The Road to Reconciliation
You’re wounded and angry. Someone close to you, who should be loving you, hurt you instead. This person might be a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend, a partner, or a spouse. Whoever it is; where you once had trust, you now have fear. You were attracted; you are now apprehensive. You had love, but now you have loathing. You don’t know what to do. Should you stay or should you go? Put up with it, or give it right back to him? Retaliate or bury your feelings? If neither choice seems good, it’s because neither choice is good. You wish there was another way. Some way that affirmed your experience as a victim, but didn’t leave you weak and vulnerable. Some way that facilitated change and showed mercy, without opening you up to more disappointment. Some way to be firm, but not rigid.
Luckily, there is a way. The road to reconciliation can be a long, long road, often not well marked, the choices are confusing, but there is a way.
You’ve done something wrong. You have not been as good as you could be. You hurt someone you love, someone who deserves better from you. This person might be a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend, a partner, or a spouse. Whoever it is; where you were once trustworthy, you’re now unreliable. You were close, but now you’re distant. You were loved, but now there’s disgust. You want to do better, but you don’t know how. You’ve apologized, maybe a hundred times, but you can’t get past it. You know that your action, even though it was wrong, was not the whole story. There were precipitating factors. It’s complicated, you’d like to explain, but you can’t talk about it without sounding like you’re making excuses. You wish there were another way between groveling and pride. You’d like to learn from your mistakes without losing your dignity and voice.
There’s a way for you, too; a way to repair what was damaged.
So much had happened that you don’t even know who’s at fault. You’ve been caught in a cycle of injury and reprisal so long that you don’t remember how it started. It was once a loving relationship with a parent, with a sibling, with a child, a friend, a partner, or a spouse. Now you don’t know what it is anymore. It’s a bait you must take, a trap you can’t escape. You’ve gone to years of therapy, dozens of marriage counselors, and read a shelf full of self help books, but you can’t change. You’d like to, but it takes two and you both can’t seem to get it together at the same time. You wish there was another way, a way that was simple, clear, and direct.
I wish there was another way, too; but there’s not. There is no simple way. There’s not a way without some pitfalls, temptations, blind alleys, and complications. The road to reconciliation is not easy, but it’s easier than the way you’ve been going.
The two of you, the offender and the offended, have to travel the first part of this route by separate paths. You each have to do your own work before you can come together. You each have a part to play before you can arrive at full, genuine reconciliation. Not everyone is up to it. Not everyone makes it all the way. Your counterpart will not make it to the rendezvous point exactly when you do. Your counterpart may not make it at all.
Total, genuine reconciliation requires collaborative effort that some people cannot do; cannot or will not. Both parties have to take responsibility for their share of the situation. If you have a counterpart who won’t do his share, you will not make it all the way to Reconciliation. Luckily, you can make it pretty far down the road without their help. You can make it all the way to Personal Peace, which is on the road to Reconciliation. Personal Peace is a pretty nice place.
The offender and the offended have their own paths to travel, but it’s the same path and they both start from the same place. In all cases, whether you were harmed or the one doing the harm, the road to reconciliation, or personal peace, if that’s the best you can get, begins with the sense of being a victim.
You might be surprised by this. When someone has done harm, we usually want to start with them admitting they were at fault. We’re looking for a confession, before repentance begins. We want them to be sorry, to take responsibility, if not, grovel, pleading for forgiveness. I don’t believe in starting there; we don’t make meaningful progress if we start there; we may not start at all if we try to start there. It goes better if we start where the perpetrator is, at the source of their offense: not at the conviction of sin, but at the conviction of injury.
The cycle is obvious. When you’re injured, you sometimes act out and harm someone, who is injured, so they may act out and harm someone as well. Around and around it goes. The solution is obvious, too, If the perpetrator found a way to deal with his injury, he wouldn’t need to act out and injure anyone else.
So that’s why I start where I do. Everyone is a victim, somehow. There are certainly enough bad parents, bad neighborhoods, bad teachers and schools, nuns with rulers, muggers with guns, ruthless terrorists, selfish boyfriends, narcissistic girlfriends, vicious trolls, reckless drivers, treasonous spouses, ungrateful children, exploitive bosses, racist cops, lying politicians, and demanding elderly to go around. These people and their actions do not bring out the best in you. When you don’t know what to do with the harm they cause, you take your place in the ranks of those who do harm. Before you ever became an offender, you were a victim first. You were a nail who fashioned yourself into a hammer.
This is even true for those who seem to always get the breaks. People born with a silver spoon in their mouths can complain that they never had to struggle, so they never learned how to cope with the little trouble they do have. Their complaints don’t have to be justified or reasonable to act on them, they just have to have them. If, in their eyes they are harmed, that’s enough to make them want to cause harm, themselves.
This is why, in all cases, I start where I do. If you’re a victim, you may resent that I ask you to open your ranks and let perpetrators of all kinds march with you. Why should you feel sorry for cheating spouses, self-absorbed parents, bullying siblings, alcoholic girlfriends, drug-dealing, woman-beating boyfriends, as well as child abusers, rapists, murderers, and criminals of all kinds? You may see this as yet another indignity visited upon you, you who deserves to be called victim, that I permit sympathy for their kind. What am I, a soft, bleeding-hearted fool?
As you read on, you’ll see that I’m not. It fact, I think you will agree that I like to be up-front, plain-speaking, straight-talking, and unreserved. As a matter of fact, I’m going to start now by pointing out that this whole mess begins when a victim starts believing that some people are more deserving of sympathy, care, and respect than others. That’s when a victim begins to cross the line and becomes a perpetrator, himself. So, cut it out. You don’t have to feel sorry for the selfish prick who is blubbering that he’s had it so hard; but you do have to acknowledge, if that’s where he’s at, that’s where he has to start.
So, let’s begin, not by reconciling, for reconciliation is still a long way off, and maybe you’ll never get there. Your first objective is coming to peace with what happened. You get there by first going in what seems to be the other direction. You’ve got to get angry first, or, at least, know your feelings about what happened.
The Victim’s Journey
Most of what passes for forgiveness is actually a cut-rate imitation, an easy, breezy amnesty that you extend, not because it’s earned, but because you don’t want to deal with it. It preserves the connection you have with the person who offended you. You don’t have to fight, express your feelings, or watch anyone squirm. You don’t have to prolong the awkward scene of your partner, down on his knees, asking forgiveness, or the equally uncomfortable situation of having to explain the offense to one who is clueless, defensive, and in denial.
You might feel good about yourself, offering grace at discount prices. You think you turned the other cheek, gave the shirt off your back, and welcomed the prodigal sinner. You did what you thought you were supposed to do. The problem is, by rushing the process, neither you nor the offending party took the opportunity to fully assess the situation. You may not have defined the problem, acknowledged the injury, or confronted your own complicity. You wiped the slate clean before anyone got to read what was written.
Cheap pardon may preserve the relationship, but it prevents you from achieving a more intimate bond. Magic happens when partners see each other naked, in all their ugliness, and decide to love anyway. That is very different from turning away from the ugliness or pretending it’s not there.
Easy forgiveness lets the offender off the hook, while you still have to deal with the offense. It’s a self-inflicted injury on top of an injury. It gives him a green light while you are still waiting at red.
An addict in recovery, for instance, does not need cheap pardon. It doesn’t help him. For instance, right in the middle of the Twelve Steps are seven that have to do with taking a moral inventory, admitting wrongs, and being ready to make amends and remove shortcomings. A recovering addict working his program goes through those steps slowly, carefully, and thoroughly. When you let your addict breeze through them, they’re skipping important aspects of their recovery. Don’t be surprised then if they fail to stay clean or, even if they do abstain, remain the same selfish son-of-a-bitch they were, back when they were using. No, you’re not at fault, but you have not helped the matter when you let him off the hook.
How do you know when the forgiveness you are offering is too easy? How do you set a price for pardon? I’ll go into this in much more detail, as I describe the road to genuine reconciliation; but, for now, ask yourself the following questions:
Do I deny the violation when others see it clearly?
Do I beat myself up and blame myself when he mistreats me?
Do I make excuses for the offender before she gets a chance to?
Do I accept apologies without restitution?
Do I say I forgive an incident, but get angry or bring up that incident again?
Do I reflexively repair relationships despite how I feel?
Do I even know how I feel?
It’s easy to get into the habit of granting cheap pardon. If you know someone, anyone, long enough, a million things will come along that annoy you, or concern you, or make you uncomfortable. Learning to live together involves learning to overlook things, to go with the flow, to not make a big deal about nothing. However, when you find that you are alienated from yourself, don’t know your own feelings, or continuously act against your own interests, you are not properly learning to live together; you are chopping off pieces of yourself to make room for him.
We all know people whose feelings are easily hurt, who wear their hearts on their sleeves, are enraged when others don’t follow their agenda, and are hypersensitive to anything that wounds their pride. These people feel injured continuously. They’re always looking for apologies so they can get others under their control. You don’t want to be like that. You’re afraid that, if you don’t grant cheap pardon, you’ll turn into that guy: narcissistic, entitled, and embittered. Therefore, you grant amnesty easily, sometimes before it’s even asked.
The thing is, even if you are a person who is easily wounded, cheap pardon would still not be the way to go. It’s enough that you feel hurt, that your girlfriends say you’re hurt, that your best buddy doesn’t believe the things she’s done to you. Whenever there is any indication of harm, no matter how ill-founded it may be, you still need to get on the difficult road to real reconciliation and not take the shortcut of cheap pardon. As with many things, it’s the journey that’s as important as the destination.
Honor your Feelings
If you’re the victim, you take the first step towards repair by honoring your feelings.
You’ve been putting up with a lot. This relationship is not what you thought it would be. There have been lots of problems; but, you say, there are problems in every relationship. You have to take the good with the bad, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. You’re the type that, when the going gets tough, you get going. You put your head down and move on. You don’t make a big deal about things you can’t change, and being hurt, you believe, is one of those things you can’t change.
Now something has happened that you can’t ignore. Maybe there’s been a dramatic turn of events. Maybe the chickens have come home to roost. Maybe the things she’s done to hurt you, she’s doing to your children. Maybe it’s you that has taken a turn for the worse; you’ve got bruises, you’re falling apart, madness has come for you. Maybe your girlfriends have taken you aside and counseled you to leave the bum because they’re worried about you. Something has happened that you can’t ignore. So, don’t ignore it.
The first thing to do is to fight off the urge to grant a cheap pardon. You may think that, in granting a premature amnesty, you’re preserving peace. The truth is, you are putting up walls dividing yourself against yourself. You are turning aside your feelings.
Feelings are like the idiot lights on your car. They’re crude messages about your state of being. When the oil light goes on in your car, you know to check the oil. When you feel angry, you know there is a perceived injustice somewhere. You don’t ignore the idiot light on your car, do you? Then don’t ignore your feelings. Check them out to see what’s causing them; and thank your feelings for alerting you to a potential danger.
I once knew a guy who had a check engine light that would not go off. He brought the car to the shop and they couldn’t find a thing wrong. They offered to turn the light off, but it would cost a couple hundred dollars. He decided to put tape over it, so he wouldn’t have to see it. In doing so, he gave up any benefits having a functioning check engine light might offer.
People will often treat their feelings this way, especially people who are in demanding environments, with demanding people. The tendency is to tape over their feelings, put their heads down, and move on. Keep a stiff upper lip. Buck up. No one is interested in how they feel.
I think there are definitely times when this kind of toughness is called for, but it is not the way out. It’ll help you survive, but not thrive. It does not contribute to positive change. Not every hill is worth dying for, but some are. You’ll live to fight another day, but one of these days, you’ll have to fight.
By fight, of course, I mean confront the issues and create change. To do so, you’ll have to welcome these strong, unpleasant feelings and honor them as the helpful allies they are. They’re trying to protect you, warn you, and ready you for a struggle. They’re also identifying and standing up for your values.
Do this thing for yourself and your relationship now. Make a list of all the crap that has come your way because of his behavior. Take note of all the messes you’ve cleaned up, the anxious nights you stayed up, the blows you received, the lies you’ve heard, the money that’s been wasted, the betrayals you’ve suffered. Just make a list, you don’t have to act upon it. Go ahead, do it now. I’ll wait.
There, done? Probably not. You will likely add to that list as you remember more and more. When you pay attention, you tend to remember better. When you remember it, take note.
Now, go to your list and jot down how those incidents make you feel now and how you felt at the time.
For example, let’s say one of the items on your list was that you had to clean up his puke after he came home drunk and called Ralph all over the bathroom floor. What emotions might you feel? I might have felt concern when I heard him puking; anger when he left it to me; disgust at the smell; relief when he seemed to feel better; shame if there was anyone else around to see it. Those are just a few.
Once you’re done doing that, see if you can spot the value that stands behind each emotion.
You felt concern because, despite everything, you love him. Anger because you believe in fairness. Disgust because puke can make you sick and you value your health. Relief because you value his health. Shame because you value your and his reputation.
You see how emotions stand in for and indicate values? If you didn’t have emotions, you wouldn’t know your ethics. If you didn’t have emotions, you would not be standing up for your standards. In fact, that is exactly the case when you deny your feelings, put your head down, and toughen yourself. You lose touch with what’s important. You misplace your moral compass.
Once you have paid attention to your feelings and reaffirmed your values, their service is complete. They’re like soldiers returning from war. They need to be demobilized, disarmed, and integrated back into polite society. To put it another way, they’re idiot lights, not the driver. You’re the driver. Your feelings should not be in charge. You should be in charge. Take note of your feelings. When they signal to you, investigate what they are trying to say, and then decide what to do about it. Don’t make your feelings do more than they are meant to do, but pay attention and respect their intelligent design.
Commit to Values
Once you get in touch with your feelings and allow them to speak to you, they can point you to what is important. They’ll remind you of aspirations you’ve had since you were small. They’ll indicate the direction towards life satisfaction. They’ll give instructions for a meaningful life.
To the extent you’ve been victimized, your life has not been about growth, potential, aspiration, or mission. It’s been about survival. You aren’t your best when you’re fighting back. You aren’t standing for what you believe when you run away in fear. You aren’t acting decisively when you’re frozen in surprise. You’ve lost your integrity when you suck up to the enemy. You aren’t taking action, it’s all reaction.
Crisis tends to make us revert to primitive modes of behavior. Adrenaline awakens the animal in us. When things go from bad to worse, we’re reduced to four options: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Our brains are designed to keep it simple when things get complicated. It’s what gets us through, but it’s not a way out.
Fight is when you strike back. You’d rather be a hammer than a nail. You might, actually be violent, or your fight might be limited to emotional or verbal aggression. We shrinks call it identifying with the offender. It’s the reason abused people can become abusers. Even though you’re the victim in this case, you need to realize, if you don’t already, that you are capable of fighting dirty. You can hurt others, too; and, when you’re a victim, lashing out, you’ll feel good doing so.
Flight is when you take off to avoid danger, make tracks to get out of Dodge. You might physically flee, withdraw emotionally, stonewall attempts to engage, dissociate from the here and now, or weasel out of any attempt to speak honestly. The funny guy who can’t get serious is in flight. So is the gal who stays late at work to avoid going home. The bars and drug dens are filled with people fleeing. So are the ones binge watching Netflix all weekend and even those whose whole life is wrapped up with their children, when their partner is right there, needing attention.
Freeze is when you have lost a will of your own. You can’t make up your mind about what you want to do. You ruminate on your options until the cows come home. You let others make the decisions for you, you ask a million people what they would do. You know you should leave, but you don’t. You know you should get help, but can’t pick up the phone. Glaciers wonder when you will move. Moss grows on your shady side.
Fawn can be the most confusing. It’s the Stockholm Syndrome of responses to trauma. Fawn is when you are bonded to the person who abuses you because he abuses you, not despite. You make nice, at first, so as to not provoke him. You ingratiate yourself so he thinks you’re on his side. You know you can be the most convincing when you convince yourself, so you convince yourself to abandon your own interests. You start to believe you want this life, at first because you feel you have no choice; but then, so thoroughly that, when you have a choice, you miss your chance. The next thing you know you’re Patty Hearst, robbing a bank.
Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn keeps you alive; but that’s all it does. Sooner or later, you have to take stock of the situation, how you really feel about it, and identify the things that are important to you. Then you have to take a stand. You’ve got to serve somebody; either your ultimate values, or the agenda of the person who mistreats you.
Now that you’ve gotten in touch with your feelings and values, you realize that you are hurt. The next step, if you chose to take the path towards healing, is to renounce revenge.
Revenge comes in a variety of colors and flavors, all of them dark and bitter. There’s the kind, practiced by mafia chieftains who cannot afford to appear soft, where you hunt down and punish the offender, with extreme prejudice. There’s the Hatfield and McCoy, Montague and Capulet, Israeli and Palestinian type of vendetta that never seems to end. There’s the tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye variety, practiced by couples who commit adultery in response to the other sleeping around. Subtile digs, where you never let your partner forget anything, are popular. So’s passive aggression, where your partner may not even know what you’re doing to get even. Revenge is codified and legitimized by courts in systems of retributive justice. Punish the offender enough, it is thought, and they will have paid the price of crime.
Revenge is said to feel good, but I have my doubts. I remember when Osama Bin Laden met his end. There was some satisfaction to see that happen, but did it really help us forget 9/11? Does revenge really work? Does it insure that crimes will not be repeated? Does it deter misbehavior, right wrongs, or enforce order? When you bring someone to justice, is justice created, or is injustice given a new lease on life?
I have my opinion on these questions and you may have yours. Social scientists have conclusions they have reached on the basis of rigorous scientific analysis; as rigorous as social science ever gets. They don’t, by and large, favor retribution. But the urge to commit revenge can be very strong and it’s hard to believe that it does not have any evolutionary justification. Besides, it’s one thing to preach love and forgiveness in church, a hippie commune, or an academic conference, it’s quite another to do so in the ghetto or Iraq, where the questions come up most frequently.
If, after listening to your feelings and re-engaging with your values, you believe revenge is the way to go, then, I suppose, there’s nothing I can do to convince you, otherwise. I think it’s strange to practice revenge on the people closest to you, to insist on a pound of flesh from your own flesh and blood; but I’m not you, I guess. I wouldn’t want to be either a Hatfield or a McCoy. It might be cool to be a mafia chieftain and order my enemies killed while dining on veal saltimbocca, but it would be a bummer to be interrupted by a guy with a violin case before dessert arrived.
I will say that, if you are serious about reconciliation, or even personal peace, you’re not going to get to it by going through revenge. You can’t get there from there. You will have to renounce revenge if you’re going to get anywhere down the path to reconciliation. The reason why may be more clear as we go on, but for now I think you will agree that spending your time plotting revenge is incompatible with putting the injury behind you.
Does renouncing revenge mean that you can’t ask anything of the offender before you can reconcile? Absolutely not. You can achieve personal peace without getting the offender involved, but to be reconciled, she has to do something, too. It’ll be hard for her. She’ll have to hear you speak about your hurt and its effects. She’ll have to take responsibility, make restitution, and change her ways. You’ll have to insist on it. That’s your revenge.
I’ve worked with many criminals over the years: thieves, murderers, rapists, and child molesters, to name a few. Almost all of them would much rather do jail time than look their victims in the eye and acknowledge what they’ve done. Most would chose solitary confinement before accepting responsibility. Some might even elect the electric chair over meaningful change. You’re not letting them off easy by offering reconciliation.
So, renounce revenge, if only because it’ll make you a better person than the one who hurt you. Like someone said once, living a good life is the best revenge.
Just because an other has hurt you, don’t hurt yourself
The addiction, the madness, the lying, the cheating, and the selfishness have just done too much damage. Your relationship has been crippled and you’re not sure whether it will ever be the same again. You’ve heard enough apologies. You’ve forgiven too much. You can’t forget all the things that have happened. You’ve decided to harden your heart, dig in, and refuse to forgive any more.
I will not argue against the justice of your cause. Yes, she did things that were unwarranted, things that hurt. Bad behavior wrecks things and some of those things are your feelings. You probably can’t even count the number of disappointments. It’s your right. Your cause is just, but don’t be stupid. Don’t be one of those people who think that, just because they are right, they can afford to be stupid.
The supremely stupidest thing would be to harden your heart and refuse to forgive while you continue to live with your partner. You’ve seen couples like that, who live together in a home, protected by force-fields of hate. Their sadness is disguised as hardness. They pass in the hall, throwing invisible daggers at each other. They eat in shifts. They have their own dens, their own TVs, their own unapproachable sides of the bed. They communicate through their children. Every couple endures moments like this, maybe days, following a fight, when all they give each other is the cold shoulder. Image a lifetime of it.
Forgiving is not something you do for the other party. It’s something you do for you, so you don’t have to constantly have those toxic feelings. Like the saying goes: resentment is a poison you drink yourself, hoping that the other person will die. Forgiving means you stop drinking that poison.
The people who live like that imagine that their resentment preserves them from harm; their hate is a cold castle wall of safety. They’re afraid that, if they forgive, they’ll forget, and they’ll let it all happen again. They fear that any warmth will just encourage the offending party. Of course, they are partly right. When forgiveness is given away cheaply or when you are still at risk, it’ll do just that; but, when the opportunity to earn genuine forgiveness is extended and taken, it’s a welcome rain on a dry day.
The next stupidest thing is to take the opposite tack, to grant cheap pardon, to rush forgiveness just because you don’t want to deal with it. We talked about that already.
The third stupidest thing is to move out on your partner, just so you can continue to hate, apart from him. It’s not nearly as stupid as sharing a home with someone you despise. You have actual walls separating you, so you don’t have to maintain the force-field quite so much. But, you are still living in everlasting enmity and drinking that poison, just not as strong a dose.
It might not be a bad idea to move out before any more hurt can happen, while you work towards forgiveness. If you’re in mortal danger, then you should move out right away. However, provided you are not in mortal danger, I would urge you to pause before you pack your bags. Moving out doesn’t change everything.
It’s important to remember that, once you’re in a relationship with someone, you will always be in a relationship with that person. It’s like the Hotel California, you can move out, but you can never leave. Even if you never speak to her again; if you move to the other side of the world, put up a dartboard with her face on it, refer to her only as, The Bitch, you will always be in relationship. There will always be a corner of your brain, I dare say, a corner of your heart, that has her name on it.
This is doubly true if you are in photos in Facebook together. This is triply true if she met your parents. It’s quadruply true if you were married. It’s doubly, triply, quadruply true if you have kids together. You’re hitched.
Love may not be eternal, but relationship is. The legal end of a marriage is not the end of a relationship.
Relationship, at its minimal level, means that your partner rents space in your head. You think of him sometimes, happily or unhappily, with fondness or regret. He’s part of your story and you’re part of his. You have to account for him if you’re honest. You’ll be flooded with memories, good or bad, after the most trivial cues. He’ll affect the way you relate to anyone else. He’ll be an item to compare and contrast. Former relationships rarely exist at this minimal level. Usually there are more feelings. Many more. You might continue to hate her, but there will still be feelings. At some point, time and time again, for the rest of your life, after the right buttons are pushed, you will be transported by your passions for the person.
You’ve seen this in others. You’ve had beers with the man who, at the mere mention of his ex, goes on a ten minute tirade about the shrew. You’ve drained a bottle of wine with a friend who combs over every detail of her ex’s pervasive perfidy. These are people still in relationship even though their divorces are final.
By the way, love and hate are not that far apart. They are both intense. They are both very, very far away from indifference. You’ll never be indifferent about a former partner, no matter how hard you try to fake it.
If you agree that you will always be in relationship, then the question is: what kind of relationship will it be? Which road will you take? You have three choices: grant cheap pardon, extend everlasting enmity, or work towards genuine, but rewarding, reconciliation. You have these choices if you stay together, but you also have these choices if you’re apart. Your address, whether it’s where you sleep, where you call home, or where to get your mail, is irrelevant.
Stop Picking that Scab
By this point, you have come a long way towards peace with the things that have happened to you. You have connected with feelings you had previously turned away. You’ve recommitted to values. You’re protecting yourself. You’ve renounced revenge in all its forms. You’ve decided not to be stupid and live in an atmosphere of toxic hate. Why then don’t you feel better? Well, it might have something to do with the time and energy you spend replaying the awful things that have happened. Stop picking that scab.
Imagine turning on your TV and looking at all the programs, movies, and sports available. You have cable, so you have thirty-four hundred channels to look through. You have Roku and a subscription to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. There’s also YouTube. Despite all this bounty, there’s one show you always watch, over and over again. Not just one show, one episode of one show. You could recite the lines and act out all the parts. You know what’s going to happen, but you see the show to the end anyway. That’s what it’s like to be traumatized. It’s madness.
You might say to me, I can’t stop thinking about that. Well, you just did. Right when you said you couldn’t stop, you stopped long enough to say you can’t stop. It’s that easy.
Human consciousness does not naturally think about anything for long. It’s always moving. It’s like a flashlight in the dark which does not settle on any one object. Good thing. There’s a lot to see. Human consciousness is like a TV set which surfs channels on its own. If you want to watch your program, you have to press the button on your remote that bring you back to the last channel, that one episode of one show you keep watching over and over. That’s how crazy it is to be preoccupied with something that happened.
If your thoughts moved on as they would do naturally, then it would be inevitable that they will return to the trauma. OK, fine. If that happens, then move on.
Let’’s take a closer look at what’s going on when you say you can’t stop thinking about something. You know in your heart it’s not true, it’s not an accurate statement. On any given day you’ve had a million thoughts, most of them having nothing to do with what happened. You know it, why then do you say you can’t stop?
I think you are engaging in hyperbole. You’re exaggerating for effect. You’re trying to tell a story about how hurt you are. You want to make a point.
If you are injured by something someone did, then it is important to say so. You need to let the person know so, if they care, they won’t do it again. If that person isn’t listening, you may need to say it again and again, till they hear. You may need to let some third party know about the injury so they can intervene if they have a mind to. If they don’t listen, you may need to say it again. You also need to acknowledge the hurt to yourself. After all, I asked you to get in touch with your feelings, didn’t I? If you aren’t inclined to listen to your feelings, they may need to speak up till you hear.
However, there comes a point where raising the alarm like this has exceeded its usefulness and is incompatible with achieving personal peace. The time will come when you must stop picking that scab so it can heal and minimize the resulting scar.
Here’s how it works. You can’t reduce the incidence of scab picking without first reducing the duration.
