Learner Therapist (53) … Revisiting an abuse to clear it
January 28, 2015
Guilt and trauma
I’m going to stretch a concept a bit here. Abuse has a well understood content in therapy, characterised by a range of behaviours which distort personal development at any age. The distortion I’m concerned with – guilt – is especially inculcated (a word I have never used out of disapproval of its implications for learning, but here is where it speaks its truth) by religions and cultures to establish internal controls meeting externally sponsored and sanctioned behaviours and values.
This social use of guilt as control is most notable in matters sexual and procreative of all descriptions. The controls (the abuses in question here) are aimed at ensuring that historical narratives of sexuality are sustained, in the process sustaining historical inequities and iniquities along with them. These are fought out daily today, within cultures and between them. They reflect transitions from normals to new normals in the most foundational areas of life.
So, what to do with such a historical distortion carried by a patient as part of her present stress overload burden (marriage / relationship breakdown, betrayals of various sorts, retrenchments, illness, etc.)? I’ve had a number of these patients, and in two cases resorted to the following strategy for deflating the guilt which drives their self-oppression: I suggested they go back to the beginning, back to their guilt’s self-acknowledged origins in their Catholic girlhoods.
There were two reasons for this suggestion. First, the origins in the Church entailed its own forgiveness through confession and, second, their present guilts from those origins are in a much changed socio-cultural context from that in which they grew up – notably the collateral sins of sexism in particular are on display, backed by the Church’s leaders’ failure to command right behaviour of its agents, the priests and nuns. Some of the things they had been taught to feel guilty about are no longer on the guilt feeding horizon, at least of everyday practitioners of Catholicism.
A relevant example of the changed cultural context of the Church appeared in the NYTimes as I was starting this post. It exemplifies the results of the struggle against the guilting forces of the mid-20th century, especially the Sixties. Columnist Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times on 26 Jan. 2015 says,
“At my request, Gallup did a special breakdown of its “Values and Beliefs” survey from last May and looked at how the principles of people who identified themselves as Catholics diverged (or didn’t) from those of Americans on the whole. Catholics were only slightly less open to birth control, with 86 percent of them saying that it was “morally acceptable” in comparison with 90 percent of all respondents. But Catholics were more permissive than all respondents when it came to sex outside marriage (acceptable to 72 percent of Catholics versus 66 percent of Americans overall) and gay and lesbian relationships (70 percent versus 58).”
Finding an appropriately modern priest was a challenge in one case, but once found, the reduction in guilt was sustainable from that experience of a now unnecessary confession. Interestingly, the priest in question was also mature enough for the Church to want not to hear from him much anymore. The other example is still in the works.
What surprised me, for a while, was that such an idea should come to me so easily and offering it to the patients came equally easily. Priests, of course, play a role like therapists in being bound by a personal and institutional code of silence, and so when not in the role of judge as when preaching, they are safe carriers of ‘sins’. That’s a simple transferential equation.
The underlying reason, which I discovered by taking action, is that acknowledgment and apology from relevant authorities or authority figures, is an essential step in trauma recovery. It frees the traumatised of the self-critique which paralyses them in their trauma. Confronting the traumatising authority (something the patient has to do for themselves) lifts the lid on one of the traumatic dynamics.