Life’s Messy, Clean It Up!
The crap doesn’t just go away. When we don’t deal with it, it keeps showing up.
“But I’m over it!” “I’ve forgiven him/her/them.”
“It’s in the past, I just want to leave it there.”
These are some of the things that clients and patients say when approached with the idea of working with their trauma. It’s like running into a pile of dog crap when walking down a sidewalk. We go around it. We act like it’s not there. If it’s in a strategic spot on our way out of our home, we blow up when we step in it. It just doesn’t go away on its own. That’s how the effects of trauma are. They keep showing up, over and over and over again.
Am I talking about flashbacks, nightmares, sleepless nights, addictions? For some, yes. But for almost all survivors of trauma, there are more subtle after-effects. One of these shows up in some easily recognized ways.
“I’m just a loser.” “I’m an idiot.” “Things never work out for me.”
“I don’t deserve good things.” “I shouldn’t want so much.”
These are all examples of what I call “self-blame as a coping defense”. It’s the one thing therapists and healers need to know if they are going to help their clients move beyond the crap to a life they want.
Many clients who seek help from counselors and psychotherapists have a history of trauma. Whether Big T or little t trauma (EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma, Shapiro and Forres, 1998), this factor, if not addressed, can prolong the client’s symptoms and functionality.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
It’s not enough!
However, even when we clinicians acknowledge the fact and effect of our clients’ previous life experience, responding with “It wasn’t your fault” is not enough. We need to go further. We need to provide an explanation about why the person blames him or herself. “What’s the purpose” of this defense?
Where does it come from and why do we do it?
Piaget described thinking in small children as concrete, black and white, magical and egocentric (in Dissociative Identity Disorder: Diagnosis, Clinical Features and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder, Ross, 1996). Because of this magical, egocentric thinking, the precocious 3 year-old says “It’s raining ’cause I’m sad.” She thinks she causes all in her world to happen and it happens to her. So, if someone is hurting her, she reasons that “It’s my fault.” This thought creates an illusion of control, thus giving her a sense of empowerment. Eventually she decides that “maybe if I could be good enough then you won’t hurt me.” Thinking this way actually serves as a defense against the unimaginable pain of understanding that her caretaker is hurting/leaving/neglecting her.
This reasoning gives her something to work on. Maybe she can be pretty enough, smart enough, clean her room ‘good’ enough, etc. This coping defense helps children psychologically survive horrendous circumstances and events.
But how does this play out in the grown-up child’s life? Why does the adult cling to this defense after it’s no longer needed? More importantly, how can we, as therapists, assist our adult clients to process through and move past the effects of this crap?
Let’s take a closer look at what self-blame as a coping defense is and how it develops.
I use the term “Internalized Blame of Self” (IBS—my clients tell me “it’s a lot of crap to deal with!”) for this defense. Dr. Colin Ross calls it “Locus of Control Shift” (The Trauma Model, 2000) but I found this phrase to be a bit cumbersome. Dr. Eduardo Duran speaks of “internalized oppression” resulting from “historical trauma” (Healing the Soul Wound: Counseling with American Indians and Other Native Peoples, 2006). Dr. Duran asserts that this internalized oppression is a primary driver of domestic violence, suicide, family dysfunction and community dysfunction. It may influence the survivor/victim to fear that he or she will become like the perpetrator. In my experience IBS is one of the greatest obstacles to compassion for self and others. Fear-based behavior becomes a way of life for many who are stuck in IBS.
Mary is 4 years old. At night she hears her parents fighting, yelling at one another. She hears daddy yell at mommy, “her room is always messy!” One day Mary comes home from pre-school and mommy sits her down and tells her, “Daddy isn’t going to live with us anymore.”
What does Mary think?
“It’s my fault, because my room is messy.”
When I tell this story to clients, I let them answer the question. From ages 8-80, no one ever gets it wrong.
It’s a natural part of childhood to think this way. It helps us think we have some control over life situations. Psychologically, we need this belief to attach to caregivers and survive. In fact, we really have no control over what others do or don’t do. It is common for most humans to try to control uncontrollable events with “woulda, coulda, shoulda” thinking. This gets in the way of our ability to practice acceptance but it does help us survive adverse environments and events.
How does this help Mary (or Tommy) cope?
“Maybe if I clean up my room ‘good enough’ daddy will come back!”
This illusion of control keeps her from getting the full impact of the trauma that is happening in her life.
But a pattern of thinking becomes a way of life, for many. Children may become adults who are always trying to be ‘good enough’. This can mean the grown-up strives to be smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, rich enough, religious enough, educated enough—whatever the particular “enough” is in her (or his) family!
But, “good enough” is a never-ending subjective standard that can’t be reached. So people stay stuck in their crap.
What can we do to help them clean it up?