You know those people who walk through your neighborhood in pairs and knock on your door asking you to join their church? I get them in my neighborhood, too. One day, I invited them in for coffee. I gave them donuts. We had a good talk, but I couldn’t get them to leave. They next day they were back. I didn’t want to be rude, so we had coffee again, and again, and again, and again. They were good people, but I wasn’t going to join their church, I was already set in that regard. I was wasting their time and mine also. I couldn’t stop. It was madness.
Then, one day when they knocked, I made an excuse that I was painting the kitchen, so we couldn’t have coffee. They were back a few minutes later in old clothes and offered to help me paint. Since, I really wasn’t really painting anything, I had to tell them the truth. Please don’t knock on my door anymore. Goodbye.
The next day, they were back.
Eventually, I learned that even engaging with them in the doorway was a mistake. Whenever I would hear the doorbell, I had to peer out a window. If it was them, I’d make like I was not home. Finally, they stopped coming.
Your bad memories are like that. So are your negative thoughts, anxieties, your cravings to use drugs, your unwarranted feelings, your paranoia, and your impulses to do what you’ll regret. You can’t stop these thoughts from knocking at the door; but, you don’t have to let them in.
When you notice you’re picking the scab, that’s the time to end it. Say to yourself, “Stop picking that scab,” and the scab picking will stop for the moment you say it. Seriously.
Oh, you’ll be doing it again in, like, two seconds; so soon it’ll seem like you never stopped. So, do it again. Say, “Stop picking that scab,” and it stops once more. Do this as many times as it takes. You will reduce the duration. Time spent watching that show will get shorter and shorter. You’ll get better at doing this. It’ll get easier for you to stop. Eventually, you’ll learn to see it coming and, like me, pretend you’re not home.
I was complicit with my tormentors, but I didn’t know it. I thought I had no choice. I gave them power over me when I let them in the door. I entertained them. I fed them. I sat with them and had coffee.
When you stop answering the door every time certain thoughts knock, you will see you were complicit, too. The sooner you terminate your engagement with them, the sooner those thoughts lose power over you. They wither away, malnourished. You’ll see.
How to Re-Traumatize Yourself
First, a bad thing happens. Rape, murder, combat, abuse. You don’t have a lot of control over it. That’s the point. Something happens way, way out of your control. You barely make it. Now you’re left with the memories. That’s the trauma.
Second, the memories come up. You don’t have a lot of control over them, either. They come up when you come across something you associate with the trauma. A plastic bag on the highway that looks as if it may be an IED. A dark alley like where you witnessed the murder. A program on TV too similar to the incident. I knew someone who had a hard time every Saturday throughout her adulthood because, when she was a kid, her step-father would creep into her room Saturday nights. You find yourself caught up in the memory and start feeling as though it’s happening all over again. It’s like a trance you are in, a spell you are under.
You’ve learned to do things that’ll break the spell. You found a dramatic action will do it, the more outrageous, the better. It has to be extreme enough to compete and overpower that memory. You’ve got to drive fast, run hard, take a risk, get a good, stiff drink, or fuck the living daylights out of a stranger. You pick a fight, get some blow, or find a high, high place, hang your toes off, and flirt with death. Maybe, you don’t go quite that far. Maybe you just go over the incident, again and again. Maybe you feel everything you had been feeling. Maybe you reenlist and return to the war zone, find another abusive man, or return to the old one, one more time. Maybe you blame yourself for what was out of your control. Maybe you figure you deserved it.
Congratulations, you’ve just re-traumatized yourself.
It gets to be that the original trauma is nothing; it’s just the beginning. The bulk of the injury occurs over the years afterwards. If, for instance, you were raped while walking through your college campus, that, in itself, is an evil thing. But, if for years afterwards, every time it comes up in your mind, you feel terrible, then you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. If you can’t have sex with your husband because you feel the shame and the terror of that rape, then you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized every time you try to have sex. If you cannot be reminded of it without getting blind drunk, driving recklessly, shoplifting, yelling at your kids, or doing something regrettable, just to break the spell, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. If you watch Law and Order — SVU till you’re numb, go to the scene of the crime, confront the rapist, sleep with a hundred men just to get over it, but feel that terror all over again, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. It gets to be that the original trauma is just a small part of the pain you feel.
If you go to a therapist to get treatment for PTSD and tell the story, only to fall again into that pit of terror, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized.
It seems as if you can never get past it. It seems that every effort to straighten out the mess only ensnares you more thoroughly. It seems as though people are right when they try to deny it ever happened and avoid anything associated with it.
However, you can get past it. PTSD is one of the most readily treatable conditions there are. Plenty of people get past it. ONE STEP AT A TIME.
The first step is not to tell your story. Don’t go into your therapist’s office and get into the whole thing all at once without first considering what will happen when you are done. Oh, you have to say a little bit about it, just so your therapist knows the issue is there, but don’t go into detail. Talk first about what happens when the issue comes up; how have you coped with it so far.
For example, many traumatized people will turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with their trauma. But, if you’re going to need a stiff drink or to shoot up after leaving your therapist’s office, then nothing will be gained. You will only have succeeded in re-traumatizing yourself by adding one more drink you don’t need, one more relapse to the series of problems associated with this trauma.
Therefore, the first step is to take a look at the ways you have been re-traumatized, not traumatized, and get control over that. Let’s be sure what your reaction will be to dealing with the trauma before we try to deal with it.
The second step is to tell your story, but maybe no second step will be necessary. It may never be essential that you go over the original injury. It’s not like you’re going to change what happened, anyway; and it’s not like you were responsible. What you want to change is how you respond to the triggers. That’s something you can change. In the case of the woman raped on her college campus, she probably wants to be able to watch Law and Order without freaking out. She wants to be able to have sex with her husband, be free of nightmares, and see her daughter off to college. She doesn’t want to have the need for all those crazy, dangerous, unhealthy behaviors that she used to turn to in order to break the spell. Really, all the important stuff is in step one. It’s essential to end the re-traumatization.
By the time you get to step two, you may want to tell your story, anyway; if only because now you can. You are no longer silenced. You can speak out, testify, warn others, and join with those who’ve had the same experience. You no longer have to be alone with the secret because there is no longer the risk of re-traumatization.
If you take step two and tell your story, then tell it in a place, at a time, and with a person who can contain it. You’ll want to be able to leave the room in better shape than when you walked in. You let some feelings out as you tell the story; you may not be able to contain them within you, but we want to keep them contained in the room.
When you are done telling the story, the story is told. You, at last, may have been able to fit the pieces together in a way you haven’t been able to fit them before. You couldn’t complete the story because you were getting re-traumatized. The hurt would start all over again, so you had to drop it. This left it unfinished and scattered in pieces all over. When you end the re-traumatization, it becomes a story and not just fragments, jagged pieces of memory that don’t seem to fit together.
Step three? Step three is up to you. Step three is living your life as you want to live it. Something awful still happened. You still have a memory, but it doesn’t matter as much. You no longer are getting re-traumatized, you no longer have to bear a secret, unless you chose to, and the story is complete. You’ve reached the end of trauma. Soon comes personal peace and maybe, if the offender is willing and able, reconciliation.
See the Context
The world may have been created out of nothing, out of a nameless void, they say; but since then, anything that has happened has arisen out of something else. We call this context. If you want to come to some peace over something that has happened to you, then see the context from which it emerged.
Notice I carefully used the word context, not reason. Don’t look for the reason something occurred. Many things just aren’t reasonable. Much happens for no reason, or, at least, no good reason. Similarly, don’t look for justifications; and if anyone offers them, don’t accept them. Justifications are closely related to explanations, rationalizations, and vindications. Stay away from all of them. They all contain too much of that quality by which we sort things out into good or bad, loving or hateful, healthy or unhealthy. I want you to just stick to the evidence without drawing too many conclusions about it. Just the facts, ma’am.
If you don’t like the word context, then look for factors, conditions, background, or the scene. The point is to disengage the judging apparatus in your mind long enough so you can take in all the needed information. Remember, I value feelings and, if you’re a victim, I especially value your feelings as things that can tell you something is wrong and re-connect you to your values. Once feelings do that for you, their job is done and they should be quieted, in much the same way as, once you have woken up and leave the house, you have no more use for a fire alarm. Indeed, a loud and insistent alarm can get in the way of being able to think straight.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say your husband cheated on you. You’re trying to come to peace with it because you’ve decided to stay with him anyway, for the kids’ sake. If you looked at the context, you might see, for instance, that he came from a broken home and married the first time when he was young. His first wife cheated on him, they split up, and he met you shortly thereafter. He quickly got a divorce and married you after you got pregnant. You love being a mother and had two more children in quick succession. They don’t like to sleep alone, so, every night, at least one of them migrates to the bed you share with your husband. Needless to say, you barely have sex anymore. You actually seem to miss it more than he does. He says he doesn’t like to ask because you always seem tired and distracted. He works in a large company with many women. He travels for business and it was on a trip that he began an affair with a colleague. They were out celebrating, having made an important deal, when one thing led to another.
I could have gone on and on, describing the context in which this affair occurred. Obviously, I just included factors that could be related somehow to his unfaithfulness. I could have also said that your eldest son won a competition at a science contest and your husband’s best friend is battling cancer, but those facts are less likely related. Maybe not, though. Maybe his best friend having cancer reminded him that life is short; so he wanted to grab for all the gusto he could. Maybe your husband’s ego was threatened by his son, who is so smart; so your husband wanted to prove he was desirable to someone. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what factors are related. Motivations often come from unexpected directions.
Notice, when I described the context, I tried to keep a neutral tone. I didn’t say, for instance, it’s no wonder your husband had an affair, you guys weren’t having much sex. I also didn’t say, he came from a broken home and didn’t have positive role models, so he didn’t know how to be a good husband. We are looking for correlation, not causation; and remember what I said about justifications, explanations, rationalizations, and vindications. We’re not trying to say more than the evidence can bear.
If you really want to look for the cause of the affair, you can see, in my description of the imaginary husband, that there are a number of factors that could have contributed. He had poor marriage role models. He never had a chance to sow his wild oats. He was cheated on before, so he may have thought it was normal. Your marriage was almost accidental. He may feel left out of the alliance you have with the children. Then there’s the lack of sex and privacy. He believes he cannot ask for what he wants. Paradoxically, you have poor communication because he tries to protect you or is afraid of rejection. He’s around a lot of women, with some opportunities to be unfaithful. He may be able to be more open with them because there’s less at stake. Presumably, there was alcohol involved when he and his colleague were celebrating and the affair began under its influence.
You can see how all these factors might put a hapless husband on the path to being unfaithful. The context is quite powerful. However, there is one thing missing in our formulation. He made a choice. All of these factors could just as well have put him on guard, watching for just that thing. That’s not what happened, though. He let down his guard and made a choice. That’s why you want to stay away from causation, justification, explanation, rationalization, and vindication. All of them forget that there is a choice.
Another thing to keep in mind when looking for the context, is that not all of the context resides in the past or present. Sometimes the most relevant context is the hopes and dreams the person has. Let’s take this husband, for instance. He strikes me as a very isolated person, abandoned many times over, first by at least one parent and then by his first wife. Even in his present family, he’s the odd one out. He thinks he cannot express his desires to you because he fears he would be too demanding and will be rejected. It’s not too much to believe that he desires affirmation, recognition, and respect and may have gotten embroiled in an affair in an attempt to get it.
I admit that having an affair and putting his marriage, as well as his relationship to his children, at risk is hardly the best way of gaining affirmation, recognition, and respect; but people adopt desperate, reckless measures when they are, well, desperate. Again, we’re not looking for excuses, we’re looking for context.
What is the value of looking at context? How can this help you? Let me tell you a story.
I was walking around in Manhattan once. I turned the corner and saw a man with a gun, shooting another man. Blood spurted out everywhere and the victim fell. I reacted quickly, ducking behind a car before I got shot; but I was curious and peered out. Then I saw cameras, lights, microphones, and a director, sitting in one of those director chairs. I had come upon a movie set, not an actual shooting.
When you see the context you see more and understand more. Look at the context.
How to Avoid Playing the Victim
So far, I’ve been urging you to bear right on the road to reconciliation. There’s a good reason for this. To the left are all the hazards that come from not taking your injuries seriously enough: cheap pardon and being out of touch with feelings and uncommitted to values. Now I want you to slightly change direction. If you continue the bearing you are going, you’ll go over a sheer cliff. You’ll go from being someone who is speaking out against injustice to someone who is playing the victim.
You’re playing the victim when you fabricate or exaggerate your suffering so that you can cope, seek attention, or justify abusing and manipulating others. You deserve an Academy Award if you act like you played absolutely no part in what happened to you. You’re being a drama queen if you use your injury to extract unfair concessions. Indeed, go down this Playing the Victim road far enough and you will no longer be the victim; you’ll just be another perpetrator.
Sometimes I ask people who have been victimized by something: who would you rather be, the person who had suffered the injury, or the person who had committed it? No one wants to suffer the injury, but in the aftermath, practically everyone would rather be the victim than have to live with themselves after having committed some crime or betrayal. This is what motivates people to play the victim.
People play the victim the same way other roles are played. Certain traits are emphasized and inconvenient contradictions ignored. You become histrionic and dramatic, possibly operatic. You’re certain that your version of events is the only possible version and everything else is lies. You cling to your script and don’t know what to do when the footlights are off. You assign blame and forget that when you point a single finger at someone else, three more are surreptitiously pointed at you. You so strongly believe in a convenient fiction that you have lost touch with the truth.
Early on the road to reconciliation, it is necessary to get a clear picture of the damage done by the person who hurt you. I’ve talked a lot about the pitfalls of cheap pardon and losing touch with your feelings. It’s necessary to acknowledge the hurt and speak out against oppression. The problem comes when you begin to believe your rhetoric too much or become too strident in an effort to be heard.
People might falsely accuse you of playing the victim if they don’t want to hear what you have to say. How can you tell if they’re right? How do you know if you’ve gone too far?
There are four signs that you are playing the victim. Four signs that result in at least four negative consequences.
First, you are playing the victim if it is impossible for your offender to make any meaningful restitution. I’m not saying you have to accept any half hearted apology, I’m saying that you can’t complain about something without giving the person a chance to make it right. She can never meet your terms for reconciliation because you have elevated them to an unattainable level. You require a down payment no one can afford when you expect someone to accept all the blame.
Second, you are playing the victim if you do not see that you have some power to change the situation. One consequence of playing the victim is that you end up feeling powerless because you refuse to see the extent to which you have power. This powerlessness is incompatible with being able to take action on your own behalf. You fail to recognize your own efficacy. You victimize yourself through inaction and indecisiveness.
Third, you play the victim if you have lost your humility; if you fail to admit that there is often a very fine distinction between the abuser and the abused, between the perpetrator and the injured party. You forget that, if not for the grace of God, or random circumstances, you could’ve been him.
Let’s take a marital argument, for instance, an ugly confrontation that results in yelling, name calling, throwing dishes, slamming doors, and sore feelings for days afterwards. Someone started it, someone yelled first, called the first name, threw the first dish, and slammed the first door. One person held on to their hurt feelings longer than the other. It’s seldom the same person who escalates or de-escalates things at each step. The person who called the first name may not have been the one who slammed the first door. It’s often hard to say who started it, or even, when it started. When one person throws a dish; we’ll never know, if she didn’t, that the other might have thrown a dish a minute later.
The fourth sign is hard to explain. Imagine going to a restaurant and getting a waiter who is so attentive, so obsequious, so unctuous, so over-the-top in his waiter-like flourishes that he seems to be a caricature of a waiter. When he praises you for the entree you selected from the menu, you wonder if he’s being sarcastic. You don’t trust him because he doesn’t seem real. He actually is a waiter, but he still seems to be playing a part. There is something inauthentic about him, something that seems faked or forced, something of bad faith.
So, the fourth sign that you are playing the victim is when you are more intent with keeping up the part you play than in just being yourself. You’ve got a mask on so no one can see who you really are.
It comes down to this: you don’t need to play the victim if you are the victim, but you might end up doing so, anyway. You then lose touch with yourself, your feelings, and values, again. You have confused yourself with the part you are playing.
In some cases, when you stop playing the victim and get real about your contribution to the problem, you may just find that you’re really an abuser, all along, and all your complaints were just distractions for the harm you have done. This can be disconcerting, to say the least. No one wants to admit they behaved badly, much less that they are guilty of covering it up. However, when you stop playing the victim, then you are able to see the problem clearly and do something about it.
So, get real and avoid playing the victim. Don’t take yourself so seriously that you lose yourself in the process.
I’m glad that I didn’t decide to be an experimental psychologist. If I had, I might’ve had to lock dogs up in cages and shock them for the sake of science. As it is, others can do it and we can benefit from the things they learned by doing so.
There was a classic experiment where they locked dogs up in cages. They rang a bell a few seconds before they administered an electric shock through the metal of the cage. The dogs quickly learned to go limp and flop when they heard the bell. I guess relaxing like that made the shock hurt less. Then the researchers did something very interesting. They would ring the bell and open the door of the cage before administering the shock. The dogs could easily escape, but they failed to do so. They were too busy flopping. Consequently, they would receive the shock, as before, but had no good reason to do so.
We call this learned helplessness. The dogs had learned to be helpless as an effective way of coping with something they, at first, could not avoid. The problem was they learned to be helpless too well and could not distinguish a situation in which helplessness made sense from a situation where it was unnecessary.
You, too, might have learned helplessness. If you have been stuck in an abusive relationship, then you probably have learned not to care too much, not to try things that would just add to the pain. You learned to put up and make do. You settled. That’s fine. I get it. You didn’t have a choice.
But, maybe, at one point, you did have a choice. Maybe a door which had not been previously open, got opened. You might not have gotten out as soon you could have. You might not have spoken up when you could. The moment help became available, you might have dithered and said you’d be fine.
Look for the open door.
Stay on the Road
First, I had you acknowledge your feelings, then set them aside. I had you recognize that you were a victim, then I urged you to stop playing the victim. I told you to not forgive cheaply, then I said you were a fool not to forgive. So, which is it? You ask. What do I want?
I want you to stay on the road to reconciliation. Here’s the thing about roads. You can drive off of a road on either side. In order to get anywhere, you’ve got to keep moving. As you move, the road changes. When you fail to recognize the changes, you go off the road, hit a tree, and stop.
There are lots of ways of going off the road. One way is by sticking with an official story.
As any conspiracy theorist can tell you, there’s a big difference between the official story and the real one. The official story is the corporate or governmental public relations bullshit that’s repeated so many times that it begins to pass for truth. It’s designed to tidy up the mess, reassure the public, establish the narrative, and maintain the status quo. It’s what you tell your mother after a hot date or the explanation given to a prospective employer after you walk out on your last job. It’s often not an outright lie, just a highly varnished one. It contains elements of the truth, but it’s not the truth. The truth is usually much more awkward. The official story is meant to be the last word. It’s something people tell, not to answer questions, but to stop questions from being asked.
It’s not just corporations, the government, frisky children, or disgruntled workers that employ official stories. The person who injured you does it, too. You’ve heard them. He hit you because you made him so mad. He hit you, but you hit him first. He couldn’t help but hit you because his father did it to him, too. He hit you, but he’s sorry and it taught him not to do it again. These may have all been true. What makes them official stories is when they are meant to be the last word. When they are used to shut you up.
As the victim, you have your own official story, too. You may have adopted one of his and have been perfectly content to admit that you made him so mad he hit you, or he hit you because you hit him first. You might want to let him off the hook and say that he only did what his father did. You might accept a premature apology just so you don’t have to deal with the whole thing anymore.
Or, maybe your official story is that you’re a victim, subject to a paternalistic society, without rights, resources, or recourse. You may be correct in this, but it’s an official story if you stop there and make it the last word. If you look at what happened and examine its context, then you can see the cracks and patches in the official story. You see that the official story glosses over significant exceptions and inconsistencies. The official story is not the whole story. Even a genuine truth is not the whole truth or the only truth.
You’re not just the victim and he’s not just the perpetrator. In fact, the word, just, should no longer be in your vocabulary, at least not used in a reductionistic manner that conceals the details. Remember that, while I want you to hold the offender accountable, I also want to avoid seeing you getting stuck in just being a victim. There’s more to you than that.
There’s something about us humans that makes us want to take vibrant life and engrave it in stone. We do it so we can handle it, manage it, put it in a box, and carry it without dropping it. We fixate it and then we fixate on it, trying to keep it fixed on a pin. But life is not like that. You are not like that. Life is meant to be, well, lively. So keep it moving and be suspicious of the last word on anything.
Let me say one more thing and it’ll be the last word on having the last word. I promise.
Go to your cupboard and find a single piece of simple food: a Cheerio, say. Before you pop it in your mouth, think about what it took to bring that single Cheerio to you, the context of the Cheerio, in order words. There were farmers, truckers, warehouse workers, and grocers, as well as the tractor manufacturers, fertilizer salesmen, oil rig workers, agribusiness executives, box makers, etc, that support them. Then there’s the parents, the partners, and the children of those farmers, truckers, warehouse workers, grocers, tractor manufacturers, fertilizer salesmen, oil rig workers, agribusiness executives, and cardboard box makers, as well as their teachers, doctors, lawyers, barbers, and accountants. And that’s only the people involved in the Cheerio. Don’t let me get started on the chemical properties of the cereal and the history of the elements involved. Get the point? It’s infinite. You could spend all day looking at the context of a single Cheerio, and it’s just a Cheerio.
The official story is it’s just a Cheerio. Well, if there’s a lot to a Cheerio, then imagine what there might be regarding you, the loved one who hurt you, and an incident between you.
As you can imagine, it could take you all day to eat a single Cheerio. Similarly, you could spend the rest of your life thoroughly appreciating the context of any incident between you and your loved one; you’d never be any closer to the end. That’s no good, either. Life goes on. Seeing the context is a good thing, but, at some point, you’ve got to chew and swallow the damn thing. There’s lots of ways of getting stuck on this road. One way is by thinking too much and never settling on anything.
So, here I go again, talking out of both sides of my mouth. I want you to see the context and be open to multiple interpretations; but I also want you to figure things out and close around some conclusions and resolutions, be decisive, in other words. Which is it? You ask. What do I want?
I want you to stay on the road. When you start veering over too far to one side, veer over to the other.
Get out of the middle of the picture
Let’s say you are deeply disappointed in your mother, who never was the mother you needed her to be when you were a child. You want to get past this because, after all, you’re not a child anymore, right? The story, as you tell it, goes like this:
My mother divorced my father when I was young and she had a series of relationships with men throughout my childhood. None of them were any good. They were drunken, violent louts. Nonetheless, she always chose them before me. She would do whatever they said and moved me in and out of different homes before she really knew any of them. None of these men wanted me around and I got the feeling my mother didn’t, either. I was just an inconvenience to her.
This is a heartbreaking story that is all too common. If this happened to you, the effects go deep and can persist a lifetime. You would really rather they didn’t. What can you do to let it go?
Here’s a place to start. Stop calling her My Mother. I don’t mean you have to stop calling her My Mother or Mom, or Ma, to her face. Nor, do you have to renounce her forever. She still is your mother. I mean, when you tell the story, refer to her by name instead of title. If her name is Alice, call her Alice.
My Mother is a being who came into existence when you did and exists only in relation to you. Alice was born long before you and has a life distinct from you. My Mother is so close to you that she’s an extension of yourself and you’re an extension of My Mother’s self. Alice is another person. You can connect as an equal to someone named Alice in a way you can never to My Mother. When Alice chooses the company of men over you, it might hurt a little, but when My Mother does it, it’s catastrophic.
It was catastrophic when you were a child, but you’re not a child anymore, so it’s not, not anymore. Now it’s as if someone named Alice did it.
Some people resist this exercise because they think it is disrespectful. I think it’s more respectful to understand someone as a whole person, independent of yourself, who is trying to play with the hand she is dealt.
The second step is take a look at Alice’s life, from the beginning to the end. Tell the story from her point of view; the whole story. How was Alice’s childhood? What were her parents like? How might Alice have been shaped by her relationship with her first husband, George, whom you know as Dad? What were the social and economic forces of her early adulthood, the period of time when you were a child? What were Alice’s dreams and aspirations?
I’m often amazed by how little adult children know about their parents, except the parts that directly pertain to them. You may be able to ask her to tell you these things. If not, then guess. You will probably be right. You probably know more than you know you do.
I’m going to go ahead and guess that Alice’s dad, your grandfather, was distant, hard working, but emotionally unavailable. A lot of fathers were, in those days. When she was a kid, Alice dreamt of going to college and traveling around the world, but she got pregnant in high school and married George, your dad. That’s what people did those days when they got pregnant. Shackled with a kid, little education, and in a shotgun marriage, she didn’t have a lot of choices. George had no respect for her and, when she never lost the weight she gained in her pregnancy, he ran off with his secretary. Now, she was really screwed economically and worried about raising her child without a male role model. She started to date, to find a man who would support her and her child. The prospects of an out-of-shape single mother in the marriage market were not good. She soon found herself scraping the bottom of the barrel. No matter how much she might have loved her child, she regretted ever getting pregnant.
See how different the two stories are when you are not in the center of it? You are seeing the context. You could conclude that she did the best she could. Maybe not. You could still be angry with her. That’s your prerogative, but now it’s an adult being angry with another adult, not a child being angry with his mother.
The third step is to calculate how old Alice was at the time in question. Let’s just say she was twenty-five. Now, look around at the people you know who are twenty-five. How mature, wise, and altogether are they? Some are, granted, but most haven’t got all the kinks worked out. Twenty-five year olds might actually be younger than you are right now. If that’s the case, then remember how much maturity, wisdom, and know-how you had. That’s what Alice had to work with. Now calculate how old you were at the time. Let’s say eight. Look at eight year olds you know today. How much maturity, wisdom, and understanding have they? Do you really want to look at the situation from an eight-year-old’s point of view?
It’s impossible to gain any of those insights about My Mother but entirely possible with someone named Alice.
You can use this method with all the disappointing people who have titles in your life: husband, wife, sister, brother, friend, leader, colleague. When you are no longer at the center of the story, blocking the view, you are better able to see and, if appropriate, genuinely forgive.
The People of the Mind
As if it wasn’t hard enough to deal with the people who hurt you, you also have to deal with their representatives you carry around in your head. Actual people you can divorce, send to jail, move across the country and never see again; the people of the mind follow you, they share your bed despite divorce. Regardless of orders of protection, they dog your footsteps, day and night. It’s imperative you find a way to cope with these imaginary people or they will do you more harm than the real ones ever could.
