- Shannon Murray
BUT IT IS MY FAULT
Letting go of negative stories that imprison us
Recently in my practice, I have had two clients who have been wrestling with self-flagellation. They are clinging to the past as if it were the last floating log in the open ocean and the alternative is to drown.
One client is in his mid 40's - I will call him Jack - and the other is in his early 60's - I will call him Peter. Jack came to see me about 10 months ago after he and his wife had their first baby. He told me that while he was overjoyed to be a father, he also noticed that there were moments when he felt profound sadness. He explained that these moments had occurred when he was feeling happy and then suddenly, he would get a visceral feeling of sadness and he would start thinking about his childhood and his parents and how he never they really loved him.
Peter came to therapy with his wife about 8 months ago. He is an alcoholic who had gone in an out of sobriety for the last 20 years. They have been working on how to communicate without being critical and how to let go of years of resentment and disappointment in their marriage.
A privilege of being a therapist is that we get to know and support people and it is humbling to observe how clients who on paper, seem to live completely different lives, with different circumstances, and yet they share such similar struggles and then to realize that as a therapist, of course I have shared similar struggles and then to realize human struggles are so relatable to all of us...
and I know that he has a younger sister whom he is very close to who also lives in town. She has 2 young toddlers who he adores and from the stories he shares, he sounds like the loving and fun uncle I wish I had. When we first met, Jack told me he decided to come to therapy because he realized when he became a new father, he was carrying around so much sadness about his childhood. He felt he did not have parents who were happy together or who showed love for him or his sister. He didn't feel his parents ever seemed joyful to have him or his sister in the way he now, as a father loved his own daughter or how he loved his 2 nieces. In the last 8 months, we had talked about his childhood and his early relationships and a story that Jack returned to was that he was not a good brother and he always feels guilty about that.
in therapy to work through his pain and sadness of having parents who wer has been sharing with me about his early childhood and more about his relationship with his sister. I have been seeing him for 8 months and I know that he and his sister are extremely close. She is we were talking about something that happened when he was in his freshman year of high school – around age 15. He had just finished telling me about the challenges he had gone through growing up and being exposed to gangs, drugs and alcohol, and having very limited parental guidance or support.
He shared an experience of being beaten up by a gang member with a matter-of-factness but then, tears came to his eyes when he described an event that occurred with his little sister: she was 13 at the time and in 7th grade. He knew she had always looked up to him and they were very close. It was the first time they were at different schools because he was just starting high school and she was starting junior high.
She was being bullied at school by some older girls and she came into his room one night crying. As he shared with me that he told her to get out of his room because he was playing a game on his computer with a friend, tears streamed down his cheeks. It was one of the few times I had seen him cry.
He said, “I can’t believe I did that to her. I wasn’t there for her when she needed me – all because of a stupid fucking game. It's not like she had anyone else to go to either - it wasn't like our parents would have listened or cared.”
We talked about how much guilt he has been carrying with him about that night and what he has told himself for years about his behavior.
At first, it was hard for him to find the words that have swirled around his head for so long because the guilt was so overwhelming. But eventually the words flowed out:
"What kind of brother does that? Look how insensitive and selfish I was. I was such an asshole as a little kid. I was a terrible older brother. My sister needed me and I wasn’t there for her. I was so self-absorbed."
I repeated these statements back to him as "you statements":
"You were so insensitive and selfish. You were such an asshole as a little kid. You were a terrible older brother. Your sister needed you and you weren’t there for her because you were self-absorbed. What kind of brother does that?"
Then I asked him, "Imagine what it would feel to be told those things about yourself for the last 25+ years?"
My client has a nephew he adores who is 8 years old so I asked him if he could imagine someone saying those words to his nephew for the next 25+ years. He said, “It would feel terrible. I would never want anyone to say those awful things to him. I would never let them!”
It was so clear to him that he would never let someone say those things to a person he loved and cared about yet we say those things to ourselves without a hesitation.
I have known my client for 2 years and in that time, I have learned about his relationship with his sister. I have heard many stories of how he supported his sister throughout their childhood - often walking with her to school and picking her up from school when their parents were absent. I have heard stories of him making her dinner and helping her with her homework. I have heard about how close they are now and how involved they are in each other's lives and what a caring uncle he is to his nephew.
This brought us to the idea of SELF-FORGIVENESS.
I talked with him about how we HAVE to learn how to forgive ourselves for things we did in the past or else we continue to tell ourselves critical messages forever - often subconsciously - like noise in the background on autoplay.
Of course, it isn't that easy which is why he asked me, "How do I do that? Forgive myself?"
He also added a second part to his question that I hear my clients say all the time: "What if those things are true?"
In other words, how do I forgive myself when I look back and I still BELIEVE that I was selfish, self-centered, insensitive etc.?
What I have observed in my clients is that we too often over-generalize the bad moments in our past -- our mistakes -- and we minimize the good moments.
BUT THE BAD MOMENTS DON'T DEFINE US.
Especially NOT when we were younger. My client had done so many kind, caring, and supportive acts for his sister but he minimized those and focused on a moment when, in his mind, he failed her. It is true that in that moment, he might have been selfish or self-centered. We don't have to gloss over our mistakes in our past or tell ourselves false truths that we were perfect and did no wrong. But in the bigger picture, we need to come to accept that we all make mistakes. My client needed to accept his mistake and focus instead on the positive that he was a fantastic older brother and keep reminding himself when his brain wanted to go back to that one negative instant.
So I asked him to imagine his young self at 15. I often ask my clients to look at photos of themselves as young children. I then asked him to breathe and focus on connecting to that younger part of himself by closing his eyes and picturing himself. Then, I asked him to tell that young 15 year-old version of himself:
"It's O.K.- I understand now that in that moment, you didn't have mean intentions. You were just being a 15 year-old boy who was self-absorbed with your friend and you didn't grasp the significance of your actions. But that is understandable because developmentally, your young brain would not have been able to fully understand that you and your sister had been emotionally abandoned by the very adults who were supposed to be taking care of you. I forgive you. I understand why you acted that way and I give you a lot of credit for all of the good things you DID DO as a supportive older brother."
With self-forgiveness, we all need to remind our younger selves of our positive actions in order to counterbalance the negatives so we can forgive our younger selves for making YOUNG mistakes.
Now, I need to clarify what I mean by young mistakes because I am NOT referring to major "mistakes" such as murdering or raping someone, intending to cause physical harm, committing a school shooting, bullying etc. These actions are in an entirely separate category and this may be controversial to say, but I believe in some cases, those mistakes actually DO define a person (but that is a topic for a different post).
The mistakes I am talking about are YOUNG mistakes that we all made when we didn't necessarily have the skills, the tools, or the guidance to know any better. It's important that we do not allow these mistakes, the inevitable byproducts of our growth from child to adult, to define or dominate our self-image in our later years. Like my client, we need to see the larger picture of who we are and forgive the errors we have made along the way.
When we try to start changing that negative thinking pattern, it will take work and effort. It won't happen overnight and we will naturally and habitually go to those negative thoughts because those are where we have gone repeatedly in the past. But when we catch ourselves, take deep breathes, and go through the new thoughts where we focus on understanding and kind words to our younger self, we can retrain our brains to go in this positive direction instead of following the old negative patterns.
After reading this, can you think of anything from your past that you can't forgive yourself for? What is stopping you?