers, firefighters, paramedics are a few other examples.

That’s not realistic. You can’t train to stop yourself from having feelings. No matter how hard you train, you’re still human.

Think of it this way: feelings are kind of like pimples, bad breath, or body odour: you don’t have to like having them, but they’re going to happen, whether you like it or not.

It’s normal and healthy to have emotional reactions to events. In response to extreme events, it’s normal and healthy to have intense emotional reactions. Just like it’s normal to sweat in very hot weather and shiver in very cold weather. Feelings can be unpleasant, but not dangerous. Your feelings can’t hurt you.

But – when you don’t expect to have feelings, it kind of goes like this:

– You see or experience something really awful. You have a healthy, appropriate, human emotional reaction: you might feel fear, anger, horror, disgust, helplessness.

– Your “standard-issue military feeling kit” tells you that you’re not supposed to be having those feelings. You might have feelings of frustration, anger, and shame about how you’re feeling.

So – now you’re having two different levels of feelings:

– One, feelings about the thing that happened. We call these primary feelings. These are universal (meaning they would happen to anybody, and they are not a choice). These are healthy, human reactions to real events.

– Two, feelings about having feelings. We call these secondary feelings. Secondary feelings are based on expectations – you’re having these because you expected yourself to never be rattled by anything.

Secondary feelings are to blame for all our misery.  They make us believe in unicorns and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, and then when reality doesn’t live up to their ridiculous expectations, they turn around and tell us it’s somehow all our fault.

So, how do we start to fix this? By realizing that our expectations weren’t reasonable to begin with, and by giving ourselves permission to be human and have feelings.

That’s simple, but not easy. So don’t form an expectation that you can do it overnight – because we just went over what happens when we come up with unrealistic expectations…

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.


*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by M & C Charbonneau, and I’d like to thank them for generously allowing me to use their work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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