You’ve heard the things these imaginary people say to you: You’re never going to amount to much… You’re just a slut… You’re a failure…. No one is ever going to want to be with you. No, they weren’t actual voices that you can hear. They’re thoughts, but thoughts are as persuasive as voices. These words may have originally come directly from the actual person. It’s like you have a tape somewhere, playing them over and over again. You worry that you might be going crazy, except that everyone has these inner critics.
You’ve tried to argue with these voices, prove them wrong. You’ve written positive affirmations, taped them to your bathroom mirror, and repeated them fourteen times a day. Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better. I will be successful. I’m a loving, committed partner. Everyone wants to be with me. You think this will help, but it doesn’t. The niggling nabobs of negativity natter all night, nonetheless.
At the risk of adding my voice to theirs, you’re doing it wrong. This isn’t the way you handle an inner critic. You’d be happier if you trained it to be better at its job.
We all need the capacity for self criticism. A good inner critic can stop you from committing many foolish things. It’ll halt you from saying that impolitic thing you were going to say. It’ll make sure your fly is zipped when you leave the men’s room. It’ll help you pick out the perfect outfit. It’ll hone your performance so that every day, whatever you do, you’ll do it better and better; not because you say so, but because you’re learning from your mistakes. A good inner critic is like a personal trainer, a portable therapist, a life coach, and a father confessor, all rolled into one. You should thank your stars you have an inner critic. It might save you from public humiliation. But, you need a good one.
You can train your inner critic to get better at its job by replying to all its statements with a single word question: Because…?
So, let’s take the things inner critics say to people and try out this method on them.
“You’re never going to amount to much.”
”You’re just a slut.”
“You’re a failure.”
“No one is ever going to want to be with you.”
If the inner critic is able to complete the sentence and tell you why you’re never going to amount to much, etc, then you’ve got some information you can use. For instance, if it says you’re never going to amount to much because you spend so much time playing video games, then that’s an intelligent point of view you should consider. Maybe it’s right. Maybe it’s wrong, but, at least you can reason with it. When the inner voice doesn’t do anything more than pronounce that you’re a loser, then it’s no different than those bullies who called you names on the playground. Their words are hollow, their arguments specious. You can dismiss their claims because they have nothing to back them up.
When you challenge the inner critic to give evidence and it follows through, then you turn the critic into a trusted advisor who gives you something you can use. It becomes a consultant who is more than just a yes man. If the inner critic doesn’t follow though and provide any evidence for its point of view, then it’s not a true inner critic; it’s an inner bully.
It’s important to understand who these people of the mind are and what they are doing there. In the same way that a meteorologist will program a simulated climate into a computer, you set the people of the mind up to match the actual world. Then you run different scenarios. They are your creations. There should be a strong resemblance; but they are not the people they represent and they are not you.
For example, probably everyone has an inner father. When you were a child it was in your interest to be able to predict what your father would do in a given circumstance. If you thought about swiping a cookie, you needed to know whether he would smile, yell, or beat you with a leather strap. So, you constructed an imaginary character you called your father, based on your father. The more accurate a representation of him it was, the more useful this construct could be. This inner father is not your father, it’s a simulation of your father; but, if you are a good author, it would be a damn good simulation.
You would also have to give these simulations free will in the same way that you might program a computer to make its own decisions based on preordained factors. The inner person has to be able to operate on its own, without too much input from you. It does you no good to hand a script to your inner father and tell it how to respond when you swipe a cookie; you need to know how it would respond so it can tell you how your real father would. This is how come these people of the mind seem to have a will of their own. You give it to them so their behavior can be like the free will behavior of actual people.
The simulations also have to go on running when the actual person is not around. Just because your father has left the room, it doesn’t mean you don’t need the simulation. You need to know how he would respond to the missing cookie when he returns. Just because you haven’t seen the actual person in months, doesn’t mean you won’t see him again. Just because he’s dead and buried, doesn’t mean you won’t come across people like him someday. This is why it’s often not good to dismiss a person of the mind. You might need it again.
These simulations get repurposed when we come across someone new who somehow resembles them. When you meet a new boss, for instance, you may use the model of your father upon which to construct a new model of your boss because they both have something in common: they are important, powerful males in your life. This way, if something comes up in which you don’t know how your boss will respond, you run the contingency through the father program, so at least you have something to go on. You may easily get confused, though, about who you’re dealing with. Many assumptions about your boss may come from what you have come to expect with your father.
You can see that you can easily get confused about who these people of the mind are. You may confuse the inner person with the actual person. You may think you know them when you don’t. If you do confuse them, then that’s because you’re a good author and have developed rich, well-drawn characters who seem real.
These people of the mind do more than give you models for how actual other people may behave. They also help you work out how you will behave. They help you play with possibilities to see how they might turn out. Before you swiped that cookie, you imagined yourself swiping that cookie. You worked out how to move the chair and reach the top of the cupboard without your father hearing you. You debated whether you should drag the chair or pick it up. You told yourself, if you drag the chair, it’ll rub on the floor and make a sound. That was an inner critic. It said, “Quiet, you’ll be too noisy.”
You can thank your inner critic for helping you steal that cookie.
The construction of inner representations of yourself has to follow the same rules that apply to constructions of other people. The simulation of yourself has to be an accurate representation of how you could be in the real world. It has to know whether you are strong enough to pick up the chair, for instance. The simulation of yourself also has to seem to have a will of its own so you can accurately project how it will behave. The simulation of yourself also has to persist over time, so that you can build on past failures and successes. It can also be confused with your actual self, so that you can’t tell the difference.
You can hear this confusion when you talk. You say, “I keep telling myself I’m a loser, a slut, and no one will ever want to be with me.”
No, that’s not you saying that. It’s your inner critic: a character of your own creation set up to resemble you or an important person in your world. If you confuse this character with you, then you did a good job creating it; but it’s not you. You are the creator. You are the person directing, watching, and listening to the show.
In summary, this is how you deal with the people of the mind: You act like the creator of this inner world, which you are. You put them to the use they were intended. You realize that you are to them as the figure of God is to His creation. You are the Almighty and, if you want, you can cast them into Hell where they cry and gnash their teeth; or you can extend grace, mercy, and redemption to a broken inner world that matches the broken actual world.
Lighten your load, let go of the problem
The last time I went on a long hike, I brought along a book I had started and loved. I was going to read it during breaks. When the book began to get heavy, I wondered why I loved it so much. I couldn’t bear throwing out the whole thing. I ripped off the cover and threw that away; but it didn’t make my pack light enough. A couple miles later, the title page, the table of contents, the forward, and the index had to go, too. I finished reading the book later and loved it so much I happily carried the rest of it home, so that I could read it another time.
That’s what I would suggest doing with the person who hurt you. Before you throw her away, rip off the cover. By that I mean: try to tell the difference between the person and what she did to you. If it helps, remind yourself of the person you knew before she did whatever she did to you. Remember what you saw in her. Honor whatever affinity you had. You don’t have to whitewash, just acknowledge the good with the bad.
Of course, this only works if you have shared a history with the offender before he committed his offense. If someone mugs you in dark ally, it does you no good to say he’s loving and kind to his mother. Adolf Hitler was kind to dogs, they say; a fact that does not diminish the horror of the Holocaust. Returning to my metaphor, I was torn about whether to keep the book or throw it out only because I knew I loved the book. If I had no feelings about it, I never wouldn’t have kept any of it.
In your case, having been hurt by someone close, you may find that distinguishing the sin from the sinner, so to speak, is enough for you. You might be able to chalk up the painful incident as an anomaly, a flash in the pan, an exception to the rule. You’re confident it never will happen again. If that’s the case, then you’ve had a short road to reconciliation. Hopefully, you won’t have to travel it again.
However, if the stink of thing she did still adheres and can’t be washed off by ordinary soap and water, then a second step will be necessary. You will have to further divide the person into the parts you might want to keep and the parts that have to go. I call this second step discerning the person from the problem.
Let me explain what I mean.
His drinking has hurt you. He stayed out late at the bar when you were expecting him home. He drove drunk, smashing up your car. He had quite a few too many at your sister’s wedding and caused a scene. He said he had stopped drinking when he hadn’t. There’s more, but you get the point. You read where I say to tell the difference between the person and what he did to you. Fine, you say. You do that; but, here’s the thing. He’s still doing it. He’s still drinking. Or, even if he isn’t now, you can never be sure if he’ll start up again. The stain of his actions is still on him. Scrub all you want and it’s not coming off.
Problems take over a person. In this case, alcoholism took over your husband. You think it’s him staying late at the bar, but it wasn’t him. It was his problem: alcoholism. When he thought he could drive, his problem was doing the thinking. The problem showed up at your sister’s wedding, uninvited. It’s the alcoholism talking when he says he hasn’t had a drink when you can smell it on him. In advanced cases, the original person is gone and all that’s left is this imposter.
The problem-ridden person believes the problem is all powerful, its demands insatiable, that he has to obey. This obeyance gives it power. Problems are fed by the accommodations we make. The sick person who doesn’t eat because she’s not hungry, gets weak. The paraplegic who doesn’t push himself in his physical therapy, withers away. The anxious person who lets her fears control her, puts her fears in control. The depressed person who doesn’t open the blinds, does not receive the healing properties of light. The alcoholic who makes everyone else responsible for his recovery will drink again because others cannot stop him.
The person you loved has mostly fled and left this shell behind. Now the problem is coming for you.
When I say the problem is coming for you, I don’t mean you will have the same problem he has, alcoholism, in this case. Maybe, but not necessarily. The problem changes shape on its way to you. When it takes you over, it looks like something else. Bitterness, maybe; paranoia, possibly; angst, apprehension, and despair, definitely. When a problem takes you over, its needs are so great that it pushes aside all other needs. Caring for the problem is so absorbing, nothing else you do matters.
If you don’t already find satisfaction in self-sacrifice and helping, you find that’s all you do, anyway. The needs of the problem push aside all other needs. You stop listening to your own desires. It makes little sense for you to acknowledge, for instance, that you need to get out and see friends when you’re not going to be able to do it anyway. You have to stay home with the problem. You become more attentive to the problem than to yourself, until, at last, you’re possessed and have no self left.
The best hope you have in defending yourself and defeating this monster is to be able to discern the difference between your darling and the demon. It’s tricky at first, but even twins can be distinguished by those who know them.
Go through each and every one of his behaviors. Is this the man you know and love, with all his foibles, or is this the problem? Does the behavior serve health or sickness? Decency or despair? Be sure that you can keep them straight.
If you’re angry with your partner for succumbing to the problem, your anger is justified, but misdirected. Your partner is not the problem; the problem is the problem. It’s the problem you should be angry with.
Now look at yourself and the things you’re doing. Do they support your partner or the problem? Be honest. If you’re going to lick this thing, you’re going to need to know what you are doing to promote it.
Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t start the problem, you just reacted to it. It was only later on that those needs became all consuming. It tricked you, until now. You’ve caught on.
Finally, get connected with the portions of your partner that remain problem-free. Look into his eyes and find his soul if you have to. Listen for that still small voice of vitality. Feel around for his strength. Once you’ve got a hold, don’t let go.
If you find the person you love, distinct from the problem; take action against the problem and support the person. This is why you need to be able to tell the difference. Everything else you do is going to be based on knowing friend from foe.
If you can’t find the person you loved, maybe the problem has taken him over completely and there’s nothing left. If you have torn off the cover, the title page, the table of contents, the forward, and the index of the heavy book and there is nothing left you want to read, then you’ve got to think about throwing it out. You didn’t connect with him because you wanted a problem. Who needs problems?
Create Problem-Free Zones
If you’ve been hurt and problems have taken over your relationship, there’s plenty that you can do, other than succumb to the problem yourself. Just because your boyfriend wants to get piss-drunk every time you go out, doesn’t mean you have to clean him up. If your girlfriend picks fights with everyone, doesn’t mean you have to make excuses for her. If your husband choses to gamble away his paycheck, doesn’t mean he has to spend yours, too. Get out a little, be healthy, let your partner clean up his or her own mess.
Create a Problem-Free Zone.
Create a Problem-Free Zone even if your wife has a problem through no fault of her own. Do it for the sake of your own health and so you can be more effective in helping her with it.
You’ve been on airplanes when they go over the safety procedures. They always say put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else. I’ve never been in a situation in which the oxygen masks are needed, but I think it’s good advice. It’s even good advice when you’re dealing with a problem.
There are lots of ways in which problems takes over a relationship, but the surest way is when the caregiver forgets to take care of herself. She becomes entirely preoccupied with what the problem needs. For good reason. Problems scream the loudest. They’re the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Your needs can wait, you think.
No, they can’t.
I’m not talking about emergencies, of course. If a carotid artery is severed, then, yes, forget that you need to go to the bathroom. Call the ambulance and apply pressure to the wound. You can pee later. You can pee in your pants. In fact, you might be peeing in your pants anyway if someone’s carotid artery is severed in front of you. Other than carotid arteries, there may be a few other kinds of emergencies that require you to forget your needs completely; but not many. Not everything is an emergency. In fact, very few things are. I know, I used to work in an emergency department.
When I worked in the emergency department, I was the guy who handled all the psychiatric emergencies. There were the suicidal people, just talked down from ledges, the homicidal people the police brought, the domestic violence people who wouldn’t settle down, the psychotic people who were trying to fly. Often the people who brought them in: the friends, the relatives, the Good Samaritans, were breathless with excitement and trepidation. People couldn’t wait to help. I had just the thing that would make them all feel better. I had a waiting room.
We even had a name for it: waiting room therapy. There’s a change for the better that occurs when people don’t do anything; provided they’re safe, of course. When you don’t do anything, your heart stops beating so fast, your adrenalin wears off. You have time to think, to talk, to reconsider options. When someone else doesn’t rush to solve your problem for you, you often solve it yourself, you discover your own abilities. You learn that you can bear most things, they are tolerable, you develop endurance.
It’s not like I purposely made people wait. Far from it. I was always gung-ho about seeing people in a timely fashion. Most of the time I was interested in learning about new cases and, even if I wasn’t, it was in my interest to close them. Sometimes I would see the people when my bladder was bursting, when I needed to eat, when I should have taken a break. But all the waiting couldn’t be helped. We were in an emergency department, after all. It’s busy. It’s understaffed. There are a bazillion forms to fill out. That’s what people do there, wait. I was forced to learn the therapeutic properties of the waiting room.
When you rush to take care of someone else’s problem while neglecting your own, you’re not only doing yourself a disservice, you are also doing a disservice to her. You don’t give her a chance to solve her own problem or, at least, to learn that it doesn’t have to be solved right away. If you make her dependent on you, she’ll resent you for it and the problem will get stronger. You’ll hold all your sacrifices against her, especially the ones she never asked you to make. Furthermore, by neglecting your own needs, you decrease your own effectiveness. How good a listener do you think I was when I took a case when I really needed to pee, to eat, or take a break?
Look for places where you can create a Problem-Free Zone, no matter what the problem. If your wife is bedridden, the Problem-Free Zone can be the whole rest of the house. Remove all the machines, the medical supplies, the pills, all the stuff involved with the management of the problem and confine it to just the spot where it needs to be. Redecorate the Problem-Free Zone to be an area of vitality. Put pictures on the walls and things that are involved with your other interests, activities other than caring for your sick wife. More importantly, keep those other interests. Go to your yoga class, play softball with the guys, stay connected with family as you would cling to a lifeline if someone handed it to you. Even more importantly, confine the attitudes of the problem to the sick room. Close the door on the hopelessness, the irritability, the dependence to where it has to be and don’t let it invade everywhere else; but don’t close the door on the bedridden person.
If your sick, bedridden wife doesn’t want to be alone with the problem, then you’re very lucky. That’s a sign of health on her part, an indication that her whole personality has not been taken over by the problem. In addition to the rest of the house, create a Problem-Free Zone in her sick room by removing all the medical objects you can off to the side, so that what she mostly sees are things associated with health.
Problem-Free Zones can be created in time as well as space. Play chess with her, watch shows together, let her take care of you however she can. Restrict actions related to care to certain necessary times of the day. Ban complaints of pain, grumblings about the doctor, screams of anguish to particular times when you ask how she feels. Lock up the problem, shove it in the basement, wrap it up in duct tape, and free the person.
If your ill partner is not a bedridden wife, you might have to be more inventive about establishing Problem-Free Zones. Alcoholic husbands, or angry, paranoid adult children tend to make messes and spread their problems everywhere they go. In that case, go somewhere they don’t go; somewhere they would never go. Most alcoholic husbands wouldn’t be caught dead at a tea party, so acquire a taste for having tea with your friends. Paranoia dislikes therapists, so find a therapist and create a zone in that office where you can be yourself. If your husband drinks too much whenever you go out with him, don’t go out with him. He can go himself, while you go to your tea party. If your wife fights with your mother every time they get together, do something different for Thanksgiving.
Creating a Problem-Free Zone is really very easy, though it might take some imagination. It’s all about knowing the difference between problems and health and drawing lines between them. It might look like a selfish thing to do, but it makes you a better caregiver and a more loving spouse. A Problem-Free Zone will ground you and nourish you so that you can better defeat the problem and maintain your relationship with the person you love.
Feed the Person, Starve the Problem
I never could keep my Grandmother’s advice straight. It is starve a cold and feed a fever, or feed a cold and starve a fever?
It’s just as well that I can’t remember it; modern medicine discredits the practice of withholding nourishment from any sick person, regardless of whether they have a cold or a fever. Therefore, I propose that we modify the old saying to something that actually makes sense.
Feed the person and starve the problem.
A quick review. We’ve been talking about the road the victim travels on the way to reconciliation. Even if he doesn’t make it all the way, he can find acceptance and peace with what happened. So far, you have honored your feelings, committed to your values, protected yourself, renounced revenge, stopped picking that scab, looked at the context, avoided playing the victim, kept it moving, and got out of the middle of the picture. You’ve done a lot, but it should be getting easier for you.
In the past few posts we’ve dealt with the impulse you might have of ditching the person who hurt you. I suggested that first, lighten your load by identifying the problem and separating yourself from it. You’ve learned to distinguish between the problem and the person who brought it to you. You’ve created Problem-Free Zones, so you don’t have to sit in the problem all the time. Now you’re ready to take action against the problem, to defeat it before it does you in.
Remember, your loved one did not hurt you directly, the problem hurt you through her. Her problem took her over. This doesn’t leave her off the hook. She is still responsible for dealing with the problem. Distinguishing the person from the problem helps you know who the enemy is. The person is not the problem; the problem is the problem.
Problems, such as mental illness, personality disorders, and addiction in its myriad forms, can take over a person so that there is little of him left that is unaffected. When the problem is done with the person, when he is mostly overcome, then the problem takes over whatever relationships he is in. Even the partner who is not mentally ill, personality disordered, or addicted can begin to act in ways against her own self interest. She will nourish the problem and starve the people in it.
For instance, you know what he’s like when he drinks too much, so why do you buy beer for him? She gets paranoid when you keep secrets from her and starts to imagine all kinds of wild things, so why do you withhold information? His doctor has told him that, at this point, it’s detrimental to his recovery from back surgery for him to lay in bed all day, so why do you bring him things so he doesn’t have to get up? She’s been feeling sorry for herself ever since she lost her legs in that accident. She doesn’t believe she can do anything; so why do you push her wheelchair?
You do it because the problem talked you into it, even though it’s counter to the best interests of both you and your partner.
This doesn’t mean that you stop doing all nice things for your partner. Feed the person. Identify those actions that make her stronger, that promote your bond. Continue to do those, or resume them if you have stopped.
Let there be no question about it, starving the problem is a brave thing to do. It won’t seem like you get any credit for doing it from your partner. He, after all, has already been overcome by the problem. When he is suicidal, he’s going to say he feels betrayed because you called 911. No problem likes it when the guys in the white coats come, but, when he’s in his right, true mind, he’s going to be glad that you made that call.
The fact that you have to take action against the problem is what makes the next step necessary. Get help. At times like these, you’re going to need support to do the right thing.
Get Help to Defeat the Problem
In the last few chapters, we’ve been seeing what happens when a problem takes over a relationship and hurts people. The people in the relationship disappear and the needs of the problem consume everything. If you’re the person with the problem, your job is to recover. If you’re the other person, your job is to recognize the problematic portion of the relationship, stay connected with the healthy parts, and get help.
Once a problem begins to take over a relationship, never try to take care of a problem yourself. It’s too dangerous. It took possession of your loved one and now it’s coming for you. You need someone objective, preferably someone who understands the problem and its effect on relationships. Someone who isn’t afraid to tell the hard truth, but also someone who can say it delicately so people can listen.
It might be obvious that a sick person needs a doctor, but when problem is in charge, sick people don’t go. Problems don’t like what doctors have to say. (Although there are some special conditions like hypochondria and addiction to prescription medication that try to enlist doctors in the pathology.) Problems would rather everyone be in denial, so that they can work their evil in secret. You can tell how much your loved one has succumbed to the problem by how cooperatively he works with the people meant to help him. If it seems like he’s always fighting with them, it’s really the problem trying to defend itself.
If the problem-ridden person is working with a doctor, then the other partner needs to, also. You both need to understand the problem and treatment. The doctor may need information about the condition that only onlookers can provide. You, your partner, and the professionals need to form a team that works together, not in isolation from each other.
There are several factors that get in the way of a treatment team effectively working together.
The first is when the people who are supposed to treat the problem fall under its spell. Anyone who has ever been around an anxious person knows that anxiety is contagious. People dealing with the depressed often fall into despair. It’s easy to get inflexible when you try to cope with a rigid person. Parents of addicts have been known to score drugs for their darlings, to keep them safe. Wives will wait on a husband hand and foot when he is supposed to get up and be active. Divisions are created between the people who are attempting to treat the problem and the ones facilitating it.
The second most common barrier is put up by partners who attempt to protect the sanctity of their relationship. They believe it’s a betrayal of their partner to get help, a violation of boundaries. To be sure, some partners will see it that way. He may be angry if you tell on him. However, the sanctity of the relationship has already been violated when the problem moved in and refused to leave. You’re not telling on him, you are informing on the problem. You’re not betraying your loved one when you send him to the emergency room, suicidal; you’re protecting him from a common enemy that has him bamboozled.
If your ill partner will get help to combat problem, that’s very good. If she won’t, then that should not stop you from getting help yourself. Remember, you’re next in line to succumb to the madness. Create Problem-Free Zones. Meet your friend for coffee, unload to your family, make an appointment with that counselor, if only so you can keep things straight and stay in contact with a rational world.
Calibrate your Compass
Take a perfectly functional compass and put it in a room with an electromagnet and it will forget which way is north. It’ll point to the magnet because the magnet is exerting a force that it cannot ignore, far more powerful than that exercised by the distant, measly north pole.
When a problem enters a relationship it exerts a force every bit as compelling as that magnet. You can do nothing without taking a look in its direction. It will alter your attitude, change your course, and make you forget yourself and your values. You can do nothing without checking with the problem first.
You must get free of that interference and recalibrate your compass.
If you’ve ever recalibrated a compass, you’ll know that, for a minute or two, the needle will spin around aimlessly until it finds magnetic north. You’ll be lost if you try to use it then and confused if you rely on it for direction.
When people free themselves of the effects of the problem, for a minute they feel similarly lost and confused. When they discern the problem, starve it, get help, create illness-free zones, take care of themselves, get help, and take steps to their own growth, they feel as though they have lost their bearings. They don’t know what’s important anymore because they’ve been separated from their values for so long. Many go back to having their lives dictated by the problem. It is more familiar and comfortable.
To remain free, it’s important to stay with the process long enough to get your bearings straight. Reconnect with your values as you might find them in your religious faith, spiritual practices, the story of your life, the way you find meaning and purpose, or the things you told yourself you would never do.
The process my cell phone goes through to calibrate its compass gives us hints as to what this is like. Your cell phone compass probably works the same way as mine. In order for it to be correct, you have to tilt it this way and that. As you do this, a graphic in the phone helps you cover each direction completely. You fill up a circle as you tilt it every which way.
The process you will go through as you recalibrate your own internal compass is similar. You have to tilt briefly in every direction. Take a look around before you charge forward or go back. Take stock. Take inventory, first, before you move on.
Learn to walk
Stand with your feet comfortably together. If you want to go somewhere, what do you do? You take one foot and put it forward until you throw yourself off balance. Then, at the last instant, when you’re about to fall on your face, you bring the other foot up to meet it, until you are back in balance. Repeat this dangerous operation as long as it takes to get where you’re going.
What are you, nuts? Why would you throw yourself off balance and risk injury when you are perfectly fine standing in one spot?
Because you want to get somewhere.
Relationships are like that. You and your partner are like two feet. Standing together, things are perfectly comfortable, but you can’t stand there forever. You want to try different things, be someone different, do something with your life, develop, grow. It’s inevitable. You feel stuck standing in one place too long. It’s static, suffocating. The blood pools in your legs. It’s bad for the heart. It’s safer to be a moving target. You have to move or everyone else will leave you behind. Can you wait for your partner, your other foot, forever?
Sad to say, people do. It happens all the time.
Normal relationships cycle through two phases: comfort and growth, standing still and moving forward. When you first meet, you take great strides as you get to know and accommodate to each other. Then you are comfortable. Then one partner gets a wild hair to do something outrageous, uncharacteristic, and steps out into perilous space. In healthy relationships, they’re not afraid to do so, because they know their partner will follow. In healthy marriages the partner will come along and they will soon be back into balance.
It’s always one partner who takes the first step. People don’t often get places by jumping with two feet at the same time. Whoever takes the step sets the direction and the pace. The other has to follow.
In unhealthy relationships, people are afraid to change. They wait around for the other to be ready before they take a step. Conditions have to be perfect before they try. If they want to get someplace, they feel obligated to convince their partner to jump with them.
When a problem enters a relationship, people get stuck waiting for their partner to change. If one of your feet is injured, the other foot takes the weight. You nurse the bad foot. You don’t go anywhere. Standing on one foot for a long period of time is very hard; just as hard as taking care of a loved one subsumed by a problem, but you could do it a very long time if you thought you had to. People have done it forever.
At some point, even a broken foot will be mended. The bone will fuse together, but the muscles will be weak, the tendons stiff, and the spirit uncertain. You’ll put weight on it gingerly and there will be some pain even though the bone is fine. Your first steps will be tentative. You might not even try, but it’s important that you do, because the other foot has been bearing the burden and is getting tired. When a problem takes a person over, he doesn’t even try, even when he could. He avoids pain, dodges uncertainty, and lets the other partner carry the weight, even when there is no need.
