Are we too eager to share our trauma?

Just a decade ago, to share one’s trauma was a recipe for shame and estrangement. This was especially true for men, who grew up modeling our masculinity on an imperturbable stoicism that masks the fears, anxieties, and resentments within.

How quickly the pendulum swings. Popular culture today has, in the words of Parul Sehgal, “elevated trauma from a sign of moral defect to a source of moral authority, even a kind of expertise.” At its best, the cultural shift opens up genuine intimacy between friends, emotional self-awareness, and improved mental health. At its worst, we seek status by performing victimhood, treating each conversation as if it were therapy, and obsessing over the pain of the past while minimizing our agency in shaping the possibility of our future.

Dean Baquet of the New York Times interviewing Jay-Z about therapy & vulnerability

2017 was a watershed year for male vulnerability. In May, Brad Pitt reinvented himself in an interview with GQ:

I’ve been listening to a lot of Frank Ocean. I find this young man so special. Talk about getting to the raw truth. He’s painfully honest. He’s very, very special. You know, I just started therapy. I love it, I love it.

In September, Jay-Z sat down with NYTimes editor Dean Baquet and told him:

The strongest thing a man can do is cry. To expose your feelings and be vulnerable in front of the world, that’s real strength.

Then in October, Alyssa Milano wrote on Twitter, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” #MeToo spawned a global interrogation of sexual harassment, gender relations, and “toxic masculinity.”

Soon, the media latched onto a narrative of masculinity versus vulnerability. A whole shelf of books was released with titles like “The Mask of Masculinity: How Men Can Embrace Vulnerability, Create Strong Relationships, and Live Their Fullest Lives.” At the same time, reactionary defenses of “traditional masculinity” emerged slowly and have been building momentum ever since.

I have emphasized gender up to this point because I believe that the mainstream cultural shift from stoic detachment to confessional vulnerability is largely the result of women gaining more influence in entertainment, politics, academia, corporate America, and philanthropy.

(A personal case study: I recall Brené Brown speaking in 2016 to fellow Gates Foundation employees at the invitation of Melinda Gates. In an auditorium of several hundred hyper-competitive, ambitious, over-achieving workaholics, she encouraged us to be more humane and vulnerable to one another. It didn’t work — and Melinda Gates has since shifted her emphasis to Pivotal, a different institution with a different work culture — but it’s an illustration of how women leaders have used their influence to reform culture.)

Still, it’s not only men who have been affected by popular culture’s turn toward confessional disclosure. Larissa Pham, in her memoir about art and intimacy, writes:

The dominant mode by which a young, hungry writer could enter the conversation was by deciding which of her traumas she could monetize . . . be it anorexia, depression, casual racism, or perhaps a sadness like mine, which blended all three.

Sehgal’s essay offers a long list of examples of how confessional vulnerability became the safest path to pop culture success. Chrissy Teigen and John Legend were celebrated for sharing the pain of their stillborn baby on social media. James Blake elevated his superstar status in 2018 by celebrating vulnerability on his album Assume Form. And while I absolutely loved listening to the audiobook of Will Smith’s memoir, which is a lot like sitting in on the most illuminating moments of a celebrity’s therapy sessions, I’m mindful that his embrace of confessional vulnerability was a calculated rebrand to make money and stay relevant in his 50s.

It’s not just pop culture; $1.5B of venture capital investments went to mental health startups in 2020. To be unfairly cynical, there is money to be made in trauma-sharing.

$1.5B of venture capital investments went to mental health startups in 2020

The Internet is littered with recent essays like this one about trauma porn, the exploitation of “traumatic moments of adversity to generate buzz, notoriety or social media attention.” But what accounts for trauma’s sudden dominance in storytelling and conversation? Perhaps modern life is simply more traumatic than it was in the past? Or, Sehgal wonders, maybe “we’re just better at spotting it, having become more attentive to human suffering in all its gradations.” Or what if, “in a world infatuated with victimhood, has trauma emerged as a passport to status — our red badge of courage?”

Novelist Will Self offers another explanation rooted in Marshall McLuhan’s adage that “the medium is the message.” For Self, our current obsession with trauma is the result of that phone in our pocket — constantly drawing us away from the outside world and back to ourselves and our past:

To paraphrase Freud differently: If there were no mobile phones with built-in cameras and no assemblage of the internet, there would be no requirement for me to visit another town in order to take selfies in front of its landmarks so as to upload them to my social media feeds. And what is all of this world-girdling reflecting and re-reflecting, if not the compulsions of a collective psyche condemned to remember rather than forget — to remember not the grand narratives of human redemption, but the trauma by a thousand blows that descends on the human psyche by reason of its occupying these sorts of environments?

The philosopher Agnes Callard has a framework for the three modes through which we engage in conversation. The first she calls the Basic Game, our search for common ground and common interests. “Where are you from, what do you do, what music/art/books do you like?” The second she calls the Importance Game, in which participants jockey for position and status with “casual references to wealth, talent, accomplishment or connections.” The third conversational mode is the Leveling Game, which is meant to equalize the participants by “performatively sharing feelings of stress, inadequacy or weakness; or expressing discontent with the Powers that Be; or homing in on a source of communal outrage, frustration or oppression.”

In my experience, men are typically drawn to the Importance Game, and women are typically drawn to the Leveling Game. For Callard, the Importance Game is rooted in competition and status while the Leveling Game is rooted in empathy and equality. I think that was once true, but now that the marker of status in popular culture has shifted from boasting about one’s achievements to disclosing one’s trauma, the motives have blurred.

Increasingly, I feel obliged to participate in the Leveling Game, to share my trauma, perform my insecurities, and seek solidarity through a shared experience of oppression. At first, this was a breakthrough, an expressway to intimacy and trust. Soon, though, I began to miss the Basic Game, and have begun rebalancing my conversations away from trauma and toward common interests and experiences, fantasizing about the future as much as I interrogate the past. — -I wonder, has disclosing one’s trauma today supplanted the Catholic rite of confession and absolution? Though we are imperfect in our behaviors and motives, a clean slate is within reach if we are willing to share our trauma. This is what occurred to me after the notoriously self-centered optimization expert, Tim Ferriss, divulged on his podcast that he was sexually abused as a child. My reaction was immediate: I forgave his past transgressions and was now firmly on Team Tim, rooting for his liberation and happiness.

Did I need to hear his trauma to humanize him? I hope not. I am publishing this reflection as a reminder to myself. I can humanize others without hearing their trauma. Not every conversation must mimic therapy. And I can acknowledge my own trauma without wallowing in the past. Freedom and fun are for the taking.

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David Sasaki

Mostly ill-formed reflections to figure out what I think myself. Occasionally a fully formed essay with strong opinions, loosely held.