The great psychiatrist Karl Menninger found himself answering questions from a reporter. ‘What’s the leading cause of mental distress?” he was asked, “I mean, what’s to blame, in most cases, for a person to be institutionalized?”
“That’s easy,” replied the Harvard-educated doctor, “I see it all the time, it’s a person’s inability to forgive themselves.”
More than chemical imbalances and inborn behavioral tendencies, Menninger noted something we all understand is as dangerous as it is debilitating: the poor job we do at forgiving ourselves.
This knowledge is the first step we need to begin our job of improving on it – and finding practical ways to counter-balance our tendencies of self-forgiveness, bringing ourselves ‘back to center.’ My wife and I like to use this term, and we define it as that place where life is experienced as a gift, joy, and pleasure. It is that place that resonates with our deepest selves, as people who were born out of love, live our best when we give and receive love, and where the future beyond our earthly lives will take us.
When we go through any trauma, but specifically that of being accidentally responsible for the death of another (as I have experienced), we find the feeling of unforgiveness rearing inside of us. It is often fueled by our passive acceptance of three very common yet harmful beliefs, which therapists call the three p’s: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.
Personalization is the idea that the trauma we experienced was somehow our fault, to an outsized and untruthful degree. It’s something we do all the time. Ever hear someone say their favorite football team lost because they had failed to wear their lucky t-shirt? This is a version of that. Of course, our trauma more than likely involved something we said or did, but the personalization of that trauma means that we take on a much larger degree of responsibility than realistically exists.
I remember hearing about a woman whose husband perished in the 9-11 tragedy in New York City. He was a maintenance worker who became a World Trade Center victim because he went to work an hour later that day. This poor woman blamed herself for an entire year for setting his alarm clock an hour later. It took her 12 months to realize that she had not set the alarm clock, in fact, she never set the alarm clock, but he had in order to spend more time with his family that morning. The idea that she was to blame for a tragedy she had actually no hand in, is quite common and natural.
A good way to subvert personalization is to ask trusted friends for their accounts of the narrative, what did they observe? What’s their version? Our work is to be open to their telling of the story and more importantly to accept it as truth – understanding that our own view of trauma is naturally jaded and skewed by this tendency.
A second untruth we battle is the idea that our trauma is pervasive – that every aspect of our life has now become negatively tinged. Pervasiveness says because we suffered trauma, nothing else will be untouched – we will perform poorly at work or school, become a less dependable friend, neighbor or parent, or become less competitive as an athlete. The truth is that our trauma does not to have to affect every other part of our lives. We can limit the pervasiveness of our trauma.
I have a friend who was divorced. He felt like a failure. After his wife left he began to believe that because he was a failure at marriage, he was bad at everything – his business, being a father, and in nearly every other aspect of his life. It took him a while to come back to center and realize that just because he had failed at one thing at one time, it did not make him a total failure. It is very human to define ourselves by our failures and to think that when we fail we are failures instead of telling ourselves the truth: that we are humans who make mistakes.
Again, the perspective of a close friend, spouse, or therapist can help bring us back to center, reminding us that trauma can be contained to an appropriate sphere of influence, and that we do well to uphold our gifts and blessings in other areas of our lives.
A third harmful untruth we experience at trauma is believing in the permanence of the event. This is the notion that we will never, ever get over our trauma. We have all experienced times when the days were very dark and seemed endless, but we also know that those low times were not permanent.
In high school I had a friend who drove drunk. He got into a wreck and his passenger, his best friend, was killed. At the funeral he confided in me that his life was ruined. He was 17 years old. 30 years later, after building a successful business, getting married, and putting his 4 children through college, those words of a 17-year-old are hard to believe. Of course, not everyone fares that well, but it’s not uncommon for most of us do better than we initially believed.
We do well to understand that trauma is like a physical wound, it will get better. However, to press the analogy, it also means the scars never go away. While there’s truth to the old adage ‘time heals all,’ complete healing is another matter.
This reminds us that the work of self-acceptance and forgiveness is never complete. We are human, prone to failure and scarred by it. However, we humans are also equipped to do much good – in a general accounting of our race, we find we’ve done more good than ill. So we do well to accept ourselves for the fragile and frail people we are, recognizing the dangers of personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence regarding trauma, trusting that there are bluer skies ahead.