So, if you are the partner, in order to prevent the problem from taking over your relationship, you will have to take a step. Distinguishing the difference between your loved one and the problem, getting help, creating illness-free zones, and putting on your oxygen mask are all important steps, but the most crucial is to grow. Don’t let the problem prevent you from growing. When he sees you change, he will have to follow along or be left behind.
Looking at the Flip Side
If you’ve been hurt by the one you love, don’t forget to look at the flip side. That’s the other side of the coin, the positives, the reason you have been with the person in the first place. It’s only fair, but don’t do it because it’s fair. Do it because the flip side says as much about you as it does about him.
In the same way you were honest about how much he hurt you, now be honest about how he’s been good to you. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You have to look at the flip side if you really want to know what’s going on, to get a full inventory. You can’t judge a person only by the worst things he did, you also have to look at the best to get a complete picture.
You can probably think of one thing to be grateful for, about this person. That’s a start. Tomorrow, think of another. In fact, every day, identify one new thing you are thankful for regarding her. This can be her behavior, her characteristics, or anything she brings to the table. Schedule a reminder in your phone to think of the daily appreciation. It won’t take long before you’ve covered the usual things and you’ll have to dig. Digging’s good. Don’t make stuff up, just notice stuff you wouldn’t normally have.
It’s human nature to focus on the negative, especially after you’ve been together for a while. The problems, the hurts, and the disappointments are always much more noticeable, while the benefits get taken for granted. You have to do something deliberate to counter the tendency to just see the bad.
This exercise works even better when you actually tell the person how much you are indebted to him. Just watch him start to melt. Observe just how much more frequently she makes your favorite macaroni and cheese when you express gratitude before shoveling it in.
If you can’t even come up with one good thing you’re thankful for, then take stock of the positive memories you made together. What were the things that attracted you to her? It can be super sad to think about the promise you had as a couple, especially given what has transpired since then; but it’s important to take note that you saw something in him then.
How does looking at the flip side tell you something about you? Whatever attracted you to her, may well be the very thing that later drives you crazy about her. You liked him because he was fun loving, now he seems irresponsible. She was the very person who could keep you organized, now you feel suffocated by her need for order. He was a rock, but now he’s rigid.
This is where you went wrong. You looked for a partner who made up for qualities deficient in yourself. You were attracted to the fun loving guy because you tend to be pretty serious; he helped you have fun. You needed an organized person in your life because you weren’t. You were a pushover with your kids, but he could make them listen. Finding someone who complimented you looked like a match made in heaven, until it wasn’t. Now it seems a match made in hell.
If you really thought being fun-loving was the way to go, you would have been fun-loving yourself and wouldn’t have needed someone to loosen you up. If you thought it was important to be organized, you would have been organized, and you wouldn’t have needed someone to organize you. If you really believed the kids needed a firm hand, you would’ve learned to be strict, rather than outsource all the discipline to someone else and then fight with him because he’s so mean.
You learned that you don’t share the same values. You joined with someone different from you because she was different, then you tried to make her just like you.
Here’s another way that looking at the flip side teaches you something about yourself. Take a look at those things you are grateful for. Her blonde hair, his warm smile, that macaroni and cheese. The way she lets you sleep late in the morning, his love for the kids, the vacations you took together. What do they say about you, that you like such things? These things teach you and affirm your values.
Your values are your moral compass. They tell you what is important. They keep you from getting lost. Showing gratitude is another method find your way and keep you from getting distracted by all the hurt and pain you experience.
Assessing the Damage
If you were in a car accident and sued the person at fault, you would go to court and describe the accident to establish culpability, of course; but, at some point, the judge would ask you what it cost to fix your car. The judge is asking for a monetary figure so she can fix an amount that would make it better. Any court I ever knew about requires that there be damages if you are trying to sue.
This is not a court and there is no judge, but if you were hurt by someone close to you, and the want to settle the matter, you have to assess the damages. How would you know how to settle it, if you didn’t? Assessing the damages might lead you to conclude that no harm was done. The matter might be easy to conclude, then. If there was some harm, establishing just what it was may help you in deciding how the person can make amends. So, what is the nature of the suffering you have had to endure?
For example, there’s, you partner, the compulsive gambler who ran up thousands of dollars in high interest debt that both you had to pay off. There’s the violent man who broke your nose five times. There’s the father who hocked your Christmas presents to buy dope. There’s the promiscuous girlfriend who brought you an STD.
Maybe you had medical bills, heavy debts, lost time from work, missed payments, or repairs you had to make. In that case, the loss is right there in black and white. Maybe you’ve got bruises, broken bones, a ruptured spleen, or head trauma from too many blows to the brain; the damage is in black and blue. Maybe you can point to the damage in the form of scars, crooked fingers, or an x-ray showing bulging disks. If that’s the case, then the harm done is physical, concrete, and unmistakable.
It may be harder to assess if the damage is less direct, as it is when you suffer emotional harm. Let’s take, for example, the mother who resented you for being born because you always reminded her of her no-good ex. She always said you were an idiot like your father. She never bought you books, never read to you, and never took an interest in your accomplishments, because she didn’t think there was a point. You grew up convinced you would never amount to anything because she said so.
It’s not too hard to imagine that, if this was your mother, you might suffer from low self esteem. You might have never have gotten good grades, can barely read, and have to settle for a minimum wage job. If that’s the case, then it probably is her fault; but, that’s a harder case to prove. We may never know whether you failed academically because of her discouragement, or if she was right about you, all along.
For now, you don’t have to prove anything. For our purposes, just make a claim, as you would in court. Later, we’ll sort it out.
What if you had a mother like that, but, despite her lack of encouragement, you succeeded in school, anyway? You don’t have poor grades you can point to, as evidence of damages. In fact, maybe her abuse even inspired you to prove her wrong. A case might be made that you have her to thank; I won’t make it, but some might. Do you have any damages, then? Well, I don’t know; but, I know a very successful person who, when he leaves his business, where he’s the CEO, he passed by scores of admirers, drives off in his BMW, glances at his Rolex to see if he’s running late, arrives at my office, and, every time, confesses that he has a little voice in his head that warns him that, one of these days, everyone is going to find out what a fraud he is. I ask whose voice this is. It’s his mother’s. This CEOs, you see, had a mother like the one I’ve been describing.
What can this CEO claim as damages? His therapist’s bills, that’s what.
While you’re making your list, don’t forget to assess the lost opportunity costs. That is, all the things you might have possessed, experienced, or accomplished if you hadn’t been dealing with this thing you had to deal with, for instance, that drug-using boyfriend you’ve been hanging on to for three years. Maybe there haven’t been any direct costs in terms of bills or broken bones. Maybe he’s treated you well and hasn’t been abusive. Maybe all he’s done is waste your time, time that might have been better spent dating someone else. Maybe your biological clock ran out while you were with him and you lost your chance to have children. Include that as a lost opportunity cost.
You could go through this exercise and discover that there is no long term price, no bruises or bills, and no lost opportunities. Maybe you were worried because he didn’t text, you got frustrated, or disappointed. Maybe you lost trust in him. Maybe the only consequence was your feelings were hurt. Well jot that down if that’s all there was. It’s still important. We’ll figure out what to do with those injured feelings later. For now, it’s important that everything is acknowledged.
Assessing the damage can be tricky. Very often, the damage is not directly apparent. I’ve had many clients in my office, suffering from PTSD, surprised to learn all the problems (and strengths) that can arise out of the experience of trauma. They didn’t know about that and, perhaps, didn’t want to think about it. You often need a good therapist to recognize the links, and, even then, it’s speculative. Also, a lot of the problems don’t emerge until later on. If your girlfriend cheated on you, you might think that, now that you have broken up with her, you’re fine, until you get a new girlfriend and find that you have a hard time trusting her. You never were suspicious about women before, but you are now that you experienced that betrayal. That kind of damage is like a computer virus which sneaks into your software and causes it to crash some time later, when you least expect it.
Assessing the damage can be a very emotional experience. It can drive home the reality of the loss you suffered, make real the pain. Having to total up the damage can seem like yet another awful thing you have to experience. But it can also be cathartic. It can affirm in black and white, and maybe blue, what you’ve been thinking all along.
If you were in court, suing for that traffic accident, all these expenses and pain and suffering would be converted into a figure in dollars and cents. That’s just what courts do because they don’t know how else to settle it. You don’t have to do that, unless you want. You don’t have to establish that your lost trust is worth a hundred-thousand, that your self esteem can be bought for a million, and your worries go five for a dollar. Eventually, you’ll have to think about what would settle the matter, what would make it right, but, for now, just assess the damage so you have something to start with. Go ahead, made a list and add to it as you think of more.
Once you have your list, do I want you to hand the list over to the person who harmed you? Do, I want you to say, here, this is what you caused? No, not yet. If you did that now, I guarantee you’ll be disappointed with the response. They’ll say you padded it with self-inflected injuries.
In my next post, I‘ll write about further additions to make to the list and then we will discuss whether there is anything you can remove. So don’t show it yet to the person who harmed you. There’s more work to do before you are ready to call anyone into account. For now, make the list.
Has the Hurt Ended?
The wind stopped blowing and the sky looks nice, but, if this is a hurricane, you may be passing through the eye of the storm. The earthquake has struck, but watch for aftershocks. You’ve had a minor stroke, but is a major one coming along? If your loved one did something to hurt you and you have assessed the damage, there is another thing to take into account. Is he still doing it?
Many damages go on wreaking havoc long after the precipitating event. They’re like ripples in a pond after a stone strikes. The compulsive gambler who put you both in hock may have created a situation that may take years, or decades, to pay off. The guy who broke your nose might ruin your chance for a modeling career long afterwards. The cruel and hurtful thing your parent said when you were young, tends to be a gift which keeps on giving. Therefore, if you’re assessing the damages, don’t forget to include, not only what you have already suffered, but what you are likely to suffer in the future. If you added up all the years of therapy you’ve needed so far, don’t forget to include all the years you will need before you’re done.
Eventually, most consequences of hurt will come to an end. The debt your gambler accrued may well be eventually paid off. Once you lose one modeling contract, there is seldom another. As a general rule, the first hurts we suffer are the longest lasting. Those cruel and hurtful things your parents said can continue to resonate long after you’ve forgotten what they were. They are built into your foundation and determine who you are.
The next thing to consider is whether the damages will go on because the precipitating events persist. Are stones still falling in your pond? If the compulsive gambler goes on gambling after you’ve restructured your debt, you’ll never get out from behind the eight ball. Don’t believe her when she says her next big win will pay it off. The guy who broke your nose may break it again, or worse. That behavior tends to escalate over time because, once you have broken your girlfriend’s nose, you’ll think you’ve got to do more to get her attention. If your elderly parent has verbally abused you all your life, she’s not likely to stop now, even as you visit her daily at the nursing home.
Therefore, before you finish with your list of damages, while you’re on a roll, make another list of future damages that are likely to occur if the behavior is in check.
Before I go on, I should stop and explain what I mean by in check. Many people believe the behavior is in check if the person goes into therapy. That’s not what I mean by in check. In check is when the behavior is stopped, permanently stopped, not stopped because people are looking, not stopped while he’s sleeping on the couch because he wants you to let him in the bed; not stopped because she went to rehab; I mean stopped for good. Therapy is just maybe the beginning of the checking procedure. Most problematic behavior persists after therapy is begun, and by most, I mean all. It doesn’t mean therapy ain’t working; it just means it takes time, it’s a process, and it hasn’t worked yet.
Some of these future damages may, perhaps, be ameliorated by something you can do. You might be able to insulate yourself from the effects of the persistent problematic behavior. That’s what separate bank accounts are for, that what separate bedrooms, separate houses, and separated spouses are for. That’s why people get divorced. That guy who broke your nose may go on breaking noses, but not yours, if you get an order of protection against him. That old mother who can’t stop talking shit about you may go on doing so, but you don’t have to visit her every day at the nursing home and hear it. That’s what I mean by insulating yourself.
I also mean another thing; there’s another way of insulating yourself from most of the emotional abuse that people can dish out. It’s called not letting them get into your head. It’s easier said than done, but it is possible if you are a mature, self assured adult, especially if you know who you are and don’t let others define you. It’s impossible if you’re a child and don’t possess the resource of a thick, thick skin.
Therefore, when you account for everything that was wrecked by the loved one who hurt and may well go on hurting you, take everything into account, both the injuries of the past and the projected ones of the future.
What Can’t Be Hurt
If you were hurt by someone you love, it’s important to get real about the injury and account for all the damages inflicted: the common money the compulsive gambler spent, the trust the adulterer squandered, the confidence the abusive parent wrecked. It’s equally important to note the damages that were not done, the parts of you that are untouched by your misfortune, and qualities of yours that may even be strengthened.
I hope there’s a lot that has been untouched. You may, to a greater degree or another, still have your health, your friends, family, job, savings and credit, education, home, and any number of other, what we might term, external goods. Go ahead and take inventory; but, I primarily want to call your attention to a property of yours that no one can take away, and may have even been made perfect by adversity.
What is this thing that no one can take away and that may be strengthened by adversity? It goes by many names, all of them vague. The ancient Greeks called it prohaireses. In English it’s been translated Dignity, Self Respect, the Unconquerable Will, the Unquenchable Human Spirit, Free Choice, and Moral Purpose. This is a quality possessed by everyone and it is always within reach. It outshines all differences of circumstance, accidents of fate, and actions of others and makes them trivial. It’s all you need to live a life you can be proud of. It may have been the very thing most lacking in your loved one, that led to whatever he did to you.
Prohaireses is the choice you have in giving in or resisting external forces. If someone calls you out on something, it is up to you whether you believe it. If someone has done something irritating, it is you who decides to be irritated. If someone strikes you, their blow may break a bone, but it doesn’t have to break your spirit. The idea behind the concept is that, while you have no control of what others do to you, or what fate does to you; you do have control over what you do with it. The name for that control is prohaireses.
Let me explain prohaireses by metaphor. Two people walk into a bank, one with a great credit score, the other with a bad one. They both ask for a loan. The banker may decide that she won’t lend money to the one who has good credit and she may decide to give a chance and lend money to the other with bad credit. The banker is free to choose. The name for that choice is prohaireses. In the same way, regardless of whether your loved one is trustworthy or not, you are free to choose whether to trust him.
Another way to get at the concept of prohaireses is to think of a person who has triumphed over adversity; a survivor, rather than a victim. There’s plenty of examples. A boy, born to poverty, who picked himself up by the bootstraps. A Pakistani woman, her face disfigured by acid, speaking out for the education of girls, despite the reprisal. A girl, raped, and pregnant at 14, who goes on to become Oprah. A divorced mother, writing at her kitchen table, collecting rejection slips, creating Harry Potter. A Black South African, imprisoned for decades, who gets out and leads his country into justice and reconciliation. A teen aged girl, hiding from the Nazis in her attic, who, nonetheless believes in the essential goodness of all. A religious teacher dying a slow death, who enjoins God’s forgiveness. A tired seamstress, who won’t give up her seat on the bus.
The list goes on and on, but it’s not limited to extraordinary people. It includes myriads of anonymous individuals who represent the triumph of will over hardship. The roofer who works in the sun, the cook who works in the heat, the postal worker who delivers the mail in the wind and rain. The new dad, abandoned by his father, determined to be there for his children. The mother who gets up in the night, even though she’s tired.
Prohaireses is found more in conditions of weakness and vulnerability than it is in strength. You see it at physical therapy where stroke victims learn to walk all over again. You find it in rehab where addicts are determined to change. I witness prohaireses in my office when a depressed or agoraphobic person leaves her home to attend a session. It’s there when you are patient with fools, kind to strangers, and whenever you refuse to stoop to the level of someone mistreating you. Prohaireses is really so common that it’s ordinary, except that it ennobles people to do extraordinary things every day.
Maybe prohaireses is a miraculous thing. Maybe it’s the higher power that the AA people speak of that enables people to do what they couldn’t do before. I could buy that, with the stipulation that, if you get it by God’s grace, it is given to everyone, good and bad, all the time, like the sunshine, and not doled out on special occasions only to the people who qualify.
You exercise prohaireses by taking responsibility, not of everything, but of the only things you are responsible for: yourself and what you do. You deplete it by engaging in self pity and feeling sorry for yourself. Taking inventory of the damage done, as we have been doing, could drain your tank of prohaireses if you stopped there, if you do not acknowledge the fact that you have something to say about how you live your life. The good thing is, no matter how much prohaireses you have let go, you always have more. You always have an opportunity to take charge.
So, I can tell you what hasn’t been taken away. The answer is your Dignity, Self Respect, Unconquerable Will, Unquenchable Human Spirit, Free Choice, and Moral Purpose. You may have misplaced it, or never knew it existed; but you still have your prohaireses. Use it.
Emotions: Do You Have a Choice?
Anger, fear, sadness, hopelessness, joy, hope, gratitude, back to anger, fear, and sadness, in no particular order and sometimes all together, at once. When your relationship is in trouble, you’re on an emotional roller coaster. Let’s take a step away and look at what emotions are and what, if anything, we can do about them.
The way you might talk about emotions reveals a misconception of how they work.
You may say something like, “He makes me mad when he acts like a dick.” As if the author of your emotion is him, in the way he acted. You had no choice but to be mad. He was the only one with a choice; he didn’t need to act like a dick.
If you believe emotion works like that, the solution seems simple. He has to stop being a dick, then you can stop being mad. But it’s not so simple. You can’t get him to stop being a dick. You believe that, by telling him off, you’ll make him feel guilty. When he doesn’t feel guilty, you think there’s something wrong with him; but there’s not. There’s something wrong with your theory.
You go to see a therapist. If this is someone who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), she listens to your story and patiently explains, sorry, you’re missing a step. Sure, maybe he’s acting like a dick; but he didn’t make you mad. You made yourself mad. You had a choice in the matter. You’re the author of your feelings.
“How do I have a choice?” you ask. “I don’t want to be mad.”
She asks you, “When you say is being a dick, what is he doing?”
“He’s always correcting me in front of others. Then, when he’s wrong, he never admits it.”
“That can be annoying. If you couldn’t call it being a dick, if that expression was banned for some reason, what else would you call it?” She’s looking for other interpretations of his behavior.
“He’s being disrespectful,” you say, getting more angry.
“He’s trying to make me look stupid.” Getting even more angry.
“If that were true, if you’re in a relationship with someone who tried to make you feel stupid, how would you feel?”
“I’d feel stupid, like I didn’t see it coming.”
“Well, you don’t seem stupid. Is there a another explanation?”
“He’s acts like an English teacher, correcting my grammar all the time. Of course, he is an English teacher, that’s what he does for a living, but he’s not my English teacher.”
“If he were to correct you in public and you said to yourself, there he goes, being an English teacher, would it make you as mad as if you thought he’s being a dick, or disrespectful, or trying to make you look stupid?”
“No, I guess not. It’s still annoying, but I guess I’d just roll my eyes and say, there he goes again, I guess he can’t stop himself. Then, I guess he can’t admit he’s wrong ’cause he has this reputation of being an English teacher to hold up.”
The idea implicit in CBT is that you can make yourself feel all sorts of things, depending on how you interpret an event. If you end up feeling angry or stupid, you interpreted the event in such a way that made you feel angry or stupid; but it could have been interpreted another way, a way that helped you understand, perhaps, or a way in which you could be patient.
Similarly, your boyfriend has a choice about how he feels; he can feel guilty when you’re angry, like you want, or he can interpret your anger another way. He can say you’re just being a bitch and not take your complaints seriously.
The ideas behind CBT are really nothing new. It’s based on an ancient Roman philosophy called Stoicism. These ideas have been around for a long time because they work 90% of the time. Most minor emotional storms can be quieted this way, simply by re-interpreting the precipitating event. If you’re angry all the time, about every little thing, or if you cry all the time, or if you’re always feeling hurt, then CBT or stoicism, is a great idea, so you’re not constantly buffeted about by your emotions. Take charge of your emotions so they don’t take charge of you.
However, CBT, or stoicism, is one thing when you believe a stranger, or distant associate, has done something to you; it may be less appropriate when the offender is close to you. If you’re on the bus and someone steps on your foot, it makes sense to give the person the benefit of the doubt and assume they meant no harm. If you were to go off on them, you’d be the one out of control. But, when someone close to you does something that bothers you, it matters more because they’re in a position to do it again. You have to address problems promptly before they get out of control. Therefore, if your boyfriend is being a dick, then it’s important to say something because he might persist in his dickishness if he doesn’t know it bothers you.
This doesn’t mean you should complain all the time, about every little thing. There are good and bad times to bring up stuff and good and bad ways to bring it up. Here’s where stoicism is a good idea, even if you can’t be a complete stoic. It can help you calm your emotional storm till you get a chance to have a discussion with your boyfriend about how he corrects you in public, then it can help you have that discussion without turning it into an attack.
There’s another situation where CBT doesn’t help; in fact, it’s useless when you need it most: when the emotional storm has risen to a category five.
The following week, you have another appointment with your therapist. You sit down and immediately start to cry. Your boyfriend, the guy who you thought was a dick, died yesterday; he got in a car accident and was killed. You’re beside yourself with grief, feeling guilty that you ever were angry, then angry at the guy who hit him, then scared about dealing with this alone.
No therapist, even a CBT therapist, would ever say you have a choice not to feel those things. It sucks that your boyfriend died; there’s no two ways about it. There are a few ancient stoics who say it shouldn’t matter when someone close to you dies, they say we shouldn’t get close to anyone; but we can’t take them seriously. In acute loss, you definitely feel you’re in the grip of something you can’t control no matter how hard you try to manage it.
Thoughts and emotions are often conceived as being in opposition to one another. Emotions, are urgent and hot, while rationality is cold and calculating. Strong emotions take you over. At such times, rationality can’t touch them. If emotions are subservient to such cognitive operations as interpretation and judgment; if they are something you can chose or shape, then why do you suffer and lose yourself when you are in their grip? Why can’t you handle them?
I’ll tell you why. You can conceive of emotions, not as in opposition to thought, but as old, foundational thoughts and decisions, upon which everything thing else is built. Take fear, for instance. If someone lets a tiger loose in a room in which you are sitting, you’re going to feel fear, hopefully not disabling fear, but fear that motivates you to arise out of your chair and run away. You don’t want to have to think about it; you want to act first and ask questions later. Fear is there to take over the relatively slow way you normally make decisions and to make decisions for you; not because fear is an irrational force, but because it is acting on instructions necessitated by a prior, foundational decision. A long time ago you decided it was better to remain alive.
You may not remember deciding to remain alive, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t done it. We call self preservation instinctual, meaning, I think, that we were born with this decision written in our software. Maybe, but it’s a decision that can be countermanded any time we choose, and many do; it’s called suicide. Anytime you elect to remain alive, rather than commit suicide, you are reinforcing the decision to remain alive; you also do it when you chose to pay attention while you are driving, rather than allow yourself to drift into the oncoming lane.
Love also is a decision. Yes, you may have been swept off your feet and fell in love, but it’s not like you didn’t have any choice in the matter; you decided to go for it. Additionally, you already committed yourself to grieving when you chose to love. Grief was hidden in the fine print. You can’t value someone without feeling terrible when he is gone.
There are other terms and conditions you also signed on to when you chose to love. You agreed to forgive. You can’t be adding up all the good and bad points about your partner, or parent, or child, according to how you feel every day. Everyone has their bad days; we love them, no matter how annoying they can be. You would want him to forgive you, so, to be fair, you forgive him.
I’m not saying you have to put up with everything. I’m not saying you have to tolerate abuse or even persistent dickish behavior. All I’m saying is that’s why divorce is so hard. It’s supposed to be hard. Choosing to sever the bonds of love is like digging up the foundation of an old house and re-laying the stone to create a new footprint. You can do it, but it”s not something to take lightly, even if you could.
Why Love and Hate are Inseparable
No matter how much you love your loved one, you also hate him; no matter how much you depend on him, you can’t completely trust him. This, surprisingly, turns out to be a good thing; not a confusing, frustrating thing, as you might suppose.
I grant you that, in early love, that insane, blissful period when you first met each other, there was no hate; but that’s only because your love hadn’t ripened yet. You had not yet experienced any disappointments that take love to the next level. Mature love is mixed with a generous shot of hate. It doesn’t go down so easy, it burns; but it also transforms. To understand why this is so, let’s go back to the origins of these emotions: love and hate, when they first appeared in your infancy. In these stripped down versions we can see the basics more clearly.
It may be obvious, but it deserves repeating, that a human infant is utterly helpless and dependent on others to get what she needs. Most of the time, she gets it. No matter how abusive or neglectful your parents may have been, most of the time you were fed and cared for and held and cherished as much as you needed. If you hadn’t been, by someone, you would have died a long time ago, starved to death, utterly alone, marinating in a shitty diaper.
It was out of the experience of being cared for, that you developed your capacity to love; although it wasn’t fully ripened love at this point. It was like that early love I was talking about, right after you first met your honey. If you had been cared for perfectly when you were an infant, with no exceptions, if someone always came immediately when you cried, if you never needed to cry at all, you wouldn’t have develop what we, as adults, call love; you would just be a contented beast. What’s more, you wouldn’t have needed to learn to protect yourself. You wouldn’t have even needed to move, for everything would’ve just come to you. You would have no anger or frustration; consequently, there would be no contrasting joy. And, of course, fear and anxiety would be unknown because there would’ve been no threat of pain. You would have no emotions.
As it is, it’s a good thing you do have emotions; they tell you the difference between good and bad. Your emotions are your google maps of the world and your place in it. If you were incapable of anger, you’d have no backbone. If you had no fear, you’d be a splattered mess in the middle of the road. It is out of your infant experience of disappointment that you developed your emotions, all of them.
Because someone usually came when you cried, you could go away. To the extent you felt safe, secure, and content, you could let go of your parent, explore, and learn. You felt held by your environment even when your caretaker was not holding you. Secure in knowledge that the parent will come, as a child you were free to be alone and develop your imagination.
Your first imaginative toy was what we call a transitional object. It was a blanket, stuffed animal, or a body part that you imagined was your parent. You reassured yourself without needing your parent to be there. Once you had a transitional object, you became, in effect, your own parent, imagining a safe world in the absence of the actual sources of safety.
However, as I said, trouble inevitably occurs. No matter how perfect a parent you have, no matter how excellent your transitional object, no parent can be there all the time, right when you need them, and a blanket can’t actually feed you. Indeed, if such a perfect parent existed, they would be far from perfect. As it is, trouble arrives, you cry, and no one comes for, like, forever. When this happened, you learned that your parent, no matter how he loves you, also goes away and has other things to do and other people to do it with. You learned that your parent was separate from yourself, not under your control, with his own free will.
