WHAT IF THE PEOPLE WHO HURT YOU GROWING UP WERE DOING THEIR BEST?
One theme that comes up repeatedly as I work with Pain-2-Power clients is how to understand those who caused them emotional pain. Not infrequently, those are the people who were closest to my clients in earlier chapters of their life stories—their parents, for instance, or older siblings, or close friends. For so many people, their true talents were not nurtured by parents, or their peace of mind was invaded by addiction in a parent, or their self-esteem was not protected when under assault by a sibling who was a bully (or worse).
Frequently, my clients and I arrive at this conclusion: The people who underperformed as they were growing up rarely planned to do harm. As hard as it may be to believe and as frustrating as it can be to accept, they may have been doing their best. They weren’t off in some dark corner of the house rubbing their hands together and thinking up ways to hurt anyone. They were fractured people who had their own deeply imperfect life stories and that’s what led to their own shortcomings. Like a virus, trouble in one generation tends to infect the next and the next, until a new, healing perspective intervenes.
There’s a metaphor for this that comes from one of my favorite novelists, the late Harry Crews. In his book, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Crews describes growing up in rural Georgia. He and his friends played “crack the whip,” a game in which kids join hands and then, like the hand of a clock, the whole string of children runs in a circle, with the kid in the center just turning in place, and the one at the end of the string having to run very fast to complete each circular “lap.” Because of the force generated, that last kid is usually unable to hold hands for very long and gets launched from the string of children, flying off and tumbling onto the ground.
Well, Harry was that last kid one day. And he got launched from the “whip” and flew, tumbled and tripped all the way into a vat full of boiling oil in which his parents planned to cook meat. Harry writes that when he stood up he saw his skin had been horribly burned. Then, he says, his mother did the single worst thing she could have done: She ran to him and wrapped him in a towel. And that towel—dried onto his raw flesh—later had to be removed from him at the hospital.
That’s real pain.
What Crews writes next is about forgiveness. Because he writes that he understands that his mother did what she did out of panic and love—and because she didn’t know what else to do.
Now, back to Pain-2-Power. Can there be people around us in the early chapters of our lives whose actions are not even close to loving? Yes. Can they cause us very real emotional injuries? Yes. But can those who do feel deeply connected to us, even those who love us, cause us psychological pain and injuries, because they are, seemingly, unable to do better. Yes. Because they are, themselves, fractured. Like Harry Crews’ mother they don’t know what else to do.
That should give you a sense of why it’s necessary to look back at our life stories—especially some of the pain we experienced—and understand the self-defeating patterns of emotion or behavior that may have taken root. Because stopping those self-defeating patterns may require seeing that the people closest to us—while not usually “out to get us”—were not the capable, strong, unconditionally loving people we wished, hoped or fantasized that they were.
Seeing that painful fact, and learning how to not obscure the insight with anger or anxiety or denial, is the way we become able to stop avoiding the truth—whether by overworking or overusing alcohol or obsessing over one doomed relationship after another. Yes, we were injured. No, we were not as safe as we could or should have been from those injuries. But with a clear view of what happened, we can avoid repeating the same self-defeating dramas, again and again. And, then, the next chapters we “write” of our life stories can truly be the most powerful of all.