Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

The Most Vulnerable Farmers

September 28, 1999

What kind of people have the most difficulty bouncing back from a crushing life blow?

In this column, I will be describing men who are faced with the loss of a family farm and a farming lifestyle. These same vulnerabilities can apply to other serious life disappointments, such as death, divorce or separation, incapacitating health problems, or where the loss of any dream has been central to a person’s self-esteem or perceived happiness in life.

  • The all-encompassing dream. Farmers who have lived their lives "living, eating and breathing" farming will not feel like they have alternatives or options for other kinds of satisfying work: "Look at me, a 40-year-old man. I can hardly spell my name. I know nothing but work. How am I supposed to earn a living? The only thing I can think of is breaking my back for some other farmer."

Farmers who have had little or no experience living away from the farm or their rural communities are especially vulnerable. Farming has been their "whole" life, all they know. Their self-esteem and hopes are tied up in succeeding in that which they love. They have little conception or experience with other things they might love or enjoy. The older the farmer is, the more devoted he has been to his dream, the more vulnerable he becomes.

The tenacity and denial with which a farmer holds on and fights for his farm increases with his lack of preparedness or willingness to do other things. He is fighting for his life, his prized view of himself. For him, there is no other choice. When the actual loss comes, it will hit like a ton of bricks.

  • High expectations. The vulnerable man takes himself and life seriously. He expects a lot out of himself. He strives. He achieves. He pours himself into his work. His approach to solving problems is action-oriented. His work shows pride and tradition.

He is not used to failure. He is hard on himself for not being in control. He is prone to guilt when something goes wrong. In losing his farm, his self-esteem is threatened. He fights back by working harder. His pride and his heart will keep him there when his head tells him to go.

  • Dependency on others. The vulnerable man not only expects a great deal of himself but others as well. He lives in a world where people do what they ought to do. He lives in a "nice" world where people are kind, just and fair. He takes care of others and he expects others to take care of him.

This dependency and trust may be placed in his wife, family, parents, lender, business associates, neighbors or in the government. He expects others to live up to their word. He does his part; others do their part. He wants and expects a great deal from others but he can’t admit it. He is sensitive and angry when others let him down.

His dependency on others is hidden from himself by a myth of independence. In a time of crisis, he comes face to face with feelings of abandonment, injustice, rage and anxiety. This suddenly revealed dependence on others elicits a hostile reaction towards those people or institutions on whom he depends or has depended.

He will also experience panic regarding his new feelings of being powerless and defective in his fight to keep his dream. His kind and nice universe, of which he was at the center, is crumbling. This is a terribly disillusioning and frightening experience.

  • Overcontrol or undercontrol of aggressive fantasy. To counteract the feelings of self-devaluation, the farmer in crisis will have many aggressive images and fantasies go through his mind. These fantasies may involve striking out or back at the source of the treat or at oneself. These are normal feelings and images for the circumstances.

Vulnerable men get into trouble two ways. The first is that they get scared of their thoughts and emotions racing out of control. They judge themselves harshly by their high "nice guy" moral standards and become fearful of doing something wrong.

For men who have lived their lives keeping a tight reign on their emotions and aggressive feelings, this is scary. They may also feel it is sinful. They fear losing control.

The second way farmers get into trouble is that some may be captivated by their aggressive imagery and consciously entertain thoughts of revenge. These thoughts preserve their sense of power and control even though objectively they may be helpless to change the course of events. They walk a fine line of having their violent feelings spill over into aggression against themselves and others. And they know it. This is also scary.

  • Emotional isolation and withdrawal. Vulnerable men are not used to turning to others for emotional support. They choose to "go it alone" and keep their own counsel. They have had little experience with solving problems through reflective listening. Actions are what count.

When they are confused and don’t know what to do, they retreat and hide their feelings of self-doubt, humiliation and inadequacy from themselves and others. They do not see others as a resource and reject help when it is offered.

What kind of farmers are most vulnerable to a catastrophic loss? It is farmers who live for a dream, expect a lot out of themselves, have high moral standards and have contained intense emotions over a lifetime in order to get along. They have trusted and expected the best from others and value self-reliance for themselves.

It is ironic that the ingredients for living a successful life make them the most vulnerable. During times of crisis, these qualities can take the form of rigidity, stubbornness, guilt, blaming and social withdrawal - the ingredients for failure to adapt.