I think you will agree that authentic love requires a recognition that the other is a separate and independent being with a will of her own. There are people who don’t acknowledge the autonomy of others and still call their feelings love. In that case, it is only for themselves that they have love. Being the partner of one giving that kind of love may be fun for a while, but it gets old, real fast.
A baby, discovering that her parents won’t come immediately, is going to have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, she loves and desires her parent, who is the source of all good things; on the other hand, she hates and is angry with her parent, who disappoints her, so much. The world is no longer a wonderful thing, interrupted by moments of danger. No, danger lurks right in the person you love. The very people she cherishes the most are the ones who hurt her the most. It is in this moment, that both love and hate are born, at the same time, directed at the same person.
Incidentally, other emotions are developed at this same moment; each, as a way out of this bind. Jealousy comes along as a plan to remove competition. Envy and greed rear their heads to get you to want more than you ever could want. When shame materializes, you wish you didn’t want anything. And, of course, there’s anger and rage, when you try to hurt those who disappoint you so much. And then you developed your first case of guilt.
Additionally, so much was occurring at this dramatic point, that you must’ve been confused. You know what it’s like now, as an adult, when all of your emotions visit you at once; imagine what it was like when you were an infant, experiencing them for the first time. The natural reaction to this panoply of passions is to feel helpless and grieve the innocence you lost. So, there you go, you got the first instance of grief, too.
All the emotions you feel today, as an adult, had their foundation when you were still in your crib and unable to care for yourself. The more intense the emotions are now, the more like that baby you become. For instance, when you discover that your partner has been cheating on you, it’s like a remake of that original drama that occurred when you had a dirty diaper and no one was around to change it. You knew that your mother was busy with your father and forgot about you, just as your partner was with someone else and had no consideration for you. You rage at your partner just as you raged at your mother. You’re jealous and envious of the other woman, just as you were jealous and envious of your father. You feel guilty that you’re angry at all, which is an emotion that you believe ought to be beneath you. You feel shame about not being good enough to keep your partner, just as you felt shame for not being good enough to get your mother’s attention. And you feel helpless and in grief.
Luckily, though, this drama resolved itself when you were in your crib; it had a happy ending. It is this same happy ending that you may enjoy in the later adaptation, provided you can get through the opening acts.
Before I tell you how to convert this tragedy into a comedy, let’s go over the resources you had developed by this point, when you were an infant. You had your good times before this crisis came. You had formed an attachment to your caretakers and had the beginnings of love and gratitude. To the extent that you experienced the world as stable, you were free to play and find wonder and awe at the things you found. Through your capacity to play, you created transitional objects with which you learned to comfort yourself. You were able to take on the point of view of your caretaker so that you could imagine your blanket was a caretaker. You knew that when you hit your caretaker or screamed at her, it hurt her. You knew she had feelings, too.
So, this is what you did; you found a way out, so that you would not have to get caught in that bind between love and hate. What was the key? What was the portal through which you escaped?
The way out may not be the the way you think. The way out is through guilt.
The way out is not to go back to naive love; you will only be disappointed again. It’s not anger, hate, envy, or jealousy; if you stay in those feelings too long, no one will want to be near you. Hopelessness, grief, shame, and loneliness don’t get you anywhere, either; they only freeze you in place. The only way out is through guilt.
Yes, guilt; a much maligned emotion. No one wants to feel guilty; but that’s the idea. Guilt can propel you to the next step as nothing else can. Thanks to guilt, we have such things as ethics, altruism, and respect. Guilt is where compassion comes from.
As an infant, you were luckily able to feel guilt because you had practiced putting yourself in the shoes of another. You could guess how they must be feeling. You learned to accept limits to your demands and developed an understanding that you’re not the center of the universe. You found out you could mitigate the bad with good and repair damage with caring deeds. By getting angry with someone you love, and loving her, still, you developed a moral law by which you live.
There’s a lot you can learn from the infant you once were. This is not the first time you traveled the road to reconciliation. You still have all the resources you did, then. You and your husband had good times before this crisis came. You formed an attachment to him and had love and gratitude. To the extent that there was more stability then than there is now, you were free to develop friendships, interests, and work outside the marriage. By means of these accomplishments, you nurtured other supports. You’re able to take on the point of view of others, including your husband, so that you can imagine his situation. You can guess what it feels like to be on the receiving end of your rage. You know he has feelings, too.
You also have capacities that suggest a strategy to ease the present crisis. You’ve got to put limits on your demands. You’re not, and never were, the center of the universe. You can mitigate the bad with the good; you can repair damage with caring deeds. By getting angry with someone you love, and loving him, still, you develop a moral law by which you can live.
Hitchhiking on the Road to Reconciliation
Here you are, hurt and alone, plodding along the Road to Reconciliation. Powerful emotions keep passing by, giving you directions, offering you a ride. So, how about it? Can you trust these emotions and get onboard? Will they take you anywhere you want to go?
Anger and Rage are the first to pick you up. They drive an impressive muscle car, four-eighty under the hood and four on the floor. They tell you if you want Justice, they’re heading that way and can take you there. “To get to Justice, you have to go straight to the person who hurt you and hurt him back,” they say. But Justice is not Happiness. Moreover, the money he spent is still gone, the trust she squandered is still gone, the good will he pissed away, well, that’s gone, too. The person who hurt you made you feel small and now you made her small. In Justice, everyone is small together because that’s only fair.
Sadness and Grief come by, too, driving a hearse. You climb on board and curl up in the back. The seats are soft, the lighting dim, the music in a minor key. There’s a paradoxical comfort to Sadness and a goodness to Grief. You feel better after a good cry; but, when you’re in the middle of it, it’s like being torn in two. Then, you look out the tear splattered window and realize you’re not going anywhere. Sadness and Grief did nothing but acknowledge your loss and shelter you in place.
When you get out of Sadness, Contempt and Disgust are coming down the road in an Escalade. From a distance, they look a lot like Anger; but, when you get in their car, you feel like you’re going to puke. You accept the ride, anyway, because, at least they’re going somewhere. “He doesn’t deserve you,” says Contempt and Disgust, “You’re better than him.” You ride high, looking down on everyone, feeling untouchable. After a while, that’s the problem, you’re untouchable and lonely in your superiority.
Contempt and Disgust leave you on the highway, gagging on their foul exhaust. “So long, sucker,” they call. “You could’ve rode in style; we’ll beat you by a mile.” The next thing you know, you’re in a Pinto called Despair. There doesn’t seem to be anyone at the wheel. The car is driving itself and you’re heading over a cliff. You struggle to get out of Despair, but there doesn’t seem to be any escape. All of a sudden someone hits you. Shame hits you with its van and loads your wounded body in the back.
Shame takes you to a bunker, ties you to a chair, and lashes you with what you could have done and who you could have been. You become Shame’s slave. It rapes you, beats you, and calls you a pitiful loser. “You deserve everything you get,” Shame says. “You make me do this to you, you make everyone hurt you.” In time, Shame breaks you: then you’re not even worth the trouble to mistreat anymore. It rips off your clothes and leaves you on the side of the road, naked and beaten.
Envy comes by and throws a cloak of sympathy over you. “You need to be taken seriously,” it says. “Come with me and we’ll show them.” You go with Envy, driving the very car you allays wished you had, on an unrestrained spree of lawlessness. Every dirty thing anyone has done to you, you do it now, just to say you could do it, too. If he gambled, you gamble; if she screwed around, you screw around; if he got high on drugs, you use the same drugs; you treat your children with the same abuse your parents treated you. You don’t leave Envy until you see an ambulance coming down the road with its siren going and the driver leaning out of the window, screaming at you to get on board. This one is called Fear. You drop everything and go with it.
Fear drives fast, but in no particular direction, just as long as it’s away from the latest terror. You don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you don’t even go to the bathroom because there’s germs everywhere. Fear takes you right back to the one who mistreats you because you’re afraid of being alone; then it takes you away because of fear of what he’ll do to you. You finally give up on fear, not because you are not afraid, but because you’re in Confusion and Exhaustion.
Confusion and Exhaustion don’t take you anywhere. It’s a rattletrap beater, broken down on the side of the road. The hood is up. The driver studies the engine; but he doesn’t know what to do. A lot of other drivers stop and give advice, but they all contradict each other. A repair truck comes by, but Confusion and Exhaustion are just too heavy to tow away.
When Guilt comes by, you almost don’t get in the car; Guilt looks like Shame, all over again. Guilt drives an old pickup truck; the shocks are shot, it has a punishing ride. “You’re a good person,” says Guilt, proving it’s different than Shame, “but you did some wrong things and played a part in everything. Learn from your mistakes and do better. Try again.”
As it turns out, Guilt gets you further down the Road to Reconciliation than any of the others. It helps you see your part in the problem and your role in restitution. It hands you off to its friend, Compassion, who then takes you to meet the loved one who hurt you and teaches you his perspective on things. But you had to leave Guilt, too. It has a regular route. After it stops at Compassion, it takes a trip back to Shame’s bunker.
It turns out you can hitchhike on the Road to Reconciliation, but be careful from whom you accept a ride and how far you go with them.
The Help Page for Emotion
When you’re having a strong emotion, it can seem as though you’re being swept away by a power greater than yourself. It seems that way, but you’re not.
Emotions are like a capability I have on my word processor. If I have a phrase that I type all the time, like The Road to Reconciliation and want to create a shortcut, I can go to system preferences > keyboard > text and set it up, so that, whenever I type rr, The Road to Reconciliation appears on the document. It’s a handy little feature that saves keystrokes, but if I forget that I set it up, I might be surprised to see The Road to Reconciliation appear on my document every time I type rr.
You have emotions pre-programed because there are some things that are so important or so foundational that we don’t want to have to think about them every time before we act. Emotions speed up decision making. (At least when emotions don’t conflict with each other. When they do, you will freeze, just like your computer.) Emotions move you to action in a way that rational thought never can.
You may not remember programming your emotional shortcuts like I remember substituting rr for The Road to Reconciliation. That’s because the process of learning the rules for emotions was also programmed, so you have a program automatically creating a program. You learned the rules for emotions when you were still very young by observing the emotions of people around you. Some aspects may have been programmed directly in you, genetically, in the same way that software engineers assumed I’d want certain shortcuts, like spell check, so they put them right in. The fact that emotions work outside your conscious awareness, both in the way they are set up and the way they operate, is proof of how well the system works. It frees your consciousness up for more important things that require your complete attention, like watching Game of Thrones.
Before you get any ideas, I must caution you against going into system preferences and rewriting the default settings for your emotions. They’re embedded deep within your code and messing around with the way you feel may have many unintended consequences. Attempting to dampen or deny your emotions is a foolhardy venture. You have your emotions for a reason.
Let’s take a look at one shortcut you have set up called anger. Anger is a desire for retribution in response to a perceived insult.
Insult involves pain or hurt; actual physical pain, or an injury to your ego, self esteem, or social standing. So, the first phase of anger is feeling hurt. It’s only after you perceive an insult that the desire for retribution gets going. The desire for retribution can be so intense that you might easily lose track of the fact that it began with an experience of fear, weakness, powerlessness, and vulnerability. An angry person looks like the most powerful one in the room, but he’s actually the most fragile.
Not every injury ends in anger. If someone steps on your foot, you’re not going to get angry unless you believe they did it deliberately or out of some carelessness. If someone has sex with your wife, and she with him, it’s the perceived insult you’re reacting to when you get angry. If you invited someone to have sex with your wife, and she with him, like if you were into swapping or threesomes, you wouldn’t get angry, because there would be no injury to your status. It might even elevate your status if you believed the desirability of your wife reflected on you.
Emotional rules vary from one person to another. Some people are quick to anger, because they may not like to feel hurt. Some prefer to show their anger more than others. But the basics remain the same: anger is a desire for retribution in response to a perceived insult.
There are, of course, people who don’t follow the rules, as you see when someone goes off when a person innocently steps on their foot. We call such a person crazy or irrational. We send them to anger management classes.
If you don’t like your anger, or if you are court ordered to learn to manage it better, there are things you can do to override the program. If The Road to Reconciliation appears on my document when I don’t want it to, I can click on a little X and it will disappear. If you need to manage your anger, the first step is to reconsider whether the insult you perceived ever really happened.
Are you really hurt? Maybe the guy who stepped on your foot weighed like a hippopotamus, but you were OK with feeling pain when you played football. You even tolerated dental work and didn’t slug the dentist because you knew it was for a good reason. It’s the idea of physical pain that hurts more than pain itself.
If the injury is to your ego, self esteem, or social status, you can ask yourself a few questions: Do people really give a shit? Will anyone in the movie theater really think about you for more than two seconds if someone steps on your foot and you don’t deck him? Is your ego so delicate that you need to make a federal case if someone treads on your tootsies?
Did the person really meant to hurt you? People are often clueless and seldom belligerent. The guy who stepped on your foot probably didn’t know your foot was there. Your wife, and the guy who slept with her, weren’t thinking about you at the time, they was thinking of other things. You can still get angry that they weren’t more careful, that your feelings weren’t considered; but, are you always careful about everything and do you always consider everyone?
If you’ve taken a good look at the perceived insult and concluded that it was real, the next thing to think about is the desire for retribution.
Retribution can take many forms: you can hunt down and punish the offender or press charges and wait for the state to do it for you; you can give them a good tongue lashing or smile and gossip behind their back; you can insist on a humiliating apology or inflict direct physical pain. There is no end to the forms that retribution can take and people can be amazingly creative in executing it.
There’s a case for retribution. It serves as a deterrent. If you get angry when someone steps on your foot at the movie theater, you can be sure the next person in line will be more careful. Moreover, the person who stepped on it just might be more careful next time he goes to the movies with his big feet. Others might benefit from you going apeshit. Going apeshit might be how you serve humanity. Also, if you’re angry all the time, people learn not to mess with you. They give you a wide berth and don’t try things that’ll get your goat.
Retribution can be the way to repair the injury to your social status. I think this is a bigger deal in some cultures than others. When I worked with people who’ve been to prison, I learned that when someone disses you there, your main concern would be who else saw it. You would have to respond hard and fast so that others don’t get the idea that they can do it, too. It’s dangerous to be seen as a punk in prison. In prison, when you succeed in retribution, it elevates your social status and makes you untouchable. I also found this to be true when I played hockey.
Anger promises to repair your injured ego or self esteem. Even if nobody knows what was done to you, you can feel weak, powerless, and vulnerable. When you are filled with anger, you forget your powerlessness. If you succeed in retribution, you prove to yourself that you’re the master of a situation.
Yes, retribution has some benefits. That’s why we have anger; it’s useful, to some degree. Hurt tells you there’s been an injury to your body, ego, self-esteem, or social standing. Anger motivates you to do something about it. But, if anger has gotten you into trouble, you have to reconsider whether retribution is such a good thing.
If you go a beat up the guy who slept with your wife, what does that change? You still have to deal with her. You could beat her up; but does that restore the loving feeling? Even deterrence is a questionable good. We catch more flies with honey than we deter with vinegar. If people give you a wide berth because you don’t take any shit, won’t that also prevent them from getting close enough to give you some love?
You can also, of course, feel a desire for retribution without taking any action. Being the bigger person and letting go of anger when you could’ve hurt someone, could actually be a bigger boost to your self esteem than any amount of havoc you could wreak. It’s not the anger that’s the problem, it’s what you do with it.
So, you see, you can override your anger response at any time, just as easily as you can override spellcheck.
I know, it’s not easy to override spellcheck if you’re not paying attention.
You get my point.
If you need to be convinced that the feeling of disgust is a peculiarly powerful and primitive emotion, try this experiment. Get a clean glass. Spit in it. Now drink it.
Even if you can drink the spit, you know what I’m talking about. You know there’s nothing wrong with the spit. You swallow your own spit all the time; but, by expelling it from your body, you make it an object of disgust, and disgust is not only powerful and primitive, it’s also unreasonable.
Disgust is also a useful emotion, as they all are. It patrols the boundaries of your body. It’s your defense from imbibing something that is generally bad for you. Disgust keeps you from taking in spoiled food, stagnant water, and other things contaminated by feces, urine, or bacteria. Disgust is not foolproof. There are plenty of bad things that can still get past your nose; but, for the most part, it has served you well and kept you alive.
Babies are not born with the sense of disgust, it’s an acquired emotion. Babies are well known as being people who will put anything in their mouths; but, by the end of the first year, they’ll start to wrinkle their noses at things and, by the time they become toddlers, they may become particularly fussy and squeamish eaters. Perhaps this brief window of disgust-free eating gives their parents the opportunity to introduce the foods of their culture.
Once the emotion of disgust sets it, the experience of disgust becomes particularly vivid. When you’ve been disgusted by something, you don’t want to be disgusted by it again. You begin to erect fences around your disgust so that the very sight, the slightest smell, or even the briefest mention of it is enough to arouse your disgust. Not only are you disgusted by the offending materials, themselves, but also by the things associated with it. This is how toilets, for instance, get imbued with all the disgust that properly belongs to shit and piss, even though they may be nothing more than clean, unoffending porcelain. Indeed, even the words, shit and piss, themselves, take on the disgustingness belonging to the objects they refer to. You can even go so far as to say that the people associated with the objects connected to offending materials get marked by disgust. A garbage man, for example, becomes implicated, because he handles garbage cans; a nurse, because she empties bedpans; and a janitor, because he cleans toilets. In traditional India, you have a whole caste of people who handle disgusting objects consigned to being untouchables.
By the way, there’s an interesting theory arising from the psychodynamic literature, where many crazy, insightful theories originate, that misogyny, that irrational loathing many men have towards women and many women have towards themselves, comes from the fact that women are the receptors of semen. Semen, you see, comes out of the body and, even though it’s the stuff of life, once it exits the body, it can be regarded as a disgusting fluid. To a misogynist, the people who receive any disgusting material become disgusting, as well. This theory may also explain how homophobia originates and why male homosexuals, who are also the receptors of semen, get targeted with more homophobia than female homosexuals.
You can see how far we can take this. Disgust is such a powerful emotion that it travels well and arrives at a new place just as potent as when it left. People have used this property of disgust to make it do other work. The emotion originates from the need to protect the boundaries of the body from infection; but, with a little bit of retooling, it can patrol morals, as well. I don’t think it’s an accident that, when parents, religious leaders, and teachers indoctrinate children into morality, they use the language of disgust to make them regard evil as it were a spiritual pollutant. Raw disgust becomes refined by its importation into morality and is often called by different names: contempt, disdain, or superiority. It puts on priestly garb and busies itself with ritual purity, Levitical preoccupations, and separating the wheat from the tares and the sheep from the goats.
You don’t have to listen to anyone talk about right and wrong for long before you hear lots of words and images imported from the experience of disgust. Some behavior is said to be disgusting, even though no contaminates are ever introduced to the body. Good behavior is clean living. Innocence is pure. Evil is repulsive. When your husband comes home drunk for the hundredth time, you turn up your nose even before he pukes all over the living room carpet. If you find out that your wife has been lying to you, you may well be disgusted with her, but it’s one step removed from the type of disgust you feel when you eat her cooking. Contempt is a metaphorical disgust that, from early indoctrination and frequent repetition seems very real; but, like any other metaphor, breaks down at some point.
Once disgust is imported into morality, it’s easy for jingoistic leaders to use the language of disgust for whomever they single out for their hate. For example, Hitler, and many others, called Jews disgusting because of their vaunted control over the economy, making it an easy matter to deny them full human rights. History is full of examples of people having their stomachs turned by the mere mention of other, perfectly harmless, ethnic groups.
Morality shaped by disgust not only facilitates the division of people into those said to be clean and unclean; but it also unites sinners with their sins. When you find a hair in your salad, you reject the whole salad. The entire dish becomes tainted. A perfectly fine piece of lettuce, at the far edge of the dish from the offending strand may turn your stomach. Indeed, the whole restaurant may fall under censure and you may never want to eat there again. Similarly, when you catch your wife in a lie, if you listen to disgust, she becomes a liar; any truth she tells may be questioned. If disgust has its way, you may never be able to trust her again.
Disgust is the driving force behind many an over-reaction. It provides a script that, when used to protect you from bad food, works reasonably well, but when made to apply to morality, often throws the baby out with the disgusting bathwater.
It’s disgust that gets in the way when you try to love the sinner, while hating the sin. Disgust, and the related emotion of contempt, join the two. Disgust makes you say that the person is the problem and forget that the problem is the problem.
Is there anything you can do to overcome disgust? Of course there is, people do it all the time. There’s even a word for it. The word is love.
Disgust is the border agent of the emotions, protecting you from invasion. Love is an invasion. It’s probably no accident that the basic symbol of love is the kiss. The willingness to swap spit is a sure sign that disgust, and the need to patrol the boundaries of the body, has been suspended. Kissing paves the way for the sharing of other body fluids, but it doesn’t stop there; it’s also a symbol of trust, an agreement to regard the other person, his actions, as well as his body, as a kind of extension of yourself.
No trip down the road to reconciliation is complete until you confront disgust, honor it for its services, and dismiss it. You don’t need its services any longer; not for this issue you don’t. Disgust can still rise up when you find a hair in your food, but it has no place in a loving relationship. It’s not the right tool for the task at hand. Disgust is incompatible with reconciliation.
I have an idea for a new business opportunity for shrinks. You know how they have anger management classes that judges, employers, and spouses send people to when they keep losing their cool? The kind like in the movies with Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson? Yeah, that. Well, anger’s not the only emotion that needs to go to class. There ought to be disgust management classes, too.
Disgust is that feeling of revulsion you get when you comes across anything gross, grody, ghastly, gruesome, creepy, hateful, horrible, nasty, nauseating, stinking, loathsome, objectionable, obnoxious, odious, hideous, beastly, detestable, distasteful, repugnant, repellent, rotten, vile, vulgar, cloying, foul, horrid, scuzzy, icky, lousy, sleazy, noisome, offensive, or yucky. It’s often accompanied by a narrowed brow, a curled lip, a wrinkled nose, and a tongue sticking out for all the world to see. You feel it in your stomach. It makes you want to hurl. It’s closely related to hate, contempt, condescension, snootiness, and the reason bands of villagers go marching with torches and pitchforks.
Who would go to these classes? You’ve got people who’ve got to keep their peas and mashed potatoes separated and the kind who lays toilet paper on the seat. There are those who can’t bear the sight of blood, won’t do CPR, and are useless at an accident scene. You could send anyone who runs away whenever there’s a spider, gets grossed out by handkerchiefs, and nail clippings give them the shivers. If you can’t keep down a perfectly good tapioca pudding, that’s it, you’re going to disgust management class.
It’s not just the persnickety people who would be sent to disgust management. The emotion shows up anytime there’s something different. Homophobes, transphobes, and xenophobes should apply, as well as anyone who can’t bear the thought of Blacks and Whites marrying, if there’s anyone left. If you can’t ride in a subway car with a homeless person, it’s disgust management for you. If you get all nervous and jerky when there are too many wheelchairs in the room; if you don’t know what to say to someone who looks funny, then come to disgust management and tell us all about it. Whatever’s your thing; maybe you can’t stand Jews or Palestinians or Somalians or Syrians, or anyone with a turban on their head. If Indian food makes you retch, if the thought of Mexicans taking jobs away disgusts you, then I have a seat for you at disgust management class. If the thought of Donald Trump taking the oath of office turns your stomach, then there’s a place for you, too.
When the police pull up in their paddy wagons and get all the protesters off the street, they can take them right to disgust management class. Congress should go, both parties, and all the state legislators. You should have to graduate from disgust management before you get your own radio show, get a twitter handle, or be permitted to comment on the internet.
I can see people volunteering to attend disgust management. If it weren’t for disgust, you could eat a whole plastic pumpkin full of halloween candy without throwing up. No longer would creeps give you the creeps. If you wanted to, you could have sex all day, every day, with anyone in every way. Then, afterwards, you could tolerate talking and cuddling and stay. The morning after would be like the night before.
You’d get along better with difficult people after disgust management class. There would be no eye rolling or lip curling to get you get in fights. You’d listen better, hug longer, and meet fascinating people. You’d have more friends on Facebook and actually stomach reading their posts. You’d get more news from more sources and have something positive to say.
If it weren’t for disgust, dead people wouldn’t be half as scary. You could make friends with a zombie, share a meal with a vampire, or go to a wake and actually look at the body. You could see your dying grandmother in her hospital bed and not have to run away. Bats would be nothing; rats would be fine; a Quentin Tarantino movie would be OK with you.
Disgust is a perfectly good emotion when kept in moderation. It keeps you from eating spoiled food and stepping in dog shit. But people go wild with it. They take it too far. Disgust gets imported into morality, theology, ethics, and politics. It shows up in things for which it was not designed, like arguments, seating arrangements, and public policy. You end up treating someone who disagrees with you the way you treat putrid vomit. What’s meant for month-old fuzzy leftovers is used for people with skin darker than yours. There’s nothing wrong with the emotion, it’s what you do with it. If resentment is a poison you drink to hurt someone else, disgust is a poison you drink to keep from drinking a poison.
What would I do in this disgust management class? What is the treatment plan for disgust? Simple, I would ask you what disgusts you. I’d solicit your pet peeves. When I find out what gets you going, whether it be snot or spiders, creamed corn or cripples, people who speak a foreign language or someone who uses your language wrong incorrectly, I’ll go get it and set it right there by you. Oh, not right away. Little by little. Enough to make you squirm, but not enough to make you barf. Enough to challenge, but not so much that you’re running screaming from the room. It’s called basic systematic desensitization coupled with progressive relaxation. I’m an expert in it. Relax, I’m like a doctor.
Love, respect, and civility suspend disgust. You’d have a whole group with you in my disgust management class, encouraging you, cheering you on to trust. Everyone knows where you’re coming from, despite being disgusted by different things. Even if you are disgusted by me; well, I could be disgusted by you. We’ll help each other get over our habit of disgust and make a party of disagreeable things. Dogs and cats sleeping together! A good time will be had by all.
What’s that you say? We already have disgust management classes? They already exist?
I can’t find them in the yellow pages. They’re not called by that name. What do you call them?
A global economy, a multicultural democracy, a civil society, a diverse workplace, a heterogeneous classroom, a functioning military unit, a family, a marriage, taking care of someone. Any setting where different people come together is like a disgust management class. They all, if not one, then the other, will put you right next to everything you detest. They provide social support to help you get over and manage your disgust.
Why aren’t they working?
