Not Just Mr. Nice Guy
By Troy Piwowarski, PsyD
I grew up as a good Midwestern kid, raised on the value of “above all, be nice.” It was woven into the fabric of everyday conversation with pretty much everyone I knew growing up.
There was always something about this value that didn’t quite fit me right. While I could play the part of the well-behaved nice kid, I remember from a young age being drawn toward bad words, subversive comedy, and later, toward provocative artwork and music.
For years, I puzzled over what it was that attracted me to the subversive. Particularly in my adolescence, I carried a lot of shame about enjoying things that would upset my conservative family’s wholesome values. I can still vividly recall instances where my brother caught me swearing and getting in trouble with my parents.
Still, my draw to the world of things taboo was undeterrable. Early in college, I discovered comedians like Bill Hicks, George Carlin, and Dave Chappelle. I was captivated by visual artists like Shepard Fairey and William Kentridge, whose works provoked reactions from powerful status quo structures. (Sidenote: I happened to be in Boston on the weekend Shepard Fairey was arrested on the way to his own opening night at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2009).
In my own artwork, I tended toward subject matter that some might consider either provocative or just downright macabre (see the saintly naked chicken painting above). Another example was a gallery installation at my alma mater that drew the viewer into the mind-space of serial killers through various levels of imagery, from the metaphorical to quite literally a 7 foot tall painting of a buck-naked John Wayne Gacy.
In time, I was able to understand that part of my draw to the subversive had to do with my natural reaction to the edict of “above all, be nice.” On some level, I felt there was more to me and more to life than just what’s nice, but I experienced few spaces that I could express what wasn’t so nice in me. Telling dirty jokes in the secrecy of my early childhood friendships and sneaking listens to my dad’s Cheech and Chong records were among the small array of available options.
Fast forward 20 years, and I’m a psychologist, a profession dedicated to helping the unspoken become spoken, running men’s therapy groups in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the subversion capitals of the world. Further, I’m an existential therapist, a philosophical approach that specifically helps people traverse their personal darkness.
Shocking, I know.
I can say that through my work becoming a depth therapist (with some years of my own therapy on the couch), I have come to understand that what we push underground finds its way to the surface, one way or another. For me it was life-affirming to find a refuge in subversive expression, and later to find my home in a place where all of me feels acceptable. I've also found I work best with clients who struggle with the parts of themselves that don’t quite fit the mold of their own surroundings.
I used to wonder a lot about who I would be if I was born into an environment that actively embraced the nice and not-so-nice parts of me. But in the last few years, I’ve shifted from wishing after a different past toward willing a better future. This may sound cliché, but it strikes a very specific and inspiring chord in me. I like that I’ve reached a point where I can see that the ways that I didn’t fit my original environment helped me to figure out who I am beyond what my environment accepts.
Even more exciting is recognizing that I managed to stumble my way into a profession where I get to help other people, particularly fellow men, put words to those experiences that have no other sanctuary in their lives, whether that be loneliness, anger, helplessness, or any number of shadowy experiences that feel shameful or scary.
Jung described this phenomenon as the “wounded healer.” Under the right conditions, the wounds that were our biggest source of pain can transform into a powerful source of healing for others.
Lately, I’ve come to embrace the fact that I had to fight, kick, and swear my way to self-acceptance.
Troy has a private practice in Oakland and is the Clinical Director at the Existential-Humanistic Institute (EHI). Troy Piwowarski and Brian Thompson co-founded In Real Life (IRL) Men’s Groups after meeting in a men’s group 8 years ago. They are currently running four men’s therapy groups in Oakland and San Francisco, and will be starting two more in the New Year.