Soul Matters – July 2015
I know a guy—I bet you know him too—whom I’ll call Billy Bob. Billy’s story, repeated ad naseum, goes something like this: “My parents were awful. They didn’t love me the way I needed them to. My troubles are a direct result of their lousy parenting. I’m hurt and angry and I will never let go of the fact that I was, am, and shall forever be, a victim of an unfair and terrible injustice.”
Now, on first telling, this is a sad story. It’s always sad when someone—particularly a child—feels unloved, because a lack of love and bonding in childhood does indeed set up some really nasty psychological and emotional hurdles in adulthood. It’s totally understandable that Billy Bob would feel hurt and angry about this. I would too.
But then what?
“Yes, it was really unfair, Billy Boy,” I want to say. “It was sad and it was not your fault. But now what? Can you peek out over the three foot groove you’ve worn in the carpet, going over the same story for 40 years, and do something useful with it?”
At a certain point the telling and retelling of a sad story ceases to serve any useful function. A person stuck in her sad story has embraced a victim mentality. She does this because it garners sympathy and because it excuses her from taking responsibility for her own life. “I’m this way because of _____ (fill in the blank). Even if they do something good with their lives, victims will find a way to keep their story alive: “I did this despite my terrible life/awful parents/traumatic experience.”
Don’t get me wrong. The therapist in me has true compassion for the hurt. I understand the broken heart, the deep grief and pain and insecurity. But I also know that to continue repeating the same story without any insight or shift in perspective keeps Billy Bob stuck; because unless he does something with it, there’s nowhere left to go but down—into self-pity and an embittered sense of entitlement. Billy will never truly live.
Victims need to be heard and validated and to receive empathy—and they need a new story. If Billy Boy doesn’t find a new story, he will lose his life. He will drag his hurt and bitterness and brokenness into every new situation and relationship. This sack o’ sorrow will take up valuable psychic and emotional space, leaving little room for anything new to constellate.
This is not about “forgive and forget,” “let it go,” or “the past is the past.” It’s about deepening insight and expanding perspective. Creating a new story starts by going down into the roots of the old one, getting to the origin of things and feeling the very real pain, rather than retreating to blame. The old story, you see, is a defense against the pain. (You might want to read that sentence again.) Feeling the pain, rather than resisting it, breaks the psychic logjam and creates room for healing to begin and for something new to arise.
Now Billy Bob’s “poor me” shtick can dissipate and he can begin to re-write his story with depth and meaning. He might begin by imagining a backstory: why Mummy and Daddy, or whomever, did what they did. He could venture further and see, from a more elevated point of view, if perhaps there weren’t something useful, or even positive, that he might glean from his experience. Such awareness would make his suffering meaningful, not just a pitiful refrain. And if he really took a walkabout he might, just might find forgiveness … imagine that! And if Billy Boy can find forgiveness it means he is free. It means he will have claimed himself for himself. His past and the ghosts of his past will no longer hold sway over him. Huzzah!
Suffering, my dear Billy Bob, is universal. Healing is optional.
That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.
KATE INGRAM, M.A., is a writer, therapist, and soul coach. Her award-winning book, Washing the Bones, is her own story of tragedy turned transformation. Find out more at katherineingram.com.