When You Arrive at a Watershed Moment, Cross It
We’re at a watershed moment on the Road to Reconciliation. It’s a crucial juncture where you go from thinking you’re just a victim to knowing that you’re a perpetrator, at least a partial perpetrator. You can admit you’ve victimized others, including the one who hurt you. It’s the moment you get real. It’s when you roll up your sleeves and take responsibility. It’s what naturally happens after you’ve climbed the mountaintop and gazed at the context of your injury. You know the part you have played and it hasn’t been pretty.
This doesn’t mean that you were not victimized or that you don’t have valid claims for restitution. It doesn’t mean that you weren’t hurt or that someone didn’t act like an ass. It doesn’t mean that you deserve more or an equal proportion of blame; maybe she is still mostly to blame, maybe not. It only means that you understand things better and can do something about them.
Let’s say you caught your husband having an emotional affair with another woman. He didn’t disclose it to you; you discovered it when you were looking at his phone. His culpability is obvious, but, when you look at the context, the role you played also becomes evident. Maybe you haven’t been there for him. You’ve been too caught up with work or preoccupied with the baby. Maybe since that baby, you haven’t lost the weight you gained in your pregnancy. He doesn’t seem to mind, but you do, so you have pulled away from him. There might be issues between you, disagreements you have not been able to resolve, so you avoid them because you haven’t got the energy to fight. When you avoid the issues, you avoid each other. He might have wanted to tell you about his growing friendship with this woman, but had a valid fear you’d over-react.
I don’t know what your part was, these are just some possibilities. When you’re at the watershed moment, you see both sides of the problem. Your side does not absolve him of his, nor does his side absolve you of yours. You’re seeing the big picture.
A watershed moment is a moment of decision, or, perhaps, indecision. You might be saying, “OK, I’ll apologize to him if he apologizes to me; I’ll do this, but he has to go first.” Well, he’s probably saying that, too. If you both keep saying that, you will stand at this watershed moment forever.
If your husband does any work towards reconciliation, he’ll be at his own watershed moment someday. Maybe he got there before you and has been wondering what took you so long. Maybe you’re the first. By the time he gets there, he’s also made the passage from feeling like a victim to knowing he’s a perpetrator. How do things look from his perspective?
Let’s say your wife caught you having an emotional affair with another woman. You didn’t disclose it to her; she discovered it when she was looking at your phone. She’s angry with you, but you see the context. The role your wife played is evident, but she’s not having it. She hasn’t been there for you. She’s been too caught up with work and preoccupied with the baby. Since the baby, she’s pulled away from you. She says she’s ashamed of her weight, but you think she’s beautiful. There’s been issues between you, disagreements you’ve not been able to resolve, but there’s no good time to talk. She used to be your best friend, but you’ve become nothing more than roommates. Why is it surprising that, when another woman took an interest in you, you let down your guard? You’ve wanted to tell your wife about her, but, with her insecurities, you knew your wife would take it all wrong. She went snooping on your phone without your permission and found something she didn’t understand. Then the shit hit the fan, making you look like the bad guy.
You see, both the victim and the perpetrator start at the same place. They both start with the conviction that they are the victim. When someone has done harm, we usually want to start with them admitting they were at fault. We’re looking for a confession, before repentance begins. We want them to be sorry, to take responsibility, if not, grovel and plead for forgiveness. I don’t believe in starting there; we don’t make meaningful progress if we start there; we may not start at all if we try to start there. It goes better if we start where the perpetrator is, at the source of their offense: not at the conviction of sin, but at the conviction of injury.
The cycle is obvious. When the husband felt injured and ignored, he acted out and harmed his wife. Now she feels injured and may act out and harm him as well. Around and around it goes. The solution is obvious, too. If the perpetrator found a way to deal with his injury, he wouldn’t need to act out and injure anyone else.
When you, as the husband, stand at your watershed moment, you realize that you wimped out, big time. With a new baby, you needed to suck it up. Women go through their own travail when they give birth; a father’s labor pains come later, when he’s feeling ignored. You were supposed to be OK with this because you’re an adult. Instead, you found some other woman to mother you. That, by itself may not have been so bad, we all need support; but, when you didn’t tell your wife about her, you guaranteed she’d go apeshit when she found out. So, get real; you’re not just the victim here. There’s a lot more to it. There’s only way to move on. Instead of claiming you’re the victim, claim your share of responsibility.
Ideally, both you and your partner will lay down your arms together. However, if your partner has not done so, you may have to show them how.
Your Feelings are Your Feelings
What does it mean to cross the watershed and identify yourself as both offender and victim? It means that you go through the same process of guilt, acknowledgement of shortcomings, restitution, and reconciliation as the person who hurt you.
If you’re going to ask him to apologize for his shortcomings or to eradicate them, you have to do the same for yours. It’s only fair. It also only makes sense. When you come to terms with the things you have done to harm others, only then do you have appreciation of what’s involved. You know how hard it is, so, when you see someone do it authentically, you understand what they went through and won’t dismiss it out of hand. If you see someone try to apologize inauthentically or make a half-assed attempt at restitution, you’ll recognize that, too and won’t confuse cheap repentance for the real thing.
The choice you’re making at the watershed moment is between moving on, or not; between a sophisticated understanding of the problem or a simple one; between doing what you can about the problem or waiting for your partner to solve the problem for you.
It would be nice if others could solve problems for you. If only she behaved better, you’d be happy. If he wasn’t such a prick, you wouldn’t be angry all the time. If she were more trustworthy, you’d be able to trust her. It’s nice when that happens, but you don’t have to wait for it to happen. You play a part in how you feel; actually, a bigger part than anyone else.
Let’s go back to the situation with the husband who had an emotional affair. We talked about it in the last post. You confront him and he admits it. He promises to end it. He says he’ll never talk to her again. You demand access to his phone and his computer at random intervals so you can check on him. For a few months you do just that; but, if that’s all you do, a funny thing happens with your feelings: nothing. You continue to be just as suspicious as when you started. How do you know he isn’t just deleting the correspondence? How do you know he doesn’t have another email account or a second phone or another laptop stashed away? How do you know they’re not carrying on in a motel room, so they have no need to text or email one another? You don’t and that’s the point. Your feelings are your feelings and there’s only so much he can do about them.
To really change the situation, you have to confront the circumstances that created it. If you had been ignoring him, you created the conditions under which he chose to have this affair. It’s true, he could have chosen differently; but you could have, too. Taking on the underlying problem will do more to restore your trust in him than any amount of surveillance ever will.
The watershed moment is when you’ve waited for the other person long enough. You’re ready to get started. Well, get started. Maybe he’s done everything he can do to restore trust, but the rest is up to you. Maybe he’ll never take a single step on the road to reconciliation; but, if you fail to do your part, if you fail to admit your faults and begin to work towards restitution, that’s something you’re going to have to answer to.
So, what does it mean to cross the watershed and identify yourself as both offender and victim? It means you accept your part of the blame. You change the conditions under which your offender offended you. You don’t just put all the responsibility for change on him; you take responsibility for yourself.
What’s the Difference Between Responsibility and Blame?
Not everything is your fault. In fact, most things are not your fault; you had nothing to do with them. You didn’t ask to be born to these people or at this time or this place, at least so far as we know. You didn’t invent the language you speak. You didn’t have a choice about your genetics, nor your early childhood experiences, nor ninety-nine percent of the experiences you have now. You might have chosen the person you married, but you chose him from a very limited field of possibilities. Unless you adopted and are remarkably prescient, you didn’t choose your children.
You don’t know all the consequences your actions will bring before you set them into motion. If you didn’t have that second cup of coffee and left your house ten minutes earlier, you might have been hit by that truck that barrel-assed through an intersection with no brakes. If you had a third cup and left twenty minutes later, you wouldn’t have been caught in traffic caused by the accident and would have gotten to work on time. There is no such thing as a fully informed choice.
Because of all this, many people say we don’t have free will. They claim everything is completely determined by neurochemicals and the accidents of particularity. Well, maybe they’re right. It could be that you’re entirely blameless. Even if you’re the biggest jerk on the planet, it’s not your fault, it’s your genes’. But, here’s the thing:
You may be blameless, but you’re still responsible.
Take the word, responsible, break it apart, and you’ll see why. Response Able. You have the ability to respond. In fact, because you have the ability, you’re obligated to respond. People are waiting.
You’re obligated to respond because you can’t not respond. Even if you say nothing or do nothing, that’s a response. It may be a piss-poor response, but it’s a response. Actually, nobody is waiting, you’ve already responded; but, they are waiting for you to claim responsibility.
Claiming responsibility means admitting that you have the ability to respond. It’s called getting real.
You didn’t choose your parents or the time, place, and circumstances of your birth, but it’s your job to do something with it. You didn’t choose the cards, but you play them. You didn’t chose your genotype, but your phenotype is a more complex matter.
You didn’t choose the life you were born into; but, as you age, you begin to get the life you deserve.
Two people go to the bank. One has a good credit score, the other a bad one. One is clearly more creditworthy, or trustworthy, than the other, based on past behavior. One paid his loans on time, the other sometimes defaulted. These two see the same banker and ask her for a loan.
You may think you know the sensible thing for the banker to do. She’s supposed to give the loan to the one with a good credit score and turn down the other with a bad credit score. But, she doesn’t have to do that; she can do what she wants. For instance, she could say the person with a good credit score can get a loan anywhere, so he doesn’t need to get it from her. She could decide to give the one with a bad credit score a break. Having a good credit score does not dictate the banker’s decision. She makes her own decision.
So, your loved one got caught up with cocaine and you’re trying to decide whether to trust her again. She makes a complete turnaround. She goes to rehab, gets off the blow, and pisses clean for the next twelve months. She’s made a complete moral inventory and admitted her shortcomings. Everyone else has forgiven her. They applaud her at her NA meeting. She’s a changed person. Anyone would say that her credit score had been bad, but it’s improving. Objectively, she may be more trustworthy now than a person who never used cocaine at all and never had to deal with the dark side of themselves. That doesn’t mean you have to trust her. Trusting her is up to you.
Or, alternatively, your loved one, who hurt you, is still stuck in the same old shit he was in before: fighting, cussing, carrying on. You never know when he’s coming home at night; you don’t know whether he’s coming home at all. He could be with anybody, doing anything. He could be in jail, in the hospital, or in bed with another woman. He could just be shooting pool with his buddies, blowing off your texts. The man, by any measure, is completely untrustworthy. Everyone says you should dump the loser. His credit score is zero. You know what? It’s still up to you whether to trust him. You can do what you’d like. It doesn’t have to make sense.
What would cause a banker to ignore a low credit score and lend money anyway? She could be just a rank fool. She could be on a suicide mission. She could believe it’s her job to save the most wretched. She could be a loan shark, offering a payday loan of trust and good will that will ruin the creditor in the end. Maybe trust is burning a hole in her pocket and she can’t get rid of it fast enough. She could be a banker with so much money in her vault, so much good will, brimming with so much self esteem, that she can take risks that others cannot.
What would cause a banker to ignore a good credit score and refuse the loan? Maybe she, too, is a rank fool. Maybe she’s uncomfortable with success. Maybe she finds suspicion more compelling than grace. Maybe it’s too boring, too safe to give trust to someone who deserves it. Maybe she’s just a miser with her trust. There could be so little money in her vault, so little good will, so little self esteem, that she’s not willing to risk a dime.
The point is, it’s up to the banker. If that banker is your loved one; if you did something to hurt him and have done everything you can do to regain trust; it’s still up to him. You can’t force him to trust you. If you’re the banker, it’s up to you.
Guilt and Shame: Good and Bad Ways to Feel Bad
As soon as you see how you are responsible for trouble, you are met by two emotions who offer to be your guide: guilt and shame. Which one should you go with? Is there a difference between the two?
It’s easy to confuse guilt with shame. People refer to them interchangeably, like twins who are often mistaken. Along with embarrassment and pride, they both belong to the family of moral emotions. They pop up whenever you do something wrong. But, other than that, they’re very different, and if you discover that shame has been your guide, you should ditch it as soon as possible and go the other way.
You can tell the difference by what they say. Guilt talks about something you did. Shame says the problem is who you are. Guilt makes you sorry that you lied, stole, cheated, or betrayed. Shame calls you liar, thief, cheater, and traitor.
Let’s say you’ve been to the track. You intended on gambling two hundred dollars on the horses. By the time you leave, you’re down a thousand dollars. If you go home and tell your wife the truth, subject yourself to her ire, and take your medicine, that’s guilt. If you make up some story and cover it up, that’s shame. The natural reaction to shame is to hide because you’re embarrassed. You don’t want anyone to know. Guilt moves you to repair. Guilt is a truth you tell. Shame is a lie you swallow.
Let’s look at another example. You’ve been drinking much too much. You can’t get through the day without at least two bottles of wine. Your husband is starting to look at you funny whenever you pour a glass. Guilt will help you admit you have a problem. Shame will cause you to deny. Guilt will propel you to get into counseling, or, at least, into keeping the cork in. Shame will cause you to drink when he’s not around. Remember, shame wants you to hide, so you’ll hide your drinking. Guilt puts it all in the open, so others can help.
How about this: Your kids have their legos all over the floor. It just drives you nuts. You ask them nicely to clean them up, but they blow you off. You yell. Your wife comes by and tells you you’re yelling. Guilt tells you she’s trying to help. Shame starts a war. Shame makes you argue back and the whole thing turns into a knock-down drag-out fight. Guilt says you can do better than you’ve done. Shame says you’re a yeller, so you yell some more. Shame is a threat to your self, so you defend yourself with everything you have. Guilt is open to suggestions.
One more. You’re due to visit your elderly mother in the nursing home. She’s not much fun to be around. She repeats herself, goes on forever about her aches and pains, and is unconcerned with anything you’re doing, except to the degree she might brag about you. You hate being around her and hate yourself for feeling that way. If you listen to shame, you’ll never visit. You’ll make excuses to stay away. If guilt is your guide, you’ll find a way to make it good. Guilt leads you to empathy and compassion. Shame pulls you away.
Guilt identifies a problem and gives you a reason to change, so you’ll do better next time. Shame prevents change. Guilt says you’re better than that; shame says, no, you aren’t. Guilt is a surgical strike into the offending action; shame is a carpet bomb. Guilt cuts out the tumor; shame is like killing your cancer by killing yourself.
Shame is such a powerful, toxic emotion that no one likes to feel it for long. You’ll do anything to make it go away. There are four things people do. The first, the most natural, is to withdraw, hide, stonewall, or deny you ever did anything wrong. You convert your shame to fear.
Another method of dealing with shame is to attack yourself, put yourself down, chew yourself out, tell yourself that you’re a piece off shit. Of course you made a mistake, you tell yourself, what do your expect from someone who is obviously defective! Voila, your shame is now self loathing.
If that doesn’t work, there’s always avoidance. By this, I mean distracting yourself from the shame. Drugs and alcohol are good for this. So is wild, promiscuous sex, shopping till you drop, or hours of mind-numbing TV. Where once there was shame, there is now addiction. Then, if you feel shame about your addiction, well, there’s always more addiction.
If you try those three methods and you still have shame, then the last ditch defense is to attack. You never did anything wrong, you say, it’s the other guy. With shame, you feel weak and defenseless; add a little bit of anger and, presto, you’re now the scariest one around.
With shame you’re caught up with yourself; with guilt you take the other person’s perspective. Guilt makes you more empathic, compassionate, and patient. It’s a spotlight that illuminates whatever you did wrong, rather than a blinding floodlight that makes everything about you look bad. Guilt is your new best friend. Condemn the sin, not the sinner. It’s not the person who is the problem; the problem is the problem.
So, now that you are ready to accept responsibility, take a close look at how you feel. If your feelings move you towards others, are more accepting of them, are more willing to make repair; that’s guilt. It’s safe for guilt to be your guide. If you’re tempted to hide, to lie, to argue, or to judge, then shame is showing you the way. Get a new guide. Look for someone called guilt.
Beware of the Fundamental Attribution Error
The old lady ahead of you falls. You think she’s too weak to get around without a walker until you trip over the same bad spot in the sidewalk.
You watch Jeopardy and try to come up with the questions for Alex Trebec’s answers. Alex Trebec seems to be smarter than you.
Your wife hasn’t responded to your texts all night. You lose trust in her. When she comes home, you find out that her phone had fallen in the toilet.
Your father never played catch with you when you were a kid because he was never around. You thought he just didn’t care. Years later you find out that he was working overtime to send you to college.
These are all examples of what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. The mistake people make when they believe the cause of people’s actions to be some internal characteristic or motivation, rather than an external factor. It’s easy to assume an old lady would have trouble walking, but it’s hard to see the rise in the sidewalk. Alex Trebec looks smart, but he was provided the answers. You had no way of knowing your wife dropped her phone in the toilet. When you were a kid, your feelings of disappointment seemed a lot more important than anything to do with college.
It’s easy to make the Fundamental Attribution Error when you’re observing other people. There’s stuff that affect the outcome you wouldn’t know anything about. But you make the same mistake when you observe and judge yourself. Some things about yourself are more noticeable to you than other things.
Here’s a riddle. What imaginary thing is always on your mind and is the principle actor in every scene you are in?
Let me give you a hint. Of all the factors that affect the choices you make, it’s the thing that’s the most noticeable and often gets the blame.
It’s not your childhood. Your childhood laid the foundations. It’s quite influential, but it’s seldom on your mind. It’s not your brain chemistry, your genetics, or your DNA; nor is it socioeconomic circumstances, the global weather, or the price of tea in China. It’s not your boss, your spouse, your siblings, or, heaven forbid, your mother. They are all influential, but not in every scene.
The imaginary thing that is always on your mind and is the principle actor in every scene you are in is your Self. Yes, your Self.
I’m not saying that you’re an imaginary creature. You’re very real; but your Self is a fiction. Your Self is a construct, a collection of generalizations that we call characteristics, general tendencies that we call personality, an image or a mask that you call you. But your Self is not you, it’s an actor you cast and direct to play you. It’s the thing you hold responsible for every thing you do; not because your Self did it, but because it was there.
There you go again. You’ve done it to yourself. You’ve committed the Fundamental Attribution Error.
How to Ditch Shame
You’ve done something wrong. You’ve not been as good as you could be. You hurt someone you love, someone who deserves better from you. This person might be a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend, a partner, or a spouse. Whoever it is; where you were once trustworthy, you’re now unreliable. You were close, but now you’re distant. You were loved, but now there’s disgust. You want to do better, but you don’t know how. You’ve apologized, maybe a hundred times, but you can’t get past it. You know that your action, even though it was wrong, was not the whole story. There were precipitating factors. It’s complicated, you’d like to explain, but you can’t talk about it without sounding like you’re making excuses. You wish there were another way between groveling and pride. You’d like to learn from your mistakes without losing your dignity and voice.
There’s a way to repair what was damaged.
What you’ve got to do is ditch shame.
I know, you’re afraid that if you don’t feel ashamed you’ll go back to doing whatever you did.
It’s not shame you need. You need guilt. Guilt addresses what you’ve done. Shame indicts who you are. Guilt makes you seek repair and pursue change. Shame makes you want to hide.
Shame says you’re a hopeless loser, a chronic relapser, a dog who’ll turn back and eat his own vomit. Shame says you’ll never stop doing what you’re doing. Shame says there’s no way out; guilt shows you the way. Guilt makes you think of the people you victimized; shame makes you think of yourself. Shame keeps you from trying, guilt urges you to admit your mistakes and make restitution.
Shame says you’ve always been like this, you’ll never change. You’ve done the things you’ve done because that’s the way you are. Guilt says you’re better than that, you can do things differently; the way you’ve always been is not the same as the way you’ll be. Guilt points to the future; shame keeps you stuck in the past.
Shame says you don’t deserve forgiveness. Sure, if you fail to follow guilt and listen to shame, then you won’t admit your wrongs, make repair, and change. If all you do is blame others, wait for others, feel sorry, or even, occasionally say you’re sorry without changing anything; that wouldn’t be deserving of forgiveness. On the other hand, if you accept responsibility, acknowledge the harm, make amends, and come out of it a different person, then that is deserving of forgiveness.
You may say you’ll never be forgiven. The person you harmed will never let go of the harm you caused. They will hold it against you forever. If you’re thinking that, those thoughts do not come from shame or guilt, they are just thoughts. They may be true. Past a certain point, forgiveness is out of your control. If you have done everything deserving of forgiveness and the person you harmed does not forgive you, then that’s on them. Maybe they just aren’t there yet. Maybe they’ll never be. We don’t know. We’ll never know if you don’t put yourself in the position to make it happen.
So, if shame makes you want to hide, blame others, or castigate yourself, what does guilt want you to do?
Guilt has a program designed to help you address the thing you did wrong.
- Admit the exact nature of the wrong.
- Acknowledge the effects that sprang from your wrong.
- Be willing to make appropriate amends.
- Follow through with making amends.
- Permit the change that results in taking these steps to settle in and become part of you.
So, how do you ditch shame? What makes shame go away?
You think shame will stick around while you do all that? If you listen to guilt, you won’t have to ditch shame; shame will ditch you.
Cleaning the Closet
Everyone’s got a closet where they put whatever they don’t want people to see.
There’s good and bad stuff in the closet. There’s things you’re ashamed of. Memories of what you’ve done, words you’ve said, people you’ve hurt. You cram that closet full. It gets to be that you can’t even open the door to cram anything more in. You also can’t open the door to get anything out. You’re afraid that when you open the door the bowling ball you perched atop the pile will fall on your head. You’re afraid if you open the door, you’ll never be able to shut it again. It’s too full, so you never open the door.
Most of the time you can live with that. So, you have closets that you never open, stuffed to the gills with junk you can’t throw out. You have more than one closet filled like that. You might have garages, attics, cellars, extra rooms; all filled. Some of us have years of our past that we can’t permit ourselves to remember, but are unable to forget, entire regions of our selves we don’t want to let people see.
That’s fine, until something happens.
Some other person could open the closet door by mistake; looking for the bathroom. The bowling ball, the wooden tennis racquets, the regrets, the disappointments, and the shame all come crashing to the floor. It’s embarrassing. It all comes out and you can’t cram it back in.
That’s how it feels when someone brings up hoe you hurt them confronts you with your behavior. An intervention feels this way. So does the kind of fight where your partner says all the things she’s been meaning to say. It also feels this way when she leaves, when she’s had enough and can’t take it anymore. You’re left alone with a closet full of recriminations cascading around you.
There could be something in that closet that’s starting to smell. Maybe something’s died in there. You may have to clean out the closet and go through everything until you find it.
That’s what it’s like when there something evil growing in you, a rage, an addiction, a resentment, an anxiety, a trauma, a need. You may not even know what it is. You only know there must be something there. It is there, buried in your closet.
Maybe you want to move, trade up to a bigger, or better, house. Then it’s time to clean out the old closet. You collect boxes, start with the books in the living room, move on to the kitchen, save the closet for last, not because it’s more efficient that way, but because you’re dreading it. You finally get to the closet and go through it, not because you want to, but because you have to so you can move on.
That’s what it’s like when you’re ready to change; when you’re tired of living the way you’ve been living. You’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. You’re ready to look at your past, so that you can make sense of it. You decide it’s time to move ahead, forgive some people, learn some lessons. If you had awful things happen to you, you might have put the memory away in this closet so that you could deal with it later as an adult, after you acquired the knowledge, skills, resources, coping mechanisms, and supports that you needed. Perhaps it’s time, and you are ready.
Sometimes you clean out the closet because you have to, not because you want to; because you can’t shut the damn door anymore.
Once you decide to clean out the closet, there’s nothing left to do but to buckle down and go through the junk. Shift through it and sort out what to keep, what to throw away, what to give away, and what to display on the coffee table. You might be surprised. There could be stuff in that closet that you need, that you haven’t been able to find. You could have put something in the closet to protect it, away from prying eyes, because it’s so valuable you can’t let it go.
That’s what it’s like when people look at their past, their regrets, and their losses, and find capabilities they didn’t know they had, choices they forgot they ever made, insights they never knew, feelings they thought they had lost. A sense of wonder that’s been neglected, an ability to play that’s been deserted. For, buried under all that junk, the mistakes, the resentments, and the losses, is a child. That child is you, you as a child. You locked that child, with all her spontaneity and innocence, in the closet and buried her under stuff, partly to control her, partly to protect. When you clean the closet, you set the child in you free.
It may be time to clean out your closet. Let’s begin.
Admit the Exact Nature of the Wrong
Now I’m going to talk about an essential part of the process of going from wrong to reconciliation, a part that many people, incredibly, try to pass over. What is this indispensable but neglected component?
Identifying what you did wrong.
People often want to pass right over this part to get to forgiveness, to argue their case, or to go right back to doing it again. Others disregard identifying what they did wrong and, instead, heap punishment on themselves for how they are wrong, without any recognition of what they did. This trick of shame keeps them stuck and miserable while insuring that they’ll learn nothing from the mistake and go right back to doing it again, remaining under the thumb of shame. Guilt, on the other hand, demands that you identify the exact nature of the wrong.
So, let’s get started.
Before you go to anyone to make an apology, you should first take a few minutes, or a few days, to sit down and write a statement of responsibility. This doesn’t need to be long, but it does need to be thorough and accurate. It also needs to be written, not because you’re necessarily going to have anyone read it, but because you’ll take more time and more care for something you write than something you just say or ponder. You’ll also have fewer distractions, so you don’t get caught up in defending yourself, responding to someone’s reaction, or otherwise losing track of what you set out to do. You’ll also come away with a written record of your accomplishment, indisputable documentation that you got real and honest, if only with yourself. Don’t let a tendency to make spelling or grammar errors stop you. It doesn’t matter if your handwriting is bad; no one else in the world needs to read it. You’re doing this for you.
Let me give you an example, first, of how NOT to write a statement of responsibility, then how to do it correctly. What follows is something someone might write on their first attempt. This is from a man who beat his child and, years later, wrote a letter to her, in an attempt to reconcile. Please note, it’s not necessary to address your letter of responsibility to the person you hurt, as he does, nor is it necessary to give it to them. We’ll talk more about that later.
“I’m sorry I hit you, but you were a bad kid, you never listened and I was afraid that you’d grow up not having any respect for authority. My father used to hit us worse than that and it installed discipline in me so that I was able to be successful in everything I did. I wanted that for you. I love you.”
There’s so much wrong with this statement, it’s hard to know where to start. If you were ever on the receiving end of an apology like that, the only reason you would ever grant forgiveness is because you found it too frustrating or embarrassing to continue, so you just wanted the process to stop. I suppose if the writer had never acknowledged that he hit his child, it would be progress; but I think he can do a lot better than that before moving on.
Let’s start at the beginning.
