Accepting the Truth about Ourselves
I believe that the conflict between an unacknowledged desire to hurt others, and the belief that our experiences taught us to be gentle and kind to others may often result in the deepest pain, because those of us who believe we do not want to hurt others often display behaviors characteristic of internalized anger. Suicide threats, self-mutilation, withdrawal and distancing are behaviors that often communicate rage, and that leave others feeling helpless, hurt, frightened and confused. When we deny any intent to harm others by these actions and insist that we are only harming ourselves, we are communicating our refusal to acknowledge and deal with our underlying rage in less destructive ways. Denial of the impact of our behavior on others is often as damaging as the behavior itself.
Therapists who collude with clients to avoid the discomfort of examining hurtful behavior are not being kind, they are being misleading and irresponsible. For our own well-being and that of our significant others, it is necessary to understand and to accept that all human beings are capable of inflicting pain, and that we all do so, whether intentionally or inadvertently. And whether we care to believe it or not, we all inflict pain intentionally at one time or another. Even the name-calling behaviors we learned as young children are intentional attempts to cause pain, because we would not engage in that behavior if we did not want to hurt someone’s feelings.
And therapists who are themselves fearful, for any reason, are of little help to those of us who are often puzzled by and frightened of our own behavior in relationships. Survivors who become trauma therapists before completing their own therapy are not serving anyone’s best interests. It is neither helpful nor altruistic; it is self-serving and potentially damaging. Trauma clients need the calm, steady presence of a therapist who is fully present, not the illusion of a steady presence exhibited by a dissociated therapist. And just as a young, frightened child becomes more fearful if she recognizes fear in her caregiver and protector, trauma clients also tend to have heightened reactions to the perception of fear in a therapist. We often find it very difficult to differentiate between the past and present during periods of intense emotions.
My therapist’s calm demeanor and unwavering presence when I am fearful of my own desires to hurt him during this confusion allow me to feel that rage in safety rather than act on it. This is extremely important to my continuing progress toward healing, because being abused did not teach me to be gentle and kind. Being abused taught me to go to extremes in order to get some needs met. It taught me to hurt others before they hurt me. It taught me to take what I need through boundary-busting behaviors when my attempts to meet needs are thwarted or denied. It taught me to hurt others by disguising anger with humor. Being abused taught me to be angry and distrustful, and it taught me to be especially wary of people who claim to care about me, and this includes my therapist.
Our work together is often difficult, painful and frustrating, and I sometimes wonder which of us suffers more when I reenact the past in our relationship, because that is when I am most likely to want to hurt him in some way. Sometimes I recognize a reenactment before I take aim and fire away, but becoming adept at recognizing reenactments before I act on those feelings takes a lot of practice, and in the meantime I am making a lot of mistakes.
But it’s through those reenactments that I am learning enough about myself to know that my use of humor isn’t always just for fun, it’s often aggressive. Behaviors I once saw as self-protective are actually disguised attempts to retaliate. Discovering personal information about my therapist and sharing it with another client was done with the intent to hurt him, not because I needed someone to talk to.
There is only one thing more difficult in therapy than admitting to intentionally hurtful behavior, and that one thing is admitting it to my therapist when he is my intended victim. There is nothing more painful than facing the one person in my life who consistently shows me kindness and compassion, even in my worst moments, and confessing to an action meant to cause him pain. But there is nothing I need more in therapy than the opportunity to be who I am, to let my therapist know me, to let him into my life during my worst moments as well as my best.
His refusal to give up, his ability to see beyond the difficulties I have in our relationship, and his continued compassion when I am at my worst help me find the courage to admit my hurtful actions to myself and to him, to face the pain I inflict upon others when I do not understand my own pain. My therapist’s expectation of honesty is not something I am expected to give to him — it is a gift he has given to me.