It’s not necessary in a statement of responsibility to apologize. Your focus at this point should be to identify your behavior, not state your feelings. You can certainly say you’re sorry later on, if you really feel that way, after you have stated what you need to be sorry for. Incidentally, I don’t think this guy really is sorry for hitting his child; I think he’s sorry he has to write a statement of responsibility.
“I hit you.”
This is the best part of this man’s statement. He’s describing the offending behavior. It might be better if he gave more detail; if he said, for instance, whether he punched her in the face or spanked her on her bottom. If he gave that kind of detail, there certainly would be a clearer picture of the offense. He would not be hiding behind vagueness and obfuscation.
This word should not appear anywhere in a statement of responsibility. Avoids buts. Buts produce bullshit. Anything that comes after a but in a statement of responsibility should be flushed out of sight.
There may well be mitigating factors: you may well have had good intentions; you definitely had your reasons for doing what you did. However, a statement of responsibility is not the place for excuses. It’s the place for a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the offense.
“You were a bad kid, you never listened.”
Here the man totally abandoned the project of making a statement of responsibility in favor of making an accusation. He turned the victim into the offender and himself into the victim. He’s playing the victim in a bald-faced attempt to garner sympathy or to weasel out of the wrongdoing.
Of course, there is a context surrounding every misdeed. You may be right to want to address the crimes committed against you, too; but this is not the place for that. The statement of responsibility is the place to focus on your actions. You can hope that, in doing so, you’d be modeling the type of forthrightness that you would hope from anyone admitting offenses against you.
Besides, just as your crime was a response to their crime, their crime may have been a response to another one of yours. The victim in this example may have been a “bad kid” who “never listened”; but, how did she get that way? I think it’s reasonable to believe that, before this guy ever hit his child, he was given to yelling. What happens when a father yells at his daughter? She doesn’t have to work too hard to listen.
“I was afraid that you’d grow up not having any respect for authority.”
Here this man is stating the intention he had for doing what he did. You could look at this two ways. On one hand, there’s a place for confessing his fears and talking about his aspirations for his daughter. On the other hand, when people explain their intentions, they seldom fail to put some spin on it. It’s always good intentions they disclose. We might believe the road to hell is paved with good intentions because no one ever mentions the bad ones. I think that if this man dug deep, he might come up with other intentions. He might say, for instance, “I was afraid I was losing my authority and you had no respect for me. I decided that if you weren’t going to respect me, I could at least make you fear me.”
When you complete the first draft of your statement of responsibility, you should be suspect of anything that puts you in a positive light. Look closer at your motives. I’m not saying this because I believe you’re a total dirt bag, incapable of doing anything good, or even, anything bad for a good reason. I’m saying it because I know that good intentions are what comes to the surface; selfishness hides within. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find that a lot of things motivate you, and not all of them are pretty.
If you ever deliver your statement of responsibility, if you ever stand up and say it to the person you hurt, anything positive is going to sound like an excuse. They’re not going to believe you’re serious about your remorse and may conclude that you’re doing it for show or other venal reasons.
“My father used to hit us worse than that and it installed discipline in me so that I was able to be successful in everything I did. I want that for you.”
I’d advise that this man imagine that he’s a little boy again, his daughter’s age. Visualize what it was like to be beaten when he was small, powerless, and utterly at the mercy of his attacker. I suspect he doesn’t allow himself to go there. Instead, he’s constructed a belief that it wasn’t so bad and it was for his own good. This is what victims do to cope. It’s a form of denial. While it’s definitely possible for trauma to be used for growth, this is how people who’ve been abused grow up to be abusers. This first step is to forget the horror of it. The second step is to make yourself believe it was good. From there, it’s easy to start abusing your own child. Traumatic growth does not happen when we forget; it happens when we remember.
If this man believes discipline has been so successfully install in himself; he should ask himself whether he was really disciplined when he beat his daughter. I suspect not. I suspect he had lost control of himself and was utterly undisciplined. If this man believes he’s successful in everything he has done, why does he need to reconcile with his daughter?
“I love you.”
Here the man is making an incongruous claim, totally at odds with the rest of his statement. He beats his child, calls her a bad kid, expects that she was going to grow up to be a monster, criticizes her for not doing as well as he, and then wants her to believe that he loves her. Is this what love means to him?
Wait, there are more problems with this statement of responsibility. It’s missing an account of the aftermath. After this man beat his child, what did he do then? Did he recognize he did something wrong and try to repair the damage to their relationship? Did he nurse her wounds, tenderly dry her tears, hug her, tell her he was wrong, and immediately apologize? Or did he leave her by herself, pretend it didn’t happen, deny it happened, lie, or force her to lie? Did he keep her home from school the next day out of fear the teacher would see the bruises on her face and start asking questions? What did he tell her mother? Did he say he would beat her more if she ever told anyone? Did he even need to?
After working with hundreds, if not thousands, of trauma survivors, I’ve learned that it’s what happens in the aftermath of an offense that does as much damage, if not more, than the wrong itself. It’s not the crime; it’s the coverup. The crimes of the coverup get charged to the initial offense because, if not for the crime, the coverup would never have existed; but there is a huge difference between a misdeed committed within the context of a loving, supportive, affirming environment and one which blames the victim and casts her out on her own.
Neglect, abandonment, and betrayal are more to be feared than actual abuse. Think about it. What would you rather get: a single slap in the face, or a lie? A single beating, followed by remorse; or an ongoing terror threat? A wife who slipped and slept with someone, confessing immediately thereafter; or a wife with a double life? Even in the cases of the single slap, single beating, or single slip, a lot of the damage comes from the prospect of more, the possibility of a total dissolution of the relationship, the fear of being alone.
An improved statement of responsibility
So, what would a better statement look like? A statement of responsibility this man might write after a course of therapy and an honest look inside might look something like this.
“When you were ten years old and I was a full grown man, I lost my temper and made a fist and hit you three times in the face with all the force I could. I then sent you to your room. Later, I told your mother you fell and hit the coffee table. I went on for years and pretended it didn’t happen until you brought it up. You didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. I was afraid I was losing my authority and you had no respect for me. I decided that, if you weren’t going to respect me, I could, at least make you fear me. I should have known better. I was beaten as a child, too. I should’ve remembered what that was like and not bought into the lies that it was a good thing. I failed to love you like I should and want to learn to love you better.”
Oh, another thing
What we have have now is an improved statement of responsibility. But it could be better if the man looked at the incident from the eyes of his child and acknowledged a wrong he might not have thought of himself. A broken promise.
While you’re at it, while you’re acknowledging the exact nature of your wrongs, don’t forget one wrong you might’ve committed that is so central that it may overshadow all others and be key to this whole business of reconciliation.
Embedded in every wrong is a broken promise; a promise either declared or implied, clearly pledged or vaguely expected, guaranteed or merely hoped for. Sometimes a broken promise is the only wrong. Sometimes that one wrong is enough.
Adultery, for instance, is a broken promise. When your husband finds out you’ve been having an affair, you may actually be surprised that he cares about those vows you made so long ago. You might not think they’re so germane or vital. After all, you’re the one who broke them. The person who breaks a promise is the one who hasn’t been taking the promise as seriously.
Some promises were made so long ago, and there have been so many changes, you might think they’ve been revised. When you made your weddings vows, you might have been very young; things might’ve been very different, then. Your husband couldn’t keep his hands off you, he didn’t have that belly, he had some hair, you were both poorer, but his career was just taking off. Now, he’s been passed over for promotion four times, grown balder and fatter, and you haven’t had sex in three months. You might think you’re the victim of a bait and switch scheme. You may think that he broke the vows first by becoming a fat, bald middle manager who hasn’t gone down on you in years. You acted as though the deal was null and void.
If you really felt that way, then it’s better to say something than to just act as though the promise no longer applies. Sit down and say, “You’re fat, bald, and boring, and I’m horny and need someone with more money. I want a divorce.” I know, you wouldn’t do that. You’d feel like a witch. Is it better to protect his feelings, say nothing, and have an affair?
Many promises are made in haste because you didn’t want to talk. You agreed to clean out the garage that weekend because you didn’t want to have to tell your wife you had plans to play golf. She’s already pissed that you play so much golf and you didn’t want to have that fight again when she asked you to clean out the garage. So, you made a promise and deferred the fight to Saturday morning when your buddy was in the driveway and you’re loading your clubs. When you get home, there’s going to be hell to pay, not just because you didn’t clean out the garage; but because you broke a promise made in haste.
If you’re not sure whether you broke a promise, just ask yourself if you’ve been getting a lot of nagging. The presence of nagging is a constant irritation that obscures, but indicates, a broken promise. If she’s on your back all the time to clean out the garage, it’s not because she’s a nag, a shrew, a hypercritical, impossible-to-please, woman; but because you promised to clean out the garage and didn’t.
There are some promises that you’re held to, even though you never explicitly made them. This promise is assumed when you take on a role. When you climb into your car and drive down the highway, for instance, you don’t raise your right hand and swear to drive considerately, to give others space to stop, to go promptly when the light turns green, and to signal your turns; but you should hear the reactions from others if you fail to do so. They have a reasonable expectation that you will drive as if you have your life in your hands, and theirs, too.
Fatherhood is another example of an assumed promise. You never signed on the dotted line to become a father, you never stood up and recited vows; but the child and the mother of your child have some reasonable expectations of you. At the minimum, you owe child support, assistance in rearing, love and concern, and an assurance of safety.
In all those cases, you are held to a promise you never made because it is inherent in the role you took. Others have a reasonable expectation of you. What, then should you do in cases when the expectations of others are unreasonable?
Your husband expects you to drop everything, wait on him hand and foot, constantly be at his beck and call because that’s what his mother did for his father. You never promised to be that kind of wife. In this day and age, he shouldn’t expect that kind of wife. He shouldn’t be angry that you don’t have dinner on the table at exactly six o’clock when you don’t get home until 5:30, after a long day’s work. He shouldn’t be angry, but he is.
In this case, it was his mother who made the promise for you. It’s not fair; it won’t hold up as a contractual obligation in court; but his mother’s promise is something you’re going to have to contend with. You’re going to have to acknowledge that you broke the promise his mother made on your behalf, if you’re ever going to reconcile your differences.
You see, there are objective wrongs and subjective ones. The objective wrongs are those that everyone recognizes. Subjective wrongs rest in the feelings of the person who regards himself as the victim, as your husband does in this case. They look unreasonable, they sound whiney, you believe the supposed victim is just being a big baby, you could accuse him of playing the victim; but, to the person who has the expectations, they’re very real.
What should you do when there are unreasonable expectations? Do you have to apologize? Is this something for which you have to make amends?
In a just world, it would be his mother apologizing and making amends to you for setting you up to fail; but you can’t wait for justice if you want reconciliation. No, you’re not to blame for failing to meet unreasonable expectations, but you are responsible; responsible in the sense that you are able to respond.
What is the best response to an unreasonable expectation?
That’s it. You have to say no, and follow it up with actions, like you mean it. If you haven’t said no, or have said no ambiguously, then it’s reasonable to assume you have accepted the expectation. Maybe that’s what you have to apologize for: not saying no.
Why don’t people say no when they need to? It’s hard to say no. Saying no involves being honest and inviting conflict. It puts the relationship at risk. But not saying no is the same as making a promise you can’t keep.
So, if you have looked within and found a broken promise to add to the other wrongs you have committed, then you probably have found even more misdeeds: a failure to be honest and an avoidance of conflict.
The Effects of your Actions
Once you have written your statement of responsibility, you’re ready for the next step: imagining the effects of your actions.
Don’t get hung up on expecting hard evidence that one thing was caused by another. We have hard evidence for some effects, but not others. We have hard evidence that, if if a man punches a child in the eye, the child will have a black eye; but we don’t have hard evidence that the reason she failed in school that semester was because of it. There could have been a connection, but there’s no way to prove it.
You can’t prove it, nor do you have to. This is not a court of law. You’re not treating cancer or building a highway or filing taxes, activities that require a higher level of certainty. You’re using your imagination. Just to entertain the possibility that one thing may have been caused by another is sufficient.
It’s also not necessary to say that your action, whether it was violence or addiction, cheating or lying, nagging or criticizing, was the only ingredient that led to a particular reaction. No one is saying you are to blame for everything. There’s obviously lots of reasons why things happen. Generally it’s a confluence of factors. A child may fail a semester of school for reasons besides the fact that she was getting beat up at home. She could have had a bad teacher, disruptive classmates, or any one of a number of other factors. She probably had a lot to do with the failing grades.
So, if you are willing to entertain possibilities that the things you do matter, then consider the following questions with respect to the thing you did, whatever it was.
What physical changes did you see in the person you hurt? Where there bruises, contusions, broken bones. Did the person get sick? Was there an alteration in consciousness?
What emotions did you observe in the person after you hurt him? Anger, annoyance, contempt, disgust, irritation, embarrassment, fear, helplessness, powerlessness, worry, doubt, frustration, guilt, shame, despair, disappointment, hurt, or sadness? Was there a fight or flight response? Did he freeze?
Did the person develop a mental condition after the thing you did? Chronic anxiety, worry, panic attacks? Depression, despair, suicidality? Can she pay attention? Is memory impaired? Was there post traumatic stress? Nightmares, flashbacks, irritability? Did you start to see more bottles of pills? Did he go out and buy a gun? Did she start to hallucinate?
How did the person’s economic status change? Could he pay his bills after that thing you did? Were his savings towards retirement set back? Did he miss days of work? What was the dollar and cents cost to the person for the thing you did?
Did that thing cost the person any friends? Did family members shun him? Where there things she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone? Did you get between him and the people he loves?
Did the person start to drink harder than before? Did drugs come into her life? Did he seem to go through cigarettes faster, start guzzling coffee, eat herself out of house and home?
Was there a change in how he engaged in recreation? Did she abandon hobbies or quit going to the gym? Did he stop going to the movies? Did she sign up for classes in martial arts?
Did the thing you did cost the person his hearth and home? Is her room more of a mess? Has his house fallen into disrepair? Does she now spend more time cleaning than is humanly necessary?
How has this changed your person’s view of God? Has she lost faith? Is the thing you did an example of evil and suffering in the world for which God gets the blame? Does he believe God to be mean and vindictive because that’s how you treated the person? Has she stopped going to church? Has he ceased studies for his bar mitzvah? Or, alternately, has she become more rigidly religious, more fundamentalist, more extreme in her behavior and beliefs? Is he now a Jihadist?
Finally, how has this person’s relationship with you changed? Can she trust you now? Is he always critical? Is she forever rolling her eyes? Is she interested in sex? Does he want to cuddle? Are you getting your calls returned, your texts answered? Are you still getting invited to parties? Did she place an order of protection? Are you getting a divorce?
This is, by no means, a complete list of all the questions you could ask or all the effects people have when you do awful things to them; but if you answered those questions honestly and owned up to the influence you have on others, then you have come a long way in accepting responsibility for your actions.
Six Places Denial Likes to Hide
If you ever want to deny something, whether it’s something you did and don’t want to admit, or whether it’s something you never did and want to make that plain, there are six ways you can do it. Six tried and true methods of denial. However, just a word of caution; when you’re trying to deny something that really happened, none of them work.
Denial of Fact
The first way is the most obvious. You just don’t admit something happened. Look them in the eye and say you didn’t do it. You declare:
I never touched her. I was never near the place. I never said that. It’s all a big misunderstanding. I did not have sexual relations with that woman. I never lied, not a single time, ever.
Similar to the denial of fact, is minimization; denying some facts, but not others. You had two drinks, not seven. You went to the casino, but only gambled one hundred dollars, not five. You smoked, but never inhaled. You only kissed her. You’re telling the truth this time, honest.
If you truly never did the thing you’re accused of, then nothing beats denial of fact; why would you need any other method? But, if you are guilty, then denial of fact is a dangerous game. Facts can be discovered. Truth can be exposed. There are often witnesses. There’s GPS. Some disappointed Other Women have been known to come forth and contact the wife at home. Why, you might even slip up and forget which lie you told to whom and when. Moreover, you’re putting your sanity at risk. Watch out when you start to believe your own bald-faced lies. You won’t know the difference between up and down.
The other problem with denial of fact is that it’s often misdirected. It’s not the fact in question that’s the real question. It often doesn’t matter whether you had seven drinks or two; touched her or didn’t touch her; said something or didn’t say it; inhaled, told the truth, gambled, or whatever. The real question, a question that is seldom asked, but always present, is: can you be trusted? Facts don’t settle issues of trust. It doesn’t matter whether you can marshal documents, witnesses, or evidence to support your case; if he doesn’t trust you, then he doesn’t trust you.
If you have a loved one who has lost trust in you, then there’s only a few things you can do about it. You can leave, or wait for the other person to leave, because, if there is no trust, then what’s the point of the relationship? You can be patient and wait for your loved one to forget she lost trust in you, like that’s ever going to happen. Or you can be honest and tell him everything.
When you’re honest about something you did, then at least you’re being honest. She may not like what you are admitting, but at least you’re honest about it.
If you do get caught in denial of fact, then you have five more methods of denial at your disposal.
Denial of Responsibility
I did it, but it’s not my fault. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. They kept pressuring me. There were a lot of factors. It was going to happen anyway. I have a disease, an addiction, a weakness to temptation, I was pressured. I’m the victim, here; why are you yelling at me? It’s my wife’s fault I cheated on her. If my husband didn’t nag so much I wouldn’t need to drink so much. I didn’t mean to do it. I was trying to win enough money to pay the rent. I have to drink so much because of my anxiety. I didn’t go to work because of my depression. The devil made me do it. Mistakes were made.
When you use denial of responsibility, you admit the fact of the misdeed, but not the intention. You profess you’re not the agent of change. You claim you did not have free will.
This is a good place for denial to hide. It’s almost impossible for someone to prove an intention. You’re the only one who knows what you intended. But, what did you intend? Can you really, honestly say that you never planned the misdeed or allowed it to happen? Does it really matter if you intended it or not?
Lots of things happen that are not your intention. You could be a kind, considerate, mindful, pacifistic, vegan, but, on your way to yoga class, you could run over a squirrel. The squirrel would die a slow, excruciating death; its family would mourn, but you didn’t mean to do it. Then, you get to class and you realize there was a meditation exercise you forgot to do. You didn’t mean to forget, but you still promised to do it and failed to follow through. Then your teacher says your check for the classes bounced. You look at your checkbook and find a simple subtraction error. Again, you didn’t intend on stiffing the guru, but you still have to pay the fees. Class begins. You’re all doing the downward dog and out comes a massive fart. Everyone knows it was you. You apologize, but it’s not like you meant to stink up the place.
It doesn’t take long before using denial of responsibility makes you look like you have no will of your own. Is that what you want? Is it better to be flaky or forthright? Slippery or scrupulous? In bad faith or a bad ass? Your choice.
Denial of Awareness
I didn’t know what happened. It all happened so fast. I don’t remember. I’m not sure. I just lost track of time. Things got away from me. I must have blacked out. I overslept. I have ADD. It just slipped out. I didn’t know you cared about that.
When you use denial of awareness, you are still trying to evade responsibility by saying the deed was out of your conscious control. The vegan didn’t see the squirrel he hit. He didn’t write down the homework assignment. He hadn’t balanced his checkbook in a long time. The fart snuck up on him.
Denial of awareness just kicks the can down the road a little way. Even if it’s true that you didn’t know what you were doing, you’re still responsible for not knowing what you’re doing. It’s your mind, so it’s up to you to use it. Even if you’re not held responsible for what you do when you are drunk, asleep, or unaware; you are still responsible for being drunk, asleep, or unaware and you have to accept the consequences that come with it.
Denial of Impact
No harm was done. What’s it to you? Why do you care? I’m just hurting myself. It doesn’t need to be that big a deal. Everyone does it. There’s no victim. Yeah, I ate some of the cake you baked for someone’s birthday, but there’s plenty left. This hurts me more than it hurts you. It’s my body… money… house…life…etc, so I can do what I want with it.
In this case, you are admitting you did the deed, but there was no injury and no basis of complaint. You committed a victimless crime. The tree fell in the forest, but it didn’t hit anyone.
Have you really carefully examined the effects of your actions? Are you listening to what people are saying about what you have done to them?
Let’s take the woman who was raised by alcoholics. You’re her husband. Things were awful when she was growing up because of the drinking. There were fights to dodge, puke to clean up, smaller siblings to watch when she’d rather just be a kid. She couldn’t wait to leave home and be done with it all. Then she gets married to you. You drink. No, you don’t drink too much; you don’t fight, don’t puke, and you don’t even have kids to neglect. In fact, you never drink more than two beers in a row. You could stop anytime you want, if you had a good reason to do so. Your drinking causes absolutely no problems, except one. She gets uptight every time she sees a beer in your hand.
Does your drinking have an impact?
Of course it does. It’s a simple case of cause and effect. She sees the beer and she gets uptight. It’s true that, perhaps, she is reacting more to the events of the past than what is likely to happen now; but your beer is triggering her. Her parents loaded the gun, but you pull the trigger. It’s true that, perhaps, she is being unfair to ask you to not drink because of her; but, if you love her, isn’t it enough to abstain because it makes her crazy? It’s true that it might be better for her to deal with her past. You could even make an argument that seeing you drink responsibly could help her be less reactionary to alcohol, sort of like exposure therapy. All that could be so; but, please call it as it is. That beer is having a detrimental impact.
The purpose of cutting through denial, in all its forms, is not to humiliate, or blame, or make you responsible for everything. The purpose is to sweep away all of the complications, so you can see things as they are.
Denial of Pattern
It just happened. No one could’ve seen it coming. I didn’t set myself up. I didn’t prepare myself. I didn’t groom my victims. I didn’t know I was going to do it until I did it. I go from zero to sixty before I know it. One minute, I’m in recovery; the next minute, I’m looking for drugs. I was just going to get water when I went into the bar. I don’t have to change people, places, and things; I just have to stop using.
Nothing happens by itself. Every event is part of a pattern. There is always a context. No one goes from zero, directly to sixty, without going through all the steps between. There is always a pattern. You can be excused if you don’t know it; but are you looking for it?
Patterns can be hard to distinguish if you’re not paying attention. It’s possible to think you see a false pattern, but that doesn’t mean there’s isn’t a pattern. Detecting a true pattern can be a tremendous benefit. It informs you of warning signs. It gives you a chance to get a jump on things. It lets you intervene on a problem before it gets too big. But, to detect a pattern, you have to be open minded about what it might be.
People often want to deny a pattern because, if they were to acknowledge it, that would mean they may have to give up some things that, by themselves, are not a problem. Take the woman who uses cocaine every time she goes to a particular bar. She admits that cocaine is a problem and wants to stop using it, but she likes the bar. The bar is cool, all of her friends are at the bar, and there is nothing bad about her drinking, except that, when she goes to the bar, she uses blow. If she were to admit there’s a pattern, she would have to admit that the bar is part of the problem.
Denial of the Need for Help
I can stop any time I want. I can do this on my own. I don’t need to go to group… a therapist… see a doctor… stay in rehab; all they want is my money. There’s nothing they can teach me. I’ve been there and learned it all, already. I’ve got to just do it. I don’t need to be punished; I’ll never do it again. I learned my lesson. I don’t need anyone on my case… on my back… being suspicious… reminding me of the past. I’ll stop, cold turkey.
To a certain extent, if you deny the need for help, I like your spirit. At least you sound like you’re taking responsibility for the solution to your problem. After all, even if you do accept help, it still comes down to you. You’ve got to want to change. You have to do it. No one is going to do it for you.
However, when you admit you did something wrong, but won’t get help for it, you’re placing a bet that you can handle it all by yourself. That’s great, if you can; maybe you will. But what are you betting? What exactly is on the line? Is your husband threatening to leave? Are you giving your wife black eyes? Are you squandering your children’s future? Are you breaking your parents’ hearts? Maybe you can deal with the consequences if you fail, but are you thinking about how a relapse will effect others? How does it sound to them, the people you have already harmed, when you say you’re going to gamble with doing it all again? Is this how you think you can make it right with them, by disregarding their feelings?
There’s another thing to think about when you decide whether or not to get help. Let’s say you have a shopping addiction. You’ve run up credit card bills. Every day a new package comes from Amazon with something you don’t need. You can’t even walk in the spare bedroom because of all the crap you put in there. Your husband wants you to go to Shopaholics Anonymous. No, you say, you don’t want to talk to strangers about your problem. You agree to cut up your credit cards. You let your husband change your Amazon password. You go for a run every time you get the urge to shop. You’ve got this. You don’t need any more help. But there’s just one thing.
Maybe it’s your husband who needs the help.
Maybe he can’t handle it on his own. Maybe he doesn’t know what to do. If you go to Shopaholics Anonymous, you’re helping him, too. That way, he doesn’t have to be the only one watching out for you. He’s got a village. He has others on the team who can be more objective. He doesn’t have to worry quite so much. He can trust you just a little bit more. It looks like you’re taking his concerns seriously.
Maybe your husband needs a group of his own for spouses of shopaholics. That’ll be good if such a thing exists, but it’s not a substitute for his need for you to get help for yourself.
So, six places where denial hides. Did you find any of yours there?
Don’t ever let anyone talk you out of feeling guilty
Don’t ever let anyone talk you out of feeling guilty about something you’ve done.
Even if what you did was not wrong, even if it was justified and every court in the land would agree; if you feel guilty, then OK, go ahead and accept it.
Guilt is a guide. You can’t travel in a foreign country, and expect not to get lost, without a guide of some sort; be it a live human, or a guidebook, or signs by the side of the road. Guilt is your guide towards self improvement, an usher that shows the way to reconciliation.
Nevertheless, you don’t travel just so you can meet a guide, stay with a guide, and look at nothing but the guide. No, you’re interested in what the guide shows you. So, when I say that guilt is a guide, I don’t mean you have to stay with guilt. I mean, look at what guilt is showing you. It’s showing you that you could have done something differently.
Once you have written your statement of responsibility, re-written it to take out the buts, recalled promises you might have broken, imagined the effect of your actions, and, the whole time, successfully beat off any of the six varieties of denial, you still have one more thing to do: identify what you could have done differently. There is always something.
Once you get started on identifying what you could have done differently, you might find the possibilities are endless. Within the life of any problem are multiple turning points in which a decision is made.
Take the guy who beat his daughter, for example. When he became so enraged that he thought it was a good idea to punch her in the face, he might have turned aside and counted to ten. But, even if he couldn’t; even if he got so overcome by rage that he felt he had no choice in the matter; even then, I’m sure it was not the first time anger appeared. He probably had dozens of incidents before that could have served as a warning, had he heeded them. Maybe those were the times he could have turned away and gotten help; or, at least, learned from his mistakes.
Identifying what you could have done differently helps you get your power back. It’s an acknowledgment that you matter and the things you do makes a difference. It demonstrates that you have choices.
If a man broke into your house, held a gun on your wife, swiped your silverware, and was getting ready to kidnap your children; then maybe you feel justified that you took his gun away and shot him. If that’s the case, then there’s no reason to be reading about reconciliation. But, if you do feel guilty for defending your family this way, ask yourself, what could you have done differently? Maybe you could have installed that security system so none of this would’ve happened.
There’s a special type of guilt called survivors’ guilt. That’s when you feel guilty that you survived. Accident survivors get it, witnesses of violence get it, combat veterans get it in spades, even people who have been victimized get it when they think about how much worse it could have been. People have a hard time understanding survivors’ guilt.
Well-meaning people might try to talk you out of feeling guilty if you have survivors’ guilt. They’ll say it wasn’t your fault, you had no choice, anyone would have done the same thing. They’ll counsel you to not get caught up in the what-ifs. They’ll warn you against 20–20 hindsight. They’ll call you a Monday morning quarterback. Resist them and look at what guilt is trying to show you. It’s trying to show that you’re not just a victim. The things you do, even the little things, have impact.
Making Amends is Better than Making Apologies
No one is interested in your apologies, unless you back them up with a change in behavior. Making amends repairs the damage; making apologies is only a promise to repair the damage. One is action; the other, words. One will cost you something; it might even bring about a transformation. The other is as cheap as spent air, blown out in such a way as to make noise with your lips. The word amends comes from the Middle French for reparation. The word apology comes from the Greek for justification. Let me ask you; when you’re hurt, what do you want more, reparation or justification?
I thought so. Save your apologies; work towards making amends.
Amends come in two categories. There’s direct restitution and there’s indirect. Amends, or restitution, compensates the victim for the harm done. If you’ve inflicted physical injury, then pay the medical bills. If you lied, then tell the truth. If you’ve robbed them of their time, give of your time. If you broke faith, keep faith. If you’ve said horrible words, even if they were true, say uplifting ones that are also true. If you’ve neglected, pay attention. If you lost your temper, acquire self discipline. If you frightened, protect. If you failed to keep your promises, don’t make promises you can’t keep; or, if you do make promises, keep them.
This is why I asked you to write a statement of responsibility and an account of how your actions harmed another. Look at every item and decide how you’re going to make restitution. Let’s take the father who punched his child in the face. He wrote in his statement of responsibility:
“When you were ten years old and I was a full grown man, I lost my temper and made a fist and hit you three times in the face with all the force I could. I then sent you to your room. Later, I told your mother you fell and hit the coffee table. I went on for years and pretended it didn’t happen until you brought it up. You didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. I was afraid I was losing my authority and you had no respect for me. I decided that, if you weren’t going to respect me, I could, at least make you fear me. I should have known better. I was beaten as a child, too. I should’ve remembered what that was like and not bought into the lies that it was a good thing. I failed to love you like I should and want to learn to love you better.”
How can this man make restitution? When he lost his temper, he failed to model self discipline to his daughter. To make restitution, he should show her self-discipline. Since he hit her and caused bruises, to make restitution he might apply ice to those bruises. Because he sent her to her room and isolated her, restitution would involve being available. When he lied to her mother he caused the child and her mother to not know what to believe. From now on, he needs to tell the truth to both of them. Where once he made her fear him, now he can protect her. When he forgot what it was like to be beaten, he should be upfront and honest about how he was a small child once, totally at the mercy of someone who used him as a punching bag.
All this, as hard as it might be, can easily be done if the harm has just recently occurred and his daughter is still small and the bruises have not faded. If years have gone by, as they have in this case, it’s going to be impossible to make much direct restitution. He can still model self-discipline, be available if she wants him around, tell the truth, protect her if there’s an opportunity, and be open about his experiences; but ice is not necessary, the damage to his child’s development is already done, and it’s too late to fix things now.
There are many situations in which direct amends are impossible. It could be too late. They could be unwanted. Some people you’ve hurt would rather not have anything to do with you. They may not feel safe around you. You might have an order of protection. The adult daughter in our example may very well have a distant relationship with the father who used to beat her and want to keep it that way. She’s not going to have him babysit his grandchildren if he’s shown that he cannot control his temper. If that’s the case, then the only direct amends he can make would be to accept the consequence gracefully and not whine and complain that he doesn’t have a grandchild to bounce on his knee.
You’ll want to be careful that, in your eagerness to be rid of your guilt or achieve reconciliation, you don’t cause more harm by attempting to make unwanted direct amends. Some victims don’t want to be reminded of what happened. The nightmares have finally stopped. They’ve only just moved on with their lives. Just the thought of you is enough to give them the shudders. In that event, it’s a profoundly selfish thing to show up at their door, unannounced, with flowers. Keep your flowers, then, along with your apologies; rather, give the flowers to someone else who could use them. That would be an example of indirect amends.
There are other cases in which the victim doesn’t know they’ve been victimized. For instance, I often see spouses who’ve been cheating on their partners. They believe their partner doesn’t know it. They fear that being honest about the affair will cause their spouse unnecessary anguish. It’s better, they say, to quietly end the affair and devote themselves to being a better partner than unburden themselves at the expense of the other.
It’s hard to know what to do in these cases. It’s true they can do a lot to be better husbands without confessing they’d strayed; but they can’t make amends for lying by continuing to hide the truth. Furthermore, I often suspect that the spouse knows more than anyone says. People have a sense that tells them there’s something wrong. Often they can’t put their finger on what, but they know something’s not right. On the other hand, sometimes people just don’t want to know. This is such a thorny problem, we may need another post to discuss it.
If you honestly find you cannot make all the direct amends you’re called to make, then full reconciliation will be impossible and you’re left with indirect amends. Maybe, some day, the opportunity will arise for that man to embrace his alienated daughter, do the right things by her, and bounce his grandchild on his knee. It’ll be a beautiful moment if he’s ready for it. He can prepare by enacting a program of indirect amends.
How Do You Make Amends When You Can’t Make Amends?
Making direct amends can be difficult, but necessary, when the harmed party is looking for it, and rewarding when you do it well. The payoff is reconciliation. But not everyone you have harmed is all set to forgive you. Some are gone, many don’t know they were harmed, and a lot don’t want anything to do with you. Maybe they’ve been waiting for you, but gave up. You might be the first on the scene. No one is ready for reconciliation at the precise moment you’re ready for it.
However, making amends isn’t just about making up to the victim for something you’ve done, it’s also the process of forgiving yourself. If you’re feeling guilty, then I think it’s safe to say that there was something in your conduct that didn’t square with your idea of yourself. You weren’t the best you could be. You were raised better than that; and, even if you weren’t, then you’ve always wanted to do better than your parents ever could. Making amends is not just about healing the relationship; it’s also about healing yourself. The guilty person feels broken. There’s a hole inside. Something’s gnawing at you that you want to stop.
A guilty person is apt to feel stymied when he finds his victim uninterested in or incapable of forgiveness. He may believe he can go no further. It’s true that you can’t make it to full reconciliation alone, but you can get as far as peace and acceptance. Peace and acceptance is a pretty nice place. You gain entry to peace and acceptance by making indirect amends.
Indirect amends involves taking all the things you cannot do for the victim and doing them for someone else. If restitution demands that you be there for your daughter, but she doesn’t want to see you, then be there for someone else. Become the kind of guy others can count on. If you gave up a child, either by abortion or adoption, and feel guilty about it, you cannot make direct amends; but there’s plenty of other people out there who need your support. If you were rude and ungrateful to your father and he died before you could show him you were sorry, then find someone else to be gracious to. If you know you harmed someone, but don’t even know or remember who it was, then you can hardly make direct amends to them; but you can spread bounty and goodwill to random people you come across.
Why would you be so nice to people you are not indebted to, who you don’t even know? You probably need the practice. You will run the risk of being one of those people who are great to everyone else, but nasty son-of-a-bitches to the people they love. That’s the problem with indirect amends and why they should be direct when possible.
If guilt is dogging your footsteps; if regret disturbs your peace, then you have a mission. Don’t ever let anyone talk you out of feeling guilty, but there’s no reason to wallow in guilt. Guilt is trying to show you something. Look at what it’s pointing out to you. The world is broken, you have something to do with that, and you can do something about it.
Confession to a Neutral Party
Once you have written your statement of responsibility for wronging someone, it’s time to put the show on the road. The essence of taking responsibility is to declare it to someone. It makes no sense to take responsibility in such a way that nobody hears it. When this particular tree falls in the forest, if no one is around, it makes no sound.
It is time to put your show on the road, but you’re not ready for the big time, yet. The big time would be to read it to the person you harmed; that’s the person who really matters. If you have a well prepared statement of responsibility, properly delivered to the person you harmed, it could lead to reconciliation. If your statement still needs work, if it is defective in any way, it may set your reconciliation back and do more damage to your relationship. Sometimes, you only get one shot. Once you have completed your statement of responsibility, read it out loud; not to the person you harmed, but to a person you trust. You’re ready for a dry run. Open your play in New Haven, before you put it on Broadway.
The person who hears your statement of responsibility should be a person who is capable of listening. Don’t pick that friend who can’t stop talking about herself or the one who never takes anything seriously. If you have someone who always feels he must solve every problem, tell him this is not a problem to be solved, it’s a story to be heard. Don’t pick the friend who never thinks you can do wrong, or the one who’s fed up with everything you do. Sit down with someone in the middle range between automatic approval and default disdain. You want someone who, when it is time for them to react, can be honest and forthright, not dodging and dissembling; about halfway between kind and cruel.
If you have a friend or relative who is like this, you can confess to her, but she should not be someone who’s involved. You don’t want to compound your error by putting this person in an awkward position with the one you’ve harmed. Don’t tell your wife’s sister you’ve been sleeping around; she may need to tell your wife. Your confessor should not be party to the crime, like the woman you’re having an affair with, or anyone who has an interest in the proceedings. It does you no good to confess your alcoholism to your favorite bartender, or your drug addiction to your drug dealer. It should be a neutral, third party. Someone who can be objective.
If you use clergy to hear your confession, you get the added bonus of getting someone who can put a good word in with your higher power, if you believe clergy can do that. They accept donations, but they will not send you a bill.
If you don’t have anyone in your circle like this, you might have to hire one. That’s where counselors come along. Any counselor with minimal training in listening can serve as your confessor; you don’t need a specialist or a highly paid Park Avenue shrink. Just be sure they know you’re hiring them to be objective and wise, not to co-sign your bullshit.
The purpose of verbalizing your statement of responsibility is manyfold. You need to hear how it sounds. You’ll feel better once you get it off your chest. You’re very likely to find that people won’t think you’re as loathsome as you think you are. Talking about what you did dispels shame. It gets your guilt in gear. It’s a dress rehearsal for saying it to the person who most matters, the person you harmed.
The person you confess to may need a little direction. You might tell her that you don’t need her to make you feel better; only you can make you feel better, you and the process of atonement. If your confessor doesn’t back away slowly, without turning around, with a horrified look on his face, after you tell him what you did, then he’s doing well. She also needs to know that you’re going to see whatever look she has on her face; therefore, if she is nauseated, there’s no sense denying it. She will probably not be nauseated, though; or run screaming from the room. You are probably harder on yourself than anyone else will be.
Your confessor can be most useful as a bullshit detector. Have him listen for hidden justifications. Have her look for spin. Urge him to see what you don’t want to see and tell you what you don’t want to hear. Coax her to consider how your statement may be received by the person you harmed. This is where having an honest and forthright confessor is invaluable, someone who can tell you if you’re kidding yourself.
But, for all I’ve said about your confessor being a bullshit detector, his job is not to judge or to point out your flaws, but to be a mirror held up so you can see yourself. Think of her as someone you ask if spinach is caught in your teeth. You have to show her your teeth and, if you have some, she has to be truthful. But, mostly she’s someone who, when she tells you there’s no spinach there, will give you the confidence to smile.
To Confess or Not to Confess, That is the Question
No question about it, confess to yourself. If you can’t be honest with yourself, who can you be honest with?
If you believe in God, then confess to God. He knows anyway.
If you have a neutral third party you can trust, then confess to her. Confession is cleansing. It’s a double check for bullshit. It returns you to the land of the righteous.
The only time confession might be questionable is when your confession brings harm to the person you’ve already harmed.
The idea is that your confession should not be at the expense of the person you harmed and cause him to go through grief so you can feel better. That doesn’t seem to be the route to reconciliation. That road heads the wrong way. On the other hand, you’re cutting yourself off from a powerful source of healing, you are underestimating your victim’s capacity for grace, and you’re crawling even further in the dog house than you belong.
The question comes up most when one partner has had some extramarital sexual activity and feels guilty about it. He comes to me, his therapist, and tells me all about it. I’m the neutral third party he can trust. He asks me the question, “Do I tell my wife?”
Some therapists have answers to that question. I don’t. I just have more questions. Some therapists have firm opinions on what a marriage should be; they believe a marriage should be perfectly open and honest, and any marriage which is not is headed for trouble. I believe there are all kinds of successful marriages. I also believe being perfectly open and honest may be a quality to which to aspire, but it’s not a status to achieve. No one knows their partner fully and it may not be especially desirable if they did.
The question comes up in other cases, too. The rapist should probably not seek out his victim to tell her he’s sorry; he’s likely to be misunderstood. It may be too late for the father who beat his daughter to bring it up now. She may have no stomach to review the past.
Like I said, I have no answers. I only have questions. Questions like:
Are you reluctant to confess because you want to avoid the consequences?
Be careful how you answer this question.
If you say you are reluctant to confess because you want to avoid the consequences, then you are not serious about change. You’re just trying to get away with the thing you did. You’re not ready for a confession, anyway; it would just be worthless.
If you say you won’t tell her because she’ll call you a selfish prick, make you sleep on the couch, tell your mother what you did, and file for divorce, then grow some balls. You brought this on yourself. If you know now she’d react that way, you knew then. It was OK to risk your wife’s ire when you were sleeping with that other woman, why is it not OK, now? You wouldn’t walk out of a restaurant without paying; it’s time to pay up now.
On the other hand, if she’ll take a knife to your private parts or tell your children they’re worthless because they came from you, then you might have a good reason not to confess. If you somehow know that she’s going to hunt down the other woman and literally kill her, then I’d say, keep it to yourself. You have my blessing, but I will wonder why you would risk that reaction by sleeping with the other woman in the first place.
You should anticipate consequences and, to some degree, be fearful of them. To claim otherwise is nonsense. However, if you decide not to confess, you should not be tainted by your fear of the repercussions, except in the extremes I mentioned. Your decision should be motivated completely out of a realistic concern for your victim.
How can you be sure your decision not to confess is not prompted by your desire to avoid the repercussions? Easy, there should be repercussions, anyway. Even if you decide not to confess, you should still go ahead with making amends as if you did confess. These consequences, which you put on yourself, should be costly so that there’s no question that you decided not to confess because you were avoiding the aftermath.
What kind of relationship with you does your victim want to have?
If your victim has an order of protection out on you, then you know what kind of relationship he wants to have. He wants you to keep your distance. If he wants a confession out of you, he’ll ask for it.
What if there’s no order of protection? That was the case with the father and the daughter he abused when she was small. In those situations, you can look to see whether your victim is trying to get close to you, or whether she seems to want you to keep your distance. Is she is trying to make sense of her past, or would she rather pretend it never happened?
If you’re still married to the person you hurt and there’s no order of protection, then I think you can assume she still wants a relationship with you, on some level. She, at least, partly feels that way if you haven’t gotten papers from a lawyer. In that case, does your partner want the kind of marriage where you tell each other everything, or the kind that is compartmentalized, where secrets are expected? There are all kinds of marriages. In some of them, there is an understanding not to ask to many questions. Is this what she wants, or is this what she is settling for?
For that matter…
What kind of relationship do you want to have?
You’ve created the kind with secrets. Is this your idea of marriage?
If you don’t know what kind of relationship she wants to have, or if it’s not evident by her behavior, then that’s a conversation to initiate before you consider confession. If the two of you want a different kind of marriage, then you have bigger problems than extramarital activity.
Here’s another question for those in love relationships:
Who did your partner fall in love with, you or a perfect person you were pretending to be?
When you first started dating, you were probably on your best behavior; you were playing a perfect person. There’s no way you could have kept that up. At some point, you did something that put him off; something horrifying, annoying, discomfiting, or just plain weird. If he stuck around, and didn’t reject you, that’s how real love was formed. Love doesn’t come from flowers, kisses, and sweet nothings; but from acceptance, following anger, embarrassment, and shame. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens, even though it ain’t pretty when it’s made.
Here’s a related question:
Who do you want your partner to love, you or this fiction you created?
Do you want him to love the real you, with your imperfections, or a statue that belongs in the town square, covered by pigeons?
Not every client I see who confesses extramarital sexual activity asks me if he should tell his wife. Sometimes I have to ask him whether he will tell her. “Hell, no,” some say. “It’ll kill her… What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her… She doesn’t want to know.”
For them, I have more questions:
How do you know it’ll kill her? How do you know she’ll never forgive? How do you know she doesn’t want to know?
You’re staking a lot on how you believe she would take it. Maybe you know these things. Maybe you had a talk once. Maybe she said, “If you ever have an affair, don’t tell me. I wouldn’t want to know.” But she probably didn’t.
Once a relationship passes the initial fake perfect stage, you might think the couple would feel free to let it all hang out and be honest about everything. But, no; often that’s not what happens. What happens is the relationship has now become so vital that you don’t mess with it. You don’t quite go back to your original position of putting an attractive face on everything because, like, who are you kidding; but you head in the direction of secrecy. You don’t want to risk losing someone who knows you so well. Once your loved one has seen the bad and still loves you, you think you can never let her see anything like it again.
That is when couples stop communicating. That’s when they stop being honest; not out of any malice, but out of a desire to protect and preserve. That’s when you start your extramarital activity with someone who doesn’t matter.
To put it another way:
If your wife failed to know you well enough to suspect extramarital activity, then how can you be sure you know her well enough to know how she would react?
Here’s another one:
How many chances are you willing to take?
When your cover is blown and she finds out before you tell her, all hell will break loose for two reasons, the crime and the coverup. The coverup is worse.
If you are a risk taker and willing to take a chance on coverup, then…
Can you take a chance that confessing will be the very thing that changes your marriage for the better?
That happens sometimes, most of the time, actually; especially when the one doing the damage is serious about change. A marriage is one of those things: to keep it you have to be willing to lose it; not through extramarital activity, but by putting weight on it and counting on your partner’s trust and understanding to get you through.
If you’ve considered my questions and still believe you can’t confess your wrong to the person you hurt, then go back to your written statement of responsibility and add the following.
“I could have confessed to you, but, after consultation with an advisor, I carefully decided that a confession would just hurt you more. If I was wrong and have given you more reason not to trust me, then I acknowledge I was wrong to do this. I accept any consequence that comes of it and am committed to disclosing everything to you in the future if you want me to.”
Date it, have your adviser witness it, and put it in a safe place, so you can take it out when the jig is up.
10 Ways to Screw Up an Apology
If you’ve decided you can’t apologize to the person you hurt because it would hurt him more, then go with God. If you’ve decided you can’t apologize to the person you hurt because it would hurt you more, then see you in Hell. But, if you’ve decided you will apologize to the person you hurt because it’s the right thing to do, read on. There are still mistakes you could make.
1 You apologize without confessing
You might think it would be impossible to make an apology without admitting wrongdoing, but people sure try. They can’t seem to resist saying, I’m sorry, without following it with the word, but, and all manner of justifications and rationalizations. You need to admit what you did wrong, acknowledge the harm you caused, and say what you’re going to do to make it right.
The problem comes when you go beyond the simple acknowledgement of the deed and attempt to explain why you did it. There’s a time and a place for that, just not now, in your apology. To your victim’s ears, explanation sounds like justification and excuses.
You may have had good reasons for doing what you did. The person you hurt may have harmed you in some way first before you harmed him, but to bring that up now obscures your own confession. It confuses things and makes it sound like you’re not taking responsibility for your part of the problem.
2 You’re vague
Saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you,” is an apology in the same way that a moped is transportation. It’s lame. A moped will get you where you’re going, but not as memorably as a Ferrari. If you want to make a memorable impact on your relationship, make your apology into a Ferrari.
List the bad things you’ve done and the particular ways they had an effect on her. The more concrete you can be, the better your apology. “I lied,” is better than, “I hurt you”; but, “I lied to you about what I was doing Tuesday night,” is better than, “I lied.”
If you’re too vague, it sounds like you haven’t done the work, you haven’t gotten down and scrubbed out all then corners, you tried to get by with passing a quick broom across it. There could even be confusion over what you’re confessing. He could think you’re confessing the lie you told on Friday night, when all you’re talking about was Tuesday.
3 You only apologize when you’re forced to
You get a couple of points if you apologize after she’s caught you in the act or when she confronts you. It’s like telling her you love her after she says, “You don’t tell me you love me anymore.” It’s the bare minimum. It’s far better to tell her you love her without being asked. A good apology comes unprompted, after full consideration.
If you are confronted or caught in the act, it’s necessary to acknowledge the transgression right there and then; but you’re not done yet. Sometime later, after full consideration, bring it up again on your own. This shows you’re taking it seriously.
4 You don’t show empathy
It’s important in your apology to acknowledge the effect your actions had on him. This is to show you are taking his perspective. “I lied to you about what I was doing Tuesday night and now you can’t trust me,” shows you’re putting yourself in his shoes.
You might find it hard to know just what the effects have been. That’s OK, you don’t have to be right; you just have to show that you’ve tried.
5 You ask for forgiveness
People screw up a perfectly good apology when they ask for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness puts your victim on the spot. It requires her to do something at a time when she may be unprepared. Besides, she shouldn’t be forgiving you just yet. You’re not off the hook until you actually change.
Some victims will offer forgiveness without being asked. Sometimes this comes from a good place in them; sometimes they’re just uncomfortable with receiving the confession and want it over with; sometimes they think it’s what they’re supposed to do. At any rate, when that happens, you should respectfully and graciously decline the gift, or, rather, offer to pick it up later, after you’ve made amends.
This doesn’t mean that things have to go on being tense like they may have been. You don’t have to sleep on the couch. An apology is supposed to be a turning point. You’ve changed direction, but you’re not there yet. You have not yet arrived at reconciliation.
6 You don’t answer questions
Your apology is not over when you’ve delivered your statement of responsibility. You need to stay for questions. Answering questions ensures that you haven’t missed anything or been too vague. It also shows that you’re willing to stand under scrutiny.
Depending on the nature of your transgression, you may be tempted to say to him, “You don’t want to know.” This happens often in the confession of an affair when the cuckolded spouse thinks he wants details. You might very sincerely want to protect your partner from the knowledge of where and when and how you had sex with that other man. You know he’s not going to want to have that image in his head. There’s also the matter of what he’s going to do with that information. Once he knows who you’ve been sleeping with, is that person going to be safe?
At times like this, when you don’t believe your partner is asking the right questions, you, as a couple, need help. There’s no good way out of this jam by yourselves. If you fail to answer the questions as asked, no matter how ill considered, it’s going to look like you have something to hide. If you do answer them, you may have just hurt him more. You may not be able to complete your confession just then. This is the time to enlist someone objective, whom you both can trust. This person can help your partner frame his questions in such a way to help him move on.
Most, if not all, of the questions a partner has boil down to one thing, “Can I trust you?” At the time of the confession, the true answer, the answer you have to give if you are honest, is “no”. He can’t trust you. You have to earn your trust back by making amends.
7 You want the whole thing over and done with and don’t offer to make amends
The words, “I’m sorry,” is not a magical incantation that makes everything better, they have to be followed up with improvements. Nothing changes just because you admit you did something wrong. People apologize over and over about the same thing all the time without doing anything different.
You should commit to change. If you’ve done your work prior to the confession you will have identified how you can make amends. If you’ve lied, then telling the truth will make it right. If you broke a promise, then keep your promises or don’t make promises you can’t keep in the first place. If you ran up the credit card bill without her knowing, then pay it off before buying anything for yourself again, and so on.
Making an apology is just the start of the process of reconciliation with your partner, it’s not the ending. It ain’t over till it’s over.
8You confuse symbols with the real thing
Sometimes, when a contrite husband brings his wife flowers to apologize for something, she gets angry and throws them in the trash. That’s what happens when the symbol of the apology and the real thing get confused.
The real part of the apology is the acknowledgement of the deed, its effects, and the way to make amends. The flowers serve as a reminder of the commitment to change. When you’ve done the actual work and made a true apology, the flowers don’t get thrown in the trash. When you make the flowers do the work for you, it looks like you’re trying to buy her off.
9You don’t listen
After you’ve admitted wrongdoing, the person you hurt may have something to say. He may have questions, he might want to point out how your actions impacted him, you may have missed something, he might have something else in mind about how you can make amends, maybe he has something he needs to get off his chest. Who knows, he may have a confession of his own to make. After you’ve made your apology, listen.
Listening, by the way, involves attending to more than just the words he says. You also have to pay attention to the way he says them. Note his body language, emotion, and inflection; this is impossible to do if you’re confessing by mail or text.
After you listen, summarize what he said in your own words. This lets him know it’s sunk in so he doesn’t have to keep saying it. If you get it wrong when you summarize, he’ll let you know. This is important. Maybe you didn’t hear him right. This could be a case of chronic miscommunication. If he does correct you, then summarize that until you have heard it correctly. Try doing that by mail or text and the confession could take weeks.
10You don’t document
After you’ve acknowledged the misdeed, its effects, and the way to make amends, write it all down so no one forgets. Date it and make yourself a reminder to pull it out and go over later. Then you’ll see if you’ve followed through with making amends. If you have, that might be the time to ask forgiveness. If you haven’t, then you have another apology to make and a whole lot more work to do.
You may not feel you need to do all of this if the misdeed is minor, like if you ate the last donut one morning. But if you’re always eating the last donut or if there is a pervasive pattern of selfish and inconsiderate behavior and eating the last donut is only one example, then the full treatment is necessary.
The more pervasive the pattern of misbehavior, the harder it’s going to be to change. You’re going to need all the help you can get. Make your apology and do it right and you’ll be less likely to need to do it again.
To be continued….
Keith Wilson writes on mental health and relationship issues on his blog, Madness 101.